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Navigating Bear Markets: Why Did Russell Wilson Stop Cooking?

Russell Wilson had a tale of two seasons in 2020. What made the QB stop cooking in the second half of the year?

Photo: AP Photo/Rick Scuteri

Intro: My name is Quinten, and I have been tweeting for the last year or so about the Bears & NFL Stats under the twitter handle @ButkusStats. I recently joined On Tap Sports Net as a contributor. My content here will be more of the same (deep dive stats) as it has been on twitter, but with more ability to dig in and discuss in article format without character limits. I will continue to share content on twitter as well.

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That’s my dog. Butkus. Follow at @ButkusStats

“Russell Wilson threw 12 picks in four games”.

#LetRussCook didn’t work out for the Seahawks, did it? At least that seems to be the sentiment going around the sports media world of late. I feel like I have heard it over and over for the past week. Maybe that is on me for listening to too much sports radio & football podcasts. But, color me skeptical. I’ve got some details here on Russell Wilson’s 2020:

  • 4 bad games: 10 TDs, 10 TOs, 1-3 record
  • Other 12 games: 30 TDs, 7 TOs, 11-1 record
  • 1 game with a QB rating below 70
  • 3 games with a QB rating below 80
  • 11 games with a QB rating above 90
  • 2 of his worst games of the year STILL resulted in 3 TD performances. When was the last time a “bad” start by a Chicago QB resulted in 3 offensive scores of any kind?

There is also a belief out there that #LetRussCook failed because Pete Carroll pulled the plug on it. Early in the year, Wilson was allowed to play his own, free swinging way. But later in the year, after the Seahawks lost three of four games following their 5-0 start, Pete Carroll pulled the plug and inhibited Wilson’s ability to go out there and play.

So… that brings us here. We are all hopeful that Russ will be donning the orange & navy in 2021, and be the penultimate answer to our wildest dreams. What better excuse do I need to dive into an excel sheet and waste my afternoon on football stats?

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This is the start of my dive into the Seahawks usage & results with Wilson in 2020, analysis of who to blame between Wilson & Carroll for the second half drop-off in production, and assessment of how Wilson would fit with Matt Nagy’s play calling tendencies.

Part 1: QB Usage Rates:

First thing I am looking into is how Russ’ usage changed over the course of the season. I am defining “Usage Rate (%)” as follows:

QB Dropbacks + QB Scrambles = QB Plays

QB Plays / Team Plays = QB Usage Rate (%)

Russell Wilson vs NFL Avg vs 2020 Bears

In 2020, the average NFL QB had a usage rate of 66.4%. Meaning, the average QB either threw the football, fumbled the football, was tackled with the football, or carried the football into the end zone on 66.4% of their respective teams’ plays.

  • On early downs (1st & 2nd Down), the average QB usage rate was 60.5%. Teams like to run the ball on early downs more than on later downs. Nothing groundbreaking there.
  • On late downs (3rd & 4th Down), the average QB usage rate was 87.9%. Teams are far more likely to pass on later downs than run.
  • In total, Russ had an above average usage rate of 67.3%. His usage was above average on early downs, and below average on late downs.

We are going to look at the season in two separate groups:

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Door #1:

  • A nine-game stretch from Weeks 1 – 10. This is the first game of the season through the rough patch that Seattle experienced, ending with their loss to the Rams week 10. This is when Carroll may have conceivably pulled the plug on #LetRussCook.

Door #2:

  • The remaining seven-game stretch from weeks 11-17, when Carroll may have been more committed to a ground & pound attack, limiting Russ’ ability to attack.
Tampa Bay beat us to Door #3
Graphic: Brilliant

Door #1:

Wilson’s usage rate was sky-high at 71%. This is 4.6% above league average, and on par with the Bears 2020 averages between Foles, Trubisky, and Tyler Bray’s glorious five-throw campaign.

  • On early downs, Russ was allowed to attack what he was seeing, being trusted with the ball in his hands 66.5% of the time, versus league average of 60.5%, and the Bears average of 61.9%.
  • On late downs, Carroll still liked to play it safe, holding Wilson to 82.8% usage. The league average was 87.9%, and the Bears average was 88.4%.

Door #2:

Wilson’s usage rate plummeted to 62.5%. This is 3.9% below league average, 5.3% below the Bears 2020 averages, and 8.5% below Wilson’s rate from Door #1.

  • On early downs, Russ was trusted with the ball only 57.1% of the time. This is 3.4% below league average, 4.7% below the Bears 2020 averages, and a whopping 9.4% below Wilson’s rate from Door #1. It appears that Carroll took the ball away from Russ, and he may not have been allowed to get into a rhythm or into manageable 3rd down situations with the Seahawks run game struggling at times late in the season, despite what the numbers suggest.
  • On late downs, Carroll did not change his tendencies much, holding Wilson to 82.2% usage. This is 5.7% below league average, 6.2% below the Bears 2020 averages, but only 1.2% below Wilson’s rate from Door #1.
  • Think about this. Wilson was not allowed to make the decisions on early downs as often, which means they are running more on early downs and limiting their ability to create easier 3rd & 4th downs. They were still running more often than most NFL teams on 3rd & 4th down. Seattle achieved expected points added (EPA)/Play of 0.016 (6th in NFL) & a success rate of 43.7% (6th in NFL) when running the ball on early downs from weeks 11-17. So they were running the ball efficiently.
  • Traditional stats show 923 rush yards & 4.7 YPC in Window #2. But, 188 of these yards came from Wilson, which are accounted for in QB Plays. Seattle’s non-QB ball carriers totaled 735 yards at 4.65 YPC. Still an impressive clip.
Graphic: memgenerator.net
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Summary:

From weeks 1-10, Russ was allowed to cook at a very high usage rate, except on late downs, where Carroll still elected to run more than the average NFL team.

From weeks 11-17, Russ wasn’t even allowed to look inside the kitchen.

I would assume that sometime between week 9 and 11 is really when the issues came to light between Wilson & Carroll, but they were likely brewing for years.

The good news is, if Russ does come to Chicago, Matt Nagy loves to let just anyone cook all the time! He’s somewhat known for letting unemployed cooks into his kitchen.

Disclaimer: This data does have some variability, as success on early downs may lead to lower QB usage rates on later downs, and vice-versa.

Photo: ClutchPoints

Next Time: I will take a look at Wilson’s EPA Per Play in Window #1 versus Window #2 across both early & late downs, compare it to NFL Averages, and then compare it to the 2020 Chicago Bears results. I will also look at DVOA (defense-adjusted value over average) strength of schedule impacts.


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