"We want to be a physical football team."
Can you guess who said that? Trick question! It's a mantra constantly recited by any of thirty-one NFL head coaches (with Bill Belichick refusing to acknowledge that New England even has a football team, lest the information be used to the advantage of a potential opponent). Most will throw in a mandate to pressure the opposing quarterback, establish the run, stop the run, protect the ball, generate turnovers, and have a vertical passing attack.
"We want to be a physical football team."
The vapidity of these statements lies in the fact that they are plans and not strategies. If you want to enter your house, turning a doorknob and opening the door is a damn good plan. But football is a competitive endeavor. Winning is not as easy as walking through a door. Executing your plans is vital, but it also helps to have a strategy. A strategy requires choices. A strategy mandates the allocation of limited resources. It has an opportunity cost. Without that, the stated desire to "be a physical football team" is just a pile of horse manure covered in varnish. Stand there admiring the shine too long and the stink will start to come through.
Before we go any further, let's examine the objective. I.e., how does being physical help you win football games?
On any given play, very few players have to handle the football. Most of what happens is running and hitting. The objective, then, is to maximize the benefit and minimize the cost of all that hittin'. You want to make blocks and break tackles. You want to keep your players fresh, strong, and injury free. You do not aim to injure the opposing players (a stupid strategy), but it's okay to make them think about avoiding injury themselves. Most importantly, you want to wear them down. Pushing, shoving, and violent collisions will fatigue the body much more quickly than simply running around a field.
So after decades of studying Pete Carroll's development of the Seahawk franchise (that's right, decades; I work at relativistic speeds), I've reached the optimistic conclusion that Carroll is putting his draft capital, play calling, and (Paul Allen's) money right where his proverbial mouth is.
The components of this strategy, in no particular order:
Run the Ball
On 25 October 1415, Henry V encountered a vast French army which cut off his path to Calais. Henry's army was strangely proportioned, with 7000 longbowmen and just 1500 men-at-arms. The French deployed some 6000 men-at-arms on foot and 2400 mounted in the vanguard alone. Thousands of crossbowmen, a second battle group behind the vanguard, and numerous rearguard forces brought the estimated total to as much as 50,000 men. The core of the French force were noblemen who considered the English inferior. Their heavy plate could stop an arrow even at short range if it struck the breastplate or helmet, and they viewed the longbowmen as virtually insignificant.
Nothing is more critical or strategically optional to being a physical team as running the football. Quoth Carroll,
"There are so many good things that come from running the football. It adds to the mentality of your team. It adds to the toughness of your football club that you present.
Because you’re always going to play tough defense, hopefully. We’re always going to be tough in special teams. But you can be other than that on offense if you don’t run the football. We want to be a physical, aggressive, tough, get-after-you football team. And that’s where we can send the biggest message about that commitment to that."
When the quarterback drops back to pass, the offensive linemen are backpedaling and the defensive linemen get to initiate contact. Your receiver may be better protected with new rules, but more often than not he's the only one taking a hit in the secondary; most pass plays end with a quick tackle before the other receivers have a chance to reset and deliver blocks.
When you run the ball, you give nine offensive players a chance to literally attack an opponent. Your linemen, fullback, and receivers are blockers. Blockers get to hit people, and they aren't hitting back. Defenders on a running play must try to shed and avoid blocks so they can reach the ball carrier. And finally, running allows you to put the ball in the hands of a contact specialist. Sidney Rice and Golden Tate are good players, but they can't plow into a defender like Marshawn Lynch, Michael Robinson, or Robert Turbin can. And will.
So how we doin'?
Not all teams ran the ball with same goals or the same style. Washington supplemented their running back carries with 120 runs by Robert Griffin (for comparison, Wilson had 94 carries in 16 games and Kaepernick had 65 carries in about 8 games). The Broncos appear to run the ball strategically, with a goal of protecting Peyton Manning despite a lack of success. The Patriots run the ball tactically, using the Belichick algorithm generator to maximize yardage (they set up the run with the pass).
