Sunday, August 25, 2013

Hawk Blogger 2013 Seahawks Season Preview Part I: The Franchise

HAWK BLOGGER 2013 SEASON PREVIEW PART I: The Franchise
Players are told to approach each game one play at a time and each season one game at a time. Coaches and general managers build up their rosters and teams one season at a time. Fans are different. Seahawks fans have been around long before any current coaches, players, general managers, or even owners, and will be here long after they are gone. Fans endure. Seahawks fans have endured playoff droughts that lasted more than 10 years. They have endured referees that feel so bad about the quality of their championship calls, that they feel compelled to come forward and apologize years later. Being a fan allows for a big picture perspective that nobody else can afford. History is always the best predictor of the future. Even while some teams have broken from their franchise histories in recent years (e.g., Patriots become champions, 49ers become a joke for a decade), much can be learned by exploring the patterns across generations. Before diving into the detail of this 38th season of Seahawks football, take a moment to see what history tells us about how things may unfold.

FRANCHISE QUARTERBACKS
It all starts with the most important position on the field, the quarterback. Russell Wilson becomes the seventh quarterback in Seahawks history to be the opening day starter for two years in a row. Matt Hasselbeck enjoyed the longest stint as opening day starter, notching 10 season kickoffs for the Seahawks. Dave Krieg and Jim Zorn each opened eight seasons as the starter. The franchise history at QB looks like this:

OPENING DAY STARTER AT QB
1976 - 1983: Jim Zorn
1984 - 1991: Dave Krieg
1992: Kelly Stouffer
1993 - 1996: Rick Mirer
1997 - 1998: Warren Moon*
1999 - 2000: Jon Kitna
2001 - 2010: Matt Hasselbeck*
2011: Tarvaris Jackson
2012 - 2013: Russell Wilson
*Indicates at least one opening day start was the result of another player's injury

That is a rather remarkable level of stability at the QB position, especially for a franchise that has yet to win a Super Bowl. Hasselbeck's tenure was not only the longest, but the most successful with six playoff appearances. All the other QB's combined had combined for five playoff appearances before Wilson made it six last year. Wilson became the third Seahawks quarterback to lead his team to the playoffs in his inaugural season as a starter. The other two were Krieg in 1984 and Jon Kitna in 1999. Wilson was the only rookie to accomplish the feat, and is just the third rookie to be the opening day starter (Zorn, Mirer).

Wilson was not just along for the ride on the Seahawks playoff run. He set the Seahawks record for passer rating. Hasselbeck owns five of the top ten seasons for a Seahawks quarterback when judged by rating. Note how steep the drop-off is overall. The following table shows the top-rated seasons for Seahawks quarterbacks with a minimum of 10 starts.


Games Passing
Rk Player Year Age GS Rate
1 Russell Wilson 2012 24 16 100.0
2 Matt Hasselbeck 2005 30 16 98.2
3 Matt Hasselbeck 2007 32 16 91.4
4 Dave Krieg 1986 28 14 91.0
5 Matt Hasselbeck 2003 28 16 88.8
6 Matt Hasselbeck 2002 27 10 87.8
7 Dave Krieg 1987 29 12 87.6
8 Warren Moon* 1997 41 14 83.7
9 Dave Krieg 1984 26 16 83.3
10 Matt Hasselbeck 2004 29 14 83.1
11 Jim Zorn 1981 28 13 82.4
12 Tarvaris Jackson 2011 28 14 79.2
13 Jon Kitna 1999 27 15 77.7
14 Jim Zorn 1979 26 16 77.7
15 Warren Moon* 1998 42 10 76.6
16 Dave Krieg 1985 27 16 76.2
17 Matt Hasselbeck 2006 31 12 76.0
18 Jon Kitna 2000 28 12 75.6
19 Matt Hasselbeck 2009 34 14 75.1
20 Dave Krieg 1989 31 14 74.8
21 Dave Krieg 1990 32 16 73.6
22 Matt Hasselbeck 2010 35 14 73.2
23 Jim Zorn 1980 27 16 72.3
24 Jim Zorn 1978 25 16 72.1
25 Matt Hasselbeck 2001 26 12 70.9
26 Rick Mirer 1994 24 13 70.2
27 Rick Mirer 1993 23 16 67.0
28 Rick Mirer 1995 25 13 63.7
29 Jim Zorn 1977 24 10 54.3
30 Jim Zorn 1976 23 14 49.5
Provided by Pro-Football-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 8/25/2013.

