In the new NFL, statistically informed head coaches and offensive coordinators are aware (or should be aware) of the fact that throwing the ball on first down nets five yards roughly 47% of the time, while running the ball on first down will net that same yardage about 32.8% of the time. Five yards on first down, or any down. Is extremely important to the point that it is highly correlated to a “success,” or a first down, when referenced in advanced analytics. The reasoning being that a five-yard gain in any of the presumably three down scenarios will most likely lead to a first down and the opportunity to maintain possession and keep on trucking towards the end zone. Matriculating the ball down the field as Hank Stram would say.
The point is so patently obvious that Nate Silver’s political/sports analytics brain child Five Thirty Eight published an article last season, following the Seattle Seahawks loss to the Dallas Cowboys in the playoffs, pointing out how often the Seahawks not only ran the ball on first down, but sequenced run-run on first and second down. Author Josh Hermismeyer noted that Brian Schottenheimer’s offense most frequently looked like run-run-pass (26% of the time), followed by run-pass-pass (25% of the time) in 2018. The success rate for those particular three play sequences was 42.1% and 34% respectively. However, on sequences of pass-run-run or pass-pass-run, the success rate was 88.9% and 71.4%, dramatically higher. Passing the ball on first down leads to more success than running the ball on first down.
What will come as little surprise to Seahawks fans is that their team ranks 25th out of 32 teams in passing on first down and that’s an improvement over last season. In 2018, the Seahawks threw the ball on first down 47.65% of the time, while this year they’ve put it in the air 55.8% of the time on first down. The inverse, of course, means the ‘Hawks are “pounding the rock” 44.2% of the time on the first play of each new set of downs. That might seem great if you are the Baltimore Ravens, who soundly drubbed the Seahawks in Seattle last week, as they are the most efficient team in the league running the ball, according to Football Outsiders, but for the Seahawks who rank 19th in rushing efficiency it might be a problem.
Old school football “analysts” (i.e. former players who never look at next gen stats but have been bestowed with a microphone) continue to drone on about the virtues of “establishing the run.” And, unsurprisingly, many NFL coaches continue to worship at the alter of the run game. Clearly Pete Carroll and Brian Schottenheimer belong to that sect. And, to be clear, it can work given the right personnel. It’s just not the norm.
The Ravens run the ball on first down more than any other team in the league, gain first downs on the ground more than any other team in the league, and are the most efficient running team in the league. Contrast that with the Seahawks who run the ball on first down the 9th most in the league, gain first downs rushing at a clip of 7th overall, but are the 19th most efficient team in the league running the ball. There’s a reason Red Zone viewers rarely see Seahawks drives. A lot of nothing is happening on offense.
The strength of the team is Russell Wilson. Many articles have been written here at OSN, regionally in publications like the Seattle Times, and nationally on ESPN and beyond about the phenomenal MVP worthy campaign Russell Wilson is having in 2019. The Seahawks passing offense ranks FIRST in the league in efficiency, according to Football Outsiders. Wilson is second only to Dak Prescott in QBR and trails only Patrick Mahomes and Prescott in DVOA. And yet he is 12th in passing attempts in the NFL. Sure, more attempts might lower his overall efficiency, but Wilson is clearly the premiere weapon in Seattle’s offensive arsenal and yet Carroll and Schottenheimer seem reluctant or unwilling to utilize him to the fullest.
Running back Chris Carson ranks 19th in DYAR (defense-adjusted yards above replacement), while the offensive line ranks 26th in running back yards. In other words, the Seahawks aren’t very good at doing the thing they want to do and what they want to do is largely out of touch with what the modern NFL realizes about offensive football. Pass the ball and utilize the best weapon you have – quarterback Russell Wilson. The success of the Seahawks going forward will depend largely on making adjustments offensively.