Aug 17

Gauging the Rushing Success of the Seattle Seahawks

NFL Preview

In 2014, we expected the Seahawks offensive line to improve. During our look at Seattle’s Five Factors of Regression for 2014, we cited the 2013 Seahawks allowing a sack in a league-worst 9.48 percent of dropbacks. Some of that can be attributed to Russell Wilson buying time with his rollouts behind the line of scrimmage, but most of it had to do with poor offensive line play.

As it turns out, while the offensive line did experience some regression in pass protection, it’s improvement actually came in the running game. With the fourth-best run-blocking offensive line, according to Football Outsiders, the Seahawks were suited to improve on an already-strong ground attack. Couple in a historic rushing season with Russell Wilson, and the 2014 Seahawks put together one of the best rushing seasons in NFL history. With 2762 yards on 525 attempts, the team joined a select of group of greats rushing the football.

Marshawn Lynch runs his way to an epic touchdown against Arizona. The run was claimed "Earthquake II." (photo rights to Christian Petersen / Getty Images)

Marshawn Lynch runs his way to an epic touchdown against Arizona. The run was claimed to be “Beastquake II” by many pundits. (photo rights to Christian Petersen / Getty Images)

From the get-go of the 2014 season, Seattle looked like one of the league’s best teams running the football. The Seahawks totaled 207 yards on the ground in their Week 1 victory over the Packers. Seattle proceeding to reach triple digits on the ground in every game for the rest of the season, save for the Week 6 home loss to the Dallas Cowboys (80 rush yards). The 2014 Seahawks totaled 2762 rush yards on 525 attempts, meaning they averaged approximately 172.63 yards per game on 5.26 yards per attempt. This puts them in very select company over the past 55 seasons. We aim to expose key contributing factors for each team.

In NFL and AFL history, a combined 44 teams since 1960 averaged at least 170 rush yards per game. Only eight of those teams averaged at least five yards per attempt. Check out this select list:

  • 2014 Seattle Seahawks: 172.63 yards per game, 5.26 yards per attempt
  • 2006 Atlanta Falcons: 183.69 yards per game, 5.47 yards per attempt
  • 1984 Los Angeles Rams: 179 yards per game, 5.29 yards per attempt
  • 1975 Buffalo Bills: 212.43 yards per game, 5.06 yards per attempt
  • 1973 Buffalo Bills: 220.57 yards per game, 5.10 yards per attempt
  • 1972 Pittsburgh Steelers: 180 yards per game, 5.07 yards per attempt
  • 1963 Cleveland Browns: 188.5 yards per game, 5.74 yards per attempt
  • 1962 Dallas Texans (AFL): 171.93 yards per game, 5.03 yards per attempt

Quickly judging this list, we have some obvious reasons of the respective team’s success. The 2006 Falcons had Michael Vick, who rushed for 1039 yards on just 123 attempts (8.45 yards per attempt) as a quarterback. The 1984 Rams had Eric Dickerson, who ran for an NFL-record 2105 yards. The 1973 Bills and 1975 Bills had O.J. Simpson. He became the first 2000-yard rusher in 1973, doing so in just 14 games. He then rushed for 1817 yards in 14 games in 1975, which surpasses 2K again if prorated to 16 games. Finally, the 1963 Browns had Jim Brown, who put together the best single-season performance in league history by a running back. In just 14 games, he ran for 1863 yards on 291 attempts (6.40 yards per attempt). It’s something we discussed during the 2013 NFL Preview.

All this considered, we’d say the 2014 Seahawks have a top-six rushing attack over the past 55 seasons.

It goes without saying that the 2015 Seahawks will regress on the ground. However, comparing the 2014 team to the other seven teams will help us find out exactly how that regression will play out. We can then use this for the Five Factors of Regression for 2015.

Factor #1: The Russell Wilson Affect
As mentioned, a historic rushing season for Wilson vaulted this rushing attack into the stratosphere. The DangeRuss quarterback totaled 849 rush yards on just 118 attempts, resulting in a 7.19-yard average. We’re talking production of the likes of Vick or Randall Cunningham here. Without Wilson, the Seahawks average 119.56 yards per game on 4.70 yards per attempt. That shows that the Seattle rushing attack is still great, but not at an all-time level. Wilson is capable of rushing very well, but remember he never topped 600 yards on the ground in his first two seasons. Expect some rushing regression for Wilson in 2015.

Obviously, a comparison to the 2006 Falcons is apt. Without Vick, the team averages 118.75 yards per game on 4.59 yards per carry. That’s quite similar to where the Seahawks were last year without Wilson. Note that Vick hit his legal troubles with the slaughtering of dogs in an illegal dog-fighting ring the following offseason, and the Falcons dropped under 100 yards per game and four yards per carry. We at least can expect the 2015 Seahawks to do better than that, as Wilson hopefully won’t be doing awful like what Vick did.

Factor #2: Big Games Against the Giants and Cardinals
When it comes to big rushing games, the 2014 Seahawks actually have quite a timid place on the list. They don’t rank high in games with 120+ yards, 150+ yards, 200+ yards or 250+ yards. Regardless, Seattle’s rushing performance against the Giants and Cardinals will have an impact on the team’s rushing regression. During the Week 10 win over New York, the Seahawks ran for 350 yards on 45 attempts (7.78-yard average). During the Week 16 win in Arizona, the Seahawks ran for 267 yards on 34 attempts (7.85-yard average).

