Tailbacks: The Apostles of Carrollogy

Seahawks Twitter has long been plagued by an ugly debate on a simple question: does rushing matter? Sadly, the debate is pointless, for several reasons.

First, because the statistical evidence overwhelmingly supports that passing is more likely to be successful, both in terms of more advanced analytical stats like EPA/play, as well as in more simple terms like yards per play (and thus also the likelihood to get first downs and score points). Relatedly, and second, we should acknowledge that, in many instances, the interlocutors on both sides have approached it with impassioned prior convictions about how football is (or should be) played, whatever their bases, and so the debate has, unsurprisingly, failed to move either side. Both of these points are connected to how much we should value quarterbacks and tailbacks, and while no one is suggesting that the latter should be valued more than the former, there is little room for agreement in the vast divide between how much difference there should be in those valuations.  

But third, perhaps most importantly though certainly not finally, it’s pointless because, as Seahawks fans, our desires and wishes ultimately are subjected to the philosophical whims of one Peter Clay Carroll, who — either in blessed ignorance of the debate or by way of refusing to listen to it — plans on running the ball. PCC will run the ball when he is sad, when he is mad, and when he is glad; and indeed, it’s not unlikely that his sadness, madness, and/or gladness is very much correlated with the performance of his offensive backs. For while he knows well the value of a good quarterback, he seems to want to relegate his QBs to the role of archivist, a protector of histories; tailbacks, quite on the other hand, carry his mission into unknowable lands, screaming testimony to the unconverted, Apostles of his Scripture.

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I’ve never enjoyed debates. Like any (other?) sport, their purpose is more competitive than cooperative: the team that scores more points, wins, and its players often seem more concerned with being right than being enlightened. And Twitter, of course, doesn’t help this tendency to ugliness. Yet it is telling that the debate has come into existence at all, pointless as it is: for no player or coach on our Seattle Seahawks, who make the actual games actually occur, believes that rushing does not matter. Ipso facto, the better question to ask is: are the Seahawks running the ball well?

And this brings up an interesting topic itself. For if we know anything about Coach Carroll, we know that, while like all other coaches he predetermines a game script he hopes will meet with success against a given opposing team, the far more meaningful predetermination lies in how a game is played. We often hear Carroll talking about what went right in a game, to the degree that he ignores what went wrong, and while this can be attributed to his eternal optimism, so could it also theoretically be attributed to a delusion: that such a how could be even more significant than victory itself.  

By dividing each game into quarters and playing different kinds of games from one quarter to the next, by breaking quarters of play into individual possessions and sets of downs and then plays, we have a clear sense of what Carroll wants: to deliver bodyblows, to tire out defenses, to set up manageable third downs, and, when exhaustion has set in or momentarily causes mental errors, to use explosive plays to get points. (The mantras of Carrollball on the other side of the field are different, naturally, but this is an offensive-focused question.)

What is interesting, and strange, about this presentation, though, is that, through 5 weeks of Seahawks football, I’m still hearing a lot of fans repeating a belief that, in the past few weeks, the team has rediscovered its identity, and if only they had played to that identity in weeks 1 and 2, they would have done better, and would perhaps hold a record of 4-1. Put differently, the consideration of why there were two devastating losses as opposed to three more hopeful games (though one was not very hopeful, and another was in fact a loss) turns back to that philosophical pointlessness rather than the more obvious (and measurable!) query: what correlation is there between victory and, simply, playing well? With that in mind, I wanted to look at all offensive possessions with a neutral game script — 1st and 2nd downs in Q1 through Q3 when up or down by 8 or fewer points, excluding two minute drives during Q2 — to verify how true this is.

During the first two weeks, in a neutral game setting, the Seahawks offense possessed the ball 11 times in week 1, and 7 times in week 2. Two of those drives were not statistically significant (Drives 1 and 5 in week 1), because they were immediately derailed by a sack and two penalties, respectively; of the rest, the run to pass ratio was a staggeringly and absurdly uneven 20:21.

I mean, please take a moment to consider the brazen audacity of a Pete-Carroll-led team that passed the ball once more than they ran the ball.  After two weeks of football, the heretics who orchestrated such a sham showing of football were clearly exposed and sent to a meeting with their makers. (Not Carroll, clearly.)

