In the terrifying avalanche of data, bad sports fashion and piffle that buried pro football fans over the past weekend, a nugget from the annual college draft emerged that explains how Seahawks coach Pete Carroll plans to figuratively punch Russell Wilson and the rest of the NFL in their noses this fall.
Not saying he’ll pull it off. But jeez, is he amping up to try.
The near-universal approval by pundits of the Seahawks’ selection of nine athletes – consensus was that by no longer engaging in the canard that they were the smartest guys in the room, Carroll and general manager John Schneider looked good in tool belts and hard hats – was diminished by only one criticism.
The decision to use a second-round pick (41st overall) on a running back, Kenneth Walker III of Michigan State, was greeted with so many eyeball rolls that Puget Sound ophthalmologists this week are adding second shifts.
Running backs have become scrap iron in the gold-plated world of NFL offenses, for good reason (more on that in a moment). Hipster wisdom says that only Carroll, the 70-year-old throwback, would spend more than a seventh-round pick on such detritus.
Then the Pro Football Focus analytics site came up with this bit of arcana about Walker, who was voted the Doak Walker Award (no relation) as the college game’s best rusher in 2021:
Walker is one of the best pure runners to come out of college football in the past five years. Last season, Walker was one of two FBS running backs since 2017 to average over 4.0 rushing yards after contact per attempt, and 0.3 missed tackles forced per carry on 250-plus carries; the other was his new teammate, Rashaad Penny, in 2017.
The conclusion is that Walker, 21, and Penny, 26, who re-signed for a single year with Seattle after a remarkable conclusion to the 2021 season, have a similar style — fearless punishment delivered at point of contact, and the speed to burst free (Walker’s 4.38 seconds in the 40-yard dash at the scouting combine was fastest among running backs).
Upon Penny’s return to health over the final six games last season, he gained 749 rushing yards and averaged 6.3 yards per carry, both figures leading the NFL in that span. The Seahawks won four of the six games and averaged 33 points, also tops in that time period.
Walker’s selection takes pressure off the return of former leading rusher Chris Carson, who played only four games because of a neck injury that required surgery and is still not resolved, according to Carroll. Walker also provides insurance against Penny, who has a long injury history that erroneously labeled him a bust after being the Seahawks’ first-round choice in 2018.
The upshot is that a healthy Penny/Walker tandem potentially allows Carroll to play his out-of-date offensive style so well that it dominates defenses, permitting an average/mediocre/ho-hum quarterback to make the Seahawks a success in 2022.
Since the Seahawks have two of that caliber — Geno Smith, once Wilson’s back-up, and Drew Lock, the Broncos’ back-up acquired from Denver for Wilson — the absence of Wilson’s thrilling, risky style, the source of the fracture between coach and QB over the past few years, is rendered mostly moot.
That appears to be the plan. The reason such a plan has no trendiness in the NFL is simple: Running the ball steadily and successfully has become harder to do.
In the 13 years since Carroll returned to pro ball, rules changes, based largely on player safety as well as entertainment value, have constrained defenses and helped offenses. The college game that feeds NFL rosters has changed too, relying on pass-heavy schemes that are easier to teach and recruit to, making weaker teams more competitive against big-budget schools. But a side effect is a dearth of linemen experienced in run blocking.
These changes have helped produce a new truth, illuminated by NFL analytics: To gain five yards in the NFL on the ground, all 11 players have to execute properly. To gain the identical five yards via the pass, not all 11 have to execute properly.
As a result, over the decade NFL pass-completion percentage has gone up in almost direct proportion to the decrease in yards gained per completion. In other words, throwing more often and shorter has proven more efficient.
As it pertains to the Seahawks, personnel acquisitions (draft, free agency, trades) increasingly have had talent insufficient to run the ball well, leaving Wilson too much on his own to make magic. His disaffection with the Seahawks had some grounding in reality, not just ego.
In a press conference after the Wilson trade rocked Seattle and the NFL, Carroll rolled out an old chestnut about wanting his QB to act like a basketball point guard, not the leading scorer.
“We need a guy that plays the game and moves the football around to the guys that are open, and does all the the things that manage the game, so we can play great football,” he said. “Because we’re gonna win with defense, we’re gonna win with special teams and we’re gonna run the football to help fit the whole thing together. That’s never changed. It’s never been a philosophy that we needed to alter other than to continue to grow and make it dynamic and current.
“Russell was famous for it. He did an extraordinary job through all of his early years when he was learning the NFL. He was terrific at taking care of the ball.”
Left unsaid was the social-media-inspired #LetRussCook meme that emerged in 2020, which to Carroll was an unspeakable apostasy. His intolerance for turnovers and Wilson’s penchant for waiting too long to throw his moon balls led to 16 months of disenchantment that begat the controversial trade. Which is why this weekend’s vibe around the team’s Renton headquarters produced by the draft was so welcomed.
To give Carroll want he wanted, the other two highest picks went for offensive tackles, Charles Cross of Mississippi State for the left side and Abraham Lucas from Washington State for the right side. None of the remaining picks included a QB, because Carroll thinks he has two veteran point guards to do the job.
“We picked two offensive linemen and a runner,” he said Saturday, post-draft. “I think it’s pretty clear that we wanted to make sure we have all the elements together.”
Said Schneider: “They don’t call (the line draftees) ‘Sweet Feet’ for nothing. Both guys are very athletic. We’ve never been this athletic with two guys with a shot to start.”
Carroll’s emphasis on the run is neither wrong nor hopeless; it helped get the Seahawks to two Super Bowls. But the system takes better players to execute it than he and Schneider had provided since then. Until, perhaps, now.
To fix the 7-10 Seahawks in 2022, all Carroll has to do this off-season is hit on almost every player acquisition and coaching change. If he pulls off the greatest achievement of his pro coaching career, what a grand time it would be for the Seahawks to meet Wilson and the Broncos, also 7-10 last season, at Super Bowl LVII in Phoenix.
If Carroll is right, vindication can deliver a helluva punch. If not, he might have to accept that the changes in basketball are making point guard an out-dated concept too.