We’re several days now into the usual cycles of “why did this game go wrong” regarding the tough loss to the Broncos.
There’s a lot of reasons not to get too twisted around the axle over the loss, a loss though it be. It was Week 1, which is always weird. It was a non-conference opponent, which favors us in tiebreakers. We didn’t even lose that horribly, and possibly on just a missed field goal. We’re fielding a lot of rookies, some of which were always going to undergo growing pains (and some of which provided some tantalizing potential for the future, like Will Dissly and Michael Dickson).
And, of course, we’re under new coaching. That always creates growing pains as new systems are installed. That’s generally been accepted, particularly given many fans’ distaste for the departed Darell Bevell.
But could it be that the coaching is reason to expect not new things, but generally more of the same?
If you’ll entertain me, consider a pair of passing plays from Seahawks postseason lore (click-throughs required). Both are from the Pete Carroll era; both involve a particular reliance on the deep throw.
This, you might remember, was the first Bears TD in the 2010 divisional contest (the one following the Beastquake game), a 58-yard bomb from Jay Cutler to Greg Olsen.
The public stink of this play was that SS Lawyer Milloy, starting for Seattle that year while mentoring some rook named Kam Chancellor, had lost a step in coverage and needed put out to pasture. A crucial bit of context on this play, and one of the first-level details that armchair analysts usually miss (right up there with whether a defensive line is sending blitz or an offensive line is dialing up a heavy set) is that the play occurred on 3rd down and 2. Milloy was probably surprised by a deep seam route on 3rd and 2 and got caught flat-footed. Most defenders would. Such a low-percentage play call when the average NFL playbook offers dozens of better options for such situations is ridiculous. Or savvy dice-rolling.
The OC calling plays for the Bears that day? Mike Martz – a well-known riverboat gambler.
This second play was Doug Baldwin’s big 35-yard reception in the 2014 conference championship against Green Bay – on 3rd and 6. Again the target was much deeper than down and distance seemingly warranted, and again a defender was caught unaware precisely because he was expecting a shorter route.
The OC calling that play? Darell Bevell.
If you followed this blog during Matt Hasselbeck’s final years in Seattle, you probably got an eyeful of Rob discussing the effect of Hasselbeck’s diminishing arm strength on the offense as a whole. While his pass protection received the lion’s share of criticism, Matt’s lessening inability to strike downfield added to the problem by reducing defenses’ need to cover deep, leaving them with more resources to blitz and resulting in more pressure on the O-line – a snowball effect. It was an example of how numerous factors shape the success of the offense.
Play-calling is another such shaper. This isn’t even a category for some people; we’re in the habit of placing everything on the most visible element, the offensive line. But just as Mike Martz was one of those guys regularly got his quarterbacks sacked and was notorious for boom-or-bust offenses all over the league, a play-caller can free up (or hamstring) his offense through play-calling.
Sound familiar? I’ve long felt that Darell Bevell had some “Mad Mike” in him. Not everyone noticed how often Bevell would call redline shots in situations that seemingly didn’t warrant them. It’s one of those things that is forgiven when it works, but miss a receiver in that situation and the coordinator gets ridiculed for “getting cute” – wasting a 3rd-and-manageable with an unnecessarily tough play.
That was 2015. A lot of Bevell’s gambles that year swung the wrong way, leaving the offense unable to close out the game in the 4th quarter when just one more first down was needed. The defense, left hanging out on the field as a result, would eventually break.
Yet Seattle’s emphasis on the deep passing play has continued. Consider the following statistics from Seattle’s 2017 season (Bevell’s last with the Seahawks):
Fans love the deep ball, but having the personnel to do it and how it's implemented is key.#Texans #Browns #Seahawks #HereWeGo #GoPats #FlyEaglesFly #FinsUp #GoBills #RaiderNation #Bucs #Chargers #ChiefsKingdom #InBrotherhood #DaBears #RavensFlock #GiantsPride #DallasCowboys pic.twitter.com/TQkjupzJIF
— NFL Matchup on ESPN (@NFLMatchup) January 4, 2018
That’s a lot of deep work. Could this stat be explained by Seattle’s rushing problems and its resulting frequent encounters with 3rd-and-long, thus needing to throw deep? Partially, but not fully. We’re talking 20+ yards downfield. And Seattle has never shied away from give-up run plays in such situations.
