For the first time in seven years, the Seattle Seahawks failed to make the playoffs in 2017. The management analyzed their failures and they came up with the conclusion that they got to improve their run game. They signed offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer, a guy with a history of putting a high emphasis on the run game. During the off-season, head coach Pete Carroll and general manager John Schneider publicly communicated that their primary goal is to get the run game going. Here is a quote from Pete Carroll:
“Our formula of the running game being an integral part of it is really the focus,” Carroll said. “We’ve got to get that done. Without that, then we’re still kind of in a mode where we don’t feel as comfortable as we want to be. So it’s hugely important.”
For Carroll, the run game is hugely important. As I worked out in an article last month, the run game has little impact on scoring, passing, play-action and therefore winning. It’s proven. Good Football teams are good at passing, not at running. The run game is largely irrelevant. Yet Pete Carroll desperately believes in the run game like a flat earth theorist believes in the flat earth theory.
Myth: Marshawn Lynch was the reason the Seahawks were good
In 2010, the Seahawks traded for Marshawn Lynch in order to establish a run-first offense. The biggest problem is the general perception – and the myth – about the Seahawks making back-to-back Super Bowls on the back of their running game around Marshawn Lynch. Here is a quote out of an article from Seahawks Wire at USA Today:
Eager to return to the glory days when Marshawn Lynch transformed Seattle into one of the league’s best rushing offenses, Carroll also wants to find a quality fullback heading into the 2018 season.
When asked whether or not the Seahawks intended to bring the fullback role back into the offense, Carroll said: “We always want to be hardball, we always want to run the thing as we like, and that gives us another dimension.”
In the 2013 season, when the Seahawks won the Super Bowl, Marshawn Lynch ranked 21st in yards per carry, 19th in success rate and 17th in DVOA. He wasn’t even a top-15 running back that year. The reason the Seahawks won the Super Bowl was one of the highest pass efficiencies over the past decade. Here are their pass efficiency differentials:
Adjusted Net Yards per Play: 4.1 (#1) – by far the highest value since 2011
Net Yards Per Pass: +2.2 (#1) – 2nd-highest since 2011
Passer Rating: +22.0 (#2)
Pass DVOA: +0.616 (#1) – 2nd-highest since 2011
They didn’t beat the Broncos 43-8 on the back of Marshawn Lynch’s 15 runs for 39 yards. They beat them, because they held the best pass offense to eight points and the passing offense didn’t let the Broncos come back. Russell Willson completed 18/25 for two touchdowns and 8.2 yards per pass. He outgained Peyton Manning by 49.6 points in passer rating.
In 2014, the Seahawks were a top-5 team in terms of pass efficiency once again, that’s why they went 12-4. But they also arguably had the best rushing offense in the league. And here is how useful it was in the playoffs: Against the Panthers, the Seahawks ran for 3.6 yards per carry (Lynch had 4.3) but passed for a stunning 12.3 yards per pass. They dominated the Panthers through the air. Against the Packers in the NFC Championship game, Lynch had a great day – he had 5.5 yards per carry on 19 runs up until… the Seahawks were down 7-19. They scored their only touchdown on a fake field goal. Up to that point, Russell Wilson went 7/22 for 75 yards (3.41 YPA). Including the four sacks for 24 yards, the Hawks had 1.88 Net Yards Per Pass. So, Lynch had 3.6 yards per rush more than the offense had per net pass and the Seahawks were down 7-19. How about the run game? After that point, the Seahawks rallied to the comeback win. Wilson went 6/7 for 134 yards (19.1 YPA) and 16.6 NYPPA. Lynch had 8.8 yards per carry. Passing matters, running doesn’t.
How about the Super Bowl? On scoring drives, Marshawn Lynch had 13 carries for 68 yards – 5.2 yards per carry. Russell Wilson and Robert Turbin ran for 53 yards on four carries – 13.3 yards per rush. But on scoring drives, Wilson went 8/9 for 141 yards and 15.7 yards per pass. The situation every Seahawks fan will remember forever occurred before the end of the game when Wilson threw an interception at the goal line, down 24-28 with 26 seconds to go. Many people blamed the Hawks for not handing off the ball to Lynch. The latter would likely have been remembered for scoring the game-winning touchdown, but why did the Seahawks had the chance in the first place? On that last drive, Russell Wilson went 3/5 for 75 yards, including the miracle circus catch by Jermaine Kearse. They didn’t run the ball before the Patriots’ 5-yard line. In that game, everything that led to scoring or scoring positions was more efficient than runs by Marshawn Lynch.
