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Zigging, while others zag. Can Seahawks win (again) with a run-heavy game plan?

Under Pete Carroll, the Seahawks have combined volume and efficiency to create one of the most consistently bankable units in the NFL.

SEATTLE — Editor's note: The above video of an exclusive KING 5 interview with Seahawks running back Rashaad Penny aired on July 21. This story is part of KING 5's Seahawks season preview series.  

Picture a modern National Football League (NFL) offense.

What do you see?

Oftentimes, a young quarterback with the ability to create plays with his legs is the fulcrum of said offense. Then you pair him with a few reliable wide receivers, a tight end that can stretch the middle of the field and an offensive coordinator working to push the defense to its physical limits. An offensive line that can keep the quarterback upright is important, too. 

For many NFL teams, an offense starts and ends with passing. Then, maybe, you can consider running the ball to either keep the defense on its toes or to burn the clock while holding a double-digit lead. 

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That's why you see the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Kansas City Chiefs, Buffalo Bills and Los Angeles Rams all ranked within the top 10 in passing attempts last year. Passing the ball is not only more efficient than running, but it also gives elite quarterbacks more control over the game's proceedings.  

Then you have the Seattle Seahawks, a profoundly weird team in an era relying more and more on its quarterbacks to generate offense. For much of the Pete Carroll era, Seattle has preferred to lean on its running game rather than the other way around. 

Take a look at the last nine years of Seahawks rushing, ranked by the amount of rushing attempts in the league.

Seahawks rushing ranks in the NFL

  • 2021: 27th (25.8 rushes per game) 
  • 2020: 17th (25.7 rushes per game)
  • 2019: 3rd (30.1 rushes per game)
  • 2018: 2nd (33.4 rushes per game)
  • 2017: 21st (25.6 rushes per game) 
  • 2016: 20th (25.2 rushes per game)
  • 2015: 3rd (31.3 rushes per game)
  • 2014: 2nd (32.8 rushes per game)
  • 2013: 2nd (31.8 rushes per game)

Seattle ranked within the top five in total rushing attempts in five of these nine seasons. 

The team ranked 21st and 27th, respectively, in overall rushing attempts in the only two seasons (2017 and 2021) Seattle missed the playoffs in the Russell Wilson era. 

Under Carroll, Seattle has combined volume and efficiency to create one of the most consistently bankable units in the NFL. After all, the Seahawks ranked within the top 12 in rushing yards per attempt in seven of nine seasons.

When the team's rushing efficiency dipped - like in 2017 - the Seahawks had one of its worst seasons with Wilson at the helm.

Now let's look at passing attempts per season. 

Seahawks passing ranks in the NFL

  • 2021: 31st (29.1 passes per game)
  • 2020: 17th (35.2 passes per game)
  • 2019: 23rd (32.3 passes per game)
  • 2018: 32nd (26.7 passes per game)
  • 2017: 16th (34.7 passes per game)
  • 2016: 18th (35.4 passes per game)
  • 2015: 28th (30.6 passes per game)
  • 2014: 32nd (28.4 passes per game)
  • 2013: 31st (26.3 passes per game)

Yeah, Seattle really does not like to pass, ranking at best 16th in overall attempts in the 2017 season. 

In 2013, the Seahawks passed nine times fewer per game than the average NFL team. 

What happened in 2013 again?

Oh yeah, Seattle won its first-ever Super Bowl.

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The following season, Seattle threw seven times fewer per game than the average NFL team and came within one miraculous play from winning back-to-back Super Bowls.

Seattle has essentially tried to bring back football to the 1970s when crushing running backs ruled the league and quarterbacks were merely the sideshows. And it's worked - somehow. 

Carroll has led four teams in the last nine years that actually rushed more often than they passed for an entire season. They made the playoffs in each of those seasons. Twice they made the Super Bowl.

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Of course, Seattle missed the playoffs in 2017 when they ranked 16th in pass attempts (a huge number for a Carroll team).

Here's the Seahawks passing efficiency rankings for more answers. 

Seahawks passing efficiency in the NFL

  • 2021: 8th (7.7 yards per attempt)
  • 2020: 13th (7.5 yards per attempt) 
  • 2019: 8th (7.9 yards per attempt) 
  • 2018: 6th (8.1 yards per attempt) 
  • 2017: 12th (7.2 yards per attempt) 
  • 2016: 6th (7.8 yards per attempt) 
  • 2015: 2nd (8.3 yards per attempt) 
  • 2014: 6th (7.7 yards per attempt) 
  • 2013: 2nd (8.4 yards per attempt) 

OK, so it's clear that something is happening here. The conventional football wisdom is that teams with a good quarterback should pass more often than teams that don't have a good quarterback. (Groundbreaking, I know.)

Wilson was definitely among the "good" quarterbacks in the league for his 10-year tenure, leading one of the most efficient passing offenses each year. 

Yet Carroll, dogmatic in his approach, never let Wilson fully loose. 

If you believe the football statheads, run-heavy offenses typically are less efficient than their pass-heavy counterparts because of this simple mathematical fact: An average pass (7.1 yards per attempt in 2021) gains more yards than the average run (4.3 yards per attempt).

Yet the Seahawks paired a hyper-efficient, run-heavy offense with a passing attack that also happened to be hyper-efficient. 

The result, time and time again, was one of the best offenses in the league, bucking a widely believed trend that you need to build around passing. 

So can the Seahawks run more and win - again?

That brings us to the 5-foot-11 elephant not in the Seahawks quarterback room.

Wilson is no longer a Seahawk. 

He was perhaps the perfect quarterback for a run-oriented head coach, a long-range assassin with one of the best deep throws in the league. When the Seahawks did throw, Wilson rarely made back-breaking mistakes to give the opposition the football.

Geno Smith and Drew Lock don't offer the same assurances. Not only do they turn the ball over more often, but the pair have also proven to be bottom-tier quarterbacks on an efficiency basis.

That's not the ideal combination with an offensive game plan contingent on keeping the game reasonably close. Running is far less effective while facing a large deficit, after all. 

But the Seahawks have thumbed their noses at following NFL trends before, oftentimes to incredible success. 

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