Back on February 2, Shane Waldron took his first press conference as Seattle Seahawks offensive coordinator. Over a month ago, Waldron kept the focus predominantly macro and did not tighten into specifics. The 41-year old talked broad philosophy rather than Xs and Os.
The generic introduction of Waldron left a lot of unanswered - and some unasked - questions. Media attending pressers look to get quotes from which they can write various articles. Asking an overly probing question to Waldron would have been foolish. When you are limited to asking just one or two questions and it’s your first time interviewing that person, it’s better to explore a subject with wider scope.
Personnel decisions in the offseason will provide hints of Waldron’s schematic plan, with certain types of player added in free agency and the draft. However, we are unlikely to gain concrete answers to these deeper queries until preseason football commences in August - and this is reliant on the COVID-19 situation allowing exhibition NFL games to be played. Whatever happens in the fall, we are left pondering for much of the offseason. This article looks at these questions.
As Waldron summarized: “And what the final products gonna look like? You know, that’s not gonna be determined until that opening game where ‘hey, these are the guys and this is how the puzzle pieces fit together.’”
1) How 'Sean McVay' is Shane Waldron?
Waldron’s appointment was met with much fanfare because of the Sean McVay system he spent five years in. Yet this ignores Waldron’s prior experience. The coach started off as an operations intern in New England in 2002 and 2003, before earning the special teams quality control role in 2004.
Waldron left the Patriots to be a grad assistant for Charlie Weis at Notre Dame from 2005-2007. The coach returned to New England in 2008 as offensive quality control coach. Next, he was promoted to tight ends coach in 2009.
In 2010, he coached wide receivers for the UFL's Hartford Colonials. In 2011, he became the Buckingham Browne & Nichols School offensive coordinator. Then Waldron spent two seasons as UMass' tight ends coach (2012, 2013) and two seasons as the offensive line coach (2014, 2015).
While Waldron spoke highly of McVay, how much Waldron’s coaching experience prior to arriving in Los Angeles will influence him as a play caller remains in question. Play calling can be broken down into multiple sections. There is play design. There is basic play type: run or pass. Then there is the area of the field each play looks to attack and when to call it, if at all: outside runs, inside runs, short passes, long passes, etc.
“The way I’m looking at this thing, it’s like any other part of football: This is a team sport, everyone is in this together,” Waldron outlined. “It will be through my direction that this offense is being run, with that great support of coach Carroll.”
It’s encouraging that Waldron has coached every position on offense but for running back. However, we really don’t know what scheme he is going to be running. This leads us into the subject of blending.
2) What will the 2021 offensive blend be?
“Will there be parts of stuff that carries over? Absolutely.” Waldron answered when asked about blending old with new. “Because there’s been some great things that they have done in the past.”
“Really everything moving forward is gonna be all about this year and how those group of players fits together, how this group of coaches fit together and how we can attack that with that competitive mindset. I have a core set of beliefs that I’m trying to stick to, but we’re going to build this thing together.”
The beliefs Waldron outlined were eerily aligned with Carroll. Point 1? “It’s always going to be all about the ball.’’ Point 2? “We’re gonna be a fundamentally sound offense.” Point 3? “We’re gonna be a balanced offense.” What a remarkable juxtaposition with the circumstance of “philosophical differences” that saw Carroll fire Brian Schottenheimer.
3) Will 2021 be “series offense?"
This was the one question I really wish had been posed to Waldron. That’s because he would have been able to answer this in a wide sweeping way at the same time as divulging a ton about his way of thinking and vision for the offense.
McVay is a series play caller. His offense uses wide zone run action to set up their core concepts. Taylor Kolste explained this in further detail in his excellent book "Breaking Down The 2018 LA Rams Offense."
“Sean McVay has said that the goal of his offense is to create the ‘illusion of complexity.’ The Rams do not run a ton of schemes and do not use very many formations, but much of what they do offensively is series-based, meaning that they run a lot of schemes that look the same and work off of each other. Tony Romo summed it up pretty well when broadcasting their week 10 matchup with Seattle, saying 'It’s almost so simple, but brilliant. Now they fake the exact play they just ran... it’s really impressive how McVay runs so few plays but it’s impossible to stop them because he does seven things off of the exact same look.” As Romo said, it makes their offense really tough to stop because if the defense is gearing up to stop one play, they can just run another that looks the same but is designed to counter the defense’s response to the original play.”
As Kolste concluded, “The Rams’ offense carries out its philosophy of the ‘illusion of complexity’ by basing as a one-back, under center, zone running team who heavily features the play action pass.”
After the 2018 Rams struggled against the Bears and suffered a stagnant Super Bowl versus the Patriots, McVay added much-required evolution to his offense. Greater formation diversity was implemented. He also diverted from being a primarily 11 personnel-oriented offense, sprinkling in mixing in 12 personnel more regularly.
The driving schematic force remains the same for the Rams, though. Speaking in the 2020 preseason to the Run The Power podcast, current Rams tight end coach Wes Phillips spoke on this.
