Points To Ponder: Michael Robinson, Percy Harvin, And A Loaded Pistol

Seahawks fans rejoiced this week at the return of a fan favorite and a fan obsession. Michael Robinson waited patiently for his chance, and had himself prepared like a pro when opportunity presented itself. Percy Harvin has passed all tests thus far with flying colors and has managed to turn the late start to his Seahawks career into an early return. The fact that these two predominant members of the Seahawks return on the same week presents a perfect time to re-examine how the roles they play are more interconnected than most would see.

When Marshawn Lynch joined the Seahawks three years ago, he came with a preference for doing things his way. He preferred one-back formations with no lead blocker. He would decide when to make one cut and go, and when to probe for an opening in the line. That eventually changed the week preceding the game in Dallas in 2011 when Lynch approached Tom Cable on his own, frustrated with the results so far, and the two men had a conversation that has changed the landscape of Seahawks football ever since.

Lynch became much more committed to decisive cuts in the back-field and attacking the hole the play called for, even if there was not a clear opening. He had developed a friendship with Michael Robinson, and was now more willing to follow his lead blocker. In an NFL Network interview that featured both players, Lynch called Robinson “my eyes.”

Robinson’s unique bond with Lynch, as well as his status as a vocal leader on the team, made it surprising to many that he was cut before the year began. What most still do not understand is that the running game has changed again, and the role of a fullback, any fullback, just is not what it used to be. And it could be decreasing even more with Harvin’s impending return.

Robinson played 32% of the offensive snaps last year. That was less than part-time lineman like James Carpenter, John Moffitt and back-up tight end Anthony McCoy. Derrick Coleman, the man who replaced Robinson, has played in only 24% of the snaps this year. Kellen Davis, who only recently joined the team, has played in 21% of the snaps. So why the change?

  1. The read option became a part of the Seahawks offense late in the year. It was not a predominant part, but it was a meaningful chunk. There is no fullback in the read option. 
  2. Use of the H-Back has increased. These are plays where either Zach Miller or Luke Willson line up in the back-field as a lead blocker, playing the fullback role. This gives the offense tons of flexibility, and the defense a lot to prepare for.
  3. Increasing use of 3 WR 1 TE 1 RB sets. Doug Baldwin has been the teams leading receiver, and Miller rarely leaves the field because of his value. 
  4. Lynch clearly did not trust Coleman the way he trusted Robinson. There were multiple examples where he would completely ignore Coleman’s lead and pick his own direction. 
Robinson will eliminate the fourth item on that list. This is a rare case where losing a starting player to injury may actually improve the team. Coleman has promise, but is not the player Robinson is, and definitely not the player Lynch trusts. Robinson will not have any impact on the first three items on the above list. Getting Willson and/or Baldwin on the field is a higher priority than getting Robinson out there. What it does mean is that when a fullback is called on, the play now has a higher probability of success.
Now consider Percy Harvin. Nobody knows for sure how Seattle plans to use him, but there are some pretty good bets. Robinson, himself, actually spilled some beans on an interview with KJR’s Mitch Levy a few weeks back when describing a split-back shotgun formation that would have Lynch on one side of Russell Wilson and Harvin on the other. That type of look would stress defenses in all sorts of interesting ways.
Harvin can be used as a running back or a receiver. Lynch would mostly still be a runner, but has been used increasingly on screens. Harvin going out to the flat would pull at least one defender with him, leaving fewer players to bring down Lynch. Lynch threatening the middle of the field will make it hard for defenses to commit enough players wide to combat quick screens to Harvin or Golden Tate. That formation also allows for three additional receivers to be on the field. Baldwin could still be in the slot, with Harvin having the ability to motion into the opposite slot if they choose. Danny Kelly, over at Field Gulls, did a great look at this formation when it was used at the end of last year for Seattle. I recommend taking a look.
There is a strong chance that the team will implement more pistol formations as the season wears on as well. In particular, a Pistol Wing-T offense could be incredibly hard to defend with players like Wilson, Harvin, and Lynch involved. The video below will give you an idea of how that might look.

Imagine Harvin as the crosser on each play, threatening the defense horizontally while Lynch is always threatening vertically. That is exciting stuff, and unlike the read-option, not something other teams can replicate with anywhere near the same effect. There is only one Percy Harvin.

Harvin will take snaps from more than just Robinson. Baldwin, Willson, Miller, Robert Turbin and Jermaine Kearse could all see fewer snaps as the team incorporates more Harvin into the game plan.

It is always tempting to focus on the additions, and assume it will be like a math equation that looks something like:

Already Awesome + More Awesome = Super Duper Awesomeness!

I have fallen for that so many times, my expectations have changed. There have been a number of occasions where adding a new player to the mix, even a great player, can have a negative affect on team performance. The most stinging example of this for Seahawks fans was when Mike Holmgren took over in 1999 and led the team to a 6-2 start with star receiver Joey Galloway holding out. The team had been getting by with the like of Sean Dawkins and Derrick Mayes at receiver. Adding a true star like Galloway was sure to supercharge the team. Except, it did not. The Seahawks went 3-5 the rest of the way. Incorporating Galloway in the offense was a simple task. He ran fast and straight and Jon Kitna had to throw it to him. They had played together before. Yet, Holmgren has surmised that Kitna felt too compelled to involve Galloway, and stopped making decisions based on what the defense was giving him.

Harvin and Wilson have yet to play together, and the Seahawks certainly have more complex notions of how to take advantage of Harvin’s multi-faceted talents than what Holmgren did with Galloway. Nobody here is suggesting this year’s Seahawks are going to tank when Harvin returns. It would be wise, however, to expect it to take some time before the offense settles into a groove. Remember how bad the running game looked in week one when they tried a new approach. The best guess here is that the team will install bits here and there over the next week weeks, and then use the bye week to put in a chunk more.

Harvin did not want to be forgotten during rehab. His tweets roughly translated to, “I know they are 6-1, but don’t forget about how important I am!” I will be watching and listening closely to see how he handles moments where he is not the focal point or the star. The team will get him touches, but whether it be enough to satisfy his ego remains to be seen. Judging the man is as much a part of evaluating and projecting what is to come as judging his talent.

What Harvin can do right away is relieve some of the pressure on Wilson and the offensive line. Harvin can take a short pass to the house. Having some quick outlet plays that get the ball in his hands, and reduces the time the line has to block is a no-brainer. The split-back shotgun formation is a great place to start with something like that.

So, as Seahawks fans welcome back Robinson with a big group hug, and prepare to be wowed by Harvin, these two men will impact the team in different ways. The more Harvin plays, the less Robinson will. Robinson immediately upgrades the running game with his blocking, relationship with Lynch, and short-yardage prowess. Harvin looks to be the hot fudge on an already delicious sundae. It will be fascinating to see how it unfolds.

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