The NFL is a league built on conventional wisdom. Its thinking is conservative. Its practices are uniformed. It’s not a coincidence that the most successful coach in the league is the one who bucks conventional wisdom most often. Falling in line is a big deal in the NFL and not just for the players.
Pete Carroll has never been one to fall in line. For one it requires expounding no energy, not smiling and just generally staying still.
During Carroll’s first season as the Seattle Seahawks head coach he made an outrageous 284 roster transactions. His team didn’t really get any better. They made the playoffs but only because someone in the NFC West had to. The team’s record was 7-9. Carroll went 7-9 again the following season. He made more than 200 transactions again.
The roster was bad and Carroll knew it. He understood that his job wasn’t to turn this team into a playoff contender within two years. His job was to rebuild the roster so they could sustain success over the long term. Carroll absorbed the disruption and dysfunction that threatens a team constantly in flux for opportunities to evaluate as many players as possible. It didn’t matter that they were cast-offs from other teams. Carroll wanted to make his own evaluation.
Chris Clemons became the franchise’s best find. The roster added a few pieces but Clemons became one of the better pass rushers in the league. Before he was joined by Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril, he was clearly the team’s best pass rusher. Clemons would be a key piece on the 2014 Seahawks team that won the Super Bowl.
It was that open-mindedness from Carroll that would allow him to create one of the best rosters in the NFL. He was able to evaluate pieces independent of outside influence. If a player offered a skill set that could fit into his team’s identity, he invested in him regardless of what the market value suggested he should cost.
Bruce Irvin was probably the most notable move of that kind. Irvin probably wasn’t worth the price the Seahawks paid for him, but just like the infamous decision to go for it against the Atlanta Falcons during the 2013 playoffs, it was reflective of the culture that Carroll was fostering in Seattle. Irvin was a pass rusher who the team identified as someone who could be a key piece for them, so they spent a first-round pick on him even though nobody expected him to go that high.
Even though Irvin didn’t reap the rewards they hoped he would, that same philosophy led them to Bobby Wagner and Russell Wilson.
Conventional wisdom suggested that Bobby Wagner was too small to be a middle linebacker. The first line in Wagner’s weaknesses section of his NFL.com draft profile reads “Wagner is undersized to play middle linebacker in the NFL.” For some teams that would have been enough to take him off their boards completely. NFL teams use size thresholds at certain positions. This is more common with defensive linemen and linebackers than other positions. If you don’t meet the threshold, you’re out.
Quarterbacks are expected to be a certain size too. Height is the bigger question there. Obviously Russell Wilson didn’t meet anyone’s threshold. Wilson fell to the third round…but you know how that turned out.
Picking Wilson was one thing. Another team would have picked him. Starting him as a rookie is another thing completely. Starting him as a rookie with two veterans on the roster, one of which you had paid a significant contract to that very offseason, took courage. As everyone knows, Carroll’s courage resulted in a Super Bowl ring that was primarily won because of Wilson’s quality combined with his cost. His minimal salary allowed the Seahawks to max out the rest of their roster.
There is no Michael Bennett or Cliff Avril in Seattle if Wilson’s contract doesn’t allow for it. Naturally, once Wilson got paid, the assumption was that the Seahawks would have to break up their foundation. Each of Wilson, Bennett, Avril, Richard Sherman, Earl Thomas, Doug Baldwin, Bobby Wagner, K.J. Wright, Marshawn Lynch, Kam Chancellor and Jimmy Graham needed to take up significant percentages of the salary cap.
Brandon Mebane was the biggest loss on the defensive side. Other ancillary pieces such as Byron Maxwell left, but they were all relatively easy to replace. Mebane was the only one at the time who figured to hurt.
While Mebane was a reluctant loss, the Seahawks were happier to move on from expensive offensive linemen. Starting center Max Unger was traded away to get Graham. Oft-injured Russell Okung was allowed to leave. None of J.R. Sweezy, James Carpenter or Breno Giacomini were retained at even cut prices. That’s not to say they were particularly impressive players but the Seahawks transitioned away from veterans to dirt-cheap rookies. They cut their investment on the offensive line completely.
According to Spotrac, the Seahawks have committed $16 million to their offensive line for 2017.
That is $3 million less than any other team. It’s $13 million below the league average and less than half of what eight teams are paying to offensive linemen this year. The Cleveland Browns, who figure to have one of the best offensive lines in the league this year, are paying more than three times what the Seahawks are paying to their linemen. Carroll took the idea of saving money on linemen and pushed it to an extreme.
Incredibly, this year the Seahawks are closer to the rest of the league than they were last year. That is thanks to a $7 million investment in Luke Joeckel. Joeckel was added once the Seahawks had locked up all of their key pieces. He is not going to alter the quality of the line in any meaningful way, no single player could. Joeckel was a desperation move considering he failed as a left tackle in Jacksonville before moving to left guard for his final season.
