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The Seahawks offense is terrible on 4th down (until they aren’t)

Los Angeles Rams v Seattle Seahawks Photo by Lindsey Wasson/Getty Images

On the Seattle Seahawks’ first two offensive possessions, Pete Carroll punted on 4th and short in Los Angeles Rams territory, then he went for it on 4th and short in field goal range and Alex Collins got stuffed at the line of scrimmage. Two 4th down decisions with undesirable outcomes — the very idea of punting, and the failed actual 4th down play.

Carroll has long been criticized for not being aggressive on 4th downs with Russell Wilson as his quarterback. This has been a point of contention among fans and analytics followers who marvel at the way John Harbaugh, Andy Reid, Kevin Stefanski, and even rookie head coach Brandon Staley approach 4th downs.

And the numbers back it up. RBSDM.com only goes as far back as 2014 but the Seahawks are towards the bottom in 4th down aggressiveness.

Obviously Kansas City takes an uptick if you close the parameters to when Patrick Mahomes became the starter.

Now with all of that said... has anyone ever actually looked at the results of the Seahawks’ 4th down attempts?

If we isolate to the 1st-3rd quarters (regular season only) when going for it is less of an absolute necessity, the Seahawks under Russell Wilson have been consistently piss-poor. They have the combination of going for it less often than any other team in the NFL and converting at a shittastrophic rate.

As of Thursday night they have run 39 4th down plays (I’ll explain later considering the table says 44) and have the 2nd worst conversion rate in the entire NFL dating back to 2012.

The Stathead play-by-play log has two punts that are classified as pass/rush plays for some reason, and there are three instances of botched punt snaps that aren’t really plays.

Even if you took those plays out they’re still below a 50% conversion rate. And would you believe it, despite the paucity of pass attempts for Russell Wilson over a ten-year stretch, he has been sacked more than any other quarterback on 4th down when it’s in the 1st-3rd quarters.

If you go to EPA/play, the Seahawks offense is at the very bottom in dropback EPA (which is entirely Wilson scrambles and passes) and below-average in called runs.

(The further down the Y-axis, the worse you are at EPA/play)

And before you get on me regarding Wilson’s high sack rate and extraordinary ineffectiveness in these situations, here is one of those six sacks he’s taken. DOMINANT Tom Cable-coached blocking.

And here’s another one that’s a combination of Duane Brown getting beaten and the route combinations being a shambles for 4th and 1.

...But then something weird happens. Something typical of Seahawks football.

When it’s the 4th quarter (and overtime), Wilson (and the offense as a whole) turns into a 4th down converting machine. They still don’t go for it at an exceptional rate but they go from near-worst to first!

And if you want a mindblowing stat, in the regular season we have never seen Russell Wilson ever get sacked on a 4th quarter, 4th down play. Add in the playoffs and it’s only happened once.

Now the 4th quarter is when you tend to have the most garbage time, desperation decisions, crunch time decisions even with a high win probability, efforts to run the clock out so that the defense doesn’t have to go back out there in garbage time (or crunch time!), etc.

Nevertheless, when isolating to just one quarter’s worth of data and adjusting the win probability to range from 0-100 (to increase the sample size and thus include garbage time), look where Wilson ends up.

Sample size is obviously an issue here because Christian Ponder has one of the best EPA/play ratings here but he only had 11 dropbacks on 4th down in 4th quarter/overtime situations. But the general idea is that for whatever reason, there is a gigantic split in success rate for the Seahawks when it comes to going for it on 4th down in the 4th quarter/OT compared to the rest of the game.

This is not a total defense of Carroll’s 4th down decision making, but even within the sample size we see, the outcomes pre-4th quarter have been mostly bad (including last night) and combined with his undying trust in his defense, deter him from being more aggressive. Again, these aren’t large sample sizes but this era of the NFL places a greater emphasis on going for it on 4th down (and a reasonable distance) regardless of quarter because it maximizes your chances of winning.

So what do we make of the splits and sample sizes? Well despite the low success rate pre-4th quarter, I still think the Seahawks should be going for it more often anyway. And almost all of my reasoning is because I don’t want to see this defense on the field at all. But with the frequency in which Wilson is sacked on passing plays, the lack of a reliable rushing attack in short yardage, and the repeated struggles of the offensive line to actually block defenders, you have to question whether or not the Seahawks are actually well equipped for this specific bit of situational football.