Russell Wilson described it as “probably one of the most key parts of the game.”
The Seattle Seahawks, trailing the New York Giants by three points midway through the third quarter of their meeting Sunday at Lumen Field, faced fourth-and-inches from their own 48-yard line. The Giants had just generated their first real offense of the game to take the lead, and the Seahawks were desperate to answer and regain momentum. The decision to go for it was a no-brainer.
But as Wilson dropped back to pass I gently shook my head in resignation. Regardless of the result of the play, I just couldn’t understand why the Seahawks are unable to figure out something so simple.
Would someone please break into Seahawks offensive coordinator Brian Shottenheimer’s office, find Seattle’s playbook, and paste a page with the quarterback sneak drawn up on it to the inside of the front cover?
Seattle suffered an awful loss Sunday, falling 17-12 at home to a 4-7 Giants team forced to start a quarterback who hadn’t won a game since 2014, and it’s possible the game hinged on Seattle’s continued unwillingness to use football’s most simple play.
The past two weeks Seattle’s play calling in critical short-yardage situations has come into question. Last week against Philadelphia it was a pair of unsuccessful fourth-and-2 calls, allowing the Eagles to hang around before the Seahawks eventually won 23-17. Against the Giants it was a rollout pass call that the Giants sniffed out to force an incompletion and turn the ball over on downs.
In Sunday’s situation, a lot of second guessing could have been averted had the Seahawks simply called a quarterback sneak.
Countless studies have concluded that in short-yardage situations, the quarterback sneak is by far the most effective play. A 2019 study by Sports Info Solutions found that since 2015 the quarterback sneak had an 88% success rate when used on third-and-1 or fourth-and-1, while no other play was better than 73%, causing the researcher to label the quarterback sneak as the most underutilized play in football. The Wall Street Journal in 2018 came to the same conclusion. Heck, even Yale University looked at the subject in 2015, finding that on fourth-and-1 quarterback sneaks had a 20% better conversion rate than all other plays.
But the Seahawks seem particularly stubborn about using the quarterback sneak.
Looking over the game logs from this season, I counted 16 plays in which the Seahawks ran an offensive snap on third-and-1 or fourth-and-1, which are the typical quarterback-sneak scenarios. Eight times Seattle called a running back’s number, succeeding five times for a 62.5% success rate. Seven times the Seahawks called a pass play, succeeding just three times for a 42.9% success rate. The one quarterback sneak? It resulted in a touchdown for a 100% success rate.
Those numbers track with the studies, but it’s a small sample size. So I decided to look at Seattle’s opponents in those situations, too. The Seahawks’ opponents have faced 33 third-and-1s and fourth-and-1s this season in which they ran an offensive play. The opponent called a quarterback sneak just four times — so it’s not like Seattle is the only team that seems to have an anti-quarterback-sneak bias — but it worked on all four occasions. Of the other 32 attempts, 25 were different types of runs, which were converted 18 times for a 72% success rate. There were just four pass plays, but all four were successful for a 100% success rate.
Therefore, between the Seahawks and their opponents the tabulation is thus: pass plays were successful 63.6% of the time, runs were successful 69.7% of the time, and quarterback sneaks were successful 100% of the time.
The answer seems painfully obvious to me.
I understand there are rationalizations against using the sneak. It requires the quarterback to line up under center instead of in the shotgun, a formation that is becoming less and less frequent, therefore potentially signaling to the defense that the QB sneak is coming. And at 5-foot-11 Wilson won’t fall as far forward as his taller compatriots. But both those can be explained away. Seattle is a team that lines up behind center plenty, and Wilson makes up for his lack of height by having the quickness to dart into small gaps in the line — the Sports Info Solutions article notes that Drew Brees, another short quarterback, was 23-for-23 on QB sneaks during its study period.
After the game Seattle coach Pete Carroll was asked why he hasn’t handed the ball off to Chris Carson in those situations the past two weeks (I happen to think that was the wrong question). Carroll answered by saying, “We wanted the ball in Russ’ hands, to give him a chance. He had all kinds of options, and it didn’t work.”
But on a quarterback sneak the ball is in Wilson’s hands.
“It was fourth-and-1 right in the middle of the field and we didn’t get it,” Wilson lamented about the failed conversion against the Giants. “If we get that, the whole game may change.”
If the Seahawks would just do the simple thing and run the quarterback sneak, it might just change games in Seattle’s favor — and also spare Carroll the headache of spending his postgame presser answering questions about play calling.
Follow Nick Patterson on Twitter at @NickHPatterson.