“We’re a wide zone-based running team: so day one we’ll be all wide zone,” Phillips said of the Rams’ typical install. “And it will be keepers off of the wide zone and it will be play action pass off of the wide zone and concepts like that.”
The 2020 Rams still majored in under center formations because it was how they best executed the wide zone action, the similar appearance that helps the “if, then” play calling mindset.
“We have been pretty firm in being more of an under center team as far as run game,” said Phillips.
Los Angeles only really gets into a shotgun mode when it is a clear passing down, and the run carries less of a threat - this is also an indictment of Jared Goff’s abilities.
If Waldron had been asked about series offense and the “illusion of complexity,” we could have understood that Seattle’s offense would be moving to a smaller amount of concepts and emphasizing one core appearance.
4) What will the run game look like?
Carroll will love that the run - or at least the run action - is what has driven the Rams’ offensive system under McVay.
“Our philosophy as an offense, really is first, second down, on what we call like ‘base downs,' so 1st and 10 or 2nd and 1 to 6, we’re really a run the football, play action pass, keepers or nakeds whatever you call them - and maybe some screens mixed in,” admitted Phillips.
“Most of what the Rams did offensively revolved around the running game,” summarized Kolste of that peak 2018 attack.
With Los Angeles' heavy reliance on play action, being able to at least fake the run successfully is vital. This is how the Rams are so successful at running the boot, running the waggle, running the keeper, running the jet/fly sweep. It all looks like that same run, until it isn’t. Keep in mind the Rams' neutral pass situation rates with Goff as quarterback.
Assuming that we are going to get some form of series-based offense in Seattle, the Seahawks need to find themselves a true core run if they are going to experience that level of Rams success. This is likely to be Waldron’s year one mission, leaving Carroll satisfied in his quest for balance and a lot of fans frustrated.
One of Seattle’s best runs in 2020 was under center mid zone. It was designed to get downhill and cut back, often hitting behind the backside offensive tackle. This would be a great starting point for Waldron. However, Seattle's taught technique has been less zone-based, appearing more like man-blocked zone concepts that stem from the preference of offensive line coach Mike Solari.
Waldron arrives with more of a bucket step, zone-blocked, zone-concept team. Indeed, he spoke with matching terminology of backs being on the “right track” and “slash running.” Some carry-over is them aiming to get lateral double teams. Though the Rams mainly ran “mid zone," they group this together with wide zone.
Kolste wrote of McVay’s run game: “The mid zone blocking scheme is the same as outside zone for everyone except for the play-side offensive tackle. The running back’s aiming point remains the same as outside zone [tight end landmark] as he is still trying to stretch the defense laterally, but his reads are now bumped in one defensive lineman.”
After Seattle lost Brennan Carroll as its run game coordinator, they brought in Rams assistant offensive line coach Andy Dickerson as help for Waldron.
“He’ll be instrumental in helping with the transition,” assessed Waldron.
It’s how this all meshes with Solari that is the big question. “The chance to blend with Mike and get things kinda, all connected and marry everything that we want to do together philosophically,” is how Waldron finished his presser. That was the offensive coordinator getting to the real juicy stuff. Solari’s power zone, gap/man-blocked heavy system is going to have to mesh.
Solari has been coaching offensive lines since 1976, so his experience certainly won’t be an issue. However, a shock therapy approach is unlikely to work - especially when right guard Damien Lewis was drafted with a mindset that former Seahawks area scout and current Senior Bowl director Jim Nagy described in January as “looking for big, strong, dudes that can play square inside and not get their edges worked and move people off the ball.” The o-line depth was rostered with this attitude too, with Seattle looking mainly for downhill concepts and inside zone movement.
Ethan Pocic can’t win one-on-one at center, which is vital to these types of runs succeeding. Meanwhile there is an open spot at left guard. Rebuilding the interior of the offensive line in the correct way looks like one of the most important tasks this offseason, especially after the ended the 2020 season in dreadful fashion. The front office must get it done despite limited resources.
In addition to that under center mid zone, the Seahawks' gun inside zone was one that looked to wash the defensive line front side and aggressively hit the cutback. In terms of a philosophical mindset, this is not dissimilar to the premise of the Rams’ under center mid zone.
5) What will the pass game look like?
It’s Russell Wilson in this offense not Jared Goff. Obviously, Goff is not on the same level as Wilson. Yet Wilson is a quarterback more comfortable in shotgun formations, where he can see more and sooner.
Under center play action is a longer-developing play fake than gun play action. This therefore makes it more stressful on defenders.
Kolste intelligently highlighted Kyle Shanahan’s comments on the shotgun versus under center.
“Every time you’re under center, you’ve got a lot more run options and a lot more play action options and a lot more movement options off of your runs,” Shanahan said. “Your play choices are endless. You can do everything. Once you get into the gun, certain things are like cut in half. Play action is not as good because it happens’ quicker. You can’t hold the ball out there for as long... it just eliminates being as balanced.”
Under center jet/fly sweeps also hit quicker and therefore impart greater strength on defenses.
