Seahawk Similarity Scores: The Offense, Pt. 2

In Part Two of a three-part series, Seahawks.NET's Doug Farrar continues a detailed look at Seattle's 2005 offense from a historical perspective. Using Football Outsiders' proprietary Similarity Scores, and with the help of FO's Aaron Schatz, we turn our attention to Shaun Alexander's 2005 season, and the ten most similar running back seasons.

Could We Start Again, Please?

1999 Heisman Trophy Balloting

Voting for the 1999 Heisman Trophy, with first-, second- and third-place votes and total points (voting on 3-2-1basis):

Player

1st

2nd

3rd

Total

Ron Dayne, Wisconsin
Joe Hamilton, Georgia Tech
Michael Vick, Virginia Tech
Drew Brees, Purdue
Chad Pennington, Marshall
Peter Warrick, Florida St.
Shaun Alexander, Alabama
Thomas Jones, Virginia
LaVar Arrington, Penn St.
Tim Rattay, Louisiana Tech

586
96
25
3
21
14
11
10
3
1

121
285
72
89
45
50
43
32
14
5

42
136
100
121
94
61
52
46
17
16

2,042
994
319
308
247
203
171
140
54
29

Source: cnnsi.com

Funny how things turn out, Mr. Dayne…the Heisman winner that year has carried the rock 638 times for 2,337 yards and 17 touchdowns in his entire NFL tenure. Today, we’re going to investigate the career of the guy who finished seventh.

Drafted with the 19th pick in the 1st round of the 2000 Draft by the Seahawks, Shaun Alexander was originally the backup to Ricky Watters in Watters’ last productive NFL season. In 2001, Alexander assumed the starting role, and began one of the more impressive five-year runs in recent memory. From ’01 through last season, he has gained 7,504 rushing yards on 1,653 carries for a 4.53 yards-per-carry average and 87 rushing touchdowns.

Nobody has gained more yards on the ground, or scored more total touchdowns, than Alexander since 2001.

Rushing Yards, 2001-2005:

Shaun Alexander, 7,504
LaDanian Tomlinson, 7,361
Tiki Barber, 6,846
Curtis Martin, 6,347
Edgerrin James, 5,964

Touchdowns, Overall, 2001-2005:

Shaun Alexander, 98
Priest Holmes, 83
LaDanian Tomlinson, 80
Marvin Harrison, 63
Terrell Owens, 59

In 2005, Alexander became the only player in NFL history to score at least 15 total touchdowns in five consecutive seasons, and only the 4th player in NFL history to score at least 20 touchdowns in consecutive years (2004-2005). He already ranks 12th all-time in rushing touchdowns (89), and he holds every significant rushing record in Seahawks history. Add in his 11 receiving scores, and his next regular season touchdown will tie him with Steve Largent for the most in Seahawks history (101).

He’s done all of this while never missing a game.

In one of the greatest single years enjoyed by any running back, Alexander carried the ball 370 times for 1,880 yards, 27 rushing touchdowns and a 5.1 yards-per-carry average in 2005. He did THAT while sitting out quite a few garbage-time 4th quarters as the Seahawks cruised to their 13-3 regular-season schedule, so 2,000 yards wasn’t at all out of the question. There was a lot more to his season than those simple numbers, as we shall discover. As we shall also discover, the odds of Shaun ever repeating his 2005 performance aren’t exactly great.

The goal of this series of articles is to review the Seahawks’ 2005 season from a historical perspective. Thanks to our good friend Aaron Schatz of Football Outsiders, we can now take some manner of measure when speculating the value of individual performances. Aaron has put together Similarity Scores for players at different offensive positions (similar, in a way, to what the excellent baseballreference.com site does – similarity scores are based, in part, on Bill James’ book, The Politics of Glory) allowing us a window into that historical perspective. Aaron has run the numbers for Hasselbeck, Alexander, and Seattle’s receivers. As a bonus, we will provide the Similarity Scores for newcomer (and former Viking) Nate Burleson.

Part One, detailing the historical comparisons to Hasselbeck’s 2005 season, can be found here. For those who haven’t read Part One, here’s a quick primer:

SIMILARITY SCORES

The comparisons have been drawn from 1978 through 2005 – 1978 saw the dawn of the 16-game season, and set us on the path to the rules changes that have helped define the modern offense. Aaron has run numbers for one-, two- and three-year periods. For the sake of our 2005 comparisons as opposed to more long-term estimations, we will be working with one-season numbers. It’s quite possible that these trend-based aggregate calculations will form the basis of one or more articles down the road.

