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The hidden value of Carlos Hyde

NFL: AFC Wild Card-Buffalo Bills at Houston Texans Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

The Seattle Seahawks ranked 28th in fumbles lost last season. Some of that was bad luck, as Seattle ranked 25th in fumbles per game, and whether a fumble is recovered or not is, if not wholly luck based, entirely unpredictable. That 25th overall ranking was Seattle’s worst showing since 2013. Obviously fumbles are not everything, but they matter, a lot.

As long as Russell Wilson is frequently sacked, and as long as Wilson is frequently sacked mid-scramble, he’s likely to fumble fairly often. But the major surge in fumbling is almost entirely attributable to a rash of butterfingers by Chris Carson. Mmmm, rash of Butterfingers. Wilson and Carson accounted for 15 of Seattle’s 26 fumbles in 2019. Many believe Carson will simply improve and that little should be made of his outlier performance. I’m not so sure. But I am sure of one thing: he won’t escape the bench this year if he can’t hold onto the ball.

Part of the value of signing Carlos Hyde is that unlike Rashaad Penny or Travis Homer, Hyde runs inside. Seattle depends on inside runs to set up play action. While it’s better PR to say the Seahawks remained confident in Carson throughout his struggles, I would argue it’s more accurate to say the Seahawks simply had little choice but to continue to play Carson. That is why Marshawn Lynch, though obviously a ghost of his former greatness, saw the majority of rushes in his return last season.

Lynch out-snapped Travis Homer 36-25 in Seattle’s divisional round loss to Green Bay. Homer’s a good pass blocker, and he was surely a better receiver, but playing from behind and needing to pass, Lynch was in because he—or any credible inside rusher—was foundational to Seattle’s play action game.

It is strange, almost inexplicable, that defenses sacrifice pass defense to better defend the run. The gulf between the value of an average pass and the value of an average run is so great that, removing all other considerations, it’s small wonder that NFL teams do not pass on 70 or even 80% of all plays. In 2019, the average NFL team gained 73.6 expected points through passing the ball and lost 11.1 expected points running the ball. And, to be perfectly honest, I am not sure teams shouldn’t pass way more frequently. But I do understand why they don’t.

Let’s set aside one major consideration for a second: the quarterback’s health. Running is only one possible way to protect the quarterback, and if teams ran simply to protect their quarterbacks, many other less inefficient measures could be taken. Pass blocking could be the only criteria by which offensive linemen were evaluated. Running back as a position could be as marginalized as fullback. Quarterbacks could be instructed to give themselves up whenever a sack is remotely possible. Etc.

Instead I think coaches emphasize the running game because while, in the NFL as we know it, it’s of little value, little would have to change for it to be extremely valuable. Of course this is very hard to prove, but I believe the difference between a run-of-the-mill, ordinary as dirt rushing attack, and an unstoppable rushing attack is very small. I do not want to get too far afield here, as this is speculative at best, but my point is only that running the ball is primarily of tactical value. It is not valuable as-is, but if teams stopped emphasizing stopping the run, it could become exceptionally valuable.

Whether real or imagined, most coaches believe a priori that running is the foundation of an offense. One can not prove it through data, but if one considers the entire development of the modern NFL offense, one can see why so many coaches believe first there is the run, second there is the pass. Maybe this is only more evidence of the painfully slow pace of change. For this post, I’m not really interested in what could be, only what is.

The Seahawks run a system that demands someone run the damn ball, and not just anywhere, but where the linebackers and safeties roam. Penny hasn’t proven capable of that and Homer probably never will be. DeeJay Dallas doesn’t seem that type of runner, but I’d hate to put any caps on the young man’s potential. Hyde is that kind of guy. He’s used to running into stacked boxes, and while that may seem like a bad idea, Brian Schottenheimer specifically said the Seahawks need to be able run even against numbers. Carson could do it but Carson couldn’t hold onto the ball. Hopefully he simply improves. But if he doesn’t, Seattle can hold him accountable without phoning up Marshawn Lynch. Which is tremendously heartening.

When a team performs badly at fumbling the ball, predicting regression is shooting fish in a barrel. Stating that Seattle will fumble less often this year is a tepid hot take, but this next one could boil lead. If Carson continues to fumble, Hyde will surpass him on the depth chart even if Carson is clearly the better rusher. Accountability is key to maintaining motivation, and while running the ball with Hyde may seem like slow death, I’d wager Carroll will consider it a worthy trade-off.