Most of the playoff teams had at least some running game. Every team that won a playoff game was in the top half in terms of rush percentage and in the top 14 in yards per carry, with two exceptions: The Green Bay Packers, who defeated a Minnesota Vikings team without a quarterback (after losing to those same Vikings the previous week); and the Atlanta Falcons, who required home field, a bye week, and the absence of Chris Clemons to squeak past the Seahawks.
Protect the Quarterback
The French planned to attack the longbowmen using horses with heavy barding on the head and breast that would be impervious to oncoming arrows. Having learned this ahead of time, Henry ordered every archer to make and carry a six-foot long stake, sharpened at both ends, that could be shoved into the ground with one side leaning forward to form an improvised barricade against cavalry.
Al Davis famously declared that "The other team's quarterback must go down and must go down hard." The contraposition is that your own quarterback must not.
Most NFL quarterbacks have nerves of steel in the pocket even after taking a few sacks. The job demands it. But every hit causes immediate fatigue on the body. Asking a quarterback to throw accurately after his shoulder has been slammed into the turf is like asking a ballet dancer to go onstage after a boxing match. Passing the ball requires so much physical precision that even non-injuring blows can temporarily degrade his ability.
So what has Seattle done?
The best way to protect the quarterback is to run the ball a lot, which we've already covered.
Next, you want to have good protection. Russell Okung is a 2012 pro-bowler. Zach Miller is ranked 5th among tight ends in pass blocking by Pro Football Focus. The skill at these positions in not a matter of luck, but something for which the Seahawks paid dearly: Okung is the highest draft pick on the current roster, and Zach Miller's effective 2013 salary of $9.8 million is one of the highest on the team.
Another revealing statistic: Russell Okung and right tackle Breno Giacomini were the 2nd and 5th most penalized players in the NFL in 2012. Among league tackles, only the Dallas Cowboys' combination of Tyron Smith and Doug Free had more quarterback protection fouls (15 false starts, 9 holding, 1 illegal use of hands) than Okung and Giacomini (12 false starts, 9 holding). It's a foregone conclusion that you want to commit as few penalties as possible. What's more, I have little doubt that a change in coaching priorties could have reduced those numbers. So the fact that Pete Carroll is willing to continue using these players and tolerate a high rate of penalties tells us how much he values quarterback protection.
Finally, you want the right quarterback. Seahawks GM John Schneider laid out his qualifications last February, prior to the 2012 draft:
"A lot of people [will] sit and argue all day long about what's the importance of [various qualities]...
But in my opinion you have to be an incredibly smart guy, you have to be poised, and you have to be able to move in this league."
The more I study the overall strategy, the more I'm convinced that Carroll and Schneider's desire to have a mobile quarterback is dictated by the need to avoid quarterback hits. All that running past the line of scrimmage is just gravy. Delicious, occasionally messy gravy. And we'll debate the merits of running versus the injury potential for years to come, but evidence for the nonce suggests that running is not the main risk. Speaking of Robert Griffin III, Redskins offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan offered the following:
"Just look at all the zone-read clips. Not many big hits happened on that because usually everyone is blocked. You know who isn't blocked. Look at the big hits. Look at what plays they were. The three injuries were pass plays. They weren't the zone read."
Redskins blogger KC Clyburn similarly concluded that the read option doesn't expose a quarterback to danger, and compiled an excellent video of Griffin's designed runs.
So how about that Russell Wilson? I cringed more times watching just half of Clyburn's Griffin video than I did the entire season watching Russell Wilson. Wilson is by far the more careful runner. And while he lacks the breakaway speed of Griffin, Newton, or Kaepernick, he has excellent lateral agility that allows him to avoid hits behind the line. Time to roll out the stats (from NFL.com and Advanced NFL stats):
Not shown is Wilson's sack percentage, which was 7th worst in the league at 7.7%. Part of this is due to inexperience at the guard position (the entire line was the least experienced in the league for 2012, by a staggering margin); much is due to a brutal schedule of opposing defenses. But despite this, Seattle was tied for 9th fewest in total sacks and hits (note that I used an average for conflicting data).
Even Wilson's height is an advantage here. A tackler will not exert as much torque on his shorter frame. And when a defensive lineman makes a jailbreak right off the snap, Wilson tucks in the ball, takes half a step, and gets arm tackled. A 6'4" quarterback in the same situation can throw away the ball; but he avoids the sack at risk of an interception, intentional grounding, or getting slammed to the turf with his entire body extended and unprotected.
