Seattle Seahawks 2015 Year in Review: A Tale of Two Halves
Making three straight trips to the Super Bowl is a tough task.
Only three teams in NFL history have done it -- the Green Bay Packers from 1966-68, the Miami Dolphins from 1972-74 and the Buffalo Bills, who made a record four straight, from 1991-94. After making back-to-back Super Bowls, the Seattle Seahawks found how tough it was to make that third straight appearance because they failed to do so.
Seattle had a slow start to the season -- a 4-4 record after the first eight weeks -- but the Seahawks never dropped too far down in our nERD rankings through the course of the regular season.
nERD, in its simplest terms, is our calculation of how good a team really is, based on expected point differential against a league average team. The Seahawks’ lowest ranking was eighth heading into a Week 9 bye. Of course Seattle did start the year as our number-one team, so maybe an eight-spot drop is significant, but we never viewed the Seahawks as doomed as others did during their first-half slump.
Seattle even bounced back so well that they were the third-ranked team by nERD at the end of the regular season. Unfortunately for them, that also made them the third-best team in the NFC behind the Arizona Cardinals and Carolina Panthers.
The Seahawks didn’t make it to the Super Bowl, but not all was a failure for the 2015 season.
What Went Right
Maybe it’s strange to look at what went right in Seattle first because most things didn’t break that way until the second half of the season. But the things that did go right for the Seahawks ended up going pretty right.
As a team, the Seahawks ended the season quite well, ranking in the top-10 of both offense and defense in Net Expected Points (NEP). NEP measures the value of each play on the field based on how an average team would be expected to score in each scenario using historical data. Seattle had the fourth-best defense by Adjusted NEP per play and the sixth-best offense. The defense might not be much of a surprise for this era of Seahawks teams, but the offensive efficiency may surprise some.
Through much of the Russell Wilson era, the Seahawks were a run-heavy offense with an efficient lower volume passing game. But this year, with an injury to Marshawn Lynch, the Seahawks relied more on the pass game than they have since 2012. Wilson set a career high in pass attempts.
It wasn’t just that Wilson threw more that led to the offensive improvement but also that he was a better player when he did. Wilson was third among quarterbacks in Passing NEP per drop back behind only Andy Dalton and Carson Palmer. He also led the league in Successful Completion Percentage, which measures the percentage of attempts that resulted in positive NEP.
The biggest beneficiary of Wilson’s increased volume and efficiency was Doug Baldwin. Like most Seahawks, Baldwin started the year slow but arguably had the best second half in the league last year. 12 of Baldwin’s 14 touchdowns came in Week 9 or later, as did 724 of his 1,069 receiving yards. Baldwin was one of two receivers, along with Buffalo’s Sammy Watkins, to be worth over 1.00 Reception NEP per target among wide receivers who saw at least 30 passes thrown their way.
The average among those 122 receivers was 0.68 and only eight other receivers (10 in total) were above 0.90. One of those receivers was rookie Tyler Lockett, who ranked third behind Watkins and Baldwin in Reception NEP per target.
Seattle also found what could be the future of the run game with undrafted free agent Thomas Rawls. Among 44 running backs with at least 100 carries, Rawls ranked second behind only David Johnson in Rushing NEP per attempt.
What Went Wrong
Rawls would have been even more “right” if he hadn’t been placed on injured reserve in December with an ankle injury. Injuries to some key players were an obstacle for the Seahawks, including a few to Marshawn Lynch -- the reason why Rawls got a chance to play. The biggest injury, though, was arguably Jimmy Graham, who tore his patellar tendon midseason. After a massive offseason trade that brought Graham to Seattle, the tight end was a forced fit into the Seattle offense to start the year.
Graham would go stretches without seeing the ball, and when he did, it was in ways that looked unnatural to the offense and the player. Just as the skillset and the scheme were starting to mix, the injury happened. Still, Graham was 10th among tight ends with at least 30 targets in Reception NEP per target -- around the level of Greg Olsen and Jordan Reed. The latest reports suggest he could return by the end of training camp, but that also places him ahead of the expected recovery schedule.
On the defensive side of the ball -- more like offseason planning -- Seattle made a major mistake signing Cary Williams from the Philadelphia Eagles. Williams received a three-year, $18 million deal from the Seahawks in the offseason with $7 million guaranteed. Williams then struggled within Seattle’s system, was eventually benched, and was made inactive before being released in early December. Williams’ release, though, did coincide with the return to health of Jeremy Lane, and the Seahawks ended the season with the league’s fifth best passing defense by Adjusted NEP per play.
One of the biggest problems for Seattle was the play of the offensive line. For much of the year Wilson was able to cover up for holes in pass protection -- his 8.5 percent sack rate was identical to last year and more than one percentage point below 2013 -- but the weaknesses really showed up against the Panthers in the playoffs when Wilson was sacked five times and unable to find time in the pocket in the first half.
Some of Seattle’s 2016 decisions have already been made for them, such as Marshawn Lynch's decision to retire in the middle of the Super Bowl. At full health, Rawls should be able to handle a majority of the carries, but the Seahawks are also likely to bring in another back for a rotation.
The Seahawks have a few key players who are going to hit free agency and likely won’t be coming back. Left tackle Russell Okung, wide receiver Jermaine Kearse and linebacker Bruce Irvin will be hitting the market, and price tags for each player make odds for a return unfavorable. Kearse went so far as saying he’s actively preparing to play somewhere other than Seattle in 2016.
More importantly, the Seahawks might have to worry about what to do with a few players who are contracted to be on their roster next season. Kam Chancellor held out to start the 2015 in hopes of a better deal that didn’t come. He was in trade rumors during the holdout, and his name could again circulate this offseason. Then there’s Michael Bennett, who could hold out for the same reasons as Chancellor. He still has two years left on his current deal, which was signed in 2014, but with his versatility to play tackle and end, he’s one of the most important pieces on the defense.
Per Spotrac, the Seahawks have just under $23 million in cap space at this point in the offseason. They’ll probably be named as a suitor for every free agent offensive lineman and could also be linked to one in the draft at pick number 26.
Even though the Arizona Cardinals were among the best teams in the league last season and shouldn’t be going anywhere to vacate that space in 2016, the Seahawks should be expected to battle with them for that spot and stay there for years to come.