I’m having difficulty getting a read from the fanbase when it comes to their overall thoughts on the 2019 Seahawks; is that team considered a disappointment, or did they make the most of what they had? It’s easy to forget – knowing that was a Wild Card team who was ultimately thrust from the playoffs in the Divisional Round – but the 2019 Seahawks started out 10-2, among the best teams in all of football by record at the time. We lost three of our last four regular season games (all to divisional opponents) to lose our handle on the divisional title and a chance at a top two seed in the NFC, then we beat a decimated Eagles team before losing like we usually do on the road in the Divisional Round (by falling into a deep hole early and not having enough in the tank to come all the way back late). When you factor in a generational talent like Russell Wilson being in his prime, once again falling short of the Super Bowl, that feels disappointing to me. Maybe I’m spoiled, but I don’t know what to tell you.
The 2020 Seahawks are 4-0 right now. With the way our schedule is shaping up – among the easiest in football – not only do I see a reasonable path to at least matching our 10-2 start from a season ago, unless things take a dramatically dark turn, I’d be shocked if we’re not 12-2 as we head into the final two weeks of the season. 13-3 is not only on the table at this point, but should be the FLOOR. I don’t think a perfect season is happening, but one or two losses? I’m not throwing that out of bed for eating crackers!
When you think about how much we’ve obsessed over the quality of the defense to date – rightfully so, I might add – I can’t help but question whether or not this team is actually better than the one we saw a year ago. Are we better, or is our schedule just easier?
Well, let’s get the simple question out of the way: the schedule is unquestionably easier. The 2019 AFC North was much more difficult than the 2020 AFC East; give me those Ravens over these Bills, those Steelers (when we played them, with a healthy Big Ben) over these Patriots, those Browns over these Dolphins, and even those Bengals over these Jets. The 2019 NFC South was much more difficult than the 2020 NFC East; there’s no point in even going through the teams (we’ve seen this NFC East for many seasons continue to underwhelm at every turn). The 2019 Eagles and Vikings were superior to the 2020 Falcons and Vikings, no contest. And, I would argue the 2019 NFC West was much more difficult than the 2020 version, based on the 49ers being decimated by injuries and clearly not living up to the standard they set last year. We might’ve overrated the Cardinals in Year 2 of the Kyler Murray regime, and I think the Rams are about equal to what they were a season ago (Jared Goff will never take the next step as an elite quarterback, I’m sorry).
So, let’s look at the first question: are the Seahawks better?
On paper, just looking at the roster alone, the offense doesn’t look a whole lot different. Same quarterback, mostly same receivers, same starting running back, many of the same tight ends and offensive linemen, and even the same offensive coordinator. Obviously, everything is being made about Letting Russ Cook, but what is so remarkable to me is that there doesn’t seem to be any drop in efficiency. That was the knock against letting Russ cook in the past: we were winning games, mostly because he was the most efficient quarterback in football. He did more with less (attempts), and the only reason why he wasn’t among the MVP finalists is because he didn’t have those attempts, or total yardage numbers, that dazzle the eye and cloud the brain. Russell Wilson has always had high passer ratings, low interception numbers, and high yards per attempt averages. And, obviously, we’re looking at a quarter of the normal sample size in any given year, but he’s blowing all of those numbers out of the water so far!
You would think more attempts = more opportunities for mistakes. Or, more attempts = more short passes, for a lower yards per attempt average. Again, it’s the opposite! Last year, his passer rating was 106.3 (his career high in any season was 110.9 in 2018); this year his rating is 136.7 (out of a possible 158.3). Last year, his yards per attempt were an even 8.0 (his career high in any season was 8.3 in 2015); this year it’s 9.4. He’s not just dinking and dunking and checking down to running backs and tight ends; he’s throwing deep as he always has and still connecting on these beautiful arcing rainbow balls!
In short (no pun intended), I think many of us (myself included) thought we’d seen the best of what Russell Wilson has to offer, but he’s continuing to soar to new heights (ditto) and it’s incredible to witness.
