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Why the Seahawks offense has felt like such a tease

Seattle’s points per drive are right up there with the best offenses in the NFL... so why doesn’t it feel like it?

Seattle Seahawks v Tennessee Titans Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

If there is one valid criticism of the Seattle Seahawks offense under Geno Smith, it’s the inability to finish off drives with touchdowns.

Through two seasons, the Seahawks have the NFL’s highest rate of drives ending in a field goal attempt, which wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing if they were also scoring touchdowns at a high rate. Seattle ranks 9th in drives ending in a score (good!), but a modest 13th in drives ending in touchdowns. All of the teams ahead of them in scores per drive are also in the top-10 in touchdown percentage.

A little bit of extra research outlines the huge gap between the Seahawks and the other nine teams in two key areas... yeah, you don’t need me to tell you which areas they are, but that’s what the table is for.

Top-10 NFL teams by drives ending in a score (2022-2023)

Team Scores/Drive Touchdowns/Drive Attempted Field Goals/Drive Early Down EPA/Play 3rd Down EPA/Play 3rd Down Conversion Ranking Red Zone Touchdown Ranking
Team Scores/Drive Touchdowns/Drive Attempted Field Goals/Drive Early Down EPA/Play 3rd Down EPA/Play 3rd Down Conversion Ranking Red Zone Touchdown Ranking
Cowboys 1st 5th 3rd 11th 1st 3rd 3rd
49ers 2nd 1st 29th 1st 4th 4th 8th
Bills 3rd 3rd 21st 2nd 3rd 1st 7th
Chiefs 4th 7th 10th 3rd 2nd 5th 5th
Eagles 5th 4th 27th 12th 5th 2nd 2nd
Lions 6th 2nd 31st 6th 7th 9th 1st
Dolphins 7th 6th 24th 5th 6th 19th 4th
Ravens 8th 10th 2nd 7th 10th 7th 18th
Seahawks 9th 13th 1st 8th 18th 22nd 30th
Packers 10th 9th 19th 4th 11th 6th 23rd
Stathead and

A hidden element to Seattle’s field goal-to-touchdown ratio is its 4th down decisions. This is only for 2023, but the “Aggressiveness Index” shows that nearly every coach in that top-10 table was more eager to go for it on 4th down than Pete Carroll. It’s hard to understand why John Harbaugh has had a change of heart, but he’s actually been less aggressive than Pete this season.

Throughout the Pete Carroll era, the Seahawks have either been weak on 3rd down or the red zone, but rarely both. Russell Wilson’s rookie season is the only time they’ve ever come close to being top-10 in both 3rd down (12th) and red zone (10th) percentage. The only other times the Seahawks were below-average in both categories were the 2010 and 2011 seasons. Those Seahawks offenses weren’t good at anything and were near the bottom in points per drive, which is not the case for the 2022-2023 Seahawks.

There are three factors I believe are worth exploring for the disconnect.

Geno Smith, Passing Offense

Geno regressed significantly from last season to this season in red zone and 3rd down performance. In 2022 he ranked 11th in RZ pass EPA, but that dipped all the way to 27th through Week 16 of this season (Note: Sumer Sports’ table did not update the last two weeks). The two interceptions obviously were factors in dropping his EPA, but his completion percentage dropped from about 50 to 41, so he was just less efficient inside the opposition’s 20.

On late downs (3rd/4th), Smith was about middle of the pack in EPA/play among starting quarterbacks in 2022. This season, he was one of the worst. Curiously, while Geno’s early down vs. late down performance in 2022 was generally stable, there’s a humongous gap for 2023. When Geno throws on 1st/2nd down? He’s up there among the elite of the NFL. Late downs, aka obvious passing situations? Different story. In other words, Russell Wilson’s 2021 season. The pass protection has not held up well in these scenarios, which feels like a statement you could play on repeat for a decade.

There are definitely some throws (namely just about every interception and a couple of other misfires) that Geno would like to have back that contribute to the bad stats. We also had some playcalls from Shane Waldron that were pretty much DOA.

If there’s any optimism, it’s the fact that Geno was one of the better 3rd down quarterbacks from the Dallas Cowboys game through the season finale against the Arizona Cardinals.

Speaking of red zone regression, the rushing attack managed to sink further...

Red Zone Rushing Offense

It’s been a two-year disaster and something I’ve written about before.

The Seahawks red zone ground game was 30th in EPA/play in 2023, somehow worse than the previous season when they were 26th. Zach Charbonnet and Kenneth Walker combined for 9 RZ touchdowns but were tackled for a loss on just about 25% of their carries. They were also in the bottom-half of the league in success rate for all ball-carriers with at least 10 red zone touches. It doesn’t get much worse than 60 carries for 90 yards from your second-round picks, does it?

I’m pretty sure Walker and Charbonnet are not bad running backs. The offensive line just does not function well enough when they’re tasked with run-blocking near the goal line. And for what it’s worth, they have not been demonstrably more effective under center vs. shotgun in goal-to-go situations, so you can shelve that theory.

For a comparison point, the 2021 Seahawks, punt-heavy as they were, ranked 2nd in red zone EPA/rush and not coincidentally were 3rd in red zone touchdown rate.

The Defense

You’ll have to stay with me here because this may sound confusing.

Where the Seahawks offense has struggled the most (3rd downs, red zone scoring, field goal rate) is exactly where Seattle’s defense has been arguably worse.

Since 2022, the Seahawks defense ranks:

  • 27th in rate of drives ending in a score
  • 31st in rate of drives ending in a punt
  • 28th in rate of drives ending in a touchdown
  • 30th in 3rd down conversion rate
  • 23rd in red zone defense

These contrasts only magnify Seattle’s offensive problems and also prevent the offense from getting the ball more often. The defense gives up a ton of touchdowns and breaks in the red zone, while the offense stalls in the red zone. No team has allowed more red zone rushing TDs (38) than the Seahawks since last season, more doubling up the offense (18). The defense is dreadful on 3rd down while the offense struggles for any 3rd down consistency.

It’s true that league-average defense likely would’ve put the Seahawks in the playoffs with room to spare, but it’s also true that Seattle would’ve likely been a playoff-caliber team with an offense good enough to overcome poor defense.

Seattle’s offense doesn’t turn the ball over at a high rate and is generally in the middle of the pack in terms of punting. As simplistic as it sounds, 3rd down and red zone are the main reasons why the Seahawks don’t feel like a good offense despite nice rankings by points per drive, DVOA, and EPA/play.

Also, let’s face it: field goals generally aren’t popular unless they’re required in the hurry-up offense or a situation in which a field goal puts the game out of reach. Kicking a field goal is a win for the defense a majority of the time, hence “settling for 3.”

The Seahawks offense is right up there with the best in the NFL in so many areas, yet collectively holds itself held back by being so damn bad at the two things that are hallmarks of truly great offenses. This has been an issue to some degree throughout Pete Carroll’s tenure regardless of whether it’s Geno or Russ at quarterback. Pete’s not the coach anymore, Russ isn’t the quarterback, and maybe not Geno depending on what happens over the next few weeks.

Regardless of who the coach/quarterback pairing is, Seattle cannot be taken seriously as a playoff contender until the offense can, to modify the title of the Seahawks’ 2012 NFL Films yearbook, “learn to finish.” We know what’s correctible, so fix it!