Russ Cook Let? No, that’s not quite right…

Slogans are a diabolical tool: deceptive, persuasive without substance, the mission of monorail salesman, charlatans peddling diets that insist you can have dessert for breakfast and still lose weight. Or so, at least, would conventional wisdom have us believe.  Indeed, the proof is in the numerous histories recalling fierce divisions between those who either love or hate slogans; rarely do we hear tales of those moderated souls who hear a slogan, ponderously, and speculate in mild tones: tell me slightly more.

One poignant example from recent history stands out: #AbolishICE. On the face of it, the slogan already jumped into the skirmish of a salient and hotly contested issue, with proponents offering passionate criticisms of that agency’s many abuses and horrors since its creation, and with opponents offering just as passionate claims about the real problems that that agency’s creation was ostensibly designed to curtail. Indeed, rarely have ten letters, hashtag optional, been so moving. But even so, the division wasn’t (and isn’t) binary: one of the more common criticisms, typically coming from those more often aligned with proponents than opponents, targeted the slogan’s vagueness. While ICE is pretty unambiguous, Abolish became the subject of an entire labyrinth of disagreement, confusion, galaxy-brain philosophizing. Some people wondered if abolish meant that ICE agents would simply be transferred elsewhere, commanded to perform the same work but under more benevolent agencies; or perhaps it just meant to allocate them fewer funds. Others insisted that abolish meant just what it always means: a wholesale removal. The question often reached — sometimes with wisdom, sometimes in spite — to that other and perhaps most gruesome of American iniquities: the abolition of slavery, a process that was itself strangled at almost every turn by setback, obstacle, miseries, conflagrations, and deaths.

For those not blessed with a lunatic’s clairvoyance, I’m steering us toward a newer slogan: Let Russ Cook. As slogans go, it’s an interesting one, one I’ve considered perhaps as much as your average Seahawks fan. But I’ve thought about it more in the week or so since John Morgan published his article on Field Gulls than in all the months previous. And really, it’s this series of lines that’s the kicker: “Let Russ Cook seems like a shallow, half-formed notion with little connection to reality and no way of being applied. It’s so ambiguous as to be kind of irrefutable. It operates under the assumption that Wilson is being held back in some way, which certainly seems bad. But how?” Reading these lines, I can hear the distant wailings of what do you mean abolish? Do you really mean abolish?

I mean, we mean, yes, we all really mean Let Russ Cook.

Contrary to those assertions, the slogan is… okay, maybe it is a little shallow, and, sure, half-formed, but definitely not without a powerful connection to reality, and it comes with a very, very easy way of being applied. Indeed, it’s really a simple reference to a simple problem with a simple solution: run-pass splits.  And it’s maddening because it simply and easily answers how Russ is being held back.

In the 2019 season, in neutral situations*, Seahawks playcallers called 234 rushing plays to 205 passing plays, which works out to being an approximate ratio of .533 to .467.  Now immediately this seems odd; one would expect that the Seahawks, an ostensibly balanced team, in spite of recent analytical trends and changes to defensive rules (mostly holding and illegal contact) that incentivize a passing attack, would aim for more of a 50-50 split. Yet even setting aside that claim to balance, their split actually ranks 25th in the league. Consider a few coaches and playcallers who affirmatively decided that the following quarterbacks, by design, were supposed to be better than Russell Wilson at throwing a football: John Elway protege Drew Lock, the legendarily mediocre Andy Dalton, fabled tight end Josh Allen, that racist on the Steelers, and two has-beens in Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady. Even Mitch Trubisky!

* I’ve seen different valuations of neutral in this context. For the purposes of this writing, neutral means: plays on first and second downs; plays during the first, second, and third quarters, excepting plays during the last two minutes of the second quarter; and plays when the score of the game is within 10 points.

But perhaps the Seahawks simply didn’t do well passing the ball in neutral game scripts?  Resoundingly: nope! The Seahawks managed a first down rate of 54 percent, which only two teams (the Saints and Cowboys) exceeded, and which was a full five percentage points better than the league average. Moreover, at 8.2 yards per completion, Seahawks’ neutral passes were better at gaining yards than all but three teams:

  • the Bucs’ delightful combination of best-receiver-duo-plus-fearless-and-possibly-somewhat-blind quarterback
  • the CPOE/EPA/play action Gawd Ryan Tannehill-led Titans
  • Kyle Shanahan’s 49ers, who let’s be honest everyone thought were going to run the ball anyways. 

