From 2011 to 2015, the Seattle Seahawks averaged 13 100-yard rushing games per season. Last season alone, they rushed for 100 yards fifteen times. The only time they didn’t hit the century mark was in a Week 16 loss vs the ST. LOUIS Rams. That day they only had Christine Michael, Bryce Brown, and Fred Jackson as their running backs, and Russell Wilson led them all with 38 rushing yards. (Michael and Brown combined to carry it 13 times for 15 yards.) But this season, the Seahawks have hit triple digits in rushing yards just twice, and the last time was Week 3 vs the San Francisco 49ers. But I’m going to say something that might surprise you, unless you read the headline:
Rushing for a lot of yards this season might not even matter for Seattle’s Super Bowl hopes.
I know that a lot of you are going to disagree with me, but what better day to question everything you believe than on November 10, 2016? Here’s my four-point plan in why being a prolific running team isn’t that important:
They’re doing pretty good already with out it
If you had been told in August that the Seahawks would be 30th in rushing yards and 30th in yards per carry after eight games, I’m sure you wouldn’t have also accepted the idea that they’d be 5-2-1, hold a two-game lead in the division, and be sitting in a position to get a bye week in the playoffs. But that’s exactly what has happened and neither of their losses were games that they couldn’t have won with a single play change. Unlike that Week 16 loss to the Rams (23-17 but Seattle scored a touchdown with :17 seconds left), these were all winnable games and the Seahawks aren’t far from being 8-0 despite the complete absence of a rushing threat. And please spare me the #wellactually that they could just as easily have lost games to the Miami Dolphins, Atlanta Falcons, and Buffalo Bills. You’re not wrong, but that’s not the point I’m trying to make. The point is that they could easily be 8-0 without a rushing threat, and that’s what is important. In past seasons, they had plenty of games that they won by a hair with a great rushing attack, and games that they lost by the same margin.
The point is: The rushing numbers have changed, the results haven’t. If anything, they’ve gotten better. Seattle has their second-best first half record under Pete Carroll behind 2013, and their biggest division lead after Week 9 since he took over in 2010.
Super Bowl teams don’t necessarily need to be able to run the ball
We know that Carroll’s commitment to the run is second-to-none in the NFL over the course of his Seattle career, and we know that he’s been successful with that, but not every coach has sustained that type of success on the ground; and yet other coaches, as we know, have been successful. Last season, the Denver Broncos were 17th in rushing yards, 13th in yards per attempt, and 20th in rushing DVOA. They were one of the best running teams in the second half of the year (and I have no doubt that with a healthy Thomas Rawls, so too would the Seahawks be) but not so much in the playoffs. They were good in the playoffs, running for 109, 99, and 90 yards in those three games, but those numbers aren’t extremely special and they were outgained on the ground in their Super Bowl win over the Carolina Panthers.
In 2014, the New England Patriots were 18th in rushing yards, 22nd in Y/A, and 14th in rush DVOA. They rushed for 14 yards in their divisional round playoff win over the Baltimore Ravens and 57 yards in their Super Bowl win over Seattle. And in 2011, the New York Giants were 32nd in rushing yards, 32nd in yards per carry, and 19th in rush DVOA. (I don’t think I mentioned this earlier, but Seattle is 23rd in rush DVOA.) The 2010 Green Bay Packers were 24th in rushing yards, 25th in YPC, and 10th in rush DVOA. The 2009 New Orleans Saints were sixth in rushing yards and seventh in YPC, but in their NFC Championship win rushed for only 68 yards and in the Super Bowl, just 51 yards.
Winning championships shows a lot less correlation to a healthy ground game than many other areas of football, as of recently. Just because it wasn’t Seattle’s plan doesn’t mean it can’t be. Especially because of the important player on the team.
Russell Wilson’s arm is significantly more important than his legs or any of the running backs
Now what do most of those teams above have in common? Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees. In the case of Eli Manning, he may not be great, but he was great when the Giants needed him to be. He does have the ability to pull great games out of his little Eli butt. Peyton Manning was not great last season, but he still had the mind of Peyton Manning, arguably the best football mind among NFL players over the last two decades. Wilson absolutely has earned a spot on the level of those guys and that’s the main reason why the Seahawks are 5-2-1. The lack of a running threat, as we saw on Monday night against the Buffalo Bills, might only spur Wilson to further passing greatness, and does not impede them from winning games even when they rush for less than 40 yards.
With Jimmy Graham, Doug Baldwin, Tyler Lockett, and C.J. Prosise in the fold, Wilson should reach some new heights this season with eight games remaining. He’s on pace to obliterate his career-high for pass attempts and he still remains sixth in Y/A, 13th in passer rating, 10th in completion percentage (PFF has him second in “actual” accuracy percentage, taking into account throwaways and drops), and is on pace to throw just four interceptions. Wilson appears to be on the same trajectory as Brady, Brees, and Ben Roethlisberger, players who went from supportive “game managers” (if that’s the term that will help best convey an elite decision-maker who might not lead the league in pass attempts) to the real epicenters of their offenses and still won lots of games and even some Super Bowls. Seattle opened up their passing game on Monday and really benefited from it, even if it hurt the defense to be on the field for 40+ minutes for the third week in a row. But the Seahawks’ ability to pick up huge chunks of yardage when they need it is something that really benefits playoff teams and the experience of being a “passing offense” this season will definitely help them against those defenses in Atlanta, Green Bay, Dallas, Carolina, New England, who are all below average against the pass.
It’s Russell Wilson’s team now.
It won’t matter as long as they still have the defense
More important than running the ball well, more important even than passing the ball well, is stopping the pass well. We saw that with the Broncos last year, we saw it with the Seahawks in 2013, we see it over and over again: The best pass defense has the best advantage against all of these teams that are mostly built around a great quarterback. That’s how Denver beat Cam Newton. That’s how New England beat Russell Wilson. That’s how Seattle beat Peyton Manning. So I still think that the Seahawks pass defense is still a bigger deal than anything they do on offense.
Seattle’s struggles on third down recently are well-noted but overall they rank sixth in pass defense DVOA, third in rush defense DVOA, and sixth overall in defense DVOA. The only Seahawks games that haven’t been close this season are the two games in which they dominated the other team’s QB — San Francisco and New York. Those teams won’t be in the playoffs obviously, but it’s the type of treatment they used to dole out vs some of the NFL’s best. But to be fair, they’re facing the league’s best more often this season than perhaps ever before in the Carroll era, and doing quite well: Matt Ryan, Drew Brees, Carson Palmer, and Tyrod Taylor, and none of them have had a phenomenal game against Seattle, despite some in-game struggles that didn’t last for four quarters. Usually just a drive or three. If the Seahawks have a good pass defense — and I haven’t lost faith in Earl Thomas or Richard Sherman, while Kam Chancellor is returning next week (yeah, remember how the defense is down three starters?) and DeShawn Shead has played quite well, plus Cliff Avril is devastating against passers this season — then we have to worry less about their rushing offense. A lot less.
Like ... not-at-all less.
Those games will turn into shootouts between two great QBs, but as long as the Seahawks’ still have a better pass defense, then Wilson — and Seattle — will have the advantage they need.
I do think that when Rawls returns, things will get a lot better in the ground game. I think as Wilson continues to play and get healthier, he’ll run more and also pick up the total yardage on the ground. But I don’t think it’s as big of a deal as people have been making it. Despite everything, the team is still doing more than okay.