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01 Nov 2016

Any Given Sunday: Saints Over Seahawks

by Rivers McCown

To prevent things from tumbling too far down the conspiracy theory rabbit hole, it is important to keep a level head about officiating. But there are also times when we can call a spade a spade, and this is one of those times.

I have done this column for about a month now, and two of the upsets I have covered were driven by massive penalty swings in favor of the home team. This week, New Orleans managed to accrue two penalties for 10 yards, while Seattle managed 11 for 76. You don't have to reach far with a Seahawks fanbase that grew up during Super Bowl XL to find complaints about the officiating, obviously. And, even beyond the flags, there was a play where the clock should have stopped in the fourth quarter, but the Saints were ruled inbounds, which forced a Seattle timeout. There were also some pretty blatant pick plays that New Orleans used to great effect in the passing game.

So that is the view from The NFL Is Out To Get Us Lane. The simpler explanation is as follows: the NFL has continued to emphasize penalties. They have emphasized penalties to the extent that even Al Michaels will drop in something like "flag's down, what else is new?" in the flagship Sunday night broadcast.

There are simply more penalties this year than ever before. Forget about the dumbass unsportsmanlike conduct penalties where NFL players have to pretend to be robots. Even beyond that, there are 10 extra penalties in the NFL per week on offensive holding and defensive pass interference alone. If, at times, it has seemed like NFL teams are worse or the quality of play has gone down, perhaps this is what we're really seeing. It's becoming more and more illegal to actually play football on a play-by-play basis.

So, put that in a blender with the typical home-field advantage ref bias study, and it's no wonder that there are more games like this, or like the Eagles being outpenalized 14-to-two against the Lions a few weeks back. The NFL is no stranger to creating unintentional consequences via dumb rules. This year alone, we have seen Twitter in an uproar because of tie games, and we have seen a rule designed to create less kickoffs instead create more pop-up kickoffs straight to the goal line.

What the NFL has done here is unintentionally create the potential for a greater home-field advantage in any game. Not surprisingly, this has been used to upset some good teams!

By the DVOA

NO 4.8% 19.1% -1.2% -15.6%
SEA -6.8% -13.6% 3.3% 10.1%
NO -10.5% 17.7% -1.2% -29.4%
SEA 4.6% -5.9% 3.3% 13.9%

This may change with the next iteration of the system, but for now, only four penalties are included in DVOA: false start, delay of game, intentional grounding, and defensive pass interference.

Also, yeah, the Seahawks won this game on a play-by-play basis. You don't need fancy stats to tell you that. Seattle outgained New Orleans by 1.4 yards per play, the turnover battle was tied, and Seattle's turnover was a touchdown. Fortunately for the Saints, they do not play football games on paper.

Seattle Can't Run Because Russell Wilson Can't Run

Coming into this week, the Seattle Seahawks were 30th in rush offense DVOA. There are some very simple explanations for this. Seattle's offensive line, under noted Offensive Line MacGyver Jon Cable, is made up of discarded butcher meats, guys at new positions, or youngsters without much track record. So, naturally, we would expect some regression.

One thing that is not an excuse is that they no longer have Marshawn Lynch. Our rushing DVOA leader last year wasn't Lynch -- it was Thomas Rawls. In fact, if you look at Lynch next to current lead back Christine Michael (through Week 7), you don't see much difference.

