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Points win football games. Yards are nearly always necessary to score points. This is part of why when analysts and many fans have habitually referred to total yards per game gained and surrendered when talking about the best offenses and best defenses in the NFL. The more accurate measure of offensive and defensive proficiency is yards gained or yielded per play. That is a fundamental aspect of the Power Rankings I have developed over the years. That formula is meant to measure the efficiency of a team based on how hard it is for opponents to stop their offense or move the ball against their defense. But there are yards gained and lost that do not show up there. These are yards that are hidden, and often overlooked in the box score, but matter just as much as a yard taken or given away any other way. Seattle has dominated the glamour stats, but there is room for improvement in a few of the hidden ones.
Penalties have received plenty of attention after they played a tipping point role in the loss to the 49ers last week. Those are the types of games that can be won or lost based on these nuances. So just how many yards are penalties costing the Seahawks this year?
Seattle surrenders 75.1 yards per game in penalties. That is the second-worst number in the league. Only the Bucs at 76.9 are worse. Indianapolis leads the league at 38.4 penalty yards per game. That is a 37 yard difference from Seattle to the best team in football in penalty yards. Consider how much harder it would be to score on the Seahawks if opponents had to gain 37 more yards without the aid of penalty flags, or how much easier it would be for the Seahawks to score if they had 37 yards less to gain on offense per game. And those numbers do not account for the yardage lost on plays called back due to penalty.
Seahawks opponents are penalized as well, but at a much smaller rate of 54.5 yards per game. That means Seattle is losing 20.6 yards per game in penalty yard differential. It would take the average offense facing the Seahawks defense more than four plays to gain 21 yards (the Seahawks yield an NFL-best 4.6 yards per play on defense). It would take the Seahawks offense an average of four plays to gain more than 21 yards, based on their 8th-ranked yards per play rate of 5.9. One could argue the Seahawks penalties are costing the team a full set of downs each game on either offense or defense, or some combination. That adds up, and is avoidable.
Kickoffs are another way to help or hurt your offense and defense. Seattle is 27th in the NFL in kickoff return yardage and 25th in opponent kickoff return yardage. They have given opponents a 309 yard advantage on kickoffs over the course of the season. That works out to -23.8 yards per game, the 27th-ranked kickoff differential in the league. Toss that in with the penalty yard differential, and you are talking about a nearly 50 yard per game deficit that the Seahawks offense and defense must overcome every game.
Thankfully, there is at least one set of hidden yards strongly in the Seahawks favor. Seattle punt teams have out-gained their opponents by and NFL-best 446 yards through 13 games. That works out to a +34.3 yards per game average.
NOTE: It is fair to point out that teams who score more often, like the Seahawks, kickoff more often and therefore surrender more gross kickoff return yards. It is also true that the Seahawks punt less often due to their strong offense, and have allowed only 13 punts to be returned all year. Neither of these realities change the fact that Seattle is at a -4 yard deficit per kickoff return, which ranks 29th in the NFL and have a +10.3 advantage per punt return, which ranks best in the league.
Combine that positive with the other hidden negatives from above, and it works out to -10.1 yards per game. Not exactly devastating, but imagine how much more difficult it would be to defeat the Seahawks without the penalty and kickoff return weights on their shoulders. This is the best punt return differential team in the league, and may end up being one of the best in history. Even a league-average penalty and kickoff return team would have the Seahawks in strong positive territory. The Seahawks are an aggressive team, and some penalties may be part of the package. Holding, encroachment, illegal formations, false starts have little to do with aggression, and should be eliminated. This team is talented enough to win in spite of these impediments, but there is no reason they should have to.