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Russell Wilson passing more depends on him getting hit less

NFL: NFC Divisional Round-Seattle Seahawks At Green Bay Packers Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Roughly ten years ago Russell Wilson was benched by Tom O’Brien for Mike Glennon. Eventually Wilson transferred to Wisconsin, excelled, and you know the rest. Wisconsin’s offensive coordinator at the time was Paul Chryst. He’s now the head coach. Chryst is unabashedly run-first. In the words of the man himself.

(The above is not an attempt to malign Paul Chryst through the unscrupulous use of an unflattering image. It’s just when the key words were present on the screen.)

As Wilson has grown as a quarterback, belief among many is that he has been held back by a run-first offense which, despite his exceptional play, treats him like a game manager. Which is to say, Russell Wilson is the victim of a system which claims to protect him but which robs him of realizing his full potential. Is that true? Today I put my Martin Prince hat on and attempt that noblest of pursuits. Yes today I will be a systems analyst.

What is wrong with the current system?

Despite running a very efficient passing offense, and starting the second best quarterback in the NFL, Seattle runs the ball too frequently.

Seattle ranked fourth in the NFL in expected points added per pass play. Each pass Seattle attempted added about 0.26 points. Whereas each run lost about 0.07 points. Seattle nevertheless ranked third in total run attempts and 23rd in pass attempts. This tendency is not the result of Seattle regularly protecting a lead. Seattle ranked 23rd in time spent trailing a game, sandwiched between the 7-9 Buccaneers and the 5-11 Chargers. That’s a bit broad. Let’s get more granular.

Game state heavily influences play calling. If we attempt to control for that, and look at only fairly neutral game states (which I defined as occurring in the first three quarters with neither team being up 17 or more points), the Seahawks rank 28th in percentage of pass attempts. In 2018 Seattle ranked 32nd. This puts Wilson in the company of run-first quarterbacks and game managers.

The team which led the NFL in pass attempts during these neutral game states was Kansas City. KC passed in 67% of such plays. Over the past four years, which is the span I have numbers for, every Super Bowl winner passed more frequently than average in these neutral game states. In fact, in the past four seasons, the Super Bowl winning Patriots, Eagles, damned Pats again, and KC ranked 3rd, 4th, 4th and 1st in EPA added through passing, respectively. Efficient, high-volume passing is the foundation for winning a Super Bowl in the modern NFL. Yet Seattle stubbornly refuses to pass more often.

What stops Seattle from passing more often?

Brian Schottenheimer is one answer, and Pete Carroll is another, but the likeliest answer is Russell Wilson himself. He has never excelled in a pass-first offense. His style seems to render him forever prone to hits. The greatest value of running the ball may be that the chance of the quarterback being hurt is minimized. While Wilson is blessed with health, he’s had to be, as few other quarterbacks have ever come close to enduring the kind of punishment he has endured.

In 2019, Wilson ranked third in the NFL in hits + sacks taken behind Ryan Fitzpatrick and Matt Ryan. Adding in scrambles and ignoring designed runs, Wilson led NFL quarterbacks in potentially injurious plays. Of his 1,107 snaps, Wilson ended 150 sacked, hit or scrambling.

Though Wilson is tough he is not impervious to injury. In his eight seasons, Seattle has only finished outside the top ten in offensive efficiency (as determined by DVOA) twice. In 2016, when he played most of the season hurt, and in 2017. Those also happen to be the seasons in which Wilson threw most frequently and least efficiently. Therefore I am going to put forth a somewhat controversial opinion: Wilson benefits from a run-first offense, and increasing his pass attempts is not a matter of radically changing the offense, but minimizing potentially injurious plays.

How to do this is too big of a question to answer in one post. It’s also a thorny question. Wilson derives a good deal of his value from scrambling. Wilson getting hit fewer times likely means scrambling less often, and at what point is the trade-off no longer worth it?

Consider this rather odd split:

Wilson with 2.5 or fewer seconds in the pocket

Completion percentage: 70.5%

AY/A: 7.57

Sack percentage: 5.2%

Wilson with 2.5 or more seconds in the pocket

Completion percentage: 60.4%

AY/A: 10.23

Sack percentage: 12.5%

Simply put, when Wilson has longer to throw, he completes fewer passes but for a much greater average, and he’s sacked more than twice as often. Getting rid of the ball quicker will surely save Wilson from being hit. It will also limit his effectiveness.

Which leads to a disappointingly obvious solution: The Seahawks need to pass block better. Yep. Wilson is never likely to dramatically reduce his overall rate of getting hit. Hits and explosive plays draw from the same well. But the Seahawks can reduce the likelihood of cheap hits and sacks.

Hidden in that above split is systemic failure of the Seahawks offense. For a play to last fewer than 2.5 seconds but to end in a sack is indicative of a fundamental breakdown in protection. To put it into perspective, Dak Prescott was sacked in just 1.1% of all such plays. Mahomes, 1.2%. Prescott, Mahomes, Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Jared Goff were sacked less frequently overall than Wilson was sacked in under 2.5 seconds. That’s staggering. Kyler Murray and Deshaun Watson, stylistically similar quarterbacks to Wilson, each with their own problems getting sacked, were sacked in just 3.5% and 4.2% of snaps in which they had under 2.5 seconds in the pocket. These flash sacks account for a third of all sacks taken by Wilson, and we can only wonder how many potential flash sacks were avoided by Wilson’s exceptional scrambling.

Yes the solution is disappointingly obvious but, for once, it seems to have been obvious to those who decide too. Mike Iupati and Duane Brown allowed three sacks combined in 2019. They return. D.J. Fluker and Germain Ifedi allowed nine sacks combined in 2019. They’re gone. Ifedi, in particular, allowed 6.5 sacks, which is a hair above his career average. Just don’t tell me Brandon Shell is the presumed starter at right tackle. In 300 fewer snaps than Ifedi, Shell allowed seven sacks.

Ultimately for Wilson to pass more frequently while maintaining his efficiency, he must be safe to pass more frequently. He likely cannot reduce his rate of scrambling without reducing his overall efficiency, but ignoring the value of pass protection because Wilson will inevitably be sacked at a higher rate than average is a mistake. Wilson must risk getting sacked to be his best. Seattle must reduce the rate at which Wilson is sacked, hit or hurried very quickly for Wilson to be his best more often.