How are these similarity scores tabulated? According to the Football Outsiders system (listed here), the points of comparison are established as follows:

FOR ALL POSITIONS

• Subtract 15 points for each year difference in age between the two players
• Subtract 15 points for each year difference in career experience between the two players
• Subtract 10 points for a difference in one game played
• Subtract 20 points times the difference in games played after one

RUNNING BACKS

• Subtract 4 points for each difference of 5 carries
• Subtract 1.5 points for each difference of 10 rushing yards
• Subtract 4 points times the difference in rushing touchdowns
• Subtract 100 points times the difference in yards per carry
• Subtract 1 point for each difference of 2 receptions
• Subtract 1.5 points for each difference of 10 receiving yards
• Subtract 1.5 points times the difference in receiving touchdowns

Enough preamble – let’s get to the heart of the matter. Where does Shaun Alexander’s 2005 season stand in the NFL Pantheon?

SHAUN ALEXANDER, 2005 SEATTLE SEAHAWKS

G

rush

ruYD

ruTD

rec

recYD

recTD

FANT

AGE

YD/RU

CAREER

SIM Y

16

370

1880

27

15

78

1

364

28

5.08

6

1000

In the Seahawks’ greatest season, Shaun Alexander was their greatest player. That’s not really a matter of debate. What we would like to discuss is his overall value to the team, and the numbers he amassed in 2005 make that value thunderously clear. Here are some more we haven’t even put up yet:

Alexander had more total touchdowns than 8 teams in the NFL. With 4 rushing touchdowns against both Arizona and Houston, he became only the second player in NFL history to rush for 4 touchdowns twice in a season. He is one of only 5 players in NFL history to rush for back-to-back 1,600 yard seasons. He rushed for 100 yards in a club record and career-high 11 games including a career-high 6 games with at least 140 yards.

Few backs have had more definitive seasons. What is also interesting about Alexander’s 2005 is that he performed all these feats during a time when defenses were able to make him their primary focus more often than before. Darrell Jackson, Seattle’s #1 receiver, missed nine games with a knee injury. Bobby Engram, Seattle’s #2 man, missed three games with cracked ribs. Joe Jurevicius went above and beyond and had a career year, but Alexander’s totals were not necessarily inflated by the fact that teams had to back off at times to take into account a superhuman passing game. Matt Hasselbeck may have been the brains of the outfit, but Shaun Alexander was the heart – the engine that made it all go.

Support System: In both 2004 and 2005, the left side of Alexander’s line, guard Steve Hutchinson and tackle Walter Jones, joined him in the Pro Bowl. In 2005, quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, center Robbie Tobeck and fullback Mack Strong were added to that list, further validating the excellence of the Holmgren offensive system. The 2005 Seahawks ranked 1st in points scored and 2nd in yards gained, on their way to a controversial loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl XL.

Now, let’s take a closer look at the ten most comparable seasons to Shaun Alexander’s 2005:

1. TERRELL DAVIS, 1998 DENVER BRONCOS

G

rush

ruYD

ruTD

rec

recYD

recTD

FANT

AGE

YD/RU

CAREER

SIM Y

16

392

2008

21

25

217

2

361

26

5.12

4

848

Shaun’s closest comparison is similar in more ways than one – both products of the SEC (Davis went to Georgia), Alexander and Davis are/were tremendously effective cutback runners with amazing vision for even the smallest seam. The 2005 Alexander and the 1998 Davis both benefited from stellar offensive lines, but they also produced far more than the league average back could bring home in their systems. Both players won the NFL MVP award. Both players found themselves the epicenters of modified West Coast offenses run by Bill Walsh acolytes who led, somewhat atypically, with the ground game.

Of their 1,016 regular-season plays in 1998, Denver ran the ball 525 times, or 51.7%. Davis finished the season first in the league in rushing yards and total touchdowns, and second in carries (behind Jamal Anderson) and yards from scrimmage (behind Marshall Faulk).

Ranking 2nd in the NFL in points scored and 3rd in yards gained, the 1998 Broncos were the best team in franchise history, successfully defending their Super Bowl championship by winning their first thirteen games, finishing with a 14-2 record, beating Miami and the New York Jets in the playoffs, and staring down Dan Reeves’ Falcons in Super Bowl XXXIII. It was expected that this would be John Elway’s last game – what came as a distressing surprise was how close to the end Davis was.

We'll call Mr. Davis' 1998 season "Exhibit A".