Carroll won’t care. He knows that his team is built to win without quality offensive linemen.
The Seahawks are a defense-reliant team. That means their ideal path to victory is in low-scoring games where the defense sets the pace. Keeping the score low allows the offense to stay balanced and it means the quarterback doesn’t have to force throws on a regular basis. With a bad offensive line, that’s a crucial detail. If you are forced to always play in high-scoring games behind an awful offensive line, you become Philip Rivers and the San Diego Chargers from recent years.
Wilson is integral to the Seahawks success and not just because he’s the team’s starting quarterback. This whole roster construction hinges on his playing style.
Not only did the Seahawks accurately assess that Wilson could play in the NFL when he was coming out of the draft, they also have a grasp of what his skill set is. They understand how to set him up for success and how his playing style hurts and helps the players around him. Carroll isn’t investing in offensive linemen because he knows that having great pass protection isn’t as valuable to the Seahawks as it is to most other teams.
That is because Wilson does some of his best work extending plays, creating outside of structure instead of releasing the ball at the top of his drop or after holding it within the confines of the pocket. Wilson’s passing game typically asks him to get rid of the ball quickly. He rarely holds the ball for longer than two seconds without breaking the pocket. If it doesn’t come out quickly, it comes out late.
What that means is Wilson runs himself into pressure and sacks more often.
Charting for the Pre-Snap Reads Quarterback Catalogue in 2015 revealed that Wilson ran into sacks and missed reads on plays that resulted in sacks more than any other quarterback not named Blake Bortles. In 2016, Wilson ran into sacks less often but it was because he was playing hurt. His scrambling and broken-play ability wasn’t as impactful in 2016 as it had been in 2015.
Taking unnecessary sacks isn’t a good thing, but it’s not really a problem. Wilson creates a lot more than he negates. His playing style means his negative plays look more egregious than your “pocket passer” types but they are still rare relative to his overall performances.
If your quarterback is going to get rid of the ball quickly as often as he can and run himself out of clean pockets into pressure, quality pass blocking is less impactful. Furthermore, quality run blocking is less of a requisite because of Wilson’s impact on running plays. He obviously contributes a lot directly with his own production but every time he hands the ball off while facing the defense he holds the backside defender on the play. That turns the numbers advantage in the offense’s favour because one guy doesn’t need to be blocked.
Having an arsenal of receivers who can get open on vertical routes to create big plays that complement a strong running game is more valuable to the Seahawks than having good offensive linemen.
Wilson struggled last year because of his injuries but he was still one of the better deep passers in the league. A big reason for that was the quality of his targets. Jimmy Graham, Paul Richardson, Doug Baldwin and Tyler Lockett can all get open deep. Not only that, they can create greater separation downfield than their counterparts across the league. That creates bigger windows for Wilson to lay the ball into; Easier throws.
Deep throws were less of an issue than throwing to other levels of the field for two reasons: Wilson has a great arm and he could just let the ball rip.
The lower-limb injuries impacted Wilson more throwing shorter passes. Shorter passes require more touch, timing and control because you’re trying to hit tighter windows and trying to put the ball in spots at the right time for the receivers’ breaks. Wilson is way too good of a passer to rank 22nd, 28th, 17th and 27th in categories below 20 yards. He is one of the purest passers in the league. Someone who can not only consistently hit his receivers with catchable passes but with perfect passes.
He throws receivers open against tight coverage and leads them to space to maximize yards after the catch. Without healthy feet to establish his foundation beneath him, his accuracy became a major problem.
Every quarterback in the NFL…An overwhelming majority of the quarterbacks in the NFL are accurate enough to be NFL players. Fewer than 20 are natural passers who can place the ball perfectly for their receivers at every level of the field. Wilson is in that group with players such as Aaron Rodgers, Sam Bradford, Drew Brees and Andrew Luck. Assuming he is healthy in 2017, he should return to being extremely accurate to every level of the field.
That’s the big question for Carroll though. Inherently, this approach brings with it greater injury risk for Wilson. He’s got such a huge responsibility in the offense that he is inevitably going to take a lot of punishment. He is a physically powerful player even though he’s not tall, but that doesn’t matter much when defenders fall on your knees and ankles.
Carroll would likely argue that every team in the league would lose their Super Bowl shot if their quarterback is below 100 percent.
He’d be right.
Pete Carroll is exceptional in every sense of the word. So is his quarterback. Exceptional has become a synonym for successful or brilliant in sports coverage, they are both of those things, but the literal translation is just as appropriate. Carroll is the atypical, unusual coach who has a perfect understanding of his atypical, unusual quarterback.
The Seahawks are trying to win a Super Bowl without an offensive line. It’s crazy, it’s unlike anything else in the sport but it might just work.