RENTON Pete Carroll and the Seahawks keep saying they are striving for balance. They want to continue a half-dozen, winning years of running more than passing.
So far this season, the numbers and the eyes say what the Seahawks will not.
There’s an evolution underway with their offense. Almost a revolution, in fact.
For six years Carroll’s philosophy has been to punish foes with a running game that controls defenses and contests.
This season, it’s been Russell Wilson’s Pass-a-palooza. At least by Seattle standards.
The Seahawks are 4-1 and leading the NFC West entering Sunday night’s test at top division-rival Arizona (3-3) despite dropping from first in the NFL in rushing offense this time last year to 25th now. Seattle is gaining just 88.8 yards rushing per game. That’s down from the 142.4 yards it was averaging last season after five games.
But that 2015 team was just 2-3, irreparably behind the Cardinals for the division title. Seattle was 26th in passing offense this time last season. Now the Seahawks are 11th in the league in passing.
Wait, is 75 percent of the Seahawks’ 1,763 yards on offense (1,319 yards) through the air? Is Carroll’s run-first philosophy of his first six seasons leading Seattle now debunked?
Seattle is doing what its personnel are better at and more able (because of injuries) to do right now.
This time last year Thomas Rawls was leading the team in rushing with Marshawn Lynch out injured. Rawls was on his way to leading the NFL in yards per carry, and Christine Michael was on his way to getting cut by both Dallas and Washington in the same autumn.
This year Rawls missed three of the four preseason games coming back from a broken ankle in December. Then on Sept. 18 at Los Angeles he got a crack in his fibula. He hasn’t played since. Rawls has just 25 yards, while Michael has been almost all of the running game (354 of Seattle’s 444 yards on the ground) in his second Seahawks’ go-round.
Rawls is due back sometime in November.
Wilson has played all but the first two quarters of the first game Sept. 11 with either a sprained right ankle or a sprained ligament in his left knee. That has all but eliminated the quarterback’s running.
That’s a big deal to rushing attack. Wilson’s 553 yards last season was just under one-fourth of Seattle’s total rushing in 2015 (24.4 percent). This season he has just 35 of the Seahawks’ 444 yards on the ground (7.9 percent). Wilson is averaging just 1.7 yards per his 21 runs. Last season he averaged 5.4 yards per rush.
He’s not even running on pass plays this season, partly why Seattle is throwing more passes. He has scrambled for just one first down. Last year he scrambled for 19 first downs.
Wilson looked more mobile last weekend against Atlanta and said after the game
"I felt great." But he was not at full speed – not with a brace still on his left knee, both ankles still heavily taped and him still doing rehabilitation on both legs.
Carroll was asked Monday if Wilson was getting close to a health point that he can be more of a factor in the running game.
"Well, I don't know that it's a question about that," the coach said. "We are calling the plays. We are calling stuff, and then he's running boots (bootlegs) and nakeds (bootlegs with no blockers) and stuff like that, scrambles and all that.
"We are in the middle of it. He should be OK."
But are they really calling the running plays?
At halftime Sunday, up 17-3 on Atlanta, Carroll and line coach/running-game coordinator Tom Cable made a plan to run the ball in the second half to shorten the game and protect the lead. Yet seven of the first eight plays offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell called after halftime were passes.
The ninth play showed how far the run has sunk. Third and 1 at the Atlanta 45 in a tie game, Michael took a handoff from Wilson and ran left -- but not for long. Left tackle Bradley Sowell’s block never mattered. Falcons defensive tackle Grady Jarrett had already sliced through the middle of the line to drop Michael for no gain.
The Seahawks punted. The Falcons sustained their third-quarter momentum on the ensuing drive, scoring their third touchdown in the period for the lead.
Seattle gained 29 yards on 10 offensive plays in that third quarter while getting out-scored 21-0. Eight of the Seahawks’ 10 snaps were called passes; Wilson scrambled for 2 yards on the final snap of the game-turning quarter.
"We just didn’t run it enough," Carroll said Monday.
"We were going to come back in the fourth quarter and run it 15 times in the fourth quarter and put the game away, which we always do. That’s how we do it. But the game didn’t go that way, and so Bev really sensed that we really were on it protection-wise, and so he was comfortable to throw the ball a lot in the second half. And we were moving the ball by controlling it that way. And so, that’s why we went that way.
"Then in the fourth quarter, we needed to come back. And I think it was really the confidence in the protection that allowed us to go the way we went. If we’d had stayed ahead, we’d had run the ball a ton in the fourth quarter, and we didn’t get a chance to do that."
But the Seahawks were ahead for the final 41½ minutes of their previous game, Oct. 2 in the win at the New York Jets. Yet Wilson dropped back to throw 35 times that day while the Seahawks ran it 26 times.
The game before that, the blowout win over San Francisco, the Seahawks passed 34 times with 31 rushes – even though Wilson was out injured for the final 21 minutes with a sprained knee. The 49ers ran it as many times as Seattle did Sept. 25, despite trailing by two scores 11 minutes into the game and later by as much as 37-3.
Never mind what the Seahawks say, look at what they’ve done. Seattle has called 198 passes (which include 10 sacks and nine scrambles) and 131 runs (not including Wilson’s nine scrambles). That’s a 60.2 percent-to-39.8 percent split of pass to run in Bevell’s calls this season.
The Seahawks have gained 1,763 yards this season, 17 fewer than through five games last year. But Wilson is on pace for 4,269 yards passing. That would break his franchise record of 4,024 yards through the air in 2015.
The Seahawks are passing more because they are pass blocking better. The 2016 offensive line has new starters in four of the five positions: Sowell, Mark Glowinski at left guard, first-time center Justin Britt and rookie right guard Germain Ifedi. Only right tackle Garry Gilliam has returned from 2015. That much-maligned, scrutinized line has allowed 10 sacks through five games.
This time last year Wilson had been dumped 26 times already.
"Looks really good. Much improved," Carroll said of the pass protection. “Good improvement for us. At this time last year we were way above in the sack totals. So we're well ahead and hopefully keep getting better and put together a good season of protecting the quarterback.”
Carroll was asked if this new line is simply better at pass blocking than run blocking. The coach wouldn’t go that far. He can’t – not with 11 regular-season games and perhaps the postseason ahead.
"No, no," Carroll said. "I think the connection between how we are throwing the football and how Russell is getting the ball out has connected with the pass protection. This is not new this year. I keep telling you if you go back to the middle of last year and we made some great adjustments and some really nice decisions that were made by Tom and Darrell and the fellas on the offensive staff to put this thing in the kind of mode that it's in now. What we really hope to do is really capture what had happened in the second half of the season. And we are on those numbers or maybe ahead of this numbers right now.
"So things are going in the right directions."
For the passing game. And for the offense, in general.
That’s what makes these different – yet still winning -- Seahawks days.