Support System: Riddle me this, Batman: How did Rod Smith NOT make the 1998 Pro Bowl? He was tied for third in the league in receptions with 86, and fourth in receiving yards with 1,222. And he didn’t get a ticket to Hawaii? Ed McCaffrey did, and he caught fewer passes for fewer yards. Anyway…the Broncos sent six offensive players to the Pro Bowl that season – Davis, Elway, McCaffrey, tight end Shannon Sharpe, tackle Tony Jones and center Tom Nalen. This was the peak era of Denver’s media-shy, semi-infamous offensive line, led by coach Alex Gibbs and his sometimes questionable in-game tactics.


2. SHAUN ALEXANDER, 2004 SEATTLE SEAHAWKS

G

rush

ruYD

ruTD

rec

recYD

recTD

FANT

AGE

YD/RU

CAREER

SIM Y

16

353

1696

16

23

170

4

307

27

4.80

5

835

Ah, yes…we’ve seen this gentleman before. One of the most interesting aspects discovered when comparing Seattle’s 2004 and 2005 seasons is the percentage of running plays in the regular season – in both years, the Seahawks kept it on the ground 52.3% of the time, an extremely rare example of playcalling sameness from season to season. The difference for Alexander in 2005? More plays (1,019 to 993), which would lead us to assume the Seahawks had the ability to better sustain drives. The numbers confirm that assertion – the Seahawks led the NFL with 24 drives of 80 or more yards, and averaged 22.6 first downs per game, second in the league to the Indianapolis Colts.

Another major factor (probably THE major factor) was the improvement in the play of the offensive line. Football Outsiders has ranked every offensive line per season from 2002 to the present, and they show improvement for the Seahawks all around from 2004 to 2005:

From 4.25 to 4.49 in Adjusted Line Yards (a statistic which takes all running back carries and assigns offensive line responsibility based on a number of factors);

From 4.62 to 4.92 in RB Yards (Yards per carry by all that team’s running backs);

From 61% to 81% in Power Success (Percentage of runs on third or fourth down, two yards or less to go, that achieved a first down or touchdown. Also includes runs on first-and-goal or second-and-goal from the two-yard line or closer);

From 17th to 1st in Power Rank (How the team is ranked in the NFL in Power Success percentage);

From 20% to 25% in 10+ Yards (Percentage of a team's rushing yards more than 10 yards past the line of scrimmage. Represents yardage not reflected in the Adjusted Line Yards stat);

From 4 to 2 in 10+ Yards Rank.

The only stat which shows a negative from 2004 to 2005 is the team’s Stuffed Ranking (Percentage of runs that result in - on first down - zero or negative gain or - on second through fourth down - less than one-fourth the yards needed for another first down). The Seahawks were stuffed 7th most in the NFL in ’04, a number which plummeted to 25th in 2005. The reason for this incongruity is unknown, although it’s quite possible that defenses were keying more on Alexander in 2005, and increased stuffs would be a natural byproduct of that change in focus.


3. EMMITT SMITH, 1995 DALLAS COWBOYS

G

rush

ruYD

ruTD

rec

recYD

recTD

FANT

AGE

YD/RU

CAREER

SIM Y

16

377

1773

25

62

375

0

365

26

4.70

6

833

Smith and Eric Dickerson are the most durable backs following a season with more than 370 carries. Smith played for nine more seasons with Dallas and Arizona after the 1995 season, but he would never enjoy another year so great. That he was able to continue for so long at a productive clip is a testament to his superhuman endurance, but it’s also an indictment of the 1,000-yard milestone as a measurement for excellence in a 16-game season. From 1990 through 1995, his season averages are as follows:

G

GS

Att

Yards

Avg

TD

20+

15.5

15.2

334.5

1492.7

4.46

16

8.2

From 1996 through 2001 - the next six years. We’ll be fair here and forget 2002-2004, which was basically his “Franco Harris in Seattle” era:

G

GS

Att

Yards

Avg

TD

20+

15.3

15.3

298.5

1205.2

4.04

8.7

6.5

Smith gained at least 1,000 yards in each of the six seasons in the second list, but his effectiveness dipped dramatically in all the “Black Ink” categories. After all…1,205 yards per season sounds decent enough, until you do the math and realize that it’s 75 yards per game.

We’ll call this “Exhibit B”.


4. AHMAN GREEN, 2003 GREEN BAY PACKERS

G

rush

ruYD

ruTD

rec

recYD

recTD

FANT

AGE

YD/RU

CAREER

SIM Y

16

355

1883

15

50

367

5

345

26

5.30

6

820

Selected in the third round of the 1998 draft by the Seahawks out of Nebraska, Green was traded to the Packers in 2000 for cornerback Fred Vinson and a swap of late-round draft choices. Mike Sherman, Green Bay’s new coach at the time, had been Seattle offensive coordinator in 1999, and had great faith in Green’s ability to become an elite back. In retrospect, this was Mike Holmgren’s equivalent of the Derek Lowe/Jason Varitek-for-Heathcliff Slocumb trade…Holmgren got fleeced, pure and simple.