Thick forest surrounding the villages of Agincourt and Tramecourt left a narrow battlefield in between, some 3000 feet. The ploughed ground was muddy from recent rain. Wary of crossing this virtual bog, the two armies sat down and faced one another for several hours. Henry's men were hungry from dwindling food stores and tired from many weeks marching, so he decided to force the issue sooner. The archers pulled up their stakes, advanced, placed them again, and opened fire.
Every team wants to have the best athletes who are also polished and proven players. The strategic dilemma, then, is which do you choose if you can't have both?
FieldGulls has already covered this pretty extensively, especially with regard to drafted players, in the SPARQ a Fire article series. In regards to 2012 5th-round selection Luke Willson, Danny Kelly writes:
"Luke Willson was the 9th tight end selected in the 2013 NFL Draft.... John Schneider, after selecting Willson, made it a point to say that the 6'5, 251 pounder was the 'second-best tester' at the tight end position this year.
...according to our Adjusted SPARQ metrics, Luke Willson was the top-ranked athlete drafted at the TE position in the 2013 Draft (among all players that had requisite testing done). Considering he caught only a handful of passes in his senior year [9 rec, 126 yds], I think it's safe to say the Seahawks were primarily interested in his physical upside."
Davis Hsu examined 2013 4th-round pick Chris Harper,
"Nothing about Harper's athletic scores are amazing in and of themselves. What is the most glaring thing about him as an athlete is that he performed those numbers at 229 pounds.... It makes me wonder if that weight and size factored into the Seahawks bypassing Quinton Patton, who most "pundits" rated as a better overall WR. Patton is not a small WR per se, 6'0 and 204 pounds, but someone like Harper could carry 30 more pounds to the fight."
It's no surprise that NFL teams want their linemen big and strong, and that they want their receivers and defensive backs to be fast. What strikes me as telling about the SPARQ metric is the importance of size for that latter group. The ultimate goal is to get these players on a football field where they will be colliding with their counterparts, and Pete Carroll wants them to come out ahead in those collisions. A review of Seahawk acquisitions over the last four drafts will show the phrase "raw athleticism" over and over again. Carroll and Schneider have shown a willingness to accept lack of experience, injury history, and even off-field issues for a shot at the best athletes.
Field a Young Roster
"We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother...
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day."
-- Henry V
I didn't bother researching injury rates as a function of age. I suspect that older players are no more or less susceptible, especially given a survivor bias where injury-prone rookies wash out of the league quickly and injury-resilient players keep rolling along for many years.
But it's a well known fact that younger people heal faster. And in connection to the broad strategy, we aren't mainly concerned about recovery from listed injuries (although that certainly helps), but the week-to-week recovery from the bog-standard beating that a typical NFL starter endures. So how do the Seahawks measure up?
Football Perspective ranked every NFL roster with the players' ages weighted by their contribution, measured in AV (average value). Football Outsiders calculated ages weighted by snap count. Here are the totals for last year's playoff teams:
Seatlle's league-youngest AV-weighted roster is very promising for the team's future. The snap-count-weighted age is more relevant to the physical domination strategy, as it tells us the age of players who are delivering and receiving on-field hits. The Seahawks are looking pretty good at #2 (the 5-11 Cleveland Browns were youngest by that measure, if you're curious).
Compensate for Lack of Skill and Experience
The French reacted badly to the initial volley, charging with a disorganized portion of their cavalry. The surrounding woodlands prevented a flank attack, the wooden stakes halted their advance, and the archers gradually managed to score hits on the unarmoured flanks or rear of the horses. The wounded horses fled back across the battlefield, dumped their riders, churned up the mud to the point where it looked like FedEx Field, and crashed back into the French footmen.
Pete Carroll talks about practice in a video segment. His utmost priority is that the team "practice at a tremendous tempo". The players must have "tremendous focus, discipline, and energy". Insert adderall joke here.
Can we statistically show that Seattle's practices are more energetic than other teams? That they are more effective in preparing players, especially those who lack experience? Um, no. Really, no.
