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Super Bowl XLIX revisited: The more things change...

Super Bowl XLIX - New England Patriots v Seattle Seahawks

Apparently this Tom Brady fella announced his retirement for real, opting not to be petty and instead coming back specifically to shred Adam Schefter’s reputation into pieces. It’s certainly coincidental timing at the very least that he called it a career on the anniversary of Super Bowl XLIX, a painful day for Seattle Seahawks fans.

We’re not here to talk about the play that shall not be named, or Brady’s comeback against a defense that was banged up entering the game and even more injured during it, or the left shark during Katy Perry’s halftime performance.

Let’s focus on the Seahawks offense.

Seattle scored 24 points on 396 yards of total offense and averaged 7.5 yards per play, which seems pretty damn impressive. They were statistically better than the New England Patriots on the ground, in the turnover count, yards per play, and explosive plays. But peel back the performance of that group, which admittedly was shorthanded following the midseason trade of Percy Harvin and the ACL tear of Paul Richardson, and you get a lot of the same flaws that impact the team today.

Seahawks’ 4 scoring drives (3 TDs, 1 FG):

25 plays for 272 yards (including New England penalties)

2-of-3 on 3rd down

12 first downs

8 explosive plays (defined as 20+ yard passes, 10+ yard runs)

Seahawks’ 7 non-scoring drives (6 punts, 1 turnover):

28 plays for 134 yards

1-of-7 on 3rd down

5 first downs

3 explosive plays (all on passes)

The fateful final offensive possession of the 2014 Seahawks’ season was the only time in the Super Bowl that they managed multiple first downs on a non-scoring drive, and two of the three explosive plays were on that same drive. In fact, 79 of the 134 yards managed on non-scoring drives came on that series. Every other possession ended in 5 plays (or fewer) and a punt. The three drives they had after going up 24-14 and before trailing 28-24, they gained only 33 yards on 10 plays and 25 of them came on a throw to Ricardo Lockette.

Russell Wilson did not pass the ball until the 2nd quarter and didn’t complete a pass until their 4th possession. Of his 12 completions, 9 of them gained at least 10+ yards and 6 of them gained at least 20+ yards.

And those 3rd downs? Marshawn Lynch scored a touchdown on 3rd and 2 but was stuffed on a 3rd and 2 at the start of the game and then a 3rd and 1 in the 3rd quarter. Wilson was 2/6 for 17 yards and a sack, although his numbers could’ve looked better if Jermaine Kearse could hang onto that 3rd and 2 deep shot in the late 3rd quarter. Rather predictably with a run-heavy gameplan, Seattle was constantly facing obvious passing situations, and all but one of Wilson’s seven 3rd down dropbacks required at least 5 yards to gain.

As for the scoring drives, both of their 3rd down conversions came on the Seahawks’ first touchdown, and their field goal was the aforementioned Lynch failure on 3rd and 1. That means their other scores saw them not face 3rd down at all, including a remarkably well-executed one-minute drill before halftime.

Oh yes, we cannot ignore that Pete Carroll did not hesitate to kick a field goal to go up 17-14 instead of go for it on 4th and 1 at New England’s 8. Later in the quarter and after the Kearse drop, Carroll immediately sent out the punt team on 4th and 2 at New England’s 47. You think it would’ve been worth the risk to potentially gift New England a short field if it meant trying to extend the drive and go up 27-14 or 31-14?

I concede it’s easier to say this now with the benefit of hindsight and the increased willingness by coaches to go for it in today’s game, but even for 2014 the Seahawks were near the bottom in the NFL in 4th down aggressiveness. I’d bet my bottom dollar that John Harbaugh, Sean Payton, and Ron Rivera all would’ve strongly considered going for it in both scenarios.

But the main theme from this game was Seattle’s offense was boom or bust. Their scoring drives were quick in nature and heavily reliant on big plays, and their non-scoring drives ended in rapid fashion. New England had no plays of more than 23 yards and only five explosives (none rushing) for the entire game. They were methodical both because Seattle’s defense was elite at limiting massive gains and also that’s just how the Patriots offense operates. Your end result is lopsided snap counts and New England very handily winning time of possession even though they were stuck on 14 points through 3 quarters.

Fast forward to 2022 and the Seahawks are coming off a season in which, yes, Russell Wilson was injured for several weeks, but the problems that hurt the team in XLIX are very much still relevant. The 2021 group was 31st in punts per drive, 26th in 3-and-outs per drive, 23rd in 3rd down conversions, and tied for 4th longest average yards to go on 3rd downs in the NFL. And yes, the Seahawks are at the bottom when it comes to 4th down aggressiveness. Even during the height of the Let Russ Cook year of 2020, the team was scoring at a torrid pace and also punting just as quickly.

What’s interesting is that the 2014 team is still the best Seahawks team of the Wilson era at avoiding punts and 3-and-outs, but they clearly weren’t impervious to having a boom or bust day at the office. As I noted back in September, Seattle has gotten worse at avoiding three-and-outs and punts since 2017, and 2021 marked the fifth year in a row that they’ve punted above the league average.

Virtually everything about Seattle’s offense has changed since XLIX; only the quarterback and the head coach have remained the constant. What’s perhaps most frustrating is that the outlier of XLIX has turned into something of a regular occurrence for the current Seahawks offense. They do not have a defense that is anywhere near Legion of Boom levels that can pick up the slack if the offense cannot get itself going.

I believe the most important goal for 2022 is to find a way to consistently sustain drives and not live and die off of explosive plays. We may very well be at a point in time where we have to accept that’s just the way Carroll and Wilson operate, but that doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be an effort to change.

So as to not bum you out completely... check back on Wednesday for a glowing review of the Seahawks’ offense from Super Bowl XLVIII.