NFL teams ran less in 2018 than any other season in NFL history. Rushing attempts per team per game dipped below 26 for the first time since at least 1936, when stats started being tracked. Meanwhile, teams also scored 23.3 points and gained 352.2 yards per team per game, the second-highest mark of all time for each category. These two stats are related. Passing is more efficient than running, and the entire NFL is running less and scoring more.
You’d never know it from watching the Seahawks, who fell to the Dallas Cowboys 24-22 on Saturday night because of a stunningly conservative game plan. Head coach Pete Carroll and offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer stuck to the run despite MVP-caliber quarterback Russell Wilson idling in the backfield like an unused getaway Ferrari in a bank robbery. Seattle followed up its only playoff-less season of Russell Wilson’s career in 2017 with something worse in 2018: a playoff loss that could have been a win had the Seahawks bothered to let Wilson play quarterback.
The non-Wilson Seahawks finished with 21 rushes for 59 yards and a putrid 2.8 yards per carry. The quarterback finished the game with 18 completions on 27 attempts for 233 yards and a solid 8.6 yards per pass attempt, more than three times as efficient as the team’s running plays. Chris Carson had 20 yards on 13 carries, none of which went for more than 5 yards. (Wilson, Seattle’s leading rusher in 2017, finished with three rushes for 14 yards.) Despite this, Wilson threw exactly two passes in the first quarter. Predictably, Seattle punted three times.
After going into halftime down 10-6—and after kicker Sebastian Janikowski pulled a hamstring on a long field goal attempt to end the second quarter—it seemed the Seahawks would play more aggressively in the second half. Their first drive of the third quarter featured two runs for 4 yards and a Wilson incompletion on third-and-6 that forced a punt and a three-and-out. Their next drive ended when a screen to tight end Nick Vannett got 5 yards on third-and-17. The drive after that nearly ended with a run, yes a run, by backup running back Mike Davis on third-and-7 that gained 2 yards.
At this point in the game, when they had a fourth-and-5 while down four points on the road in the playoffs, Schottenheimer decided to take Wilson out for a spin. Wilson responded by doing this.
What a throw and catch by Russell Wilson and Doug Baldwin on 4th down pic.twitter.com/sJVlrCNWT8— The Sports Quotient (@SportsQuotient) January 6, 2019
Fancy that! Seattle naturally ran the ball on first and second down for a combined 5 yards before Wilson bailed them out again on third-and-5, then watched Carson get a 1-yard rush and said “screw it, I’ll do it myself” and ran the ball in for a touchdown.
Seattle’s play-calling was stunningly bad considering how well Wilson was playing. He found receiver Tyler Lockett for a majestic 25-yard catch on second-and-10 along the sideline near the end of the first half ...
The full Tyler Lockett playpic.twitter.com/hyJRB8emeN— Dov Kleiman (@NFL_DovKleiman) January 6, 2019
… and he also found Lockett for a massive gain down 10 points on the first play after the two-minute warning, which put the Seahawks in the red zone.
Wilson finished the regular season with a perfect passer rating on 70 targets to Lockett, yet Lockett finished with just six targets Saturday and only three targets in the first three quarters. He still turned that limited number into four catches for 120 yards. Wilson’s deep numbers on Saturday night were fantastic, yet Seattle barely tried until the game was out of hand.
Russell Wilson on passes that traveled at least 15 yards downfield against DAL:— Ben Baldwin (@benbbaldwin) January 6, 2019
7 attempts, 5 completions, 23.7 yards/attempt, 1.34 EPA/attempt
It’s still unclear why Seattle hired Schottenheimer, who has been below average at every stop of his career. His résumé includes:
- Being quarterbacks coach in San Diego working for his father, Marty, while he oversaw the only four seasons of Drew Brees’s career where he failed to throw for more than 3,600 yards as a starter.
- Coordinating the Jets from 2006 to 2011, including Mark Sanchez’s “don’t screw this up” offense.
- Calling plays for just one offense that finished in the top 12 of yardage.
- Coordinating six offenses that finished in the bottom 12 of yardage.
Under Schottenheimer (and likely at the direction of Carroll), Seattle was the only team to run more than it passed in 2018. The Seahawks led the league in rushing yards this season and were second in attempts, but finished 18th in yards and eighth in points. The Seahawks averaged 33.4 rushing attempts per game, which was the league average in 1958. Admittedly, Seattle did quite well running the ball at the tail end of the season, managing 392 rushing yards in the final two games of the season. Yet those games came against Kansas City and Arizona, who ranked 32nd and 29th in rushing defense DVOA. The Cowboys ranked fifth, and they played like it on Saturday.
The Cowboys held the Seahawks to just 2.3 yards gained after close-in per carry, the lowest by the Seahawks in a game this season.— Next Gen Stats (@NextGenStats) January 6, 2019
LB Leighton Vander Esch (@VanderEsch38) led the charge for the Cowboys rush defense, racking up 10 tackles and 6 stops. #SEAvsDAL #DallasCowboys pic.twitter.com/k8dTZuoDdP
Unlike Baltimore, Seattle did not run in a unique style that changes the fundamental math of football and hides a raw quarterback, like when the Ravens have Lamar Jackson run a read-option. Instead, they had an MVP-caliber quarterback who was their leading rusher in 2017, and forced him to hand off more than any other quarterback. Against the Chiefs, Wilson proved he could hang with even the best passing offenses in the league. Just two weeks later, his coaches didn’t even want him to try. Either those coaches need to change the team’s strategy next year, or the team needs to consider changing the coaches.