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How the Seahawks chased a trend to their own ruination

NFL: New York Giants at Seattle Seahawks Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

Interpreting very plainly and very superficially NFL teams use to piss away staggering value running the ball. Here’s the expected points added for an average NFL team’s rushing attack going back to 2000.

I make the worst graphs.

Did teams really routinely forfeit 10 to 11 touchdowns a season running the ball? Given the incredible incentive to win it’s small wonder no coach had the genius idea of passing all the damn time.

Ben Baldwin’s measure of pass-heaviness only goes back to 2012 but let’s look at those seasons and ask a simple question. How pass-heavy were the final four playoff teams?

2012: Ravens 27th, 49ers 25th, Patriots 5th, Falcons 1st

2013: Seahawks 24th, Broncos 3rd, Panthers 13th, Patriots 15th

2014: Patriots 2nd, Seahawks 30th, Colts 1st, Packers 7th

2015: Broncos 15th, Panthers 23rd, Steelers 4th, Cardinals 10th

2016: Patriots 7th, Falcons 3rd, Chiefs 13th, Packers 1st

2017: Eagles 7th, Patriots 1st, Vikings 22nd, Jaguars 28th

2018: Patriots 9th, Rams 10th, Chiefs 2nd, Saints 11th

2019: Chiefs 1st, 49ers 25th, Titans 29th, Packers 6th

Pretty-dang. 23 of 32 passed early more frequently than average. 15 of the 32 teams were very pass-heavy, finishing in the top quarter of the league. Finding a way to efficiently pass early does seem to be a major indicator of success. That’s not too surprising. Same thing this season:

2020: Steelers 3rd, Saints 21st, Chiefs 4th, Packers 8th

Pass early if you can. In the weeks Drew Brees started New Orleans ranked 18th in pass-heaviness.

Most pass heavy teams were extremely pass heavy. Their average rank was 6.4th, if you will. But run heavy-teams were equally run-heavy. Their average rank was 25.9th. Perhaps lending credence to the notion that an offense must have an identity. Only four teams could be described as “moderate” finishing between 12-19. No surprise either that most of the run-heavy teams had exceptional defenses. Six of nine finished in the top five as measured by DVOA. On average they finished 6.1st. Best is passing first and passing well but second best seems to be running first and playing good defense. This is surprisingly unsurprising.

While I’m wary of assuming what has been will be, at the least what has been still is. One thing that’s clear is that good passing teams self-select to be pass-first teams.

Freq; pass DVOA

2012 Patriots: 5th/1st, Falcons 1st/8th

2013 Broncos 3rd/1st

2014 Patriots 2nd/5th, Colts 1st/11th, Packers 7th/1st

2015 Steelers 4th/5th

2016 Patriots 7th/2nd, Falcons 3rd/1st, Packers 1st/4th

2017 Eagles 7th/4th, Patriots 1st/1st

2018 Patriots 9th/4th, Rams 10th/5th

2019 Chiefs 1st/2nd, Packers 6th/10th

This season brings us a first. The 2020 Steelers pass early and often but do not pass very well. Pittsburgh ranks 15th in passing efficiency. KC and Green Bay are first and second respectively.

Seattle ranks 2nd in frequency and 6th in DVOA. If I didn’t know better I would say Seattle had a good plan and were executing it well. Do I know better? It’s true Seattle’s average points scored a game has declined pretty steadily over the season.

Rolling average points scored: 38, 36.5, 37, 35.5, 33.8, 33.8, 34.3, 34.25, 32.2, 31.8, 31, 29.4

It’s also true that Seattle has not played well on offense in a very long time. From Week 5 on, the week in which Minnesota provided a plan on how to stop Seattle’s passing attack, the Seahawks rank 17th in EPA/play. The passing game has declined even further. It ranks 21st in EPA per dropback. Seattle ranked fourth through four weeks.

Part of me thinks that if Seattle had not been so obvious with its intentions and insistent on persisting in those intentions despite diminishing returns, the decline would have not have been so pronounced. The seeming injustice of Russell Wilson never receiving an MVP vote took on a life of its own. When apart from maybe 2012 Wilson never deserved an MVP vote. Voters only have one vote and Wilson and the Seahawks never have had the kind of overlapping great seasons to justify voting for Wilson. That’s pretty much inarguable, to be honest.

But!

The Seahawks do not have to be nearly so pass-heavy. There’s an awful lot of space between the poles, and I’ve never understood why Seattle couldn’t pass more frequently than they did in 2019 without becoming one of the most pass-heavy teams in the NFL. That’s a big part of why I feel so frustrated with a slogan running the offense. In fact, as Seattle’s rushing game became more effective and its passing game cratered, the Seahawks chose to pass more. Through four weeks Seattle passed on 60.3% of neutral downs. They were the second most efficient passing attack in the NFL. Over the next eight games, they passed in 63.8% of neutral downs. As it stopped working, Seattle doubled down.

Like the league overall, as Seattle passed and passed and passed, it’s run game became more and more efficient. By last week, the flip in value was pretty dang staggering. Seattle was losing nearly a tenth of a point per pass play, while gaining a fifth of a point per run play. If Seattle would have simply run more often, it’s very likely they would have beaten the Giants!

10 years ago, 20 years ago, I do not think that coaches were really losing football games because of a stubborn insistence on running the ball. Too many successful teams were run-first for me to think that those teams were giving up 10 or more touchdowns of value with their play calling. There are hard to quantify qualities of the run game which are valuable. I also do not doubt that 20 years ago, 10 years ago, the league was working to pass more frequently because passing was more important than ever. That’s happened and we’re here.

Running the ball is more valuable than it’s been in 20 years. For a team like Seattle that does not have the personnel or scheme to pass so frequently, this should be great news. Almost every player on this offense is better suited for a run-first attack. Regaining the efficiency which marked last season and early this season may be no harder than running more. Not reverting. Remaining a pass-first team, but becoming a less extremely pass-first team.

It’s such a seemingly obvious decision and seemingly so overdue, I wonder why it hasn’t been made. Shaquill Griffin said the Seahawks did not take the Giants seriously. Has Seattle really become the kind of franchise that is so undisciplined and arrogant that a home game against a weak opponent was seen as an opportunity to bolster Wilson’s MVP campaign?

The Seahawks weren’t alone passing themselves to death. Pittsburgh did the same thing. That seems awfully noteworthy, given that Pittsburgh is a rare pass-first contender that does not pass very well. My gut, never to be trusted by me or anyone else, thinks maybe we’re reaching a turning point.

Whatever the case, to me the choice is clear, run more and possibly become a contender again or pass more and pursue a largely hopeless MVP campaign. Winning in the NFL like success in so many fields is about identifying or even originating the next great idea. Ground Chuck isn’t making a comeback and neither is Martyball. But some synthesis of the old virtue of running down an opponent’s throat and the new virtue of passing early and often is out there. Why not us? Why can’t the Seahawks be the team who rides a wave of innovation to a title? Never in this millennium has it been so easy or so beneficial to run the ball. All this chasing a trend humbug has resulted in predictably miserable results. You don’t buy Amazon at 3,000. And you don’t go pass-first the year after Andy Reid has won the Super Bowl.