The 2021 season is in the books for the Seattle Seahawks, and the time has come for the team to look forward to the 2022 season in terms of negotiations with impending free agents and draft preparations. For Seattle, that also means answering a lot of questions about the offensive line, a group which has long been looked down upon by fans and the media in terms of its ability to protect Russell Wilson. Even Wilson himself went on national television last offseason and complained that he was tired of getting hit, so it’s obvious the offensive line is an issue.
Or is it?
Many fans will be quick to point out that the offensive lines the Hawks have fielded over the years have allowed Wilson to be pressured, hit and sacked at rates that are near the top of the league throughout his career. Arguments behind that position will then often point to PFF grades to demonstrate how poor the Seattle offensive line has been at providing pass protection for poor Mr. Wilson, with seven finishes in the bottom ten pass blocking graded teams. On the flip side, others will argue that the line has been fine, pointing to the line of the Hawks consistently coming in above average in the ESPN Pass Block Win Rate metric. Per ESPN’s PBWR, Seattle has finished just above average in 2021 and in the top half of the league four times in the past five seasons.
So, which one is it?
Which metric is more reliable - Pass Block Win Rate which is built off player tracking data or Pass Blocking Grade which is constructed from data collection specialists watching film? The answer is, it depends on what it is that is being looked for. Rather than trying to understand how two metrics which are purportedly measuring the same thing - the ability of an offensive line to pass block - it’s worth noting the nuances of each metric.
It’s those nuances that can result in the offensive line of the Seahawks finishing in opposite halves of the league in these two metrics, even though both metrics are evaluating the ability of an offensive line to protect its quarterback.
Moving to the medical field for a moment, consider a patient who has a family history of heart trouble and decides to see a cardiologist in order to get an evaluation of the current health of their cardiovascular system. They go to the office visit, their blood pressure is measured at 110 over 70, blood is drawn for lab work and they go on their merry way. Their blood pressure is in very good shape and they feel fine, so their cardiovascular health must be fine. A couple days later, however, their lab work comes back and their cholesterol is over 300. All of a sudden the confidence that their cardiovascular system is healthy is shaken, as that is a horrific cholesterol number and could indicate significant cardiac issues coming down the pipe in the future.
This is a situation that most people are likely able to understand. Even though both tests, blood pressure and cholesterol measurements, are evaluating the cardiac health of the patient, they are coming back with completely different results. The reason why is that even though both are used to evaluate the health of the cardiovascular system of the patient, what they are measuring is different. Now, if both tests came back with great results, then there’s a pretty good chance the patient has good cardiovascular health. If both had come back horrible, it’s probably a safe bet that the patient has poor cardiovascular health. If they are mixed, as in our example, it’s probably a situation where more evaluation is warranted.
The exact same thing can be said about PBWR and the pass block grades assigned by PFF in terms of evaluating pass protection. It’s true that both are measuring the performance of a team to the ability of an offensive line to protect its quarterback, the method in which the evaluation is conducted is different. That means the two metrics carry different meaning as they’re measuring different things.
PBWR is specifically measuring whether an offensive lineman loses their blocking matchup prior to the 2.5 second mark after the snap, and that’s it. In contrast, PFF grades a play from start to finish, regardless of how long the quarterback holds the ball. What that means is that if a quarterback holds the ball for 2.5 seconds or less on the majority of dropbacks, PBWR is a great metric to determine how well that quarterback’s offensive line will hold up. If, however, a quarterback tends to hold the ball for more than 2.5 seconds, and for example tends to be in the pocket for 2.8 or 2.9 seconds per dropback, the pass blocking grades assigned by PFF are going to be more meaningful when evaluating the quality of offensive line play.
In short, if it’s Tom Brady or Peyton Manning or Derek Carr or Ben Roethlisberger or Matthew Stafford dropping back to pass, PBWR will provide a good deal of insight on how well the offensive line in front of them will be able to protect them. In contrast, if the quarterback is Sam Darnold or Zach Wilson or Lamar Jackson or Russell Wilson and tends to hold the ball for longer, then PFF grades are going to shed more light on the ability of the offensive line to provide protection for that quarterback since those grades evaluate what happens after the 2.5 second mark.
Now, for those who would prefer something more definitive than an “it depends”, the survival curve may be a better option for evaluating pass block. For the 2021 Seahawks, this is what their pass protection survival curve looked like.
And with thanks to @PFF_Moo, here's an illustration of the continued struggles of the Seahawks' offensive line: they are more likely than the average team to give up quick pressure.— Computer Cowboy (@benbbaldwin) January 14, 2022
Will Russell Wilson sign up for yet another season of this?https://t.co/gXgQFTL9uw pic.twitter.com/ZsmMtEwFa7
So, for those who want to build an All Pro offensive line by spending tens, if not hundreds, of millions on free agent linemen, the improvement from the green line to the dotted line is what would be gained in going from current performance to average.
That all said, Russell Wilson holds the ball for a long time relative to other quarterbacks across the league. He has certainly improved his performance in that category in recent years, but all it takes is a simple look at where the pressure rate would be expected to fall given his 2021 Time To Throw of 2.78 seconds to realize that the biggest factor in whether a quarterback is pressured is how long they hold the ball.
What it all means is that at the end of the day Wilson is going to complain about getting hit, fans are going to complain about the offensive line and the easiest way for those two things to change are for Wilson to get the ball out quicker.