Ken Norton’s game plan gave us the worst of both worlds.
Alton Robinson played 7 snaps yesterday. Jonathan Bullard played 18. Poona Ford and Jarran Reed played 61 and 73 respectively. The Seahawks did not register a single quarterback hit. Not one, which has to be exceedingly uncommon. Norton played zone coverage, he didn’t blitz, and he played something akin to “Bear defense,” in which defensive linemen play opposite the center and both guards, a ton. It’s not the same, as you can see Reed and L.J. Collier are playing in the gaps, but to me it’s a cousin, once removed.
Collier was fourth among Seahawks linemen in snaps. Meaning that Seattle’s first, second and fourth most frequently used defensive linemen had 4.5 sacks and 18 quarterback hits in 2,010 combined snaps over the last two seasons. Factor in that K.J. Wright was playing a pass rush position, played in 75 of 84 snaps on Sunday, and you can add another 406 snaps but no sacks and obviously no quarterback hits. Carrying the weight for pretty much the entire pass rush was Benson Mayowa. Mayowa has two sacks and four quarterback hits for the season. Guy needs help. He wasn’t given any.
Presumably Norton wanted to contain Kyler Murray and stop Arizona’s best in the league rushing attack (as measured by EPA). That didn’t really work either. The Cardinals added EPA running, only 2.44 but that’s not insignificant. A team able to add 2.44 EPA a game running would total 17.08 for the season, ranking slightly behind the Seahawks for fifth place in the NFL. Yep, Seattle can run the ball. Dig that.
This underestimates the significance of Seattle’s failure to defend the run. By win probability, long runs by Murray and Chase Edmonds forced overtime and essentially won the game. The graph on ESPN is not granular enough to provide specific win probabilities added, but I went ahead and circled the important moments.
Norton did not stop the run, he discouraged the run by allowing the pass. When the run was there to be had, the Cardinals used it to force overtime and nearly win the game. The defense did not lose this game alone. The damage done by Russell Wilson’s interceptions was staggering, but that’s not the purview of this post.
This defense was atrocious. Instead of calling for Norton to be fired, I pose a question. What has Norton done to earn one of the 32 most lucrative and exclusive jobs in the world?
He was fired mid-season in 2017. Through 10 games Norton’s defense allowed 24.7 points a game and forced six turnovers, total. His defense lost 91.32 expected points for the Raiders. Over the next six games, facing the 27th, 31st, 6th, 14th, 3rd, and 13th ranked scoring offenses, the Norton-less Raiders averaged 21 points allowed, forced nine turnovers, and lost their team only 3.48 expected points. Oakland did not become good, but Oakland was no longer awful.
Through 11 weeks, the 2017 Raiders were the worst defense in the NFL by DVOA. By season’s end, they were 30th. But by DVOA itself, the team improved from 22.5% to 12.0%. Meaning that under Norton the average Raiders opponent played like the 2017 New Orleans Saints. By year’s end, in only six weeks, Oakland had lifted their performance so that their average opponent played instead like the 2017 Minnesota Vikings. That’s a dramatic improvement, and as much as we can ever say it, it’s an improvement achieved simply by removing a coach who was hurting his team through mismanagement. Norton’s replacement was John Pagano. Someone of no particular distinction who currently works as the outside linebackers coach for Denver. His brother is Chuck.
Norton went from being fired by Oakland to being hired for the same job in a much better situation without any meaningful intermediate steps. He seemed to fail upward because of his personal connection with Pete Carroll. That’s troubling.
In-group favoritism is one of the driving factors of systemic inequality. It seems to me exceedingly unlikely that the best person for the job of passing game coordinator, run game coordinator, quarterbacks coach, running backs coach, wide receivers coach, assistant offensive line coach, offensive assistant, defensive coordinator, and assistant linebackers coach all happen to have a personal or professional connection to Pete Carroll, the Seahawks or USC. That says to me that whoever is hiring is no longer prioritizing performance. That we the fans are paying big salaries to an inner circle of Carroll’s friends and family.
It almost seems debasing to write this but it’s true. Fans are customers. We pay for a team’s best attempt to win, and to a lesser extent, a team’s dedication to be good to its community. But mostly fans care about winning. That’s the business. I want a good burger at a burger joint, a reliable car from a car manufacturer, and I want my team to be doing its absolute best to win.
Carroll has earned so much goodwill that there isn’t room for elevated rhetoric here. He’s won, won like no other head coach in Seahawks history, and the team is winning this year. But Carroll is a coach known for the performance of his defense and the 2020 Seahawks defense is awful.
Norton seems to be very popular among players. It may not work to fire him. Maybe he needs help. The game plans aren’t working. The play calls are not working either. Motivating players is hugely important, but that’s part of the job.
I do not see a defense which lacks effort or discipline. Or a defense which lacks talent, though I do not think it is the most talented defense. I see a defense doing what it wants to do and failing anyway. A defense that does not seem to know how to set the right goals. A defense which overreacts to the perceived strength of its opponent. A defense which reacts and never dictates. A defense which forces turnovers at a rate completely out of line with the rest of its performance. A defense which allows 50 more yards per game than any other defense in the NFL, which is currently on pace to shatter the 2012 Saints all time worst mark in yards allowed, and which has survived through clutch performance.
The Seahawks are two incredibly high leverage run stops from being 3-3. The Seahawks are two incredibly high leverage run stops from home losses to the 1-5 Vikings and 2-4 Patriots. Instead of saying that I want Norton to be fired, I will say that I want Norton to prove why he was hired. Making a better game plan and calling a better game are within his ability. But he needs to change. He can’t blame his players. He can’t blame bad luck. This defense wasn’t playing well with Bruce Irvin and Jamal Adams. To me, anyway, nobody me, nothing defines confidence like admitting failure and meeting that failure with renewed belief in the ability to change, improve and get better. If this defense doesn’t change, improve and get better, Norton may retain his job, but no one can reasonably argue that he has earned it.