Schot-caller: Seahawks nailed it with hire of OC Brian Schottenheimer
Seattle’s hiring of offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer was initially met with heavy criticism. Here’s why the decision is better than you think.
When I first heard Seattle was hiring Brian Schottenheimer as the new offensive coordinator, the move felt… uninspiring.
I’d allowed myself to get excited about a fresh new approach for the Seahawks offense, and Eagles QB coach John DeFilippo specifically seemed like the ideal candidate. Perhaps Seattle could have its very own innovative, OC-version of Rams HC Sean McVay.
Instead, the team hired a retread without much apparent success in his past OC positions, and it felt a bit disappointing. Judging from widespread public response, I was far from alone in that dissatisfaction.
You’d think the Seahawks had promoted Tom Cable to OC, given the way many fans reacted with such contempt. There sure are a lot of hot takes out there, especially for a sport as complex as professional football. It’s so easy to point to poor past results without proper context, or loosely assign a popular NFL criticism (nepotism). Moreover, very few of us have an intimate understanding of NFL offenses, let alone those we haven’t even watched. Could there be more to Schottenheimer than what immediately meets the eye?
Since the hiring wasn’t even officially announced yet, I decided to dig deeper into Schottenheimer’s coaching history over the past few days. Not only was I pleasantly surprised with many aspects of his past performances, but he looks like a great fit to execute Pete Carroll’s winning formula. With that being said, let’s go ahead and get right into it.
Brian Schottenheimer gets the most out of his quarterbacks
While he has coordinated many run-heavy offenses, Schottenheimer’s specialty is working with quarterbacks. He was a QB coach for three separate franchises, to go along with two OC jobs. You may be surprised by the production and efficiency of his QB’s during those stints. He showed an ability to simultaneously develop, and get the most out of his QB’s. Here are several examples from his tenures as either offensive coordinator or QB coach:
Drew Brees, San Diego (2002-2005): Schottenheimer coached QB’s for the Chargers from ‘02 to ‘05, which were also Brees’ first four seasons as an NFL starter. Brees developed into one of the NFL’s top QB’s by his third year starting under Schottenheimer. He ranked 3rd amongst all 2004 quarterbacks in passer rating, TD% and INT%.
Phillip Rivers, San Diego (2004-2005): Schottenheimer was also Rivers’ QB coach from ’04 to ‘05 and obviously played a role in the development of the 7-time Pro Bowler.
Mark Sanchez, New York (2009-2011): Schottenheimer served as offensive coordinator for the Jets from ’06 to ’11. His final three years as Jets’ OC were also Sanchez’s first three in the league. The 2nd & 3rd of which were arguably Sanchez’s two best seasons as a pro. His TD:INT ratio dropped from 26:18 in Schottenheimer’s last year in New York, to 13:18 the next season. Sanchez career as a starting quarterback quickly flamed out afterwards.
Sam Bradford, St. Louis (2012-2013): Schottenheimer also served as offensive coordinator for the Rams, from ’12 to ’14. The first two of those seasons were Bradford’s final two as the Rams starting QB. Prior to Schottenheimer’s arrival, Bradford had a promising rookie year followed by a brutal 2nd season. He subsequently rebounded in a big way under Schottenheimer’s guidance. 2012 & 2013 were easily Bradford’s two best seasons to that point in his career, in terms of passer rating, yards/attempt, and TD%.
Kellen Clemens, Austin Davis, Shaun Hill (2013-2014): Of course, Bradford got sidetracked by injuries, and Schottenheimer had to make do with this ragtag bunch of career backups. He got the most out of them however, as they combined for a respectable 82.7 QB rating across 25 starts from ’13 to ’14. It’s worth noting those Rams offenses were largely devoid of talent as well. But more on that later.
Andrew Luck, Indianapolis (2016): Schottenheimer spent the last two years (’16 to ’17) as QB coach for the Colts. Coming off his worst season in 2015, Luck bounced back under Schottenheimer with perhaps the best year of his career. He completed 63.5% of his passes for 31 TD’s, finishing at 7.8 yards/attempt and a 96.4 QB rating. Each of those stats are either the best or 2nd-best of his five seasons as a starter.
Jacoby Brissett, Indianapolis (2017): By all accounts, Schottenheimer did a fine job developing Brissett into a competent NFL QB last season. He managed an 81.7 QB rating in his first year as a starter.
