Seahawks personnel review: Running backs

It’s an interesting quirk in the Seattle Seahawks’ offseason personnel review that the most defined position group may have been its least productive in 2010. Seattle hasn’t put an elite NFL rushing attack on the field since the day Steve Hutchinson poison-pilled his way to Minnesota after the 2005 season, and the metrics are as stark as you might expect. In 2010 Football Outsiders’ advanced efficiency stats ranked the Seahawks 28th in rushing, and the Seahawks haven’t finished above 24th in that category since 2006.

An offensive line that was supposed to super-charge that run game with the precision zone blocking of Alex Gibbs found itself waylaid by injuries, inefficiency, and Gibbs’ abrupt departure just before the start of the regular season. Placeholders Pat Ruel and Art Valero did their best to hold things down, but it was very instructive that the first move Pete Carroll made after the season – even as he was planning to fire offensive coordinator Jeremy Bates – was to bring former Oakland Raiders head coach Tom Cable on board.

Cable, whose new title reads “Assistant Head Coach/Offensive Line”, can really be considered the team’s running game coordinator, which is what Gibbs was supposed to be before he left. Carroll put a very fine point on Cable’s reinforcement of his own offensive philosophy when he discussed the hire on January 19.

“I want to make sure that we’re able to do all of the things that we believe are important – the balance we want to create, the attitude about the running game … this is one of the things that I had to do to get us back on track,” Carroll said. “We lost a tremendous force when we lost Alex Gibbs when he decided to retire and he had to go. In my mind he is a huge aspect of what we were trying to create. We wish him the best and all, he just couldn’t do it for us. But I think I’ve put us back on track with that, which is so important to our entire program and our entire football team, that attitude that we want to project is really going to be enhanced by Tom coming here. I’m really thrilled about being able to give our team and the club this boost that we need at this time.”

The boost is necessary for a number of reasons. Carroll wants balance, and Bates never provided that. When the Seahawks traded for Marshawn Lynch, it seemed that Cable, who was still coaching the Raiders when the two teams met in Week 8, understood Lynch’s value more than Bates did.

“The trade for Marshawn is big,” Cable said in a mid-week conference call with the Seattle media before that game. “Justin Forsett is a good player, no question. He can impact a game; he can hit a home run at any time. But Marshawn adds a dimension in terms of the physicality of the guy.”

The balance between Lynch and Forsett, the former battery mates at Cal and current best buddies in Seattle, is something that Cable gets from his days balancing the workloads of Darren McFadden and Michael Bush.

“We don’t worry about who’s going to get what and when. The relationship – they’re like brothers. As close as you could ever be to your own brother. Very good relationship. They understand that Darren goes in as the starter and if he needs a blow, Mike goes in. If Mike gets hot, it’s Mike’s show. That’s just how we do it.”

If that sounds familiar to those who know the relationship between Lynch and Forsett … well, it’s no coincidence that Cable is now the man in charge of this version of the thunder-and-lightning backfield. Cable has the horses in the backfield, of that there is no doubt. Both Lynch and Forsett are firmly established with the team, both players are clearly happy to be in Seattle, and the next step is to provide them with the environment to succeed that Shaun Alexander once had.

Step 1 will be to improve the offensive line. We’ll discuss that more in detail when we get to that area of the team’s personnel review, but a statistical snapshot tells us most of what we need to know. In 2010, the Seahawks’ front five finished 29th in FO’s Adjusted Line Yards metric, which assigns responsibility for the success of failure of running plays to the back or the line based on down, distance, and opponent.

The Seattle line averaged 3.66 Adjusted Yards per running back carry, while the backs themselves put up 3.90 yards per. No team was stuffed at the line more often than the Seahawks (a disturbing 27 percent of all carries never got past the line of scrimmage; the league average in 2010 was 19 percent), and only three teams were worse in Power ranking (percentage of runs on third or fourth down, two yards or less to go, that achieved a first down or touchdown). Meanwhile, Seattle’s backs were the eleventh-best in the NFL in percentage of rushing yardage that came more than 10 yards past the line of scrimmage.

To put it simply, the problem does not lie with Lynch and Forsett. They may not comprise the NFL’s most dynamic duo, all else being equal, but the line they ran behind was paralyzed by Gibbs’ departure and half a decade of neglect from the previous administration. Unfortunately, that disparity between quality and quantity also applied to that old West Coast offense staple – the pass to the running back.

According to FO’s game-charting metrics, the Seahawks threw 76 passes to running backs that were specifically designed to gain yardage starting from behind the line of scrimmage (screens, swing passes, dumpoffs), which was 12th-highest in the NFL. On those plays, the Seahawks averaged 6.4 yards per play (minus-1.2 yards behind the line of scrimmage to start, and 7.6 yards from the start of the play), which ranked in the NFL’s bottom 10. Seattle’s Success Rate (a measure of running back consistency based on the percentage of carries where the player gains 40% of needed yards on first down, 60% of needed yards on second down, or 100% of needed yards on third or fourth down) on those passes was 54 percent, again one of the league’s lowest.

As we go through the Seahawks position group by position group, the solutions will rarely be this clear. If Seattle bolsters its line and makes no other changes to its offense (besides the seemingly obvious step of re-signing fullback and special teams maven Michael Robinson), the running game will improve. That’s been the obvious point all along. The difference is that finally, for the first time in half a decade, the Seahawks have a personnel team in place that actually understands it.

Seahawks personnel review: Running backs | Seattle Seahawks.