For those who’d like to play along, each of those drives is annotated, below (with the insignificant drives stricken out).

Drive 1/1:1 (Q1) – derailed by sack;
Drive 2/1:2 (Q1) – successful TD pass;
Drive 3/1:3 (Q1) – 2 rushes (no first downs, but one successful – led to 3rd & 3);
Drive 4/1:4 (Q1 to Q2) – 2 rushes and 2 passes (one of each successful), then derailed by penalty, but FG;
Drive 5/1:5 (Q2) – derailed by two successive penalties;
Drive 6/1:6 (Q2) – 2 passes (both successful), two rushes (both unsuccessful), then derailed by sack and recovered fumble;
Drive 7/1:7 (Q3) – one run (unsuccessful) and one pass (no first down, but successful);
Drive 8/1:8 (Q3) – pass (no first down, but successful), then fumble;
Drive 9/1:9 (Q3) – two rushes (both unsuccessful) and two passes (one successful), then TD pass;
Drive 10/1:10 (Q3) – one rush and one pass (both unsuccessful), then interception;
Drive 11/1:11 (Q3 to Q4) – two rushes (one successful) and three passes (all unsuccessful), then TD pass;
Drive 12/2:1 (Q1) – four runs (one first down, but two successful) and two passes (no first downs, one successful);
Drive 13/2:2 (Q1) – two passes (one successful) and one rush (unsuccessful);
Drive 14/2:3 (Q2) – one rush (unsuccessful), then derailed by penalty and sack;
Drive 15/2:4 (Q2) – one rush and one pass (both unsuccessful);
Drive 16/2:5 (Q2) – one rush (unsuccessful), then derailed by sack and penalty;
Drive 17/2:6 (Q3) – two passes (both unsuccessful);
Drive 18/2:7 (Q3) – two passes (both unsuccessful).

What’s in some ways even more telling is the fact that passes had a 42.86% success rate (9 successes to 12 failures, whether because of being incomplete or not achieving enough yards, with 5 of those successes leading to a first down or TD), as opposed to a 25% success rate when rushing (5 successes to 15 failures, where all of the failures are so-called because they failed to achieve 45% of the first down yardage on first downs or 60% of the first down yardage on second downs, with 3 of those successes leading to a first down).

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Setting aside for the moment my own frustration with what often seems like the point of Carrollball — manageable third downs, as opposed to avoiding third downs and scoring points — I count eleven drives (1:1, 1:4, 1:5, 1:6, 1:7, 1:10, 2:1, 2:2, 2:3, 2:4, and 2:5) that: were derailed (by sack or penalty), or where runs failed to gain enough yardage to create manageable third downs; and thus could not proceed along the familiar route of the script Carroll so clearly loves. And to be sure, some of those drives stalled because of failed passes; but still, that’s over 60% of the Seahawks’ offensive possessions in the first two weeks. And those drives, collectively, led to 3 points. Even further, looking at the Seahawks rushing success rate in the first two weeks on first and second downs during the first three quarters of play, their overall rate of rushing success (30%) puts them last in the NFL for that period; extrapolating that statistic through all five weeks, that rate would place them 6% less than the worst team (the Giants*, at 36%).  Looking at that same statistic in weeks three through five, their success rate jumps up to 48%, enough for 11th best; and during Week 5 by itself, their success rate of 55% was 5th best. What’s more, we see this philosophical trend play out on the other side of the offense as well: during the weeks of increasingly better rushing performance, their 49% pass success, which is better than their rush success, is only 19th best, reflecting a league that seems to strive to prioritize passing success over rushing success, in contrast to Carroll’s Seahawks.

* We should endlessly mock the Giants for drafting Barkley instead of a QB.

The point, as it appears to me is that, as fans, we often tell ourselves stories about the games that we see, but these stories, obscured by defeat, can often be untrue. Carroll himself, whose gamescripts can assume the form of Scripture, is a master of this, though his telltale smirks can often leave us in doubt about who or what those stories best serve. But poke a few holes in those pages, and the data on the other side shows a team that fundamentally wants to win games in a certain way, and strove for all five weeks to win games in that manner. In the end, if the Seahawks have an identity that emerged in Week 3, and which is discernibly different from its non-identity in the first two weeks, that identity is not how much they ran the ball, but simply how well they ran the ball.