Finally, consider Russell Wilson’s 2019 EPA/play of around 0.15, a good rating, of course, yet barely within top-10 status. However, spin those analytical wheels, remove third and fourth downs, decrease the Win Probability setting, and watch that score rise, ascendant:

  • 0.218 (6th-best) in all probabilities
  • 0.231 (6th) in 5-95% probabilities
  • 0.259 (4th) in 10-90% probabilities
  • 0.281 (4th) in 15-85% probabilities
  • 0.303 (3rd) in 20-80% probabilities
  • 0.327 (3rd) in 25-75% probabilities
  • 0.35 (2nd) in 30-70% probabilities.

These ratings are all for a minimum of 100 plays; to beat that tired argument into its long-needed death, the more plays you add to that minimum, the more Wilson’s ranking tends to increase. At the most neutral setting, increasing the minimum to 200 plays, Wilson’s EPA/play is 0.118 better than the next best quarterback, the unlikely candidate of Jared Goff, with his superlatively bad -2.73 CPOE.

Frustratingly, those who cling to the values of the Elder Gods of football often compare Wilson to the Andy Reid coached-Mahomes, who may well be the best quarterback in the game right now, and offer what is a deliberately, sometimes willfully, unfair comparison. We can’t (and shouldn’t!) presume that some hypothetical version of Pete Carroll who adopts Russell Wilson as his messiah would, in Letting Russ Cook, somehow transform into Kool-Aid Man, smash through the playcalling wall, and increase splits by +15% in favor of a passing attack. And yet, in every one of these metrics, what Wilson accomplished in 2019 at least equals, where it doesn’t exceed, Mahomes’ output. Both teams managed the same neutral pass success rate (54 percent), but Wilson’s 8.2 YPA edges out Mahomes’ 8.1 YPA.  In those same neutral settings, Mahomes’ EPA/play ranks 5th, 5th, 9th, 6th, 10th, and 10th, just barely bettering Wilson’s ranks in settings with larger win probability fluctuations. The same trends continue as one increases minimum passing plays.

All of this is to say, simply and clearly: as a team, in 2019, the Seahawks were very, very good at passing the ball in these neutral situations — in every category considered, the Seahawks as a team or Russell Wilson as an individual quarterback ranked at least 6th best in the league — but elected to call fewer passing plays, by a noticeable margin compared to the league, and 15 percent less often than the Chiefs. (Numerically, the Seahawks’ success rate in these settings was +5% better than league average, +0.8 YPA better than league average, and all of Wilson’s EPA/play rankings were significantly better than the approximate league-average of 0.103 EPA/play; despite this, their run-pass split was -4% less than league-average in favoring the run.)

The contrast between Kansas City’s Super Bowl-winning offense and Seattle’s counterpart is so infuriating not because of any true distinction in execution, but because of a distinction in frequency.

The other part of this argument, which concerns the inadequacies of the Seahawks offensive line and RW’s sack-taking tendencies, is curious in its omissions. In the eight seasons since Carroll has been head coach of the Wilson-led Seahawks, they have ranked, first by DVOA’s adjusted line yards, and then by DVOA’s adjusted sack rate, as follows: 4th, 9th, 4th, 4th, 26th, 31st, 12th, and 16th, as compared to 20th, 32nd, 24th, 30th, 25th, 25th, 30th, and 24th.

Now, as John Gilbert, or anyone else who considers these things seriously, would point out, sack rate is more of a quarterback stat than it is an offensive line stat, and Wilson, as a general rule, is himself more culpable for his sacks than his offensive line. But this comparison, even with that caveat, ignores two problems. First, that Carroll has long preferred to play mauling and athletically gifted linemen, at the expense of players with proven pass-blocking skill, such that we haven’t ever seen Wilson play behind a line that is technically sound at pass blocking. And second, that while Russell Wilson consistently takes more sacks than other quarterbacks, both his and the league-average sack rates on first and second downs tend to be about half that on third downs. Indeed, it is worth pointing out that of the 48 sacks Russell Wilson took in 2019, only 16 of them occurred in these neutral passing situations. Put in other words, he’s especially prone to sacks when he’s put in an obvious passing situation, but otherwise, maybe not as much.

