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Good Offense, Bad D: What history has to say about the Seahawks’ conundrum

Arizona Cardinals v Seattle Seahawks Photo by Tom Hauck/Getty Images

All the excitement in the world over the performance of Tariq Woolen — which has been stunning, to say the least — can’t mask the fact that the Seattle Seahawks have had a terrible defense through the first five weeks of the NFL season. But then they had a home matchup with the Arizona Cardinals and they seemingly righted their fast-sinking ship. This performance was good enough to see Seattle’s defense bump up nine spots in Football Outsiders’ defensive DVOA rankings; following Week 5, the team was ranked second-to-last, one spot ahead of the Detroit Lions. Now, they are sitting at the slightly more enviable position of 22nd. This is good news, obviously, but it is also interesting. Why? Because this team also ranks Top-5 in offensive DVOA, and they have actually declined in this department after ranking #1 last week. But teams are often better on one side of the ball, so just how rare is it to rank top-5 in offense but near the bottom defensively? Actually, it is quite rare, in fact. According to Aaron Schatz of Football Outsiders, via ESPN:

“The Seahawks are only the sixth team in the past 20 years to rank in the top three of offensive DVOA and bottom three of defensive DVOA through Week 5. (The others: 2011 Patriots, 2013 Packers, 2013 Chargers, 2017 Patriots and 2021 Chiefs.)...

...If you are curious, the 1996 Baltimore Ravens are the only team to ever finish a season with the No. 1 offense and also the last-place defense in the league, according to DVOA.”

And how did these teams finish their respective seasons?

Of the above four teams, all finished with a winning record and made the playoffs, and three of these teams reached the AFC Championship game, with two Super Bowl appearances. Ok, that is some pretty alright company to be in. Now, we can all observe the obvious here: these offenses were led by Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, and Patrick Mahomes. Geno Smith is playing great football right now, to be sure, but he doesn’t have a track record of NFL success. He very well may be the victim of circumstances, or maybe just a guy who needed time and the right setting to develop into a franchise signal caller; but the reality is that this is his first season as a pro where he is living up to his draft status. If this team wants to approximate the success of the above squads, he will need to not only keep it up, but keep it up in a big way.

After a decade of winning records and playoff appearances, the Seahawks got used to annually high expectations; basically, almost any year under Russell Wilson that didn’t end in a Super Bowl felt like a let down. Now, I’m not saying it wouldn’t be disappointing for this team to lose should they do the unthinkable and make it to the big game, but would any of us truly be ‘disappointed’ by this team even making a playoff appearance? I should hope not. This illustrates how there is a pretty stark difference between a ‘disappointing end to a great season’ and a ‘disappointing season.’ Teams don’t often trade away their assumed franchise passer without a clear, pre-ordained replacement and actually improve. It can happen, but it isn’t the norm.

But what about that other team mentioned above — the ‘96 Baltimore Ravens? That squad went 4-12 with former 1st overall pick turned veteran journeyman Vinny Testaverde getting nominated to his first Pro Bowl appearance after a mostly disappointing career. During the season, he finished with 4,177 passing yards — second only to Mark Brunell — and threw for 33 touchdowns — second to Brett Favre’s 39. But as you can see above, even in 1996 this wasn’t enough to overcome an imbalance so great between the offense and defense. This serves as a cautionary tale for the Seahawks, who appear to at least be getting on the right track after a historically sluggish start to the season, defensively.

As we have seen in previous years, mid-season adjustments have made significant impacts to the success of Seattle’s defense; not only this, they certainly have some young and exciting players and are generating turnovers at the 5th highest rate during the Pete Carroll era, according to StatHead. But they are also surrendering the worst yards per play average of any Seahawks team during this same span of time by nearly a full yard (this is bad). So something has gotta give; up until last week, the only giving happening was the structural failings of a bend-then-break defense. This absolutely needs to change, because if their defensive revival doesn’t hold, this team is likely going to have a whole lot more in common with the 1996 Ravens than any of the other teams mentioned previously.