We all know that blaming the outcome of games on referees is both pointless and often misguided. That does not stop us from booing and cursing and telling anyone who will listen that the refs are out to get [insert your favorite team]. I am a firm believer that officiating, while imperfect, is evenly imperfect across all teams. Even if it isn’t, spending time focusing on things you can control would appear to be the best way to go. That belief was challenged after analyzing NFL penalties for all 32 teams and finding that the Seahawks had been penalized the most over the past three years, while their opponents have been penalized the least. My inner conspiracy theorist started running wild. There is no doubt it is a serious issue for the Seahawks, but it also could be something they have more control over than they realize.
The frustrating truth
Seattle was the most penalized team in the NFL in two of the past three seasons, and have been no lower than the 8th most penalized team since 2010 when Pete Carroll arrived, per NFLPenalties.com. Over the last two years, Seahawks opponents have been penalized the least in the NFL (2014) and the fourth-least (2015). Over the last three years, no team in the NFL has a larger cumulative differential between penalties called against them per game and penalties called against their opponents per game than Seattle. The Seahawks average 2.3 more penalties per game than their opponents over that stretch which has given teams an average of an 18.3 yard advantage over the Seahawks each game.
When you compare Seattle with their NFC West sibling in Arizona, you see that the Cardinals have enjoyed over a 4 penalty per game and nearly a 42 penalty yard per game advantage. That’s a significant competitive advantage. Many people ascribe team performance in penalties to the quality of coaching, especially when talking about penalties committed. Coaching is undoubtedly part of the equation. Whether a team that draws more calls against their opponent is better coached is far more debatable.
Take a look at the penalty totals and league ranks for the Seahawks since Carroll came aboard in 2010.
Seattle has routinely been among the most penalized teams during this stretch. Not all penalties are created equal. Most coaches would agree that pre-snap penalties are fair game when it comes to criticizing team discipline and polish. Jumping offsides is not about talent or referee bias. It is also rarely controversial. Seattle has had their fair share of pre-snap penalties over the last three years.
I chose to define things like illegal motion, twelve men on the field, illegal formation, delay of game, and illegal shift as pre-snap penalties. Some of those things are not called until the ball is snapped, but fall into this category of non-conspiracy theory penalties that are much more about proper execution. I also called out offensive holding as it’s own line item as it has been the first or second most called penalty against the Seahawks in each of the last three seasons. It also is a penalty that has at least some coaching implications.
Holding calls are a problem
Of these three years, the Seahawks were above the league average in holding penalties just one time, in 2013. That year, the league average was 18 holding penalties on the season and the Seahawks had 29 holding calls. Given that the Seahawks pass the ball less than almost any other team in the NFL, one might expect their incidence of holding should be less than the league average. There is not a breakdown of whether these holding calls are happening on run or pass plays, so I can’t say for sure what’s going on. It is possible that the combination of the Seahawks zone blocking scheme along with the tendency of Russell Wilson to scramble outside the pocket has contributed to the problem.
Interestingly, 5 of the Seahawks 23 holding penalties last year actually came on special teams. Thirteen of their 18 non-special teams holding penalties came on 1st and 10 plays, which at least implies the problem is more with running since the Seahawks ran on 55% of their 1st and 10 plays last season, per Pro-Football-Reference.com.
Pre-snap penalties are, too
Seattle cut their pre-snap penalties considerably from 2014 to 2015. That alone helps to explain why they dropped from 1st to 7th in the penalty rankings. Michael Bennett is often singled out for offsides calls by fans, but the team halved their pre-snap penalties on defense last year from thirty to fifteen. Even with those improvements, the Seahawks still were 5 over the league average in false starts, 2.5 over the average in offsides, and 2 over the average in delay of games.
Just getting to the league average in pre-snap penalties would move the Seahawks to the middle of the pack in penalties against.
The Minnesota Vikings were the least penalized team in the NFL last year. A big part of their success was avoiding pre-snap errors. They had almost half (26) as many as the Seahawks (50). If Seattle had matched that discipline, they would have ranked 6th in fewest penalties. These are things the Seahawks have control over.
Minnesota also had just 11 holding penalties, which was 11 better than the league average and 12 fewer than Seattle. They are predominantly running team like Seattle. Unlike the Seahawks, the Vikings are reaping one of the rewards.
The prescription for reducing Seahawks penalties
This part does not seem all that complicated, and it has nothing to do with the refs. Seattle is giving opponents a significant advantage by committing as many pre-snap and holding penalties as they have been these past few years. Just becoming league average in pre-snap penalties would make a huge difference. Cutting down on holding penalties, which come with a stiff 10-yard walk off is absolutely something they can control. Yes, there is more of a subjective nature to holding calls. That should not stop the team from finding ways to improve.
Surprised to see no mention of the infamous Legion of Boom and defensive secondary calls? That’s because Seattle is actually better than league average in both defensive pass interference and defensive holding calls. Perception and reality do not always meet. That is the case here.
But how do you explain so few penalties against Seahawks opponents?
Fair question. Take another look at the penalties called against Seahawks opponents, and tell me if you notice anything.
Okay, I kinda helped you out. The truth is the Seahawks have not always been the victims of refs swallowing their whistles when opponents do something wrong. One of the least known advantages the Seahawks Super Bowl winning team had in 2013 was being ranked second in the NFL in opponent penalty yards. The worked out to almost 20 yards more per game in their favor. I went to check what the biggest differences were between the 2013 squad and the 2014 and 2015 teams when it came to opponent penalty yards.