Marshawn Lynch 2015 vs. Christine Michael 2016
Player Team Year Runs DYAR Rk YAR Rk DVOA Rk
M.Lynch SEA 2015 111 47 25 54 26 1.2% 19
C.Michael SEA 2016 97 47 15 36 19 2.2% 16

So why are the Seahawks 30th in rush offense DVOA instead of third, like last year? Again, we could talk about the difference in schedules and so on, but the real issue is right here:

Russell Wilson 2015 vs. Russell
Wilson 2016
Player Team Year Runs DYAR Rk YAR Rk DVOA Rk
R.Wilson SEA 2015 85 123 3 106 5 17.4% 13
R.Wilson SEA 2016 15 -22 33 -22 33 -46.0% 31

Russell Wilson's rushing DYAR is the worst in the NFL among quarterbacks. Noted scramblers Brock Osweiler and Matt Ryan have created positive value with their legs this year. Kevin Hogan has created value with his legs this year. But the most athletic quarterback in his generation? Zippity. Wilson has been playing through injuries to his ankle and knee that have required braces and left him completely impotent as a runner. This was the thing that made Seattle's offense special the last few years. Wilson altered the numbers in the box in the running game, and he was also a historical outlier as far as throwing the ball outside of the structure of the play. Without his legs, the Seattle offense is missing its engines.

Until Wilson heals up -- which is something we probably won't know has happened until we actually see it on the field -- this offense is going to be a shell of itself.

Posted by: Rivers McCown on 01 Nov 2016

22 comments, Last at 02 Nov 2016, 6:39pm by Jimmy Oz


by Hummingbird Cyborg :: Tue, 11/01/2016 - 11:41am

It means that Seattle may have their lowest rating in years and suddenly "wake up" and play much better. We may have a few teams with ratings asterisks in the Patriots, the Steelers and the Seahawks.

by blarneyforbreakfast :: Tue, 11/01/2016 - 12:57pm

Some of the lack of success has to be chalked up to fatigue. Penalties aside, the Seahawks defense played a sloppier-than-usual second half of football.
I wonder if DVOA underestimates penalties, and if this leads it to overestimate the Seahawks? The Seahawks reliably have a drive or two a game that is sabotaged by false starts and other offensive penalties. On the flip side, if there is a reffing bias against the Seahawks then DVOA would underestimate their strength.

by tsmonk :: Tue, 11/01/2016 - 1:50pm

Sooo... Saints win merely because of home cooking and Russell Wilson's newfound inability to run. Zero credit for the Saints' actual performance. Got it. Perhaps you'd like to change the title to "Any Given Sunday: Seahawks Under Saints"?

by milo :: Tue, 11/01/2016 - 2:06pm


by caleb462 :: Tue, 11/01/2016 - 2:29pm

The Saints might actually be a decent team again. They've won 3 out of 4, albeit by slim margins. The offense is looking as good as ever, Brees is playing at an MVP level and he has quite possibly the best overall receiving corps he's ever had. The defense (and special teams) are still the big question marks, but the defense is at the very least, improving, and that's despite being decimated by injuries - particularly to the secondary. They are about to get their first round draft pick DT (Sheldon Rankins) and their best cornerback (Delvin Breaux) back from injury on D.

by Joseph :: Tue, 11/01/2016 - 2:38pm

And considering they only lost by 1 point to OAK and a last second FG to the Giants, they are only a couple of plays away from being 5-2.
Of course, you could say that they are only a Chargers' collapse and one Kearse foot from being 1-6, too.

by jacklaughing :: Wed, 11/02/2016 - 3:41pm

The Saints got to play a defense coming off 95 snaps and 46 minutes of play the week before playing cross-country on a 10am PST start. Yet the Saints won by less than a single TD, and that winning TD came off two wildly egregious pick plays, one for the TD pass itself. The Saints offense was stopped in the Red Zone 7 out of 8 tries on consecutive plays, most of those within the 5 yd line.

The Saints defense played an offense with a hobbled QB and an O-line featuring a LT who literally had no relevant experience as a football player. The Saints would have only been up by 2 points at the end if Jon Ryan hadn't bobbled the snap on a FG attempt in the 2nd half.

