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Why the Seahawks fired Ken Norton Jr.

Detroit Lions v Seattle Seahawks Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images

The simple answer to the question posed by the title is, of course, that the defense of the Seattle Seahawks was bad in 2021, and that it was bad in 2020 and 2019 and so on. There will be, of course, those who counter that the defense wasn’t actually that bad in 2021, and that coordinator for the 11th ranked scoring defense should not have been let go. That, however, does not take into account several factors that likely came into play.

Perhaps the most important factor is that in spite of fielding that 11th ranked scoring defense, not once in four seasons did the Seattle defense allow fewer points per game under Ken Norton Jr than it did in any season under Kris Richard or Dan Quinn. In fact, of the twelve seasons for which Pete Carroll has been the head coach, by points allowed the four seasons with KNJ as the defensive coordinator rank 8th, 9th, 10th and 11th in points allowed per game. The only season in which a Seahawks defense allowed fewer points per game during Carroll’s tenure was the 2010 team, which still had large portions of the roster leftover from the prior regimes.

For those who want to see it spelled out, here are the defensive performances by points per game for the past twelve seasons:

  • 1st: 2013, 14.4 (Dan Quinn)
  • 2nd: 2012, 15.3 (Gus Bradley)
  • 3rd: 2014, 15.9 (Dan Quinn)
  • 4th: 2015, 17.3 (Kris Richard)
  • 5th: 2016, 18.3 (Kris Richard)
  • 6th: 2011, 19.7 (Gus Bradley)
  • 7th: 2017, 20.8 (Kris Richard)
  • 8th: 2021, 21.5 (Ken Norton Jr)
  • 9th: 2018, 21.7 (Ken Norton Jr)
  • 10th: 2020, 23.2 (Ken Norton Jr)
  • 11th: 2019, 24.9 (Ken Norton Jr)
  • 12th: 2010, 25.4 (Gus Bradley)

Basically, of the six seasons over the past twelve years in which the Seahawks have allowed 20 or more points per game, Norton was the coordinator for two thirds of those seasons. Now, it’s certainly true that the Legion of Boom is gone and that Norton never had the talent of his predecessors, but how much input he had on the personnel he was given, we may never know.

That said, looking beyond just the outcomes, it’s also necessary to look at not just the results, but the process, and as has been laid out in the past, the Seahawks have spent significant assets building the defense. During KNJ’s tenure the team has used the following Day 1 and Day 2 draft picks building the unit:

  • 2022 First Round Pick
  • 2021 First Round Pick
  • 2020 First Round Pick
  • 2020 Second Round Pick
  • 2019 First Round Pick
  • 2019 Second Round Pick
  • 2019 Third Round Pick
  • 2018 Third Round Pick

That is a whole lot of draft capital for a unit that sported one of the greatest middle linebackers in the history of the NFL and yet still managed to finish outside the top ten in scoring defense all four seasons. The 2019 draft was particularly brutal, as the three players selected for the defense on Day 1 and Day 2 of that draft combined to play just 526 defensive snaps during the 2021 season, with more than a third of those snaps - 180 to be exact - coming in the final two games after the Seahawks had been eliminated from playoff contention.

Continuing to dig into the process, the Seahawks defense did not rank highly by advanced metrics. The defense finished 21st by DVOA, and in particular 26th by DVOA against the pass. What carried a bottom twelve defense by DVOA to a top twelve finish in points allowed, beyond facing a streak of backup quarterbacks (Colt McCoy, Taylor Heinicke, Davis Mills, Nick Foles and Tim Boyle) or quarterbacks who had not been able to practice due to COVID protocols (Aaron Rodgers and Matthew Stafford), was a string of solid performances in the red zone and on third down. The issue with that is that third down defense and red zone defense are not predictive, and that means that the success in terms of scoring defense would be likely to regress in 2022.

Third down defensive performance by team for 2020 and 2021

That is probably an answer that many fans are not happy about, as firing a coach based on the potential for regression of on field performance in the future might seem harsh, but that is reality, as this firing likely wasn’t Carroll’s idea. Specifically, it was barely a week ago that Carroll stated he didn’t anticipate any changes to the coaching staff, only to come back a week later and fire his defensive coordinator.

So, while there were those who played down the meeting between Carroll, John Schneider and Jody Allen that reportedly took place last week as business as usual and that there wouldn’t be significant changes, it would appear as though the meeting did indeed lead to material changes.

Now the question becomes whether those changes will lead to different outcomes on the field of play.