While Goff was gun-challenged (because he isn't very good), Wilson is under center-challenged because of his height. We did also see the issues that arose when teams knew the Seahawks were passing - think of the third and long situations - which speaks to the lack of balance that Carroll has referred to.
Dave Canales remains on the Seattle coaching staff as passing game coordinator so the transition in terms of passing concepts will likely be fine. After all, the Seahawks were running the same play action concepts last year as McVay. Canales may even help the gun passing game with his ideas, given Seattle was running similar stuff to the Chiefs in 2020.
The under center versus gun discussion, recognizing how the Rams succeeded, still remains a major question. For gun play action to be a large element, do they need the run game to incorporate more pulls and gap-blocked concepts?
6) How will tempo be used?
Tempo means different things to different people. For the 2021 Seahawks offense, it will not be the blistering, no-huddle, full-throttle pace of the fastest offenses seen in football - what the “tempo” descriptor immediately evokes.
Most likely is a replica of what the Rams have achieved. Los Angeles has shown an ability to alter its offensive speed throughout games and seasons. McVay varies his quarterback cadence. He also has deployed a sugar huddle, as his offense breaks the huddle at speed. This leaves the defense with little time to get lined up.
“You know, we want to be the one that, the foot’s on the gas pedal,” stated Waldron. “We’re going, and I know sure, some of these questions will come up, about tempo and all that different stuff.”
That “gas pedal” reference is surely no coincidence. Wilson has long held ambitions for altering the pace of the Seahawks’ attack. Seattle has tried to do this in the past and enjoyed varying degrees of success.
7) Will Russell Wilson gain more line of scrimmage authority?
Waldron told reporters in his press conference that he had not talked football with his new quarterback in Russell Wilson.
“The football part of it, that’s gonna be an important part of it when the time’s right,” Waldron said. “Our conversations really have centered around just who we are as people.”
In his postseason press conference, Wilson did speak about the importance of a working relationship with the new coordinator. Yet the quarterback also explored the football aspects of the hire, including his desire for more authority at the line of scrimmage.
“To be able to check plays and get to stuff,” Wilson said. “I think a little bit of that is, you know, I want more of that and to continue to do that, in this next OC. I want to be able to get us to anything and everything, right here; right now: bang! [clicks fingers] here we go!”
“I’ve always been able to do that, but I think also too is that, you know, that being kind of a key part to our offense, you know? And making sure that’s where I can kind of put my foot on this play. ‘Okay, here we go, they’re in this, boom boom boom boom.’ And continue to do that.”
I covered Waldron bringing “can calls” to the new Seahawks offense. How far will the coordinator extend power to the signal caller? The Rams often aimed to get to the line quickly, which suits Wilson, who is a quarterback who likes to takes his time to survey and see the defense.
8) How will Shane Waldron fix what looked like a broken offense?
When it comes to getting Seattle back to that early 2020 “Let Russ Cook” glory - and it’s clear Wilson is aiming for this level of production - Waldron would likely point towards his three foundations: ball-emphasis, staying fundamentally sound, and being a balanced offense. This is how the new coordinator will attempt to fix the Seahawks offense.
Waldron touched on getting “all 11 involved” twice. He wants “all 11 every play cognizant of the ball.” He wants these players to “protect the football.”
"I think really, the balanced approach, is really how I wanna view this thing,” Waldron continued. “And I think that’s what really blends the ability to play good complimentary football - whether it’s running the football, or understanding how the defense is playing in different games versus different offensive systems, how the special teams are playing. And having that balanced approach that’s able to adjust and adapt, depending on the style of the game or what maybe the score might dictate in any particular game.”
9) How different is the 2021 offense, then?
The 2020 Seahawks ran very similar under center play-action patterns to McVay's Rams, just with a Chiefs blend of gun ideas along with other Schottenheimer elements - so it was not a matching, series-based set up.
Wilson needs to clearly see concepts; he is not a timing quarterback and not a throw to a spot quarterback. He is especially lethal when liking his pre-snap matchup. When it comes to certain things, Wilson cannot see what he needs to and the offensive play caller is risking negative plays by dialing stuff up.
Wilson will still hold the ball, still experience issues accessing certain quicker throws, and still turn down what look like open windows. Given the answers to most of these questions, the offensive issues in 2021 are likely to be the same.
The hire of Waldron does not suggest that Seattle’s offense is dramatically changing. If anything, this could just be a pass rate-run rate question where the Seahawks’ play calling gets more in line with Carroll’s old ratios of leaning more heavily on the run. (Despite McVay passing at a high rate with Goff as highlighted earlier)
It makes sense that the 2021 offensive change is more running and an attempt to install structured series-thinking. Yet Wilson’s blitz on the media cycle suggests that he wants even more power than he had in the 2020 “Let Russ Cook” project.
Goff had his hand held by "if, then" play calling. Wilson ended 2020 struggling and the 'training wheels' approach may match. Seattle doesn't yet possess the main tool (outside zone action) to make this work. How Waldron and Wilson mesh together, in 2021 and - hopefully - beyond, is the key to the immediate future of the Seahawks franchise. Can Wilson remain happy in the Pacific Northwest?