The Saints played a solid game but at no point in time did they dominate the Seahawks.

by tsmonk :: Wed, 11/02/2016 - 4:23pm

Who said anything about dominating? Thanks for the mention that they played a solid game, would have been nice for the author to make mention of that. Looks like the folks with a problem with the article feel the same way.

by milo :: Wed, 11/02/2016 - 5:34pm

When I was the age of an NFL player,I took five airline flights + 1 helicopter flight over 1 1/2 days and then worked a 12 hour tour on a rig. Jet lag isn't the problem. And then it was 27 more tours. Old men speculating and trying to statistically prove that provides football players are at a disadvantage from travelling after a night's sleep in a hotel are surely joking.

by Jimmy Oz :: Wed, 11/02/2016 - 6:39pm

i think the difference between the NFL and rig work is the NFL is a direct competition between people suffering jet lag versus people who are rested. I'm not sure this is a factor in your rig work, which i hope was more of a collective effort.

by Joseph :: Tue, 11/01/2016 - 2:32pm

Hey Rivers, this is pretty sloppy analysis. Just a mention of penalties and a mention of the run game suffering because of missing Russell Wilson. So let me help you.
1—Yes, the penalties were in the Saints’ favor. However, of the 11 Seahawks penalties, 3 were for false start—this usually works in their favor at their loud home field. This time, it went against them in a loud visiting venue. Two more were other blocking penalties, and another was a special teams penalty. Were these bad calls? (I didn’t see the game—wrong area of the US) The other 5 were defensive penalties—the one on Earl Thomas after his TD, and the other were 5 yd, auto 1st down types. Not having seen the game, there was probably 1 or 2 questionable, and 1 or 2 obvious. Seeing the comments from Sherman and others, there was probably some uncalled OPI on the Saints. However, there was no 50-yd, ticky-tack PI that can swing close games. Nor was there any away-from-the-ball hold that negated a long Seahawks offensive play. Analysis=they got the short end of the penalty stick, but not much; they still only averaged 7 yds per penalty.
2—The SEA run game suffered because of Russell Wilson—good graphs and comments here. However, you could have mentioned that it DIDN’T affect this game in particular—he’s been dealing with it for a month now.
3—The Saints limited to the Seahawks to 9 drives (and 13 offensive points) by slowing the game down, and by maximizing time of possession. Credit must go to the Saints’ coaching staff for a) knowing that the Seahawks defense was abnormally tired because of the long Sunday night game, and flights from ARI to SEA then to NO for an “early” start; b) A game plan that was built on lots of runs (36 called) and short passes, with the intention of winning the TOP (36 minutes); c) Emphasizing the need to limit mistakes, and then executing (2 penalties, and the fumble).
4—The Seahawks made two errors that cost them points—the botched FG attempt at the end of the first half (which obviously changed end game strategy for both teams, esp. SEA), and the pass at the end of the game. Every game has its “what if” plays, but many times it’s the little things that tip the scales for the underdog at the right moment. Interestingly enough, both teams had a trick pass play, and SEA had the defensive TD—so the non-predictive plays went in SEA’s favor.

by whateverdude :: Tue, 11/01/2016 - 3:06pm

A penalty can have a major impact without costing yards. In this case, NO benefited from calls/no calls on four different key third downs that ultimately allowed them to score 13 additional points.

Specifically NO had two different drives extended by questionable defensive holding calls that were otherwise stopped on 3rd down (both drives ended in field goals, so that's a direct impact of 6 points). The call on Shead in particular seemed like just really good defense.

The Saints also scored a touchdown on a 3rd and goal by using a blatant pick that wasn't called. If it's called, the drive likely ends in a FG. They also converted another third down in the 4th quarter with help from another uncalled pick, a drive which also ended in a field goal (and burned several minutes of the clock).

Obviously the game would've played out differently if any of those drives had ended differently, so I'm not saying this by itself cost Seattle the game, but the penalty/non-penalties certainly had a major impact on the game.

by Joe Pancake :: Tue, 11/01/2016 - 3:06pm

To your point about penalties, it is not the yardage that mattered, it is *when* the penalties (and non-penalties) occurred.

