Plays of the Day: Shaun Alexander, Part Two

In Part Two of the Shaun Alexander version of Plays of the Day, Seahawk.NET's Kyle Rota, with the help of his trusty DVR, examines whether or not a running back switch would result in a more consistent running game, or if any running back is doomed to failure given Seattle's offensive line.

At the time Part One was completed, it was a popular theory to blame Shaun Alexander's troubles on increased game planning from defensive coordinators (The "Eight in The Box" theory). Since Shaun hadn't had a good running game in over a month, it's safe to assume that such a theory is without merit, and likely had none in the first place. A new line of thinking has emerged and gained popularity: Seahawks backup running back Maurice Morris could provide a more consistent back in the backfield. Part Two hopes to shed some light on whether or not Morris is the answer.

Unfortunately, Mike Holmgren did not do Plays of the Day any favors.

Despite rumors every week that, finally, Morris will get a fair number of carries, Holmgren continues to ignore Morris. One has to wonder if Holmgren has finally adopted The University of Washington hatred of the University of Oregon (Morris' alma matter) and is taking that hatred out on Morris, because it has become clear to everyone in the world not calling plays for the Seahawks that Alexander isn't getting the job done. Because of this, it is important to note that in no way is the sample size for Morris reliable. Holmgren has almost criminally ignored Morris, especially if one excludes draw plays (which I did).

However, while adding more plays for Morris would almost assuredly put Holmgren on my Christmas card list, I don't expect Morris to suddenly find himself splitting carries, and this issue must be addressed, even if sample size is unreliable.

The "Offensive Line Still Can't Block" Dept.

Speaking of people who shouldn't be expecting Christmas cards, don't expect either Alexander or Morris to be spreading holiday cheer to their linesman - a stocking full of coal would be more appropriate.

The first step was to take almost every run against St. Louis and against Cleveland (I excluded runs when the team was clock killing against St. Louis and I excluded draw plays, because I cannot accurately judge the offensive line and it is more of a trickery play) and chart the play of the offensive line. I made it simple: Was it good blockings or was it bad blocking? I defined bad blocking as: A.) allowing penetration that impacted the run by the time the running back received the ball or B.) allowing the defensive line to stack the offensive line and thus have NO holes available to run. Anything else was good blocking. If the offensive line knew their assignment and was in position for that assignment, I considered the blocking "good".

Despite this criteria being the easiest I've employed to date, I found the line still rated as "bad" on an amazing 52% percent of plays. I might add that the run defenses of the Browns and the Rams are two of the more pathetic run defenses in the league, with the Browns run defense being especially bad. At least Seattle's offensive line is consistent in its inability to block - there was almost no difference between the percentage of bad blocking against the Rams and percentage of bad blocking against the Browns. Alexander and Morris can consistently expect linesmen in the backfield and plugged up running lanes no matter who the (bad) opponent is. I shudder to think about what a real run defense would score using this criteria.

The "Adrian 'AKA God' Peterson couldn't run with this line" Dept.

Now that we have added more evidence to the data I collected in Part One, strengthening the conclusion that the line can't block, it's time to focus on the question for Part Two: Would Morris be able to provide the consistency, even with this awful line, that the team needs to have a balanced attack? The data, though in the form of pathetically small sample size (blame Holmgren, not me), shows that Morris does not do any more with poor blocking than Shaun does.

Alexander averaged -.35 YPC when the offensive line blocked poorly, Morris averaged a flat 0 YPC when the line blocked poorly. This actually excludes an 11-yard run by Alexander that I didn't feel comfortable charting because Fox wasn't focusing the camera on the playing field, but I did note that I felt the blocking was closer to poor than good. If that run is added in Alexander actually holds a very light edge over Morris.

The flip side of this is that when the offensive line does perform well, Morris seems to be able to draw more from it. When I marked the blocking as "good", Alexander averaged 4.5 YPC and Morris averaged an even 7.0 YPC. This is fitting, since Morris is a faster back than Alexander and can do more with more effective blocking (the flip side of that is that, as shown above, he's ineffective without the blocking). What was really interesting is that many possible variables that I expected to encounter didn't happen. The offensive line "bad blocking %" for Morris was almost exactly the same as Alexander, diffusing the occasionally-bandied theory that the line blocks harder for Morris because he runs harder.

Another note of interest was that the running back made little impact on the success of the play. I used a modified aspect of Football Outsiders' Success Rate statistic, which was perhaps a tad more lenient (if a first-and-10 run went for 4 yards, I marked it as a success, even though Football Outsiders requires 45% of the yardage needed for 1st down, which would translate to 4.5 yards on 1st and 10), and graded each running back.

On "good" run blocking plays, Alexander sported a successful run on all but two runs charted. Morris had a successful run on every run with good blocking. When the blocking was horrible, neither back had a single successful run in the runs charted, though there was the above-mentioned 11-yard scamper by Alexander that poor camera-work forced me to eliminate. When the line blocks well, everyone runs well. When the line can't block, everyone looks like a scrub.

Conclusion

While the issue of sample size has to be noted, it would appear that Maurice Morris is not the answer to the running game. That is, Shaun Alexander may indeed be ineffective, but replacing him with Morris is not going to help us when the offensive line can't block anyone anyways. What it does show us is that while Morris is similarly ineffective without decent blocking, he is significantly more effective when he is the recipient of good blocking. He can't turn a 0-yard loss into a 3-yard gain, but he can turn a 4-yard gain into a 7-yard gain instead, and that is useful.

Those calling for Alexander to be benched - at least until his wrist heals - may not be wrong in doing so, but their reasons should be because Morris is more likely to bust a big one, not because Morris is more likely to churn out tough yards.

Kyle Rota writes frequently for Seahawks.NET. You can reach him here.


SeahawkFootball.com Top Stories