Admittedly, there is room for interpretation and disagreement here. The info above leaves out that, 1) Brees fully blossomed under Sean Payton; 2) Rivers never started a game under Schottenheimer; and 3) Bradford and Sanchez never developed into star QB’s, which was expected given their draft status.
However, the results largely reveal Schottenheimer to be a coach who’s successfully developed QB’s, and gotten the most out of them. It’s worth noting that he played quarterback at the college level before getting into coaching at the young age of 24.
Russell Wilson will be by far the best quarterback he’s coached as an OC. Can Schottenheimer take Wilson’s game to a new level as well?
Underappreciated performance as an offensive coordinator
The criticism of Schottenheimer stems from the mediocre performances of his past offensive units. He was offensive coordinator for the Jets and Rams from 2006 to 2014, with those teams ranking an average of 20th in the NFL in offensive DVOA over that period:
However, the individual stats lack context. Specifically, the quality of talent Schottenheimer had to work with in these offenses. A quick look at that Jets & Rams teams reveals that they were largely devoid of offensive talent:
Quarterbacks: We covered the final six years worth of QB’s under Schottenheimer above with Sanchez, Bradford and the Rams’ backups. Additionally, the Jets had Chad Pennington at QB in ‘06-07, who was returning from a severe injury to his throwing shoulder. And in 2008, the 39-year-old, erratic Brett Favre. Altogether, not one above-average QB at that stage of their respective careers. I’d argue that most were replacement-level talents or backup-quality at best.
Running backs: The RB talent Schottenheimer has worked with was equally unimpressive. Thomas Jones was the best of the bunch, and he was in his early 30’s with the Jets. The rest of his primary RB’s include: Tre Mason, Zac Stacy, Shonn Greene, two more aging vets (LaDainian Tomlinson & Steven Jackson), and – I kid you not – former Seahawks return man Leon Washington. Besides the essentially washed-up duo of Jackson and Tomlinson, each of those RB’s had the best year of their careers under Schottenheimer. That gives you something to think about, especially considering how much he got out of his QB’s as well.
Receivers: Schottenheimer has obviously coached a lot of WR’s and TE’s over his nine years as OC. That group has combined for a whopping three Pro Bowl appearances. Not just in their time with Schottenheimer – instead three total Pro Bowl berths over their whole careers… From 9-years-worth of frequently-changing receiver groups. If you look at just Seattle’s 2017 roster, Baldwin and Graham have combined for seven Pro Bowls.
Offensive Line: This is one area where Schottenheimer has had some great talent to work with. The Jets teams particularly had some excellent blockers. Nick Mangold, D’Brickshaw Ferguson, and Alan Faneca all went to multiple Pro Bowls under Schottenheimer. The Rams’ lines lacked the same star talent, but were still solid overall units.
It’s almost mind-boggling what little talent Schottenheimer has had to work with at the skill positions across so many years. No true stars, lots of replacement-level players, and injuries (of course) to make things even more difficult.
Yet, his teams have ranked an average of 20th in Offensive DVOA and 18th in scoring as an OC. Therefore, his normal offense has been a lot closer to league-average than league-worst.
In a vacuum, that last statement suggests Schottenheimer was a mediocre offensive coordinator. Add the proper context – consistently poor offensive personnel in this case – and his OC performances look downright impressive.
Schottenheimer’s offense fits Carroll’s proven winning formula
It should come as no surprise by now that Carroll has a specific formula for winning football games. He spelled it out for us at his end-of-season press conference:
“We have a real formula for how we win (and) we’ve been unable the last two years to incorporate a major aspect of that – is to run the football the way we want to run it…” “Teams running the football, teams playing good defense and (special teams) – that’s the formula that has proven historically (to be) the best in this game.”
Running game. Defense. Special teams. The offensive stars on Seattle have bought into it as well:
These playoff games demonstrating AGAIN what is most important: running the ball and efficiency (3rd down and limiting giveaways) on offense, stopping the run and creating turnovers on defense. !!!
— Doug Baldwin Jr (@DougBaldwinJr) January 16, 2018
Running game. Defense. Special teams. Why these three components? Perhaps it’s because they all work hand-in-hand to help a team, 1) Control the clock; 2) Control field position; and ultimately 3) Control the game.
Kansas City was the only 2017 playoff team to finish outside the top half of the league in rushing attempts. Pittsburgh was the only one when it comes to rushing yards. Rushing is less efficient overall than passing the football, no question. However, it’s crucial for helping the passing game and defense, and a huge part of playing winning football.
