I imagine there was a collective groan when Pete Carroll said in his final press conference that the Seahawks needed to run the ball more and run it better next season. The year that began with Let Russ Cook and Seattle actually obliging ended in a power struggle, a schematic mass, and poor execution that left the offense in tatters.
And why run it more anyway? Seattle’s EPA/play on early down rushes (scrambles are not factored in) was 2nd in the NFL and the best of the entire Russell Wilson era! This is a passing league and going with more of the less efficient option seems ill-advised.
If there’s one thing I can say in semi-defense of Pete’s logic, it’s that while running it more is not analytically smart, there are games within games that frankly we shouldn’t even pretend we understand better than they do. We may want NFL coaches and playcallers to always call the most efficient play possible, but that’s just not how football works. There’s so much strategy centered around tendencies and personnel groupings and other matchups that make it virtually impossible to just gear every team towards what is the prevailing way to play offensive football. It ain’t easy for everyone to be the Kansas City Chiefs, so you have to carve out your own path and figure out what works best for your roster. Perhaps it is possible that the Seahawks don’t thrive best in a pass-heavy offense, at least not with Carroll as coach.
Now with all of that said... the Seahawks rushing attack needs the reset button pressed.
Do you remember when Russell Wilson used to do this regularly?
The 2014 Seahawks had the best of both Wilson and Marshawn Lynch as runners at a time when the read-option revolution had truly taken off in the NFL. If defensive ends crashed too hard going after Lynch, Wilson would pull that ball out and run towards open space for however many yards he wanted. If the defensive end is frozen in time out of sheer indecisiveness or sells out to stop Wilson, he’d hand it to Lynch and usually that yields positive results. You could easily argue that Russell Wilson helped Marshawn Lynch more than the other way around.
But Lynch is selling Subway’s Protein Bowls and Wilson, while still capable of doing damage with his legs, has noticeably lost his speed. Wilson may have been credited with 88 rush attempts for 500+ yards in the 2020 regular + postseason but it’s a bit misleading. There were 17 kneeldowns (which are running plays), another 57 were scrambles on intended pass plays, and there were 5 aborted snaps/fumbled handoffs, which leaves you with 9 designed runs. Then you watch the film and find out that one of those nine runs was a busted play that looked like a pass yet wasn’t labeled a scramble, and another one was a scramble turned illegal forward pass.
The headline for the 2020 Seattle Seahawks rushing attack: Russell Wilson only had seven designed running plays all season.
I counted six read-options or triple options that Wilson kept, while the seventh was the unthinkable quarterback sneak for a touchdown. For perspective, Wilson had nine designed runs in just a single game against the New York Giants in 2014.
My theory is that some of this is self-preservation. Wilson is slower and quarterbacks don’t get afforded the same protections once they become runners. This isn’t to say he’s completely incapable! Just look at this triple option from opening day.
There is some ability still in there! The triple-options were a thing of beauty. But they were seldom called. pic.twitter.com/vHadDQXDEV— Mookie Alexander (@mookiealexander) January 20, 2021
...But then there are these disgusting looking read-options where he’s running in quicksand and the blocking is subpar.
It is not fun watching Russell Wilson do read-option anymore.— Mookie Alexander (@mookiealexander) January 20, 2021
(Also holy shit Hollister can't block) pic.twitter.com/m91sv7MMmt
Metcalf blew this block but man, he just cannot routinely escape people in open field anymore.— Mookie Alexander (@mookiealexander) January 20, 2021
Lots of hits and getting old sucks. pic.twitter.com/lMTuXlnH4S
How can one remain dangerous as a scrambler and turn into a virtual non-entity as a designed runner? I’m not smart enough to figure that out without oodles of time on my hands. I also don’t know how much of the switch to a power/zone blocking mix with Mike Solari compared to Tom Cable’s ZBS based approach is having an impact on the running game as a whole.
(Side note: This is not the point of my post but I believe one of the bigger failures of the Schottenheimer era was not getting Wilson out of the pocket more often on rollouts akin to what Sean McVay and Gary Kubiak and Kevin Stefanski love to do with their quarterbacks.)
The Seahawks have to either reincorporate Wilson into the rushing attack or readjust to a world where Russell is basically not involved anymore. There is no point in running read-options if teams don’t have to anticipate Wilson keeping it, and then when he does he turns the corner at a much slower speed than we’ve grown accustomed to seeing.
Speaking of Seahawks players scarcely running it, do you know how many carries Tyler Lockett had this season? Exactly. He had none. Schotty still kept motioning him to tease a handoff that never happened. Pre-leg break, Lockett memorably turned a jet sweep into a 75-yard touchdown. His subsequent 27 carries gained 122 yards over the next three seasons, including a robust -5 yards on four attempts in 2019. David Moore became the wide receiver runner of choice and turned half of his eight carries in 2020 to first downs.
Seattle’s style of running is just not as diverse as it used to be and I think it’s absolutely playing into a lot of the predictability problems that they experienced as the season progressed.
Then there is the issue of the Seahawks’ running back depth chart. Chris Carson is the team’s best back but he’s had zero healthy seasons out of four and is a free agent. He’s also not a fast or elusive runner in the open-field, which absolutely leaves just as many yards on the field as he creates by fighting through contact. Carlos Hyde is in his 30s and is also a free agent. Rashaad Penny has a handful of good games to his name and is coming off a potentially career-changing injury. Travis Homer is not a viable runner and Deejay Dallas didn’t really play enough to make serious proclamations about his upside.
Yes, this is my way of saying the Seahawks should consider cleaning house at running back but not overspending through early draft capital or splashy free agent signings. According to Pro Football Reference, Seahawks rushers were among the worst in the NFL at yards gained after contact. That’d probably be the type of stat to irk Pete Carroll.
I’m of the belief that Seattle’s love for powerful backs who break tackles is not misguided, but they are badly missing a speed element that is frankly plaguing the entire offense now that both Lockett and Wilson have lost their peak top-end speed. The future of NFL defenses should be geared more than ever towards speed over physicality, and the Seahawks offense really hasn’t adjusted to that apart from getting DK Metcalf’s rarefied combination of speed and physicality.
Lastly, if you use ESPN’s Win Rate metric, the Seahawks’ run blocking was middle of the pack while the pass blocking was #9. In the playoffs, that pass blocking unit looked like it didn’t belong in the top-32, but that’s beside the point. There has to be improvement on both fronts or else we’re gonna see more of the same.
Man, did I just write 1300 words to just say that things got worse from the years when they went to the Super Bowl? I guess I did.
Seattle’s next offensive coordinator won’t just be tasked with putting Russell Wilson back on course after he veered off-track to end 2020, but I suspect that we’ll see some new wrinkles to the running game in 2021, and I think it is necessary. It’s just not reasonable to keep asking the rushing offense to consist exclusively of non-durable running backs with a smattering of barely effective WR jet sweeps behind an offensive line that’s been average at-best at holding its blocks. The Seahawks need to be faster, more creative, and more diverse in every way imaginable. And most importantly, the execution needs to be much more sound than we’ve seen in recent years.