Can the Seahawks offense be effective with Jimmy Graham?


The Seattle Seahawks are widely considered the favorite to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl again this upcoming season.  Last week I explained why Marshawn Lynch could be a potential threat to drop Seattle from Super Bowl favorite to spectator.  This week I will discuss how Darrell Bevell’s inability to effectively maximize Percy Harvin’s unique talents could be a bad omen for Jimmy Graham and the rest of the Seahawks offense.

Jimmy Graham is one of the few truly unique pass-catching athletes in the NFL.  The New Orleans Saints lined him up all over the field to create mismatches and maximize his talents.  At first glance it would seem that the Saints created the template for how to effectively utilize Graham. However, the Seahawk’s offense is not the Saint’s offense.  Furthermore, Darrell Bevell’s uninspiring use of his last unique pass-catching athlete, Percy Harvin, casts doubt on his ability to take advantage of Graham’s distinct talents.

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The Seattle Seahawks offense is not flashy or sexy, but it is efficient.  Over the past three seasons the ‘Hawks have finished with the fourth, seventh, and fifth most efficient offense in the NFL as measured by DVOA.

The offense is efficient because it emphasizes a strong running game first and then capitalizes on subsequent advantageous passing situations.  Despite this proven philosophy, Seattle attempted to spice up their passing game by acquiring Percy Harvin in 2013. Due to injuries, Harvin wasn’t really unveiled to the 12’s until the 2014 season (other than a brief teaser in Super Bowl XLVIII).

In week one against the Packers, Harvin displayed the versatility and game breaking speed he flashed in the Super Bowl the season prior. He finished that game with 160 total yards split nearly evenly between rushing, receiving, and return yards.  Unfortunately, it was downhill from there eventually culminating in a week 7 trade to the New York Jets.

Following the trade to the Jets, many in the media focused on personality conflicts and locker room issues as the impetus for the trade, but those weren’t the only issues.  Seattle’s offensive efficiency steadily declined during Harvin’s time with the Seahawks and I think that Darrell Bevell’s play calling, specifically his use of Harvin, was a factor in that.

This chart shows every passing target and rushing play Harvin had with the Seahawks in the 2014 season.  What you see is that nearly every touch is near the line of scrimmage – 40 out of 43! For the most part, Seattle had four plays they called for Harvin – screen, flat, “jet” sweep, and an off-tackle running play where Harvin starts in the slot and then motions to the backfield next to the QB prior to the snap.

Not only did these “gadgety” plays take Seattle’s offense out of its normal flow, but the offense became very predictable when Harvin was on the field. Opposing defenses quickly learned to identify the play call by crosschecking where Harvin lined up.  This was never more apparent than the Dallas game where Harvin finished with six total touches for minus one yard.

Once Harvin left Seattle, Bevell dramatically reduced the number of the “Harvin plays” discussed earlier and resumed his normal play calling tendencies. After pouring through all of the offensive play calls from last season I discovered Bevell essentially replaced Harvin with three conventional players: WR Paul Richardson, WR Kevin Norwood, and RB Christine Michael.  This chart shows the percentage of offensive touches allocated to Harvin (red-line) and those allocated to the combination of Richardson, Norwood, and Michael (blue-line).

Note how when Harvin was traded after week 6 the usage of the Richardson, Norwood, and Michael combination (RNM) jumps to basically match Harvin’s usage. The switch back to conventional wide receivers and running backs in place of Harvin resulted in an increase in offensive efficiency. The chart below shows a marked decline in offensive efficiency from week one through week six before regaining a positive trend after Harvin’s trade, ultimately resulting in Seattle finishing the year fifth in the NFL in total offensive DVOA.

While Harvin’s personality conflicts cannot be ignored as a factor in his exile, that component is impossible to quantify. Darrell Bevell’s predictable play calling with Percy Harvin, however, certainly contributed to Seattle’s offensive issues in the first third of last season.

Bevell’s inability to effectively integrate this talented athlete within Seahawks offensive scheme is worrisome with the arrival of another special athlete in Jimmy Graham.  Will Bevell attempt to plug-and-play Graham into the existing offensive scheme or will he create a specific package of plays for him a la Percy Harvin?

Seattle does not target their tight ends often; roughly seven percent of offensive play calls targeted the tight end last year.  I find it difficult to believe Seattle gave up a first round pick and their starting center to not use him more than seven percent of the time.

How Bevell ultimately decides to utilize Graham will go a long way in determining the efficiency of the offense this season. I only hope Bevell has a better plan for Jimmy Graham than the Percy Harvin solo act we saw early last year.

Next: Michael Bennett Officially Holding Out

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