Seattle’s emphasis on the run game in 2018
After refuting the myth about the run game in the Marshawn-Lynch-era, let’s dive into 2018 again. The Seahawks had tremendous issues with their pass protection last season and during the off-season they lost TE Jimmy Graham and WR Paul Richardson. With those two guys, they lost a lot of offensive efficiency. Out of 73 qualifying receivers with at least 50 targets, passes to Richardson and Graham delivered the 10th- and 22nd-highest passer rating, per Sharp Football Stats. 25 of 33 pass completions to Richardson were first downs. Jimmy Graham led the league in 10 red zone touchdowns. They also lost CB Richard Sherman. What did the Seahawks do to replace those guys? They drafted running back Rashaad Penny in the first round and a blocking tight end in the third. They did, however, draft a defensive end, another strong side linebacker and a punter. Here is what Pete Carroll said after the draft of Penny:
“We know the running game helps every aspect of our team,” Carroll said. “It helps our defense, it helps our special teams”
It’s been three weeks since the draft and I can’t get that quote out of my head. How does a running game help special teams? Does the punter kick the ball farther? Does the kicker hit more field goals? Do coverage teams miss less tackles? I don’t know what Carrol means by that. And how does a running game help your defense? I am guessing what Carroll means by that. I know there are some myths that pop up every once in a while. Let’s address the myths Pete Carroll is referring to.
Myth: A successful run game controls the time of possession
It doesn’t. From 2011 to 2017, the correlation between rush DVOA (efficiency) and TOP is 0.16 with an R-squared of 0.026. That means offensive rush efficiency only explains 2.6% of the variance in TOP. Remember: the minimum is 0, the maximum is 1. For yards per carry, R^2 is 0.00. Zero. Here is the visualisation of rush DVOA against time of possession:
Even though it’s not a strong correlation at all, pass efficiency has much more impact on time of possession. R^2 for pass DVOA and TOP is 0.206:
If you are really interested in gaining time of possession, you should focus on your passing offense, if all. But running has barely anything to do with it. Time of possession is a result, not a process. If you are good at passing, time of possession can be increased. If you are good at pass defense, time of possession can be increased as well. Because those two things lead to net drive success rate (gaining first downs and scores on offense and vice versa on defense). By that and a low pace (time between plays) you will have more time of possession. But success and scoring comes from passing rather than from running.
Myth: A successful run game helps your defense
It doesn’t. The general perception is that a successful run game eats the clock (we have learned it doesn’t) and therefore keeps the defense sidelined for extended periods. And if the defense is sidelined, they would have fewer possessions and therefore give up fewer points. From 2011-2017, the correlation (R^2) between offensive rush DVOA and defensive scoring (points per game) is 0.009. There is zero correlation. Here is the visualisation:
The only thing that helps your defense giving up fewer points is the defense itself. Defend the pass and leave the field without conceding points. From time to time you will hear coaches saying: we want to keep their offense off the field. By simple logic, this isn’t possible. No matter how long one team owns the ball, both teams will always get near equal possessions in one game. You can only keep the opposing offense off the field if you recover an onside kick every time.
Myth: A successful run game helps limiting turnovers
It doesn’t. From 2011-2017, the correlation (R^2) between rush DVOA and giveaways per game is 0.095. The correlation between Pass DVOA and giveaways per game is 0.305. Here are both visualisations:
You cannot impact fumble recoveries – that’s pure chance. But if you are interested in not turning the ball over, you better look to improve your passing game instead of the running game. Some people will say “by running successful, you can lean more on the run game and therefore throw fewer interceptions”. Let’s take a look. The correlation between rush DVOA and interceptions per game is 0.076:
If you are interested in limiting interceptions, you better improve your pass efficiency and ignore your run game. Work on your pass protection, have a good scheme, get good receivers, scheme guys open, let your quarterback create plays out of structure. That’s how you limit turnovers and interceptions.
Quo vadis, Pete Carroll?
Carroll likely wants to throw the game back to 2013-2014 when the Seahawks had a good run game. He associates the success back then with the run game, even though they were successful because of their overall pass efficiency. He has a certain philosophy, he wants to run the ball – plain and simple. For some years, the Seahawks were dominating the NFC West, because they only had little competition. The Rams and Niners have been a mess for several years, but they hired the right guys in 2017. They got smarter. While the Rams and Niners did a lot to try to improve their pass efficiency during the off-season, Pete Carroll wants to establish the run for reasons which aren’t more than myths. It doesn’t look good for the Seahawks. If they somehow make the playoffs in 2018, it will be because of pass efficiency and not because Rashaad Penny runs behind a fullback on first down.