The Saints were twice granted automatic first downs because of defensive holding penalties on crucial third downs in the second half. The first one was just a straight-up blown call on DeShawn Shead who put his hand on the receiver's pad (within five yards even) but didn't grab it. The second was on Richard Sherman for grabbing a receiver's jersey, which he did do, so that's a completely justifiable call, if it's going both ways. But...

The two picks by Willie Snead were quite egregious -- he was clearly not even running a route, and he sustained contact noticeably beyond the legal one-yard buffer -- and they both occurred on third down as well. One scored a touchdown, the other killed the clock, and put the Saints in field goal range.

Then of course there was the non-clock-stop, which also proved to be crucial, given how the game ended.

Obviously these calls weren't the only reason the Saints won. (Drew Brees is still one of the best quarterbacks ever -- and that has nothing to do with the refs.) But they drastically increased their chances. According to pro football reference, the Saints win expectancy went up about 17 percentage points by the refs not calling the second Snead pick. That's quite big, and that's only one play.

by milo :: Tue, 11/01/2016 - 3:51pm

I'm not finished watching the game, yet, but I have seen two personal fouls committed by the Seahawks so far that weren't called.

by RickD :: Tue, 11/01/2016 - 5:15pm

Bad officiating usually manifests itself in terms of missing obvious penalties, as opposed to calling penalties that shouldn't be called. (An exception for the absurd flag on Pierre Garcon near the end of OT on Sunday.)

If you allow one team to grab and hold all day, that's a huge advantage.

As an aside: I've been seeing more uncalled grabbing and holding among WRs and CBs this year than I've seen in a long time. The inconsistency in officiating creates new problems.

by Joseph :: Tue, 11/01/2016 - 5:40pm

Replying both to you and comment 8 above:
Notice I said that SEA did get the short end of the stick on penalties. However, I think that the non-calls probably are more the complaint (i.e., call it both ways, or don't call it at all).
My biggest complaint, echoed by commenters above and below, is that the article was lacking its normal analysis of why the Saints beat the Seahawks. I merely tried to add some additional perspective that the author "left out."

by BobbyDazzler :: Tue, 11/01/2016 - 5:11pm

Brilliant. Couldn't have said it any better.

Makes me laugh how Seattle fans have this superiority complex after years of being an average team prior to the Hasselbeck / Alexander etc teams. You'd think they'd remember where they came from.

Reading Sherman & Seahawks fans bitching these last couple days is sweet music to my ears. You don't have a God-given right to win every game or not have dubious calls go against you. It happens to every team. Grow up and get on with it.

by dcfly1 :: Tue, 11/01/2016 - 3:10pm

Tom Cable, not Jon Cable.

by zenbitz :: Tue, 11/01/2016 - 4:10pm

>Forget about the dumbass unsportsmanlike conduct penalties where NFL players have to pretend to be robots.

I am pretty sure that's an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty as well.

by RickD :: Tue, 11/01/2016 - 5:17pm

Only if you use a prop. Or go to the ground. Or take off your helmet. Or it looks choreographed. Or a shooting action is mimed. Or...

by BobbyDazzler :: Tue, 11/01/2016 - 5:22pm

This is literally the worst piece I have ever read on Football Outsiders.

Where's the analysis we're so used to?

It's almost as if I've stumbled onto Cold Hard Football Facts after the Patriots have lost a game.

I'm a Saints fan as you may have guessed, but I watched the game with a good friend of mine who's a Seahawk fan and he was very magnanimous in defeat admitting that the best team won, even taking into account the penalties and supposed non-calls. Maybe you should take your homer glasses off next time.

by milo :: Tue, 11/01/2016 - 6:38pm

You gotta love DVOA. Saints 2nd worst performance of the year. All because they ran the ball 35 times for 3.5 yards per carry. You know, the game plan to keep possession that worked. And scored more points than the NFL average, and more points than anyone has so far this year against the Seahawks.