Could it be explained by Seattle needing to play constantly from behind, like the Browns? Doubtful. For all its issues, Seattle has only been in a Cleveland-style hole twice in Wilson’s years. That’s part of his legacy.
These teams prefer routes with more vertical stems (deeper routes).
This stat looks at the average yards the ball travels in the air on each throw.#Browns #KeepPounding #Bucs #BeRedSeeRed #Seahawks #Texans #Chargers #InBrotherhood #TitanUp #GoBills #Colts #GiantsPride pic.twitter.com/sb88P43h3d
— NFL Matchup on ESPN (@NFLMatchup) January 4, 2018
These players get used the most as "DEEP BALL" guys, stretching the defense vertically.
Even in offenses which prefer the short pass, having a deep threat is huge.#Bucs #Chargers #Patriots #Lions #Seahawks #49ers #LARams #Bills #Dolphins #InBrotherhood #HereWeGo #FlyEaglesFly pic.twitter.com/R3FwUbHx7H
— NFL Matchup on ESPN (@NFLMatchup) January 2, 2018
Now we need to talk about the side effects of this big-play philosophy.
Quarterbacks function best with a clean pocket to throw from and no pressure in their face.
These teams allow their QBs to be pressured the least and most in the league!#HereWeGo #TitanUp #RavensFlock #Bengals50 #GiantsPride #GoSaints #DaBears #GoPats #OnePride #InBrotherhood pic.twitter.com/O36RWEq1kU
— NFL Matchup on ESPN (@NFLMatchup) January 5, 2018
Brutal. Russell Wilson was, once again, one of the league’s most pressured quarterbacks. That’s not surprising.
But consider that we are talking about a quarterback with lots of time to throw:
Could some of that eye-popping time-to-throw stat be coming from Wilson’s need to escape the pocket, in turn delaying his throw? Certainly. I don’t think anyone could accurately make the claim that Seattle’s offensive line has been stealthily All-Pro this entire time.
But let me let you in on a little secret.
No playbook anywhere in the league contains a play labeled “X 2 Fake Red Shallow Y Dagger Omaha Omaha Ugh Screw It Just Make the Line Protect for Seven Seconds and Throw to Whoever Gets Open.” That’s not how plays are drawn up in the NFL. Plays target a specific player or field region first, and very few route trees require more than 2.5 to 3 seconds to complete. Aaron Rodgers and his receivers train to begin their scramble drill after 2.8 seconds – the alarm bell at which the play is considered broken. All those times Tony Romo had enough time to grill a burger in the pocket before finding someone open, making you green with envy for a line like his? That wasn’t planned. It was improvisation, as surely as Wilson scrambling. Whatever his OC had in mind for those plays, it was defeated after 3 seconds, salvaged by Romo’s line giving him time to reach his third read and then keep waiting.
This little-known fact has the potential to revolutionize one’s viewing of the game. Not all of sacks and pressures on Wilson over the years have been insta-sacks. If you were to go back and observe his snaps with a stopwatch, you’d be amazed at how many of them were actually coverage pressures – Seattle’s line actually managing 2.5 to 3 seconds of protection (though rarely more) and the play simply doesn’t give Wilson anywhere to throw. Many are long-developing designs that are executed badly, guarded well, or un-exploited by an ultra-conservative quarterback. Of course, it takes a trained eye that can differentiate between two-second sacks and three-second sacks (or simply someone willing to DVR the play a second time instead of relying on their initial takes) to spot this phenomenon. But the point is, while the margin is quite narrow, Wilson is getting time to make the majority of throws in the NFL playbook. Even deep fades can be released relatively quickly thanks to the arc placed on the ball.
Now consider an outlier: Seattle’s categorical defeat of the eventual Super Bowl champion Eagles in Week 13 of last year.The offense went somewhere in this game, and the common sentiment was, “Well the offense did better, so our line must have randomly improved against a terrific front four before going back to mediocrity the next week”.
But watch the cut-up of pass plays below (courtesy of Ben Baldwin, formerly of Fieldgulls) after the third play or so, with an eye for Wilson’s time-to-throw:
This is a striking contrast to Seattle’s typical gameplan. Throughout the game, Wilson got the ball out quickly and decisively – under 2 seconds on average – aided by play designs that gave him options to do so. You did not see nearly as much of the usual Wilson dropping back five to seven steps, finding nothing, and getting pressured. Instead, the O-line’s ability to hold for more than 2 seconds was rarely even tested, by design (and on the few plays where it was, you get the sense that it might not have gone well). Seattle used their playbook to protect the QB.