Schottenheimer clearly buys into that as well. Though he is a quarterback guru by nature, the offenses he’s coordinated have averaged a healthy 464 carries/season.
Take another look at the chart of Schottenheimer’s offenses above. There is a discrepancy between average offensive efficiency (20th) and scoring (18th). It’s small, but noteworthy. I included the last two columns to help explain the difference.
Schottenheimer’s teams have been solid defensively on average, and above-average at eating clock with the football. Run game. Defense. Field position. They all work in conjunction to help a team win. During Seattle’s vaunted stretch of offensive performance from 2012-2015, they ranked 1st, 6th, 2nd, and 1st in average time per drive.
It’s like the scene in Moneyball where Jonah Hill tells Brad Pitt that he should try to buy wins, not players. NFL teams don’t run the football to gain the most possible yards or points; they run to score more points than the opponent.
One more thing about Carroll’s winning formula. It omits quarterback play – not because it’s unimportant, but because it’s significance goes without saying. The QB’s performance is the most important element of all to winning football. It’s the unspoken other half of Carroll’s formula.
We know Carroll agrees with this for a couple reasons:
1) Wilson has had more combined pass & rush attempts than Seattle’s RB groups have had carries in each season of his career. That includes the run-heaviest days with Marshawn Lynch.
2) Carroll & John Schneider made Wilson by far the highest-paid player in franchise history. His 2018 cap hit is nearly double that of DPOY candidate Bobby Wagner.
When you can combine great QB-play with Carroll’s formula, you get a juggernaut like the 2012-2015 Seahawks.
Thoughts on John DeFilippo, Mike Solari & Ken Norton Jr.
As mentioned at the start of this article, I was excited about the prospect of having DeFilippo at OC. I think a lot of Seahawks fans developed somewhat of a “DeFilippo or bust” mentality when it came to the open position. I know I did.
Was DeFilippo even a realistic option though? Seattle would have had considerable competition for his services at OC, and it doesn’t stop there:
Eagles QB coach John DeFilippo remains a strong candidate for Cardinals head coaching job, per source, expected to get 2nd interview once season over. Impressed in Bears HC process.
— Jeremy Fowler (@JFowlerESPN) January 16, 2018
Pursuing DeFilippo would very likely have been unsuccessful. Additionally, were we all a little too hyped up on his potential to begin with? DeFilippo (rightfully) gets a lot of credit for his work with Carson Wentz this year, but should we attribute Philadelphia’s offensive success to him as well? The Eagles have two experienced offensive minds at HC & OC, in Doug Pederson and Frank Reich. Both had more responsibility in the Eagles’ 2017 offense than DeFilippo.
Don’t get me wrong, DeFilippo seems like a great candidate and probably has a bright future. But Sean McVay’s incredible year may be adding some undue hype to DeFilippo’s stock.
We wrote the following about the status of Seattle’s DC position two weeks ago:
“Seattle’s defensive scheme and personnel decisions are (much more so) tied to Carroll. Therefore, the Seahawks offseason outlook does not depend greatly on Richard’s status as DC.”
K.J. Wright essentially confirmed that thought yesterday:
“He’s definitely going to be the overseer because he’s the head coach and he’s definitely the defensive mind. Even when we had Gus (Bradley) here, DQ (Dan Quinn), he even put his thing onto Gus and Gus had to adjust to what coach Carroll wanted so it’s going to be the same thing,” Wright said. “It doesn’t matter who came in, they would have to do what coach Carroll wanted. This system has worked for us. It’s really good and a lot of teams over the league have stolen it and made it work for them. And so it doesn’t matter who comes in, coach Carroll is really the mastermind behind it all.”
That’s why the hiring of Norton Jr. wasn’t too surprising. This is and always has been Pete Carroll’s defense. There might not be a better defensive mind in the NFL than Pete. If Norton’s hiring means Carroll takes on more responsibility, I’m all for it.
Norton’s defenses in Oakland performed poorly, but they lacked talent and Del Rio ran the show there. Most importantly, Norton is well-respected in the Seahawks locker room from his days as LB coach. He’ll motivate the veterans and hold them accountable (which is a reported strength of Schottenheimer’s as well)
Lastly, I don’t know much about new offensive line coach Mike Solari. That said, he’s had plenty of success with multiple franchises and blocking schemes, and seems to be respected around the league. There’s a certain amount of addition-by-subtraction when it comes to Seattle’s OL coaching as well.
I’m eager to see what kind of offense Schottenheimer, Solari & Co. incorporate next season.