There have only been four seasons above a rating of 90, and Wilson has one of them after his first year. The quarterback position may never have been positioned for more success than it appears to be right now.

TEAM STRENGTH
The 2012 Seahawks team was undoubtedly one of the best in franchise history. Quantifying how good requires a little extra digging. Readers that follow this blog throughout the season are familiar with the power rankings formula I have developed over time to compare teams each week of the season. Those not familiar with it, may want to check out the final rankings from last season that includes a primer. The basic gist is that it measures the efficiency of the offense and the defense of a team and combines to create a single score indicating the overall team strength. I went back through every season of Seahawks football and applied the formula to each team to see which one came out on top, and which was on bottom. The results were eye-opening.

The best and worst Seahawks teams
Last year's team was not only the best in franchise history by this measure, but by a decent margin. Most fans would point to the 2005 team as the best in franchise history due to their Super Bowl appearance, but they only place third here. Factors like quality of division and overall schedule come into play when only looking at results. Had the 2012 team played in the 2005 NFC West, there is little doubt they would have exited with home-field advantage as well, and likely made it to the Super Bowl as well. The 2012 team was the best combination of offense and defense this franchise has seen, and they should get better.

The trend from 2010 to 2012 is startling
The bottom five teams list was also surprising as it is hard to imagine any team was worse than the 1992 squad, but the reality is that the 1992 team had a top ten defense and the 1976 team had nothing worthy of being in the top ten. Pete Carroll's first season with the Seahawks produced one of the five worst teams in franchise history, and they managed to make the playoffs and win a game. The progression from 2010 to 2012 is truly stunning. Carroll inherited the seventh-worst team in franchise history (2009), and turned it into the best in only three seasons. Fans that made it through the 90s as Seahawks fans deserve a pat on the back. The team had a negative team strength score for nine straight seasons, starting in 1989.

There have been 15 positive team strength scores in the 37 seasons played thus far.
Worst-to-best teams in Seahawks franchise history


BATTLING MEDIOCRITY
Take a look at how often the franchise had churned out teams that won between seven and nine games.


Twenty of the thirty-seven seasons have resulted in victory totals between seven and nine. Only six times has a team won at least 10 games, and only twice has the team won fewer than four games. By those odds, the Seahawks have over a 54% chance of ending 2013 with between 7-9 victories. Getting a player like Wilson in the third round was key for this organization. Their chances of finishing with a record bad enough to draft a top-tier quarterback in the first round is incredibly low. Franchise history shows less than a 5% chance of the a Seattle squad winning fewer than four games. Carroll and GM John Schneider saw to a two-game improvement in the win total from 2009 to 2010, but no win total improvement in 2011, and then a four-game improvement last year.  Chuck Knox remains the franchise record-holder with a 5-game improvement in his first season as Head Coach. Mike Holmgren led a one-game improvement, and Dennis Erickson saw his team improve their previous season's win total by two.

DIVISION FINISH
Carroll and Schneider led the 2010 Seahawks to the franchise's seventh division title, and fifth in seven
CLICK TO ENLARGE
seasons. The move to the NFC West has treated the Seahawks well. After only winning one division title before 1999, and only two in all their years in the AFC West, the Seahawks have won five NFC West division titles in only eleven seasons. The 2012 team tied the 49ers for wins, but finished second in the division due to a San Francisco tie. Carroll will have his work cut out for him to match Holmgren's starting sprint with the Seahawks when he led the team to either a 1st or 2nd place finish in eight of his first nine seasons with the franchise. Carroll has managed to do that in two of his first three seasons.

