SEATTLE – I have a friend – we’ll call her Becky – who almost certainly knows less about football than you. I doubt she can name 10 players. She doesn’t know the backfield from the secretary. And if you asked her about A gaps or nickelbacks, she might have an aneurysm.
But several years ago, she said something that some would think qualifies her to be an NFL head coach. “I feel like every time they throw it far down the field, they score. Why don’t they do it every time?”
That notion is one that has gained traction over the years, but isn’t one Seahawks coach Pete Carroll subscribes to. A longtime proponent of run-first football, Carroll oversaw some not-so-subtle draft picks last week that emphasized this mentality.
Running back Rashaad Penny with their first pick? Blocking tight end Will Dissly with their third? Carroll obviously wants to move the organization forward – he just think it’s best to do so 4 or 5 yards at a time.
It’s difficult to argue against a philosophy that helped take the Seahawks to back-to-back Super Bowls and spawned a parade in Seattle. But it’s at least worth asking the question: Is run-happy football an antiquated approach?
Before delving into the answer, it’s important to understand that Carroll’s Super Bowl teams were tailor made for a run-first approach. The Seahawks had perhaps the best running back in the league in Marshawn Lynch, a top-tier offensive line, and a historically dominant defense.
Turning the ball over was the only way they were going to lose, so eliminating that risk was essential. But those teams were unique, and Russell Wilson hadn’t yet established himself as an MVP-caliber quarterback.
It’s one thing to build a strategy based on your personnel – but should the Seahawks be building their personnel based on their strategy?
Joshua Connelly of sportsquotient.com looked at numbers from 1999-2013 and found that only 17 percent of the 30 Super Bowl participants during that span ran the ball more than they passed. By no means does this mean the run-first teams were “wrong,” as there are many ways to (pig)skin a cat. But it does speak to an NFL trend that wouldn’t be so pervasive if it wasn’t effective.
Moreover, Anthony Chiado of settingedge.com took a deep dive into the risks and rewards of the deep pass, and concluded that a major uptick in long throws would be the best way to improve an offense. Chiado suspects the reason more coaches don’t go this route is because they’re afraid of losing their jobs if the unconventional approach fails.
Who knows if that’s true or not? What is certainly true is that data has convinced most coaches around the NFL to center their offense around the passing game.
There’s a reason the average quarterback earns about 2.5 times more than the average running back. And it’s worth noting that, of those aforementioned Super Bowl participants who ran the ball more than they threw, three led the NFL in defense in their respective years (the 2000 Ravens, the 2002 Bucs and the 2013 Seahawks).
It was in those teams’ best interest to protect the ball given the horses they had on the other side of it. Will that still be the case for a Seahawks squad that lost Michael Bennett and Richard Sherman and might never see Kam Chancellor or Cliff Avril again?
Comparing Carroll’s knowledge of football to mine would be like comparing the sun to Pluto. He’s a Super Bowl win – maybe even an appearance – away from going into Canton.
But I’ve seen coaching geniuses in other sports marry their once unstoppable styles and go on to fail spectacularly. Phil Jackson, remember, insisted on the triangle offense when he became general manager of the Knicks.
There is no doubt the Seahawks need a vastly improved running game. When your quarterback has double the rushing yards as any running back on your team, no opponent is ever going to bite on a play-action.
But with one of the best quarterbacks in the league, is it wise for Carroll to return to a run-first approach just because it worked for him before? I know how Becky would respond – and I think a lot of folks would agree with her.
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