Seattle Seahawks fans have spent the past week channeling their inner Keyshawn Johnson. With regards to Chris Carson, they’ve clambered to the peak of Mount Rainier and shouted at the top of their lungs:
The loudest noise coming in the wake of Seattle’s 27-24 loss to the Denver Broncos last Sunday in their season opener was questioning why Carson didn’t get the ball more. Carson seemed in line to be the Seahawks’ primary running back to start the season, yet he received just seven carries against the Broncos.
This was a mystery to most observers. Seattle coach Pete Carroll spoke throughout the offseason and training camp about the desire to improve a run game that’s deteriorated precipitously since 2015. In the Seahawks’ two most successful seasons under Carroll, 2013-14 when Seattle reached the Super Bowl both years, the Hawks were one of the top four rushing teams in the NFL, with Marshawn Lynch serving as the battering ram.
The run game’s results have declined the past two years as the Seahawks finished 25th in the league in rushing in 2016 and 23rd last year. That corresponds with Seattle missing the playoffs last year for the first time since 2012.
Is it any wonder fans want to see the Seahawks’ run game restored to its former glory? Seattle seemed to acknowledge that by expending huge draft capital in selecting running back Rashaad Penny in the first round of this year’s draft.
But Carson has outplayed Penny. The second-year player claimed the No. 1 spot early last season before being lost for the season because of a broken leg. He returned this offseason and was the most impressive back during training camp, earning the top spot on the depth chart.
Yet Carson and Penny received the same number of snaps and the same number of carries against the Broncos. Carson (51 yards on seven carries) was vastly more productive than Penny (8 yards on seven carries).
That had Seahawks fans up in arms. Social media was abuzz with angst over the splitting of running back duties. In this week’s Seattle Sidelines poll, voters overwhelmingly supported Carson as the Seattle’s primary ball carrier.
But amidst the cacophony of indignation, I came across a different take from Ben Baldwin. Baldwin, who does statistic-based pieces about the Seahawks for The Athletic Seattle, argued the Hawks shouldn’t be trying to run the ball more at all. Baldwin has a tweet thread pinned on his Twitter page arguing that NFL teams should actually run the ball less often, and after Sunday’s game he tweeted, “The Seahawks had -7.5 Expected Points Added (EPA) on their 14 rush attempts and 0.8 EPA on their 41 dropbacks. If you want them to run more often, you want them to score fewer points.”
The Seahawks had -7.5 Expected Points Added (EPA) on their 14 rush attempts and 0.8 EPA on their 41 dropbacks. If you want them to run more often, you want them to score fewer points.
— Ben Baldwin (@benbbaldwin) September 10, 2018
It’s an interesting argument that flies in the face of pretty much everything that’s being said about the Seahawks and their run game.
I’m always intrigued by data-based research. But to explore this idea I decided to conduct a little research of my own.
First, I wanted to see if there was any correlation between pass/run ratio and team success. Using numbers compiled at TeamRankings.com I looked at every NFL team’s pass/run ratio over the past five years, then compared playoff teams to non-playoff teams. Every year playoff teams had a lower pass/run ratio than non-playoff teams, ranging from 58.8-59.8 percent in 2016 to 55.4-60.0 percent in 2013. In four of the five season, nine of the 12 playoff teams finished in the top half of the league in rushing, and in the fifth season seven of the 12 playoff teams were in the top half.
Granted, these numbers need to be looked at with a dose of context. For example, bad teams usually find themselves behind in games and thus are compelled to throw the ball more. But I don’t see anything in these numbers that suggest that passing teams have greater success in winning games than running teams.
Second, I wanted to see whether teams that succeeded running the ball tended to do so behind a single back or through spreading the wealth. Therefore, I looked at the top five rushing teams each of the past five years and examined their running distribution. Of those 25 teams, 16 had a back who surpassed 1,000 yards, and another five would have had a 1,000-yard rusher if not for missed games. It suggests that if a team wants to be good running the ball, it should choose a primary back rather than go with a platoon.
The first analysis suggests there is value to running the ball, and the second suggests there is value to choosing a primary back.
Therefore, I have to agree with the fans. The Seahawks should just give Carson the damn ball. At least give him a chance to prove he can be the piece Seattle’s running game has been missing.
Follow Nick Patterson on Twitter at @NickHPatterson.