The surest antidote to the criticism that a slogan offers nothing of substance is to offer pragmatic and logistical suggestions. Okay. For starters, then, the most apparent solution to which the Let Russ Cook slogan points, implicitly if not obviously, is thus: do more of what the rest of the league is already doing! Indeed, where the slogan is perhaps most confusing is its presupposition that those at whom it is screamed, with an increasing abundance of fury, are already aware that most of the quarterbacks in the league — some of whom are much, much worse at throwing a football than Russell Carrington Wilson — are already cooking. To those who would refute this by asserting that it still isn’t sufficiently implementable, why not aim for a league-average split of 47 pass:53 run, which is an almost perfect inversion of the Seahawks’ split? Or even if that’s too little balance for Pete Carroll, just a slight increase to 50:50 would be fine (if still conservative). Whether by success rate (51 percent), yards per play (4.5), or EPA/play (an average of 0.147), passing plays on the whole succeed more often, gain more yards, and add more expected points than rushing plays in these neutral situations. And even considering the real and concerning argument that Wilson takes too many sacks — bad for both his health and his QBR — there is evidence suggesting that, by passing more in neutral situations, he would face fewer third (and fourth) downs, and thus take fewer sacks.

Other recommendations are more granular, and thus more circumstantial. Smarter writers and analysts have already offered better analyses of the skill with which Brian Schottenheimer can scheme tight ends open, particularly in the middle of the field, or use tight ends split out wide to better help Wilson identify defensive coverages and schemes, and this talent complements an area where Wilson (debatably) falls short of other, elite quarterbacks. Indeed, Schotty spoke about the likelihood of using 12 personnel more frequently in 2020 as recently as Wednesday, and the addition of Greg Olsen makes this seem much more possible, while also allowing Jacob Hollister to be the team’s second best move tight end, instead of a swiss-army knife deployed against Kevlar defenses.

Moreover, assuming that the Seahawks will still run the ball, the team could avail itself of using more presnap motion, and less of a Clausewitz-inspired prayer that willful stubbornness can overcome MIB counts. This rings in a particularly acute way in the division, where the Seahawks three opponents ranked 4th, 6th, and 7th league-wide in using presnap motion, especially given that presnap motion on designed run plays increases the EPA/play by +0.11, a difference that theoretically would have made the Seahawks 2019 rushing attack almost positive. While this only peripherally has anything to do with Letting Russ Cook, it could well complement Seattle’s already noted capacity for using quarterback shifting in the passing game, especially in shotgun, to even better identify coverages. Finally, it’s worth pointing out that, between Tyler Lockett, D.K. Metcalf, and now Phillip Dorsett, the Seahawks have no less than three receivers who are extremely fast; way to supply a quarterback whose best feature is the best deep ball in the game! By bringing back Josh Gordon or Paul Richardson (ed. note: good call ahead of time, Jesse), the Seahawks could add a quality WR4 who could easily be paired with Metcalf to offer Wilson two contested-catch nightmares. While the hyperbole that the combinations are endless isn’t true here, they are multitudinous, and probably very scary. Between three tight ends with good hands — one of whom excels at blocking, who can and should be used to create as much misdirection as possible — at least two running backs who offer competent pass-blocking and effectiveness in the passing game, and a trinity (possibly a quartet) of talented but diverse receiving weapons, the Seahawks are poised to take that most radical and dangerous step of doing what the rest of the league is already doing.

And yet, what is perhaps best and greatest about this slogan concealing simple changes that can be implemented in a 2020 offense, is that I’m actually pretty dumb (about this kind of thing, anyways). Think about it for a moment or two: if I can come up with this pretty easily — you’ve read more of a compilation than original thought — imagine what people with much greater football IQ’s could do with it! Imagine what Russ himself could do! And here’s the crux of the issue: when we think programmatically about slogans qua reform, we tend to attach those thoughts to deliberative, even quantitative, brackets. But why not try another route? Why not think imaginatively? Doing so, the better question is this: why not Let Russ Cook?