There’s also a very credible argument to be made that these are the best weapons he’s ever had. That is a BOLD statement! Remember, he’s had guys like Marshawn Lynch, Doug Baldwin, Golden Tate, Sidney Rice, Zach Miller … and sure, Jimmy Graham and Percy Harvin. But, would you rather have those guys, or Chris Carson, Tyler Lockett, D.K. Metcalf, Greg Olsen, Will Dissly, David Moore, Carlos Hyde, Jacob Hollister, and Freddie Swain? They’ve all come up big in the early going, and we still have Josh Gordon, Phillip Dorsett, and Rashaad Penny waiting in the wings! Even when you just compare the 2020 group to 2019, I think you have to factor in the improved development of guys like Metcalf and Moore, as well as the rookie Swain who is already better than any fourth/fifth receiver we had last year.
Even though so many of the pieces are similar to what they were a season ago, this offense is unquestionably leaps & bounds better than it was (and better than it’s ever been, in the history of this franchise).
That brings us back to the defense.
So … yeah, the pass defense isn’t great. The pass rush was never thought to be anything above the bottom quarter in football, but the secondary has been atrocious as well. We’re still giving up over 400 yards passing per game, which is easily worst in the NFL. However! The run defense is only giving up 75.8 yards per game (third best); in 2019, the Seahawks gave up 117.7 rushing yards per game (11th worst). In a way, that makes sense, because our offense is so good, teams have to throw more to keep up and/or catch up with what we’re doing. But, it’s not like our 2019 offense was a turd sandwich or anything; we were in the top ten in yards and points. I do believe there is a drastic improvement in the quality of our run defense, which is further helping us force opposing offenses into being one-dimensional. Think of it this way: don’t you think every single team that faces the Seahawks wants to do whatever it takes to keep Russell Wilson on the sideline? Wouldn’t you think – that being the case – that teams would do their best to get a running game going against us? The fact that they’ve mostly failed in that endeavor is pretty telling.
I also want to look at turnovers, because I like what I’ve seen from this part of our defense so far and I don’t think it’s getting enough credit. The Seahawks are +5 in turnover ratio right now, tied for second (and, as we all know, one of those Wilson interceptions went right off of Greg Olsen’s hands, so we really should be tied for first at +6). The offense should always limit turnovers based on our quarterback and our coaching staff’s emphasis on taking care of the rock, so that ratio is always going to be in our favor. But, the defense alone has generated 8 turnovers, good for a tie for second (the Browns lead the NFL with 10). Of those 8 turnovers, 6 are via the interception, which I think is huge (the Browns, by contrast, only have 4 interceptions). Fumbles are largely a byproduct of luck. Most fumbles are 50/50 propositions; it’s an anomaly if one team is particularly good or bad at recovering them. Sure, teams can be good at FORCING them, but the name of this particular game I’m talking about is turnovers. Getting the ball back. If we’re not going to sack the opposing quarterback (six in four games, tied for sixth-worst), then we better be good at generating turnovers if we’re going to contend for a Super Bowl.
Last year, the Seahawks were tied for third in turnover differential at +12. We had 32 takeaways, also good for third in the NFL. Of those 32, it was an even 16/16 split between interceptions and fumble recoveries; 16 interceptions is pretty good (tied for fifth in the NFL last year), but the 16 fumble recoveries were tied for second most, which is a pretty remarkable feat and difficult to match from year to year. However, if you project a decrease in the number of fumbles our defense can recover in 2020 (which I do), while acknowledging that even a moderate increase in interceptions MIGHT be in play, can we really expect to have a drastically improved turnover differential? I would say absolutely! Because remember, that factors in the number of times our offense gave away the football. The Seahawks in 2019 were tied for the third-most lost fumbles (many of them thanks to Chris Carson’s butter fingers, which improved dramatically as the season went on); the odds of the Seahawks losing that many fumbles on offense in 2020 seem low to me. Partly because of regression in fumble luck, partly because we’re just not running the ball as much, and partly because Chris Carson is in a contract year (and fumblers don’t get max-money deals).
I don’t see a path where our sack numbers improve from where they were a season ago (we were tied for second-worst in 2019, which feels about right for 2020), but I do very much see a path to an increase in interceptions, given the level of talent in our secondary (which will get better as they get used to playing with one another; those communication breakdowns will be eliminated, I’m sure of it) as well as the fact that most teams will be forced into throwing the ball more than they’re used to (thanks to our offense putting up tons of points, and our run defense stuffing the everloving shit out of the line of scrimmage).
All of that combined, I think, points to this 2020 Seahawks team being much improved over the 2019 incarnation. Tack on the easy schedule, and the top seed in the NFC is very much in our sights.
We just need the Packers to lose a few games and we’ll be all set!