Defensive pass interference is way down
Seattle drew seven defensive pass interference calls for 146 yards the year they won it all. They drew only five DPI calls the last two years combined. That worked out to 66 fewer opponent penalty yards in 2014, and 75 fewer penalty yards in 2015. That’s a big chunk.
Remember how the Cardinals have led the NFL in penalty yardage differential over the past three seasons? DPI is a big reason why. They drew 18 DPI calls for a whopping 295 yards last season alone, or 224 more yards than the Seahawks. Arizona is a passing team, and downfield passing team at that. Still, Seattle was doing okay in DPI calls in 2012 and 2013.
It made me wonder if personnel changes had something to do with it. There is evidence they do.
My guess was that Golden Tate leaving after 2013 was the major issue. One of his specialties was catching contested jump balls deep down field. Those kinds of plays involve a lot more contact, increasing the chances of call. He also was not the most elusive route runner, so his defender was often close by, also increasing the chances of a DPI. That guess turned out to be partially correct.
Tate drew 81 yards in DPI in 2012 and 40 in 2013. He also has more DPI yardage over the past two years than anyone on the Seahawks. Seattle has moved away from the jump ball receiver, with guys that specialize in separation and speed like Doug Baldwin, Tyler Lockett and Paul Richardson. Kasen Williams and Tanner McEvoy are two guys on the roster who have some potential as jump ball receivers. We saw McEvoy draw a critical DPI in this last preseason game on such a play.
The surprise, for me at least, was the impact of Sidney Rice retiring. He was the other player who did some damage down field and drew some calls. The combination of losing both of those players has had a major impact on the penalty yardage for Seahawks opponents.
It is worth noting that drawing these calls is an art in and of itself. Antonio Brown and John Brown are diminutive and elusive receivers who draw a ton of these calls.
Not only does Antonio Brown pile up the catches and yards, he also added nearly 200 additional yards through opponent penalties. That’s more than Baldwin and Kearse have in the last three years between them. You may notice that the gluttonous Cardinals have two players in the top seven for this category. Larry Fitzgerald does most of his work over the middle now, so his yardage totals are well below the others in this list. Still, that’s 22 more yards than anyone on the Seahawks got last season.
Strategic shift in order?
Wilson is one of the best deep throwers in the game. He has always been adept at giving his receivers a chance to make a play. With Tate and Rice, that meant throwing it up even if they were covered and trusting they would come down with it. He has adjusted to the personnel he has and now more often tries the harder timing deep balls where receivers like Lockett or Baldwin can run under them as they run away from defensive backs. That makes sense.
The question the Seattle coaching staff and personnel department should be asking themselves is if whether they need to prioritize having a jump ball receiver on their roster. There may also be some teaching to be done around how certain players are able to draw more penalties. That is both for receiver and quarterback.
Joe Flacco is a master of drawing DPI calls. ESPN did some analysis and found that he had a lot of success with underthrown balls where the receiver needed to cut back and the defensive back could not get out of the way. Tom Brady has been good at that tactic as well, which helps explain why he is second behind Flacco in drawn DPI calls. Wilson is at the stage in his career where the finer points of quarterbacking are within his grasp. This might be a good one to think about.
Opponent offensive holding
Another area where the Cardinals trounced the Seahawks in opponent penalty yards last year was offensive holding. On one hand, we could argue that this is evidence of refs swallowing their whistles when the Seahawks defense is rushing the passer. Having watched every game the team has played at least twice over the past few years, I believe this is a fair criticism of the referees. Cliff Avril and Bennett are held a lot without getting the benefit of the call.
I’m not sure that explains why the Cardinals drew 13 more opponent holding calls for 130 more yards than the Seahawks last year. My theory is the defensive style. Arizona is a blitzing defense. They send extra men on almost every play. It is just human nature to pay a little closer attention when you see a guy running toward the line of scrimmage and blitzing than a standard four man rush. I can’t provide you with statistical evidence to back that up. It’s just my take.
Seahawks fans may not be loud enough
Yep. I said it. The Cardinals drew four more false start penalties than the Seahawks last year. That’s not a ton, but consider that only 10 of the Seahawks opponents false starts came at home, which is four less than the crowd caused in 2013. The stadium scoreboard is never going to tell you this, but Seahawks fans have not brought their “A” game for a couple of years. Some of that may be a lack of a true rival with the 49ers fading and the Cardinals hate just not as deep. It also may be more satisfied fans or folks who are selling their seats to opposing fans. All of it plays a role in reducing that famous home field advantage.
The prescription for increasing opponent penalties
This one is admittedly harder than decreasing their own penalties. Their most promising option is to really study the nuances of DPI, and see if they can bring that back to their game. That is a spot foul that comes with large chunks of yards. Getting better at drawing those will have meaningful impact on the offense.
There may be an art to drawing holding calls as well. I have less confidence that is the reason Seattle is not getting those calls. I certainly do not want them to change their defensive scheme by becoming a riskier blitz team just on the hopes they could draw some more holding penalties. A good bet here will just be continuing to find mayhem-inducing defensive linemen who give other teams fits.
Putting it all together
I have to admit I was hoping that I would find evidence of a vast East Coast conspiracy against the Seahawks when I set out to do this research. Nothing I found points clearly in that direction. Instead, much of this situation is the responsibility of the Seahawks. They have some straightforward ways to take this advantage away from their opponents. It may be the difference between watching someone else raise the Lombardi Trophy and do doing it themselves once again.