Let’s go back in time to mid-October. The Seattle Seahawks were 5-0 for the first time in franchise history. They averaged nearly 34 points per game. Russell Wilson had 19 touchdown passes, the most in the NFL and one short of Peyton Manning’s record for the most ever through five games. Most importantly, Seattle was fun. The Seahawks had gone from slogging to scoring as they finally embraced Wilson for who he was: an elite quarterback who could make elite throws. With this newfound freedom, Wilson became the MVP favorite, and Seattle looked like a Super Bowl contender.
Flash forward to Saturday, and that team is gone. Seattle lost 30-20 to the Los Angeles Rams in the wild-card round. Wilson had just eight completions through 57 minutes, and the Seahawks lost despite the Rams losing starting quarterback John Wolford—an undrafted free agent and former AAF player—in the first quarter with a neck injury. Wolford was replaced by Jared Goff, who was deemed unable to start after breaking his thumb two weeks ago. Despite Wolford’s absence and Goff’s limitations, the Rams’ offense scored 23 points, their highest total in more than a month.
Not only was the Rams’ offense hobbled, but their defense was compromised too. Two-time Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald left the game just five minutes into the second half with a rib injury. But on the first two drives Donald missed, the Seahawks combined to lose one yard. Seattle was outcoached, outplayed, and outthought. Wilson had been an MVP candidate on an undefeated team; on Saturday, he completed eight more passes than Wolford, who didn’t make it through the first quarter. What the hell happened to this team?
The Seahawks were outmatched on Saturday. Rams defensive coordinator Brandon Staley ran circles around Seahawks offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer. The most amazing play of the day was an outstanding interception by Rams cornerback Darious Williams, who jumped a screen intended for receiver DK Metcalf for a pick-six. Out of 784 wide receiver screens this season, it was the first to be intercepted.
It’s the kind of play that is only possible if a defender knows exactly what is coming—a sign of good coaching. Metcalf, who started out with just one catch in the first 20 minutes, was furious.
Seattle responded well after that interception. On a broken play, Russell Wilson scrambled out of the pocket and found a streaking Metcalf, who reeled in a 51-yard touchdown catch to make it a 13-10 game.
Those broken plays—when Wilson scrambles and finds an open receiver—have been the lifeblood of Seattle’s offense this season, and Metcalf’s touchdown seemed to indicate Seattle was discovering its offensive firepower. But instead, it turned out to be their last dry keg of powder. After that touchdown, Seattle’s offense went like this:
- Three-and-out, punt
- Field goal
- Three-and-out, punt
- Punt (drive netted -2 yards)
- Three-and-out, punt
It was even worse than this list indicates, because Seattle’s field goal “drive” came after a 58-yard kick return—the offense gained just seven yards after the return, so it might as well count as a three-and-out too. On six offensive drives from the end of the first half through the middle of the fourth quarter—when their season was on the line—the Seahawks mustered a combined 37 yards. After those six drives and a Rams touchdown set up by a Seahawks fumble on a punt return, the game was 30-13 and essentially over as Seattle began adding garbage-time points and yards.
Part of the reason for the Seahawks’ offensive ineptitude is that the Rams’ defense kicks ass. Los Angeles allowed the fewest points, yards, and first downs this season, and is known for playing its best in the second half. The Rams held their opponents to zero or three second-half points in more than half of their games this season (!), an astonishing testament to defensive coordinator Brandon Staley’s in-game adjustments, which were on display on Saturday when the Rams shut down Seattle even when Donald left the field with injury.
But facing an elite defense isn’t the only reason Seattle collapsed. The Seahawks’ offense plays like they still have a Hall of Fame-caliber Legion of Boom defense. They don’t. Seattle’s defense allowed the most passing yards through nine games in NFL history this season. It clawed its way back to mediocrity once safety Jamal Adams returned from injury and defensive end Carlos Dunlap arrived via trade. Against the Rams, the Seahawks kept Wilson corked as a game manager even as their defense proved unable to contain Rams running back Cam Akers, who had 122 of the Rams’ first 196 yards. Seattle’s defense was pushed around by the Rams’ offensive line. Akers played well, but he ran through holes big enough to drive a Mack Truck through. At the end of the first half, he basically walked untouched into the end zone, unbothered by Adams’s desperate swipe to attempt to force a fumble, to give the Rams a 10-point lead.
Rushing lanes like that are signs of a hole in the defense. For Seattle, that deficiency extended to their overall gameplan. The defense isn’t good anymore, yet Pete Carroll coaches as though he’s unaware of that fact. The most remarkable feature of the Seahawks’ defense is how little has changed about Carroll’s approach even as the talent has completely changed (for the worse).
In Carroll’s defense, he is operating with the same philosophy that brought Seattle two Super Bowl appearances and one win. Carroll is obsessed with turnovers: He was 53-0 as head coach at USC when the Trojans had an even or plus turnover ratio, and the Seahawks were 9-0 when winning the turnover margin this season. And Wilson did turn the ball over more this year than ever before as a consequence of his increased passing. In Weeks 9 and 10, Wilson committed a combined seven turnovers, and the Seahawks lost both games. From that point on, the Seahawks went back to their run-heavy approach and stopped passing downfield. That Week 10 loss was against … the Rams. Los Angeles effectively ended the fun, aggressive version of Seattle’s offense in Week 10 and then ended their conservative offense this weekend.
Wilson didn’t protect the ball on Saturday. The interception he threw was not his fault, but he could have thrown a few more that were dropped by Rams defenders. And Wilson’s scrambling led to five sacks. All told, the Rams sacked Wilson 16 times in their three meetings this season. Even when Wilson wasn’t sacked, his scrambles produced a couple of holding penalties by overwhelmed offensive linemen that ended Seahawks drives before they began. Letting Wilson air the ball out has downsides.
But given the current makeup of the Seahawks’ roster, they don’t have any choice but to let Wilson win games with his arm. They have some hard choices to make this offseason. Their top two running backs, Chris Carson and Carlos Hyde, are both free agents. So is starting guard Mike Iupati, center Ethan Pocic, cornerback Shaquill Griffin, and linebacker K.J. Wright. But the most important decision the Seahawks have to make is whether they are going to build an offense around Wilson or continue worshipping at the altar of turnover margin so devoutly they forsake outscoring their opponents. The Seahawks are obsessed with their Legion of Boom past, but they should look at more recent history for building the future of their team.