The Seattle Seahawks came into 2015 as championship favorites, having put up one of the best two-year runs in NFL history, with a bid for back-to-back titles undone by one of the most shocking twist endings in Super Bowl history. But things went downhill in a hurry. Seattle lost four of its first six games; then won two in a row, against the foundering 49ers and Cowboys; and in Week 10 dropped a crucial home game against the Cardinals that effectively killed any chance of a third consecutive NFC West crown. It was mid-November and the Seahawks were unlikely to make the playoffs, let alone win the Super Bowl.
You can’t keep a good fish-eating bird of prey down, though. After three straight wins, including an impressive 38-7 dismantling of Minnesota on the road on Sunday, the Seahawks look like they’re rounding back into form — and are nearly back in their familiar perch atop our NFL Elo ratings. Elo even gives Seattle a healthy 83 percent shot at making the playoffs now. But making the playoffs and regaining the preseason championship favorite designation are two very different things, and reasons why the latter will be much more difficult for Seattle can be found both on the field and in the NFL’s playoff format.
Russell Wilson is back!
First, some good news: Seattle’s offense is showing signs of life. Since Week 11, QB Russell Wilson’s aerial attack has led the NFL by a mile in passing expected points added (EPA) per dropback — the difference between the No. 1 Seahawks and No. 2 Bengals is bigger than the gap between Cincinnati and the No. 19 Titans — after ranking 21st through Week 10. It helps that the three defenses Seattle has played — the 49ers, Steelers and Vikings — have mediocre EPA ratings against the pass, but the ways in which the passing game has improved are also encouraging.
One puzzling thing about Seattle’s early-season passing woes is that they came despite the addition of Jimmy Graham — a tight end so productive with New Orleans that he wanted to be called a wide receiver. Graham had led all NFL TEs in receiving yards over the preceding three seasons and was expected to add a new dimension to the Seahawks’ offense.
Thing is, Graham wasn’t associated with especially efficient short passing for New Orleans, doing most of his damage on seam routes and other deeper patterns. He was 17th among the league’s 32 qualifying1 tight ends in yards per target on passes of 10 yards or fewer from 2012 to 2014; Saints QB Drew Brees ranked only 16th in Total Quarterback Rating (QBR) when tossing short to TEs.2 In Seattle this season, the same trends have manifested. The Seahawks have been great when Wilson throws the ball more than 10 yards downfield, but they ranked only 15th in per-dropback EPA on shorter routes during the season’s first 10 weeks, with Wilson also suffering the league’s worst sack rate.3 Graham ranks 17th once again in yards per target on short passes, and Wilson ranks 23rd in QBR on short passes to TEs.
So perhaps it’s not a coincidence that the Seahawks’ short passing attack saw the opposite of adverse effects when Graham was injured for the season against the Steelers in Week 12. Or perhaps football is an incredibly complicated sport with a small sample of games each season, and it’s difficult to filter signal from noise in any individual player’s statistical footprint. Either way, Wilson and the Seahawks have finally found their passing rhythm of late and since Week 11 have had the league’s most efficient passing offense on both short and long routes, with Wilson being sacked 40 percent less often.
It’s a good thing that the passing game is picking up. Seattle’s rushing EPA per play is down quite a bit from last year’s ridiculously efficient output, and the team’s defense has been on the downturn from its typical dominant form.
Not the same Seahawks
We can trace Seattle’s evolution over the course of the Russell Wilson Era using the team grades I developed here, which place per-play EPA in a given category on a scale where the league average is 100 and one standard deviation in performance is +/- 15 points:
|OFFENSE RATING||DEFENSE RATING|
|2014||104||138||122||128||Lost Super Bowl|
|2013||116||101||139||108||Won Super Bowl|
|2012||118||114||119||93||Lost divisional round|
Because passing is more important than rushing in today’s NFL, it won’t take much of an aerial improvement for the Seahawks to compensate for their decline in the ground game this season. However, the team’s defensive drop-off is more concerning. In 2013, Seattle defended the pass about as well as any team ever has, but it’s steadily become more mortal over time. The Seahawks now rank 14th — decent but not great — at defending short4 passes (they ranked second in 2013 and 2014) and a below-average 18th against deep ones (first in 2013 and 2014). Add in a commensurate drop in rush defense (to 10th this year) and the Seahawks — while still better than average on D — are no longer the fearsome defensive leviathan they built a reputation as over the past few seasons.
As I mentioned earlier, even given all that, the Seahawks have still mustered nearly the best Elo rating in the league. But Elo also pegs Seattle’s chance of winning the Super Bowl at a mere 6 percent, far below the chances of their peers atop the Elo food chain. Even Denver and Cincinnati, inferior clubs according to Elo, have double-digit Super Bowl probabilities. The reason is simple: The teams ahead of Seattle have either already clinched their division (Carolina) or are overwhelmingly likely to do so.
Seattle, meanwhile, almost certainly has a wild card date in its future. That means the Seahawks will need to win one more playoff game than most of their fellow title contenders. (Carolina and New England are practically guaranteed first-round byes; Arizona is highly likely to earn the same; and Denver and Cincinnati are nearly a toss-up to grab the remaining slot.) And as a likely No. 5 or 6 seed, Seattle will have to do it on the road. The reality of an extra single-elimination test slices into Seattle’s Super Bowl probability considerably.
Assuming that the Seahawks do make the playoffs, though, they’ll be on everyone’s list of dark-horse Super Bowl candidates — and nobody’s list of preferred postseason opponents. They may not be in their typical role as title favorites, but all it might take to change that are sustained improvements in the passing game and a first-round playoff victory.