But we can observe that Carroll is not simply standing around screaming "run, run, faster, faster!" like a bitter former athlete-turned alcoholic-turned P.E. teacher. He puts a great onus on himself and the rest of the staff to keep this high-energy practice organized ("Everything needs to be laid out ahead of time," says Carroll). Carroll's schemes are not necessarily simple, but the individual players' roles are remarkably specific. So Carroll can use his practice time to provide repetition and specific instruction until the necessary actions are part of muscle memory. The players thus become reliable playing pieces, and then the coaches can mix-and-match their various instructions to provide necessary complexity. A sample from the previous link is telling:
"No matter what coverage you are playing you have to convince your players to win their leverage side. If the coach tells a player to play outside leverage and complains when a receiver catches a ball to his inside, the coach is wrong."
We can also speculate that this high-energy practice has an opportunity cost. Remember, if a procedure is obviously superior and everybody does it, then it's not a strategy. I would imagine that the Seahawks screen their veteran free agent (and trade) acquisitions for personality characteristics just as much as, if not more than, their draftees. Seattle can only accept veteran players if those players accept Carroll's high energy style and are hungry enough to adapt psychologically.
It may also be relevant that Seattle's 2012 penalty rate was tied for 7th worst in the league. I can't imagine that Seattle spends a lot of time doing "dead ball drills" where players line up, stand around, and think about pre-snap penalties. They will have learned a bias for action, which could easily translate into increased penalties.
Make Hitting Part of the Game Plan
The main body of French footmen advanced. Peppered by arrows, some were wounded in the limbs where the armour was thinner. But even those struck on the breastplate or helmet where the arrow did not penetrate suffered a tremendous beating. Their heavy armour made the walk through muddy ground exhausting. Some who fell down could not even rise again and literally drowned in their helmets.
1 Eliminate giving up the big play.
2 Out hit the opponent on all plays.
3 Get the ball. Either strip the ball or make the interception when in position.
All we're going on here is Pete Carroll's word that out-hitting the opponent is a major priority. But this is not an obvious list. I expect most coaches would cite generating turnovers, pressuring the quarterback, stopping the run, and maybe covering the correct gap as top priorities. Very few, if any, would put "hitting" above turnovers.
One thing we haven't covered is pressure on the opposing quarterback. Seattle's 36 sacks were a mediocre 18th in the league. On the other hand, Advanced NFL stats gives a list for QB hits delivered by individual players, and the Seahawks racked up 82 hits versus a league average (using ANS' offensive line stats) of 68.2. Using those same numbers, Seattle's defense had a total of 118 sacks and hits versus a league average of 104.8. That's not too bad, considering that Carroll and Schneider have given a high priority to upgrading the pass rush these past two off-seasons.
Acquire and Nurture Players with a Physical Style
At last the footmen reached the English line, and still outnumbered the English men-at-arms despite their calamitous advance. They began to push back the English footmen. Then Henry unleashed the archers. Unencumbered by heavy armour, they danced across the mud wielding axes, short swords, and even the mallets that they had used to drive in their wooden stakes. The archers knocked the exhausted French to the ground, where many could not even rise again, and roamed the field in packs killing at will. The second French force arrived behind the vanguard, similarly exhausted by their advance through the mud. They also had to contend with a mass of bodies where their fallen comrades now formed a virtual parapet protecting the English. Unable to attack in any organized force, they were likewise slaughtered in the thousands.
Brandon Browner and Richard Sherman are big. Their height makes them better able to defend jump balls to tall receivers, but the Seahawks' defensive scheme doesn't settle for that. They are allowed to use their size and arm length to jam and redirect receivers at the line of scrimmage.
Kam Chancellor is 6'3" and 232 pounds. He is not some rare behemoth that every team is dying to have on their roster, as evidenced by his 5th round selection in the 2010 draft. Perhaps more than any other player, he represents Carroll's commitment to having a physically dominant team. Chancellor's size keeps him from being an elite coverage safety, but he can make tackles and deliver hits better than other safety and a fair number of linebackers.
