I suppose there’s still plenty of time (but little room for error) for the Seattle Seahawks to make the 2021 playoffs. An extra playoff spot, an extra regular season game, and yet the playoffs seem so far away because not only are they 2-5, but the two most likely teams to take wild card spots (other than the NFC West runner-up) are the New Orleans Saints and Minnesota Vikings, both of whom hold wins over Seattle.
How could this happen? How could the Seahawks fall so far after going 12-4 and winning the NFC West in 2020?
Well maybe it’s time we look at that season again, because I think despite the great DVOA ranking (which accounts for opponent strength), there might have been a hint of good fortune for Seahawks that made them look much better than they actually were. I refer you to a Ben Baldwin tweet from January that holds up pretty well.
If you look at the W-L record, there's a case for keeping this regime. But that's willfully ignoring context. The Seahawks won 12 games in 2020 because of an exceptionally easy schedule, & that time is over. Consider the process. And the process has been wrong in almost every way— Computer Cowboy (@benbbaldwin) January 13, 2021
Seattle’s 2020 schedule ranked 19th by DVOA and a good chunk of that is boosted by playing the NFC West, where even the “worst” rated team was the Arizona Cardinals at 13th. The Seahawks only played three eventual playoff teams (the fewest in the NFL): A 7-9 Washington Football Team that benched and eventually cut their QB, the eventual AFC Championship runner-up Buffalo Bills, and the Los Angeles Rams. They had to hold on for dear life against WFT, split with the Rams, and were thoroughly beaten down in Buffalo.
As was the case for everyone else in the NFC West, the Seahawks got to play the historically bad NFC East (and didn’t even sweep that quartet!) and the still bad AFC East. The Miami Dolphins were unlucky to finish 10-6 but miss the playoffs, but it didn’t take long for the obvious regression candidates to return to being one of the NFL’s worst teams. At the time the Seahawks beat them, Miami’s defense was roughly the same as Seattle’s in EPA/play and substantially worse (29th!) when subtracting garbage time.
And as far as that defensive improvement you saw after the midway point? Let’s look at these vaunted offenses they played and their DVOA rankings:
Los Angeles Rams (2x) - 10th
Arizona Cardinals - 19th
San Francisco 49ers - 20th
New York Giants - 26th
Philadelphia Eagles - 28th
New York Jets - 31st
Washington Football Team - 32nd
Seattle played only one above-average offense from Week 10 onwards. Against the 49ers, Giants, and Washington they played backup quarterbacks. Carson Wentz and Sam Darnold were traded at season’s end and both of them were among the worst in the NFL. On the other side of the ball, the Rams, Cards, 49ers, and Washington were all in the top-10 in defensive DVOA. The Seahawks offense noticeably struggled down the stretch and this has to be factored in.
Incidentally, these current Seahawks have looked much better defensively over the past two weeks... playing against the 20th (Saints) and 22nd (Steelers) ranked offenses by DVOA. The Jaguars roll into town this weekend at 24th.
And that’s the point. The 2021 team is presently worse than the 2020 squad just off of the absence of Russell Wilson, but there’s a strong argument that they’re worse than the 2020 team even if Wilson is healthy. Special teams has certainly dipped thanks to Jason Myers alone. At best (meaning with Wilson healthy and other key players at full strength), they’re roughly as good as last year’s side, aka nowhere near Super Bowl contention despite that gaudy looking record of 2020.
But you know what’s the biggest change this year (other than Wilson getting hurt)? The schedule. It’s currently the 4th toughest in DVOA for previous opponents, and they haven’t even played the Green Bay Packers or Arizona Cardinals yet. In all likelihood the Titans, Cardinals, Rams, Packers, and at least one of the Saints or Vikings will be in the postseason and above .500. Those six teams represent about half of Seattle’s schedule and they have lost to four of those teams already. Supposedly things get easier with the Lions, Texans, and Washington all on the slate, but by then it’s probably already too late to turn the season around.
The flaws of the 2020 Seahawks never really went away in 2021. The opponents got tougher.