This gives the 2014 Seahawks two of the 68 games since 1960 in which a team averaged more than 7.5 yards per attempts en route to 250+ yards rushing game (per Pro Football Reference). To no surprise, no team in this time frame pulled the feat off thrice in one season. A comparison to the 1963 Browns and 1984 Rams are the only ones possible, as they were the only other teams from the above list to pull off the feat. The 1984 Rams rushed for 276 yards on just 34 carries during a Week 15 win over the Houston Oilers. The 1963 Browns rushed for 265 yards on just 31 carries during a Week 2 win over the Dallas Cowboys.

We will this big-game regression have a limited affect on the team’s per-game and per-attempt average. It’s still at least something to note, though. That’s because the Seahawks didn’t have many other games where they held a standout per-attempt average. In fact, the Seahawks only had one other game with at least six yards per attempt en route to a 120+ yard game (Week 5 at Washington, with 225 yards on 36 attempts). Seattle had the fewest such games (three) among the eight teams in our study.

Factor #3: Marshawn Lynch’s Usage
There are questions surrounding Marshawn Lynch’s age (29) and the expected drop-off in production that comes with it. However, we are worried about his extended usage with the Seahawks. Lynch came to Seattle after a trade in 2010, but he truly made his mark starting in 2011. It was the first of four consecutive seasons with at least 280 rush attempts and 1200 yards. Pro Football Reference cites only eight other running backs holding a streak this long. Granted, this is a list of Hall of Fame running backs, present or future, save for Eddie George and maybe Lynch. (Tomlinson is eligible in 2017.) However, the drop-off can even happen with these guys.

Eric Dickerson (at age 30) never topped even 800 yards after his seven-year streak ended. Tomlinson (at age 29) dropped to a solid 1110 yards, but couldn’t crack even 1K in his final three seasons. George (at age 28) sagged down to 939 rush yards and 2.98 yards per attempt in 2001, and he never topped 1200 yards again after that. Sanders (at age 30) perhaps saw his decline before it ever came, as he retired before the 1999 season began. Campbell’s streak was interrupted by the 1982 strike, although he would’ve needed a significant boost in yards to get to 1200 by 16 games. Regardless, after achieving the feat again in 1983, he was all but done in 1984 (at age 29). Finally, Curtis Martin fell a bit shy of the totals in 2002, only to resume a streak through 2004. However, by 2005, he fell apart with only 3.34 yards per attempt (at age 32). Remember, we’re talking some all-time greats here.

Emmitt Smith and Walter Payton may be the exceptions. There’s good reason why the two running backs top the all-time yards list. Smith’s streak ended in 1997, when the 28-year-old tallied 1074 yards on 261 attempts for a 6-10 Cowboys team that confirmed the end of a mini-dynasty.  He then tallied three more consecutive seasons of 280+ attempts for 1200+ yards, before the second streak ended in 2001 (at age 32) with production similar to that of 1997. Smith earned the rushing record in 2002 before fading in efficiency.

Meanwhile, at age 28, Peyton’s streak was interrupted by the 1982 strike. His prorated numbers actually don’t qualify for 280+ attempts for 1200+ yards, but who knows what would’ve happened at the league played a full 16-game season. As seen, Peyton proceeded to set another four-season streak. His final season (at age 33) was a 146-attempt, 533-yard performance that fits the preceding narrative.

It’s certainly possible that Lynch continues the streak. He could have a “slight step back” year like 2002 Martin or 1997 Smith experienced, with would be good enough for another 250+ attempt, 1000+ yard season (like Lynch enjoyed in each of his first two seasons with the Buffalo Bills). However, it’s also possible that he starts to wear down and show signs of serious decline.

We think the middle of the three options is most likely, meaning that the Seahawks will see another limited step of regression in the ground game. After all, Lynch had exactly 280 attempts last year, so a slight drop-off isn’t a far cry from 2014.

Conclusion: The Seahawks System Lives Another Year… For Now
At the end of the day, the 2015 Seahawks should still put up elite rushing numbers. Wilson and Lynch will both take a slight step back, and games like the wins over Giants and Cardinals won’t happen again in 2015. However, all of those factors have a limited impact on regression. Although the offensive line has its questions, we still like Lynch’s ability to break tackles and run between the hashmarks. We also still think Wilson is good for about 500 rushing yards as a scrambler as long as he stays healthy.

Even though the NFL can be unpredictable from one year to the next, teams generally don’t just drop off after such elite success. While we mentioned the decline of the 2007 Falcons rushing attack without Vick, we can look at the other regression situations to learn that it’s not all that bad. The other six cases of regression resulted in 12720 rush yards on 3027 attempts in 86 games. This equates to an average of 147.91 yards per game on 4.20 yards per attempt. Even with today’s expanded pass structure, the Seahawks should be able to top 2000 rush yards as a team while posting an above-average per-attempt rushing total. The run-heavy attack in Seattle will continue to help make this team a legitimate Super Bowl contender for at least 2015.

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