The 2016 Patriots game was another instance. Again, generally speaking, Russell Wilson was given options to get the ball out; again the offensive line’s issues were, generally speaking, masked with a somewhat quicker passing game. The result was an offense that moved the chains – very Patriots-like, ironically:
The result? The Seahawks handed the eventual Super Bowl champions of that year a stunning loss on their own turf.
But both wins were followed in short order by letdown losses. I remember watching the Tampa Bay rout that came right after that improbable win in Foxborough. From the first drive, what did you see? Wilson holding onto the ball again. Deep shots sought from the first play. No quick throws, no attempt at a run game, but dropbacks from the first play.
And I remember thinking, “He lapsed. He couldn’t keep it up. He’s gone back to the big play again.”
A whopping five points in that contest, right after defeating New England in their own house. What could explain this bizarre but regular Jekyll-and-Hyde act with the Seahawks?
You might think that by “he lapsed”, I meant Darell Bevell.
But Bevell is gone now, and our gameplan against Denver looked notably familiar. Right down to the sideline fades and bubble screens.
You might be thinking that I meant Russell Wilson.
Wilson is getting a blast of criticism these days, to be sure. People are finally locking onto the fact that our beloved QB does hold onto the pigskin. He’s got some Romo in him. And if I watch him run into the opposing stands to avoid a sack one more time, I might well have a coronary.
But somehow I doubt that the core of the problem is Wilson.
These Offenses create the most BIG PLAYS- a vital component to a productive offense.#GoPats #GoSaints #Chargers #InBrotherhood #LARams #FlyEaglesFly #Bucs #HereWeGo #Jaguars #Seahawks #GoPackGo #GiantsPride #RavensFlock #FinsUp #Colts pic.twitter.com/b2O9ENMoQU
— NFL Matchup on ESPN (@NFLMatchup) January 1, 2018
I submit a line of Rob’s from 2011:
“This is the Pete Carroll offense; this is the Pete Carroll show.”
Those words in context, at the time, were a refutation of the idea that Pete Carroll was likely to adopt a West Coasty offense after firing Jeremy Bates. It’s easy to see why. If you’ve missed how much Pete lusts after the big play, you haven’t been paying attention. It was all through the offseason media literature and all over the field product since day one of his tenure in Seattle. He loves the big, back-breaking, defense-discouraging play like I love Mountain Dew. And I’ve got a soda gut. Pete believes strongly in the psychological side of football and trying to get in his opponent’s head. The run game? Useful for wearing down opponents, but also code for play action. Again the big play.
Pete is in charge of this team. The coordinators execute his vision. Bates was fired, according to tweets from Seattle players at the time, because he didn’t focus enough on the run. Bevell and Schottenheimer are not independent, forceful, visionary minds of their own. They’re here to execute Pete’s philosophy.
We might not have complained this time a year ago when Pete’s philosophy, married with Wilson’s heroball tendencies, was still producing spectacular highlights.
But I’m here to say, not enough. Not anymore.
A big-play offense works far better, in general, with a standard offensive line and a threatening run game to divide defense’s attention. We have neither at the moment. You can blame anyone you want for that, but the fact remains that we don’t have the horses.
And it’s not a crippling sentence. Pete Carroll still has the choice of how to play-call around these deficiencies. They can call an offense that minimizes the line’s flaws. Or they can call an offense that throws a glaring spotlight on those flaws like a classic black-clothed thief caught against the brick wall in those old films. The Seahawks have tried both offenses since the 2015 bye. I hope I’ve painted an accurate picture of which has worked better in the post-Lynch era.
Now fast forward from all this to the Broncos game.
A lot of credit was given to Case Keenum’s offensive line and a lot of mud thrown at Seattle’s pass rush. There’s some kernel of truth in that. Pass rush is tough to produce on the road. But again, it went unobserved just how well Denver protected Keenum with their playbook. There was no shortage of that. They mixed in a lot of slants and short throws, giving our guys little time to reach Keenum and discouraging blitzing because extra pass rushers leave even more underneath options for Keenum to punish with. It was masterful execution by Denver, at least for the first half, even if Keenum nearly bungled it.
