The Seahawks' Emphasis of Offensive 'Tempo' Explained

Tempo, tempo, tempo—the biggest keyword of the Seahawks' offseason. But what does it all mean? Ty Dane Gonzalez breaks down the many ways it can be applied under offensive coordinator Shane Waldron.
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When asked to describe new offensive coordinator Shane Waldron's offense, "tempo" has been the first word that's come to mind for many Seahawks. Russell Wilson has said it; DK Metcalf has said it; Tyler Lockett has said it; even Pete Carroll has said it. But none have truly explained—in full—what it actually means, making it something of a meme within the Seahawks' fanbase this offseason.

Carroll did his best to elaborate without giving away too much at the end of mandatory minicamp, addressing the common misconception that tempo equates to a constant no-huddle style offense a la Chip Kelly's Eagles. That's not what it is. Instead...

"It's everything," Carroll said. "From huddle to snap point, just using all of the elements of the game that are available."

So what does that entail exactly, and what is "everything?" It's easy to get off the beaten path here, so let's go step-by-step. 

At the core of this philosophy is, as newcomer Gerald Everett put it, the ability to keep opposing defenses "on their heels." Dictating the flow of the game before the defense can; forcing them to adapt to you instead of the other way around. The Seahawks don't want to let their opponent get comfortable in between plays, where they can substitute in and out at will and make the necessary adjustments to stack up with their pre-snap looks.

Under Brian Schottenheimer, Seattle was one of the slowest teams in the NFL in regards to pace-of-play. Here's a breakdown of its average seconds-per-play (SPP) by situation.

Seahawks seconds-per-play in 2020, provided by Football Outsiders

Seahawks seconds-per-play in 2020, provided by Football Outsiders

It may come as a surprise to some that the Seahawks were actually at their slowest when trailing by seven or more points, checking in as one of the least urgent teams in the league when the odds were stacked most against them. 

Interestingly, Waldron's Rams (27.62) came in just three spots in front of the Seahawks in overall SPP, though they were more consistent in their pace across the board and were far more urgent when playing from behind or in neutral situations. Here's a breakdown of the Rams' numbers, though only so much can be gleaned from these as Waldron wasn't the lead architect of the offense.

Rams seconds-per-play in 2020, provided by Football Outsiders

Rams seconds-per-play in 2020, provided by Football Outsiders

Speed doesn't always equal offensive success, however. Of the seven teams that finished ahead of the Seahawks in points scored last year, only the Titans (25.99), Buccaneers (26.49) and Chiefs (27.05) put up a faster SPP. In fact, the Packers—the league's highest-scoring team—finished dead-last with an average mark of 31.09 SPP. 

Where the Seahawks really need to emphasize speed is in avoiding unnecessary pre-snap penalties and premature timeouts, something they've long struggled with under Carroll. Getting to the line of scrimmage and snapping the ball in a timely manner has been a problem, particularly after explosive plays or chaotic moments. 

Fans will likely remember one of the team's biggest blunders in this area coming against the 49ers in Week 17 of the 2019 season, just a yard away from snatching the NFC West crown from their arch rivals. After John Ursua hauled in a clutch fourth-down catch to move the chains and set Seattle up at the goal line, Wilson spiked the ball to stop the clock—but not before another 15 seconds ran off, leaving 22 ticks remaining. 

The 40-second play clock began and the Seahawks were on the cusp of finalizing a storybook finish, looking to cap it off in sentimental fashion. In his first game back with the team since 2015, running back Marshawn Lynch's number was called to punch the potential division-winning score across the plane—or serve as a decoy. But a lack of communication between the coaching staff and Lynch left him unprepared for the moment, roaming the sidelines without his helmet. Unable to get out on the field in time, the play clock eventually expired before Seattle could get a play off and a delay-of-game penalty pushed the offense back five yards. 

The Seahawks lost the game and the division, with tight end Jacob Hollister being stopped just inches shy of the end zone on a pass from Wilson. They'd go on to lose to the Packers in the divisional round as a wild card team while the 49ers waltzed to a Super Bowl appearance as the NFC's top seed.

Consequences such as these fuel the anxiety of Seattle fans who've long criticized the team for its poor clock management. And while such an extreme has yet to be matched, the Seahawks have inarguably continued to play with fire and have put themselves at unnecessary disadvantages because of a lack of pre-snap tempo.

In 2020, they finished as the seventh-worst team in the NFL with 40 pre-snap penalties, including five delay-of-games—tied for fifth-most with seven other teams. Tyler Lockett has hinted at this being an area of focus in Waldron's offense, using the term "faster huddle" to describe the biggest change he's seen under the new play-caller. 

The ability to fix these woes doesn't just fall on the shoulders of Waldron, Carroll and the rest of Seattle's coaching staff, however. Wilson is just as much at fault for the team's reputation of shooting itself in the foot. If he doesn't get better before the snap, the Seahawks' desires to boast an efficiently quick offense will never come to fruition. 

But pre-snap—while a major aspect—is not the only piece to the tempo puzzle here. It also comes down to Waldron's play-calling and Wilson's execution. Getting the ball out quickly in the short and intermediate game will be a staple of the offense's overhaul, which Wilson was seen working on with rookie receiver D'Wayne Eskridge in mandatory minicamp last week.

Don't get that confused with screen plays, though; it goes well beyond that, and even beyond Wilson's passing ability. It's about quick-breaking plays that defenses have to immediately react to, which includes calls such as jet and fly sweeps—something Eskridge will likely play a key role in.

Tempo could also allude to the sequencing of Waldron's play-calling, determined by an aggressive or methodical approach. And yes, there should be some no-huddle involved outside of the obvious scenarios that call for it. Last year, the Rams—again, keep in mind Waldron wasn't running the show—ran 147 plays out of no-huddle through the first three quarters of games, per Sharp Football Stats. The Seahawks, by comparison, ran just 35.

Tempo truly is "everything," as Carroll mentioned. And there really isn't one proper way or another to package it. It can mean something different to every team and be applied in a varying amount of ways. But the Seahawks have severely lacked it on many fronts and Waldron, who's watched them from afar for years, comes from a system that has long used it to its advantage. If anyone has the wherewithal to get them on the right track, it may just be him.

Only time will tell how he applies tempo to this offense, though. At the very least, Carroll has given him the reins to do as he sees fit and the players seem to be taking to his teachings well thus far. But this is something fans have heard in the past, only to see the Seahawks abandon their desire to emphasize tempo on several occasions. So it's easy to understand why there's hesitancy from some to buy in to what the players are selling, though Waldron's background indicates a better understanding of what it takes to establish tempo than his predecessors.

And let's face it: the Seahawks are at a desperate point in their team's history. They've now seen in back-to-back years what damage a lack of tempo can do to their hopes of a hoisting another Lombardi Trophy. Another letdown of a season could be demonstrative to their championship window, perhaps even putting the nail in the coffin of this historic era for their franchise if players like Wilson want out. 

In a way, Waldron has the keys to Seattle's future. We'll just have to see if he can go zero-to-60 without spinning out of control.