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Fact or Fiction: Did Seahawks Stop Letting Russell Wilson Cook?

Since the Seahawks season abruptly ended in the wild card round, one of the common narratives has been that the team's return to a run-heavy attack and taking the ball out of Wilson's hands led to their latest early playoff exit. But analytics and film all suggest that theory is a big, fat lie.

The 2020 season opened with a bang for Russell Wilson, who had successfully lobbied coach Pete Carroll and offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer into letting him "cook" during offseason meetings.

The star quarterback lit up scoreboards for the Seahawks over the first eight weeks, throwing 26 touchdowns as the Seahawks raced out to a 6-1 start and sat in first place of the NFC West. He threw four or more touchdown passes in four of the first seven games, including tossing five touchdowns in victories over the Patriots and Cowboys, putting him on pace to break Peyton Manning's single season record.

But starting in Buffalo in Week 9, everything started to unravel. Though Wilson threw for 390 yards in a 44-34 loss to the Bills, he threw a pair of costly interceptions and coughed up two fumbles that were recovered by the defense. The next week, he once again threw two critical picks and lost a fumble in a 23-16 road loss to the Rams, dropping the Seahawks to 6-3 and out of first place.

As recently outlined in an article breaking down the escalating rift between Wilson, Carroll, and the Seahawks by The Athletic, the star quarterback met with coaches prior to a Week 11 matchup with the Cardinals to offer schematic suggestions for jump-starting the offense. While the coaches heard him out, they apparently dismissed his advice and Wilson angrily "stormed out" of the room.

Despite that unpleasant meeting, Seattle rallied to win six of its final seven games, including enacting revenge against Los Angeles at Lumen Field to capture a division title. But while the team found ways to win thanks to a rejuvenated defense, Wilson and the offense continued to struggle, averaging 24.1 points per game during that stretch. This average also was heavily influenced by a 40-point outing against the then-winless Jets.

With the win over New York as the lone exception - Wilson threw four touchdown passes that afternoon - the seven-time Pro Bowler failed to come close to recapturing his prior MVP form. From Week 9 on, he threw one or less touchdowns in five different games, failed to hit 200 passing yards four times, and posted a sub-60 percent completion rate three times.

While Wilson had a point when he publicly vented about being hit too much last month, the quarterback bears some of the responsibility for fixing that problem. And contrary to the popular narrative, the Seahawks didn't stop letting the star quarterback cook. They didn't suddenly take the chef out of the kitchen.

Despite Carroll's persistent comments to reporters about leaning more heavily on the run game, the Seahawks didn't necessarily do that over the final two months. Starting running back Chris Carson didn't have a single game with more than 16 carries in the second half and though the team averaged 28 carries per game over the final seven weeks, that statistic is a bit misleading.

Why? Though the team rarely called designed quarterback runs or read option plays, Wilson's propensity for escaping the pocket led to numerous tuck-and-run scramble opportunities. He ran the ball 83 times for 513 yards on the season and during those final seven games, he averaged five carries per game, and the vast majority of those runs came after he dropped back on pass plays.

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Starting with the aforementioned rematch against Arizona, Seattle dialed up 36.5 drop backs per game over the final eight games, including a wild card loss to Los Angeles. In that same set of games, excluding Wilson's carries as a scrambler and kneel downs, running backs and receivers received just 22.1 carries per game, equating to 38 percent of the team's offensive snaps.

Digging even deeper, the Seahawks only had three games during that span where running backs had more than 21 carries. On the flip side, Wilson dropped back to pass at least 34 snaps in five of those games, including 50 called pass plays compared to just 15 runs in a Week 13 loss to the Giants at Lumen Field.

To truly squash the notion that Carroll and Schottenheimer reverted to their old ways by relying on the run game and shutting down Wilson's five-star restaurant in the process, one has to look no further than Seattle's neutral early-down passing frequency. This metric accounts for play calls on first and second down when teams have between a 20 and 80 percent win probability and excludes the final two minutes for each half.

Per - which ironically stands for "running backs don't matter" - the Seahawks ranked first in the NFL in neutral early-down passing frequency through the first eight weeks of the 2020 season at north of 65 percent. While they ran the ball a bit more in the second half, however, they remained aggressive throwing the football on early downs, posting the sixth-highest neutral early-down passing frequency from Week 9 to Week 17.

So what was the biggest difference? In the first two months of the season, with Wilson dicing up opposing secondaries, Seattle was one of the six most efficient passing teams with 0.293 expected points added per drop back. But over the final nine games, including the playoff defeat, the team finished 26th overall with negative 0.008 expected points added per drop back.

In retrospect, there were numerous reasons for the steep regression by Wilson and the entire Seahawks offense. Carroll became more involved after Wilson's seven turnovers against the Bills and Rams, which led to his quarterback being overly cautious trying to protect the football. The inability to effectively adjust to two-deep safety looks ultimately led to Schottenheimer's ouster, while a banged up offensive line took big steps back allowing five or more sacks in five of Seattle's final 10 games.

Wilson himself deserves a share of the blame, as he battled decisiveness issues, often held onto the football too long, and struggled to hit his hot read when opponents brought extra defenders on the blitz. As has been the case throughout his career, his dual-threat skill set and penchant for extending broken plays led to high sack totals as much as lackluster line play.

As both the player and the franchise try to repair their fractured relationship, Wilson certainly has legitimate reasons for his frustrations. He has taken a beating over the years behind a suspect line and as one of the top quarterbacks in the NFL, he should have a greater voice in personnel and scheme-related decisions.

But when reflecting on the Seahawks' offensive deterioration late last season, Wilson doesn't have any ground to stand on when it comes to the argument his team took the ball out of his hands. Everything from film to analytics debunks this myth and unfortunately, due to factors in and out of his control, he wasn't able to whip up the same culinary masterpieces down the stretch.