After leading the NFL in rushing last season, the Seahawks plan to go to their running backs even more this seson — through the air.
Since the Seahawks the past season transformed from one of the NFL’s worst rushing teams to its best, making for a potent offense — over the final half of the regular season, the Seahawks averaged 30 points a game, trailing only Kansas City (34) and the Los Angeles Rams (32.6) — the 2019 course should be obvious.
Let the rest of the NFL offenses do Jetsons. Un-hip Seattle will keep to the full Flintstones (feel free, kids, to look ’em up).
With a new boulder.
“He’s doing a lot with the running backs,” said RB Chris Carson of second-year offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer. “He’s splitting them out wide, putting them in different spots around the field.
“He’s using us more for pass catching than what he did in the previous year. It’s fun for us.”
How visible the plan will be Thursday night when when the fake season begins at the Clink against the Denver Broncos (7 p.m., FOX) isn’t known. But providing the ball more frequently this fall, in a variety of ways, to the running-back tandem of Carson and former first-round draft choice Rashaad Penny would make even Barney Rubble look like a genius.
“Most definitely,” Carson said. “All of the running backs have great hands. It’s good to see us finally be able to use it.”
Coach Pete Carroll was all grins.
“We have no hesitation to throw the ball to our guys — they’re all good,” he said. “Chris might have as good of hands as anybody on the team. Rashaad catches the ball well. (Sixth-round rookie Travis) Homer has done a nice job. C.J. Prosise is always been a big-time receiver for us. Probably the guy that jumped out was J.D McKissic. He’s got great hands.”
Schottenheimer added a couple of points about Carson.
“I really want to get him involved in the passing game a lot this year, because he’s such a good route runner,” he said. “Really strong hands.”
There’s specific reasons for the wrinkle.
Carson’s career-high 1,151 rushing yards on 247 carries created the first 1,000-plus season in Seattle since Marshawn Lynch in 2014, and was fifth-most in the NFL. Penny had the team’s highest average of 4.9 yards (419 on 85 carries). Along with departed Mike Davis (514 yards, 112 attempts), the Seahawks were the only team in the NFL with three backs who had 100-yard games.
But by the playoffs, the entire football world, which included the Dallas Cowboys, knew what was coming, and adjusted accordingly.
The Cowboys stacked up and held Seattle to 73 yards rushing on 20 carries. Schottenheimer was roundly criticized for not moving away quickly from the run once the Dallas strategy was obvious. The Seahawks season ended in JerryWorld, 24-22.
The other big reason is that for the first time in Carroll’s tenure, the offense needs to help keep the defense off the field. Outside of a proven crew at linebacker, the secondary and line are soaking in question marks. So a ball-control offense that adds short, safe passes to proven tackle-breakers, can help shave off an opponent possession or two.
And as high-octane as was the Seattle offense — it tied with Kansas City for most explosive plays (runs of 12-plus and completions of 16-plus) with 73 — it no longer has WR Doug Baldwin, the human safety valve when otherwise all was lost.
At the moment, training camp has what seems like three dozen receiver candidates to line up behind the new No. 1 guy, Tyler Lockett. So as they sort themselves out into the regular season, use of proven backs will be a help. They didn’t exactly get worn out last season — Carson had 20 catches for 163 yards, Penny nine for 75.
With the line nearly intact — veteran Mike Iupati is booked to replace J.R. Sweezy, who left in free agency for Arizona, at left guard — and second-year TE Will Dissly from the University of Washington looking close to recovered from knee surgery, the offense has a chance to be a bit of a bully. Especially if a healthy, slimmed-down Penny can be Carson’s near-equivalent.
“Rookie year is always a tough year — it’s the longest of your career,” Carson said of Penny’s first season. “His confidence has grown. His play speed is a lot faster. He’s all-around improved.”
Said Carroll: “Rashaad came back with his weight in a place where his body fat was way down. He had a great off season. He’s stronger and faster than he’s been.
“We are really excited about it.”
After practice Wednesday, Carroll said that Geno Smith will start at quarterback against Denver and split time with fellow back-up contender Paxton Lynch, while Wilson will skip his usual first-series cameo. Two running backs, Prosise and Homer, will be out with minor injuries; perhaps McKissic, too.
That will leave the evening to Carson, Penny and second-year back Bo Scarbrough, a 235-pounder from Alabama signed late last season off Jacksonville’s practice squad.
Team-wise, not much is likely to be learned from Carroll’s forecasted heavy use of rookies. But the Seahawks already learned they need to break some patterns from a year ago.
NFL analytics dictate that that a run-dominant offense is not as efficient per-play as a pass-dominant offense, particularly with all the safety-inspired rules protections afforded QBs. Cynical defensive players know the time is coming when a grass stain on a QB uniform is probable cause for a 10-day jail sentence (should grass make a comeback).
The Seahawks will rely on their backs, air and ground. Analytics are a guide, not a predictor. There’s always a place for outliers. Even prehistoric ones.