On the other side of the ball, Marshawn Lynch is the centerpiece of Seattle's offense. And again, Carroll and Schneider were more willing than any other team to pay what was necessary to acquire him, after the Bills shopped Lynch to the entire league. His running style is best described as "punishing". Pro Football Focus' yards-after-contact statistics are proprietary, so they aren't available in full; but according to Sports Outlaw, Lynch is 5th in the league since 2009. That understates his ability to break tackles; the players ranked ahead of him, such as Michael Turner and Adrian Peterson, are likely racking up some big gains after missed arm tackles. Lynch will frequently carry a defender who makes a full wrap up, never escaping the tackle altogether but tacking on an extra yard or eight.
And when the opportunity came to provide a backup for Lynch, Seattle didn't follow the change-of-pace doctrine by selecting a scat back. They drafted Robert Turbin, a "classic downhill runner who can run through linebackers and carry the pile."
Even the relatively smaller players on the offensive side bring some physicality. Golden Tate, Doug Baldwin, and Percy Harvin are all under six feet ('though Tate at least weighs in at a solid 202 pounds). From Danny Kelly, quoting hazbro citing Football Outsiders,
"It also has broken tackle stats for receivers, of which Harvin led the NFL with 19 in his shortened season. Clocking in at #5, with 14, was Tate. But what was absolutely nuts was that Tate broke tackles on 29.2% of his touches, which led all receivers by an absurd amount."
Tates ability to break tackles may be slightly exaggerated in the way that Lynch's ability is understated. A review of game tape will show that Tate is elusive and breaks a fair number of off-balance arm tackles. But even with that caveat, his and Harvin's ability to overcome contact is impressive.
Get it Done and Go Home
The French mounted a final desperate assault on the English baggage train with a few hundred men. Seeing this, Henry feared that it was a flanking move as prelude to another major assault against his now-exhausted army. He then ordered his men to begin killing their prisoners, lest they rearm and join the battle anew. The attack on the baggage train was soon driven off. The remaining French rearguard, still thousands strong, fled the battlefield after seeing so many French noblemen killed.
A somewhat novel stat line, rarely quoted, is total plays run. If a team runs fewer plays, the players will suffer less fatigue, have fewer chances to get injured, and be in better shape for the next week's game. So how does Seattle measure up?
There doesn't seem to be much correlation between team success and number of plays ran, but there are several different stories here. No doubt the Kansas City Chiefs' opponents spent a lot of second halves running out the clock. Teams like the New England Patriots run a lot of plays with their hurry-up offense, and that's a completely different (and viable) strategy. It may have taken its toll when the playoffs rolled around, as both Denver and New England suffered unexpected home losses to the Ravens.
The Super Bowl champion Ravens, meanwhile, seem to have run themselves pretty ragged during the regular season. But they faced some equally worn out opposition, and the Ravens returned some well-rested players from injury just in time for the playoffs. Seattle and San Francisco are both at the top, and both had good "luck" with injuries during the season. Note that Baltimore, Seattle, and San Francisco were the only teams to win road games during the playoffs. Coincidence?
Hey, we won some games.
Nobody (that I found) is accumulating a stat line for EPABBUTOT (Expected Points Added By Beating Up The Other Team), so we'll have to settle for anecdotal guesswork.
Seattle did pretty well on the injury front in 2012. That doesn't doesn't necessarily mean that the physical priorities are working, but at least in that regard they are not failing.
The 'Hawks DVOA improved throughout the course of the season, which would be expected for a team that keeps its players fresh and focuses on delivering (rather than receiving) hits.
Weighted DVOA versus total DVOA, 2012:
(This might also be a function of youth. Seattle, Cincinnati, and Cleveland were all among the very youngest in the league.)
Perhaps the best evidence is that Seattle consistently improved throughout the course of each invdividual game as their opponents were presumably worn down:
I calculated a line that excluded "blowout month" (versus the Cardinals, Bills, and 49ers) in case the Seahawks' late-game production slacked off. As it turns out, the trend was unaffected. In weeks 14-16, Seattle outscored their opponents in the second half by a combined 53-7. That's not running up the score (we led the Bills by a far-from-over 31-17 at halftime); it's exactly the result we should expect from a physical style of play. Each action that produces success early in the game also adds to a cumulative effect that makes the next success easier.
Apologies to the French.