Will the Return of Kam Chancellor Fix the Seattle Seahawks?
Much has been made of the ongoing contract battle between the Seattle Seahawks and safety Kam Chancellor.
Chancellor reportedly plans to return to Seattle this week, which is good news for the team. As for the dispute itself, there are advocates on either side of aisle -- some in defense of Chancellor, and some against Chancellor's decision. Whatever the case, or whatever side of the aisle you fall on, the fact is right now the Seahawks, a team that was mere feet away from winning the Super Bowl a few months ago, are sitting 0-2.
With Chancellor's decision to return, many in Seattle are breathing a sigh of relief. There's a lot of discussion about whether or not Chancellor's absence has hurt the team from an on-the-field perspective. Regardless of whether or not this helps or hinders one side in negotiations, the fact is the Seahawks have had a disappointing start.
The question is whether or not Chancellor's absence was the cause.
The Seahawks' Defense
The Seahawk defense, one of the most vaunted in the league, is obviously where Chancellor will have the most impact.
Using our Adjusted Defensive Net Expected Points metric, we can determine just how good a defense has been, controlling for strength of opponent. You can read more in our glossary, but essentially Net Expected Points (NEP) measures how much a singular unit performs above or below expectation, both on offense and on defense. We can also isolate rushing defense from passing defense, and, likewise, rushing offense from passing offense. Adjusted NEP will control for the relative strength of each team's opponent.
As a caveat, we are only two weeks into the season, so the sample size on these numbers early is quite small. That said, we can compare where Seattle was last year versus where they are right now this year, to have a little bit more clarity.
Last year, Seattle ranked fifth overall in Adjusted Defensive Rushing NEP, and this year through two games Seattle also ranks fifth overall in Adjusted Defensive Rushing NEP. In other words, Seattle's rushing defense is right where it was last year. Again, it's a small sample size but carrying last year through to this year so far, it seems the Seattle rush defense has not changed dramatically. On a per-play basis, though, Seattle finished third last year and are sixth so far this season.
The passing defense, however, is a different story altogether. Last year, Seattle was third in the league in Adjusted Passing NEP per play, but this year through two games Seattle ranks 25th. Ostensibly, this is where Chancellor's absence has hurt the most -- the passing defense. That's not to say Kam is solely responsible for the 22-slot drop, or even to say that the 25th overall ranking will hold over the course of a season -- but the drop is pretty dramatic.
Kam's absence hurt in a variety of ways -- both directly and indirectly. It could simply be that Chancellor's replacement -- Dion Bailey in Week 1 and DeShawn Shead in Week 2 -- has played so far below Chancellor's level that the entire unit's actual play is just worse, even if the offenses they are facing are not adjusting too much.
It could also be the case that teams know they have to try and score on Seattle, and right now they simple favor focusing on drawing up plays to beat the Seahawks through the air.
Whether it's a game-script perspective or simply a talent issue is hard to say. It's likely a little bit of column A and a little bit of column B.
What appears to be true, however, is that Chancellor's absence significantly impacted the Seahawks ability to stop the pass, and while the rushing defense remains solid, the passing defense is simply not up to snuff. If the Seahawks had to continue without Chancellor, that'd be a huge issue.
All that said, however, there are other problems Seattle is having that do not have anything to do with Chancellor at all.
The Seahawks' Offense
Defensive issues aside, it's critically important to take a look at how the Seahawks offense has performed.
We can look at similar stats as we did on defense to analyze how well the Seahawks have played compared to last year. Last year, Seattle was number one in the league in Adjusted Rushing NEP per play with a bullet. Their score of 0.18 per play was about as big an edge over second-place Kansas City (0.06) as Kansas City had over 26th-ranked Indianapolis (-0.07).
This year so far, Seattle ranks 11th (0.03). Granted, it's early, but this is still a pretty far cry from just how dominant this rushing game was last year.
This jump can really be seen in the play of Marshawn Lynch so far. Last year, in our Rushing NEP metric, among all players with at least 100 rushes, Lynch was number one overall in Rushing NEP (27.34), and number three overall in Rushing NEP per carry (0.10). Lynch was consistently among the most effective backs in the league. This year so far, among running backs with at least 10 carries, Lynch ranks 39th out of 51 in terms of Rushing NEP per carry (-0.16) and 44th out of 51 in Rushing NEP overall (-5.25). Again, it's early, but the drop off for Lynch so far has been pretty drastic.
A lot of Seattle's rushing success last year could also be attributed to Russell Wilson. Among quarterbacks with at least 10 rushes last year, Wilson was easily the best rushing quarterback in terms of total Rushing NEP (60.50) finishing well ahead of our second best rushing quarterback Cam Newton (38.74). Through two games, Wilson is on pace for more total rushes (he is currently on pace for 136 rushes to his 97 last year) but would still fall well short in terms of total Rushing NEP at his current rate.
His Rushing NEP per rush last year was 0.62. This year so far, he is at 0.25.
Additionally, the passing offense has been worse this year so far. Last year, though not a team that was crushing it in the passing game, Seattle finished 15th in Adjusted Passing NEP. This year, through two games, Seattle is at 24th in the same stat. Again, it's early, but it is a significant downturn from where Seattle was last year.
A lot of this downturn can be attributed to Wilson's play so far. Among all quarterbacks with at least 160 drop backs last year, Wilson ranked 15th of 43 qualified players in total Passing NEP (47.65). Wilson ranked 17th of that same 43 players in passing NEP per drop back (0.10). These aren't breakout stellar numbers or anything. They are kind of middle of the road, which is to be expected with where Seattle finished in Adjusted Passing NEP last year.
Wilson's passing metrics have declined year after year, and that trend is continuing this season. Among the 37 quarterbacks so far with at least one drop back, Wilson ranks 28th in total Passing NEP (-2.37), and 27th in Passing NEP per drop back (-0.03). These numbers are far from what Wilson was doing last year, and last year was only really middle of the road from a passing perspective.
Will Kam coming back help the Seahawks turn it around? The bottom line is: sort of.
Getting Kam back will absolutely help the defense to improve defensing the pass, where they are much worse this year so far than they were last year.
That said, the offense has serious problems through two weeks. A quarterback's defense does not impact his performance, so getting Kam back will not help Wilson improve passing the ball, and it won't help Lynch or Wilson get back to their 2014 rushing impact.
The Seahawks have a lot of things to fix over the next 14 games, but it mostly has to do with their offense. Kam's return will no doubt help, but there are many more problems on the offensive side of the ball.