OFFENSE
Scoring a lot of points has always been a key to producing winning Seattle football teams. The Seahawks
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averaged 25.7 points per game in the five seasons that produced at least 10 wins before 2012. They averaged 25.8 points per game in 2012 on their way to 11 wins. The Seahawks have steadily improved from 17.50 pts/game in 2009 to 19.38 in 2010 to 20.06 in 2011, and then popped last year. That is impressive, especially after team scoring dropped 30% from 2007 to 2009. Note in the graph to the left  that scoring has a rather strong correlation to team victories. The team's best scoring season happened during the 2005 Super Bowl run. Some franchises are built around defense. The Seahawks have historically relied much more on a powerful offense. Carroll came to Seattle with a defensive pedigree, but has not had as much success building winning offenses in the NFL. Last season was a huge step in the right direction.

DEFENSE
Carroll reputation on defense has proven to be accurate. He was a defensive player in college, coached

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defense in college and the NFL, and made most of his initial changes to scheme in Seattle on the defensive side of the ball. The results were mixed. Only three Seahawks teams have allowed more than the 25.4 points per game Seattle gave up in his first season, and none since 1980. Outside of 2003, when they gave up 20.4 points/game, all of the Seahawks 10+ win seasons have featured a defense that gives up 18 points or less. Seattle gave up 15.3 last year and won 11. Score 25+ and give up 18 or less. That's the winning combination for Seattle teams.

The franchise made major strides in 2012 as they dropped their opponent scoring by 4.4 points, after cutting it by 5.7 the year prior. That makes for a ten point improvement in just two seasons. They led the NFL in scoring defense last year. That was the first Seattle team to accomplish that. The 1982 and 1984 teams finished 5th in scoring defense. The 2005 Super Bowl team allowed 16.9 points per game and also ranked seventh. Scoring is increasing in the NFL overall, making the achievement all the more impressive.

Defense has not correlated as strongly to Seahawks victory totals over the years as offense. Carroll may be the most defensive-minded coach at the helm outside of Jim Mora Jr. It will be interesting to see how much he breaks the franchise from tradition. Many of the most memorable players in franchise history were defenders. Players like Jeff Bryant, Jacob Green, Kenny Easley, Cortez Kennedy, Sam Adams, Chad Brown, Rufus Porter, Lofa Tatupu, and many others. It is looking like a number of the current crop of Seahawks defenders will add their names to that list.

THE JOURNEY
Some will say that a team that played in 1984 has nothing to do with one that plays in 2011. There are different coaches, owners, players, rules, opponents and virtually nothing shared. One critical thing that is shared is fans. A coach may tell the media there is nothing special about playing a 10AM PST road game, but Seahawks fans know better. A general manager may say that the overall talent of a team is more important than any one individual player like a quarterback, but Seahawks fans know the difference between Kelly Stouffer and Dave Krieg. Even the NFL Defensive Player Of The Year could not stop a Stouffer/McGwire/Gelbaugh-led 1992 team from a massive free-fall. Carroll and Schneider inherited a franchise in its own free-fall. The offense was deteriorating and the numbers were collapsing. The same thing was happening on the defensive side of the ball. History shows that the Seahawks are championship contenders when they score over 25 points/game and allow less than 18/game. That represents a 13.5-point swing from what they inherited in 2009. They have now increased their offensive output by 8.3 ppg, and improved their defensive effectiveness by 9.1 ppg. That is a 17.4 ppg improvement, and adds plenty of credence to the Super Bowl whispers about this 2013 team. Carroll is also only the second coach in franchise history to win a road playoff game.

This franchise has evolved from rebuilding to contending in short order. We will explore the upcoming season more deeply in the six-part Hawk Blogger 2013 Season Preview.


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