But what did we see from Seattle’s very first offensive play of 2018 – after all those promises of getting back to the run?
Right away we saw a deep pass play. Requiring longer protection. Against Denver’s pass rush. With Germain Ifedi lined up against one of professional football’s premiere pass rushers in Von Miller.
It’s difficult to decipher exactly what the gameplan was, because so much of what Seattle does is dependent on how things start – “flow”, “schedule”, etc. They lack Marshawn Lynch to immediately re-impose their will. There may have been some element of the deep gameplan that Seattle felt was appropriate for Denver. And it’s worth crediting Seattle for supplying Ifedi with two tight ends to protect on the right (though Ifedi managed to get beat anyway, accompanied by Nick Vannett flailing against a delayed blitz himself).
But generally, the gameplan did not particularly jump out as resembling some of Seattle’s better quick-pass days. To try and answer Von Miller on the road in Week 1 with a gameplan demanding lengthy pass protection from a row of known liabilities, when Wilson has proven he can handle a different playbook, should raise legitimate questions about the continuing wisdom of “Pete’s way”. It is bizarre. We have succeeded before by letting Wilson protect himself with quicker throws. It’s how Tom Brady and Peyton Manning assembled such lengthy careers without getting hurt. Case Keenum was doing it just across the way.
But, of course, if it’s just Pete being stubborn, we wouldn’t be surprised. He’s a strong believer in “our brand of football”. It’s not hard to imagine something in him absolutely hating having to play differently. Being uncomfortable and itching to get back to big plays. Hurry-up all the time? He’d likely say, “that’s not who we are”.
Well, Pete…what you are is 9-8 since the last time you were in the playoffs.
And this year, fairly or not, with proper deference to the Super Bowl win or not, the blame is likely, finally, going to start heading in Pete’s direction.
I’m not a huge proponent of that. But with all the other factors out of the way – Bevell, Cable, injuries, the line, the refs, folks’ dislike for the big-name defensive personalities that are now playing elsewhere (while I have you here, how did that go yesterday?), and yes, issues with mediocre drafts and free-agent signings – Carroll is less protected. None of that other stuff was really the dagger. We were a playoff team throughout, right up until a truly bad spate of signings (Eddie Lacy and Blair Walsh?) and some frustrating injury luck at RB sufficiently sabotaged a season. Those defensive stars were still top players at their positions; the stats proved it. Any other view is revisionist history.
But the offensive philosophy…different story. That’s tangible. That’s right there on the field. The influence of that can be dissected, quantified, falsified.
It doesn’t feel like Seattle’s offense is playing to its strengths. It’s plowing ahead with a narrow focus on “doing things our way”. This is not reactionary after Week 1; this has been going on for years. Even more astonishingly, Seattle’s offense has shown the ability to adapt, but they won’t stick with it.
In the fully dismissable opinion of this football blogger, you can lose in the first quarter. It’s a game of attrition. When we came back to beat the Packers on the way to XLIX, it was poor calls on the part of Mike McCarthy from all the way back in the first quarter that contributed to Seattle being in perfect position to force overtime.
That’s the issue, I’ve come to realize, with Pete’s philosophy. It leaves them riding a razor wire.Once, we won ugly often enough to put together a pair of championship runs. That lightning is unlikely to strike thrice, given the advancing age of cornerstones like Russell Wilson and Earl Thomas and the improvement of the division, without a total rebuild. Yet the offense continues to dither around for three quarters while we expect great things from the fourth…why? For what beneficial tradeoff?
This isn’t calling for Pete’s head. He’s the best coach we’ve ever had.
Neither is this asking for a rigid philosophy of always throwing short. That, too, would get predictable. Each philosophy has its upsides.
This is simply saying that Seattle has other proven tools at their disposal. The offensive issues were never going to depart with Darell Bevell, because he was never the problem (even as he wasn’t a scintillating solution, either). The problem lies, amongst other things, in an overreliance on the big play at the expense of moving the chains. It’s worth asking why the coaching staff aren’t adapting to the hand they’ve been dealt (a hand that now includes a declined defense), and it’s worth asking whether pride in philosophy is worth defining Russell Wilson’s prime with mediocrity.