Identity Crisis

Football isn’t played on spreadsheets. The simple fact that humans — not robots (yet) — play football means that there are intangible factors that undoubtedly affect games. A team’s identity can be one of those factors. Being able to rally around a smashmouth run attack can be a slight motivational edge. And in the game of football, you need every edge that you can get.

A run-first, run-often mentality has certainly helped the Seahawks this season. Big rushing days against the Los Angeles Rams (twice) and Kansas City Chiefs kept those games close and winnable. The Seahawks combined for 32 carries for 190 yards in the first Rams game and then oneupped themselves by carrying 34 times for 273 yards in the next. Seattle lost those games (to a much more talented opponent) by a combined six points. In their win over the Chiefs, the Seahawks ran the ball 43 times for 210 yards, which helped keep the ball away from M(vp)ahomes and the potent KC offense. There is little harm (and probably more benefit than we currently grasp, statistically) in running the ball 30+ times a game when you are gaining 5+ yards per carry.

But if your identity requires you to be excellent at running the ball, you had better have a backup plan when that fails. And that backup plan can’t just be to run more.

The Seahawks lost on Saturday not because they ran the ball too much, but because they ran the ball poorly too much. Seattle totaled 24 carries for 74 yards, just barely above 3 yards per carry. The Seahawks had 20 first downs and ran on 11 of them. Those 11 rushes gained a total of 36 yards and that is including Rashaad Penny’s 28 yard run (8 yards on 10 other first down carries). Chris Carson gained 9 yards on 7 first down rushes. Despite having a 28 yard run, Rashaad Penny gained 24 yards on 3 first down rushes (do the math there). These are 2017-esque rushing numbers.

This stubborn commitment to rushing put Seattle in a pretty big fucking hole on second downs. The Seahawks averaged over 9 yards to go on 2 down.  On second down, they (with, on average, 9 yards to go [the median was 7]) chose to run 9 times and pass 8 times. Pete and John chose, over half the time, to be content with a long 3rd down instead of a higher chance of conversion. On first and second downs, Seattle elected to run the ball 20 times and pass the ball 17 times. This choice left them facing 13 third downs and averaging over 8 yards to go (median distance 7 yards to go). The league average conversion of third and 8 to 9 yards is 32% and the Seahawks were well below that at 25%*.

*Due to small sample sizes, this is not as damning as it appears. Had the Seahawks converted just two more of those plays, they would’ve been right above league average.

Converting third and long is not a strength of any offense (except the Falcons) and it certainly wasn’t the Seahawks’ forte. Forced into obvious passing downs and distances, Russell Wilson struggled to convert. A handful of drives stalling out after some stuffed runs is not cause for alarm. The Cowboys are a playoff team too.  But it shouldn’t take three full quarters of an NFL game to see the need for some adjustments. Carroll and Schotty needed to adjust to a high risk, high reward style. They didn’t.

Passing is not without risks. Sacks (including the strip sack variety), interceptions, and incompletions are all bad outcomes. In 2018, Wilson was sacked 51 times (2 strip sacks) and had 7 interceptions for a total of 60 really bad outcomes (51 sacks+2 fumbles+7 interceptions) on 478 dropbacks.  On 12.5% of his dropbacks, something bad happened.

But good things also happen on dropbacks. On 478 dropbacks, a Russell Wilson pass gained 17 or more yards 66 times.  You are more likely to get a 17 yard gainer out of a Wilson pass than you are to get a sack, fumble, or interception.  And that is if you staple his feet to the floor and force him not to scramble. And yeah, incompletions can stall out a drive just as fast as 1-2 yard rushes on first and second down. But drives were already stalling out because the run game was sputtering.

Carroll and Schottenheimer needed to adapt; to put faith in their future Hall of Fame quarterback. Instead, they trusted their identity and it cost them.

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