Vinson, a second-round pick in 1999, had suffered various foot injuries even before the trade, and never made a dent in the league. Green went on to set the torrid pace later set by Alexander himself, rushing for more yards (6,848) and gaining more total yards from scrimmage (9,036) than any other back from 2000 through 2004.

Green’s 2003 season was his best to date. Green Bay ran the ball on 507 of their 981 plays (51.7%) on their way to a 10-6 record, a 33-27 win over he Seahawks in the Wild Card round, and a loss to the Eagles in the Divisional frame. Green ranked 2nd in rushing yards and touchdowns, and 3rd in rushing attempts and yards from scrimmage.

In 2004, Green’s numbers dropped off severely (259/1163/4.5/7), and he was lost for the season in October of 2005 after suffering a quadriceps injury. Even before this, Green’s numbers had not been encouraging – he had been averaging a mere 3.3 yards per carry on 77 carries with no touchdowns – but that could have had something to do with Green Bay’s decision not to re-sign Mike Wahle and Marco Rivera, their excellent starting guards, before the 2005 season. The future for Ahman Green doesn’t look as bright as the past, unfortunately…

Support System: Five offensive players represented the Packers in the Pro Bowl in 2003 – QB Brett Favre, Green, center Mike Flanagan, Rivera and TE Bubba Franks.


5. EARL CAMPBELL, 1980 HOUSTON OILERS

G

rush

ruYD

ruTD

rec

recYD

recTD

FANT

AGE

YD/RU

CAREER

SIM Y

15

373

1934

13

11

47

0

276

25

5.18

3

815

"Earl Campbell is the greatest player that ever suited up. He’s the greatest football player I’ve ever seen. Billy Sims is human. Campbell isn’t." – Barry Switzer

During the 1980’s, legendary sabermetrician Bill James introduced the separate concepts of Peak Value and Career Value in his Historical Baseball Abstract. Though he was later to drill down to the Win Shares concept in his never-ending quest to codify overall player significance, I find it unfortunate that James didn’t continue the Peak/Career paradigm through the new millennium and into his newer Abstract. What made the divergent concepts interesting was that readers were able to separate shorter versions of all-time excellence by position, and better recognize players who did not enjoy longer tenures for whatever reason.

In the history of the NFL, Earl Campbell would have to rate very highly on anyone’s Peak Value scale. The “Tyler Rose” has a bust in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, despite the fact that he rushed for more than 1,000 in a season only five times. Campbell’s NFL legend is based primarily on three things:

1. The NFL Films highlight in which he planted his helmet square into the midsection of Rams linebacker Isaiah Robertson in 1978 (judging from the severity of the hit, I’d wonder if Robertson has ever gotten his wind back);

2. the 35-30 Monday Night Football game against the Miami Dolphins in Week Twelve of the ’78 season, when he rushed for 199 yards and four touchdowns, and single-handedly decimated the Dolphins time after time; and

3. His 1980 season.

Campbell rushed for more than 200 yards in four different games, despite playing in an offense which assured that every defense he faced would be keyed on him at all times – the 1980 Oilers only passed the ball 44.7% of the time. The team ranked 4th in the NFL in yards gained, and 20th in scoring. 1980 was the third consecutive year in which Campbell led the league in rushing, and the third consecutive year in which not one of those carries came as a surprise. Though he wore down very quickly in the early 1980s, Campbell will always have that comet-like stretch, when he was the most feared player in the game…an unstoppable force of nature.

We’ll call his 1980 season Exhibit C.

Rounding out the Top Ten:

6. LARRY JOHNSON, 2005 KANSAS CITY CHIEFS

G

rush

ruYD

ruTD

rec

recYD

recTD

FANT

AGE

YD/RU

CAREER

SIM Y

16

336

1750

20

33

343

1

335

26

5.21

3

789

7. BARRY SANDERS, 1996 DETROIT LIONS

G

rush

ruYD

ruTD

rec

recYD

recTD

FANT

AGE

YD/RU

CAREER

SIM Y

16

307

1553

11

24

147

0

236

28

5.06

8

788

8. RICKY WILLIAMS, 2002 MIAMI DOLPHINS

G

rush

ruYD

ruTD

rec

recYD

recTD

FANT

AGE

YD/RU

CAREER

SIM Y

16

383

1853

16

47

363

1

324

25

4.84

4

784

9. COREY DILLON, 2004 NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS

G

rush

ruYD

ruTD

rec

recYD

recTD

FANT

AGE

YD/RU

CAREER

SIM Y

15

345

1635

12

15

103

1

252

30

4.74

8

775

10. ERIC DICKERSON, 1988 INDIANAPOLIS COLTS

G

rush

ruYD

ruTD

rec

recYD

recTD

FANT

AGE

YD/RU

CAREER

SIM Y

16

388

1659

14

36

377

1

294

28

4.28

6

765

Honorable Mention: Eric Dickerson, 1987 Indianapolis Colts (strike-adjusted 782), Terrell Davis, 1997 Denver Broncos (751), Tony Dorsett, 1981 Dallas Cowboys (747), Tiki Barber, 2005 New York Giants (738), Terry Allen, 1996 Washington Redskins (733), Chris Warren, 1995 Seattle Seahawks (700), Edgerrin James, 2005 Indianapolis Colts (697), Walter Payton, 1980 Chicago Bears (674).


POSTSCRIPT – “370: The Number of the Beast”

Most Seahawks fans are familiar with the fact that Alexander came up one yard short behind the Jets’ Curtis Martin for the 2004 NFL rushing title. As Seattle clinched the NFC West in the season finale against the Falcons, Alexander was limited to 80 yards on 19 carries. He later made some unfortunate (and overblown) comments about Holmgren “stabbing him in the back”. Alexander later retracted the comments, and all is hunky-dory between team, coach and player after Shaun’s amazing 2005 season and the subsequent 8-year, $62 million contract he was awarded.

If Holmgren had ever thought of predetermining Alexander’s season carry totals, he would have been much better off doing so last season. In a 2004 article hilariously entitled “Ricky Williams is Pretty Much Screwed”, Aaron Schatz details the line of demarcation between optimal production and extreme overuse for every running back in NFL history. The line is distinctly drawn between the numbers 369 and 370 – the number of carries a running back has in a single season. Aaron’s chart detailing every back with 370 carries or more through the 2003 season, and their subsequent production dropoffs, is quite forbidding. And as we see from Exhibits A, B and C in this article, history is not kind to backs who carry their teams – the weight of that burden is a real killer.

Alexander’s 2005 season puts him right on the other side of the line, and the hope is that he’ll follow the rare examples of Eric Dickerson and LaDanian Tomlinson, players who were able to beat these odds. Tomlinson carried the ball 372 times in 2002, and hasn’t come close to 370 again. He has suffered few ill effects from that one season of overuse – his highest yards per carry average was actually 5.3 the very next year. Dickerson was able to pass 370 in three different seasons before finally hitting the wall.

With Alexander, there’s both room for hope and cause for concern. For a back his size (5’11”, 225), he’s put up career totals with a lot of bouncing outside, folding right before a severe hit and using his vision to move from closed seam to open seam with great speed. However, he’s also done his business behind some of the better offensive linemen you’ll ever see, and the comparison to Ahman Green could be frightening. Remember that Green lost both of his guards before the 2005 season, and the result was an unmitigated disaster. The Seahawks have lost left guard Steve Hutchinson to the Vikings, and right guard Chris Gray is 36 years old. Seattle will endeavor to bring a rotation of players into the mix around center Robbie Tobeck and tackles Walter Jones and Sean Locklear. It’s also worth mentioning, however, that Alexander’s least effective season in terms of carries, yards and yards per carry was 2002, when Hutchinson missed twelve games with a broken leg.

2006 will decide a great deal of Shaun Alexander’s legacy. If he can overcome the factors that would spend and upend lesser backs, he’s undoubtedly on his way to Canton as one of the all-time greats. No matter what happens, he’ll always have 2005 to remember…and be remembered by.


Doug Farrar is the Editor-in-Chief of Seahawks.NET. Feel free to e-mail him here.

Aaron Schatz is the Editor-in-Chief of FootballOutsiders.com, Lead Writer and Statistician for the “Football Prospectus” annual volume, and an NFL analyst for FoxSports.com. He has also written for the New York Times, the New York Sun, the Boston Globe, The New Republic Online and Slate, and has done custom research for NFL.com and a number of NFL teams. Before creating Football Outsiders, he spent three years tracking search trends online for the internet column, “The Lycos 50”. He has a B.A. in economics from Brown University and lives in Framingham,
Massachusetts, with his wife, Kathryn, and daughter, Mirinae.


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