When Russell Wilson suffered a finger injury in early October that would keep him out one to two months, many observers considered it the last straw for the Seahawks this season.
While I expected the Seattle offense to be less explosive, I wrote at the time that the circumstances presented them an opportunity to get back to running the football and burning time off the clock. Wilson is great — but he sometimes gets so enamored with his moon-shot deep passing skills that it hurts his team when these plays don’t work.
I thought the key consideration was this: the Seahawks’ offense was on the field for just 25:16 minutes per game in the first five games Wilson started. Asking this Seattle defense to be on the field for over 34 minutes per game was simply wearing them out. The “Let Russ Cook” mantra can sometimes be a curse for this team as they move away from what makes this team most successful.
The Seattle defense allowed only 16.0 PPG in their last eight games last year after a similar terrible start statistically — and the improvement coincided with less “Russ Cooking” as the offense did not generate more than 236 passing yards in those final eight regular-season games. Most of the analytics folks have simply not accounted for the belief held by most NFL coaches that controlling the time of possession helps their own defense. I expected the Seahawks to run the ball more behind running back Alex Collins and slow the game down to help their beleaguered defense.
The formula almost worked in a 23-20 loss in overtime at Pittsburgh. Seattle held the Steelers to just 335 yards. If not for a Geno Smith fumble from a vicious hit from T.J. Watt in overtime, then perhaps the Seahawks find a way to win that game.
Seattle was then competitive the next week in a 13-10 loss at home to the New Orleans Saints (a team that then beat the reigning Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers the next week). The Seahawks held the Saints to just 304 yards. If not for two missed field goals by Jason Myers, Seattle might have won that game as well.
Yet the usual suspect critics remained dismayed that the Seahawks did not blow out both teams even with Geno Smith under center. There is never a failing that would have simply been fixed by throwing the football more — the laziest of all the lazy Monday Morning Quarterbacking. If only there was a period in the Monday Night Football game when offensive coordinator Pete Carroll finally let Geno cook (there was: the disastrous final drive). “The Analytics are clear that getting to 3rd-and-1 is bad!” “Even worse is having the ball with the chance to win the game in the final possession!” I paraphrase what I read from blue check football expert on the twitter machine.
As if the Analytics are quite clear in that (a) passing the football has no relationship to QB injuries (“mere coincidence”) and (b) the numbers do not reveal who the backup to Geno Smith is (Jacob Eason). “Let Jacob Cook, because interceptions are statistical anomalies!” I mock, therefore I am.
The Pete Carroll Derangement Syndrome suffered by so many NFL media (who freelance as Seahawks fans) is a tell. Nine straight winning seasons lead the NFL right now, despite Seattle being run by that “idiot”! "That just shows you how good Saint Russell Wilson is!"
More mocking: “Everyone knows that if only (fill in the blank for the latest hotshot OC, a former Matt Nagy type) was running Seattle offense on Monday, the Hawks upset the Saints by double-digits (after upsetting the Steelers on the road the week before), rather than just covering both times.”
It's not that Carroll should be immune to criticism (issue #1: his failures on the offensive line). It is that (a) what he has accomplished in Seattle is objectively pretty, pretty, pretty good, yet (b) because it is a defensive philosophy that values running the football and an ancient concept called Time of Possession, the geniuses are miles away from simply engaging his (up to now) successful argument. By the way, the market said getting to coin flips with Geno was a win! It certainly was for those of us with Seattle tickets.
What if the Seahawks without Carroll simply devolve into the Detroit Lions with Matthew Stafford? Detroit was passing the ball over 60% of the time during that span -- a nice opportunity to test Let Matthew Cook aspirations of the critics. (I know, Detroit was still messing up 40%, unless it is the last play of the Super Bowl …).
In cashing Seattle tickets the last two weeks, one of my arguments was that the removal of the pressure to Let Russ Cook would mean more rushing attempts and more Time of Possession. They added 2+ minutes of TOP in both games (but were still underwater with their defense on the field more than their offense). Still, Seattle played two of their best three defensive games of the season in the last two weeks. Their defense had been averaging 35:47 minutes per game on the field under Let Russ Cook (before the Steelers game). I know, Irrelevant!
In Smith’s third start, Seattle dominated Jacksonville by a 31-7 score on Halloween. The defense held the Jaguars to 309 total yards. The defense was on the field more than the offense yet once again, but the 28:31 minutes were a day in the park compared to what they had been averaging in the Let Russ Cook days earlier this season.
It bears repeating that many defensive coaches believe their players only have so many plays in them in a game before they fatigue and their effectiveness begins to significantly wane. Smith completed 20 of the 24 passes he attempted. Seattle ran the ball 25 times giving an almost 50-50 balance of rushing and passing.
When Wilson returns to the field, many observers will notice the improved play of the defense he will be inheriting. Will they spot the connection?
Best of luck — Frank.