The NFC West is no longer the laughingstock of the NFL. The Seattle Seahawks and the San Francisco 49ers both finished in the top four in the league in total DVOA last year, and both teams have continued their roster-building mastery in the offseason. The St. Louis Rams were surprisingly--to some--competitive in 2012. Despite finishing at only 7-8-1, they went 4-1-1 in the division, with the one tie coming against San Francisco (in San Francisco), and the one loss coming in Week 17 in Seattle against a Seahawks team that was streaking into the playoffs (and they held Seattle to only 20 points when they averaged 50 points over their last three games). The Arizona Cardinals are lagging behind the rest of the division, but they’re still sitting on back-to-back division titles in 2008 and 2009 and a 2008 Super Bowl appearance, so they’ve had recent success.
The interdivisional rivalries are intense, as all four teams have hard-hitting, aggressive, angry defenses. The Seahawks, 49ers, and Rams have prioritized running the football, and they aren’t afraid to punch you in the mouth with it. Needless to say, there’s little love lost amongst the four squads.
However, the biggest rivalry is definitely between Seattle and San Francisco. Their head coaches are former college rivals, and two of Seattle’s more intense players, Doug Baldwin and Richard Sherman, played under Jim Harbaugh at Stanford. They’ve both had a significantly bigger impact on the NFL than their draft stock portended, and they both hold Harbaugh’s lack of campaigning on their part as at least partially responsible for their lower draft slots.
All this history led recently to some interesting reactions to a couple of transactions by the Seahawks and 49ers. The transactions didn’t happen between the two squads, mind you. They were separate and independent moves, and if it’d been in two different offseasons or two different teams, they probably wouldn’t have been compared at all. But because the NFC West has turned into an arms race, every move the Seahawks and 49ers make will be closely compared and analyzed.
On Monday, March 11th, news broke that the Seahawks had traded their 2013 first-and-seventh-round picks, as well as a conditional 2014 mid-round pick (later reported to be a third round pick) to the Minnesota Vikings for generationally-talented but oft-maligned wide receiver Percy Harvin. Within an hour after that trade was leaked, it was announced that the Baltimore Ravens had traded Anquan Boldin, their aging former rookie of the year wide receiver, to the 49ers for a sixth round pick. Immediately after the Boldin trade broke, news was leaked that the 49ers had been second in the Harvin sweepstakes, so there’s a chance that they sprung the Boldin trade as soon as they knew they’d missed out on the younger player.
So how do these moves compare? Honestly, they don’t really compare at all, beyond the fact that both players are wide receivers, neither move was expected before it was announced, and both moves will likely benefit every team involved.
Apart from having “wide receiver” in their job description, Harvin and Boldin could hardly be any more different. Harvin is 24, Boldin is 32. Boldin is a great blocker, runs precise routes, specializes in making contested plays. Harvin is rarely asked to block, gets a large number of his touches in the backfield, and specializes in making plays in space. Harvin returns kicks, Boldin doesn’t. Boldin is a supremely consistent possession receiver, Harvin is a dynamic game-breaking receiver. Harvin is on the upswing of his career, Boldin is in the twilight of his career. The biggest difference, though? Boldin is a complementary piece in an already multiple offense, and Harvin is a core player who will take a diverse offense to the next level and make it a terrifyingly multiple offense.
The 49ers and Seahawks ended 2012 as the fifth and fourth-ranked offenses, respectively, according to DVOA. San Francisco achieved that level of efficiency primarily through diversity in scheming and coaching to get the matchups they wanted with each defense they played. Their offensive line is far and away the best in the league, and it may be the best positional unit of any in the league. Because they could rely on their offensive line to do their job consistently, they were able to move their playmakers all over the field, matching up Vernon Davis and Michael Crabtree with linebackers, Frank Gore with cornerbacks, and Colin Kaepernick with grass.
The Seahawks couldn’t rely on their offensive line quite as unquestionably, and they didn’t have the luxury of easing in a young quarterback, so they leaned primarily on a terrific running game. Pete Carroll subscribes to an old-school philosophy of pounding the other team so completely that eventually they start giving up. Even when the Seahawks didn’t have the greatest success running the football early in games, they stuck with it, knowing that teams would wear out by the third and fourth quarters. Tackling Marshawn Lynch gets tiring, wouldn’t you know?
Seattle wasn’t especially multiple with their offensive looks, especially early in the season. Rather they ran the football until safeties started creeping into the box, then utilized Russell Wilson’s downfield accuracy to hit Sidney Rice, Golden Tate, and Doug Baldwin in one-on-one situations against defensive backs. Occasionally they used trick plays and read-option looks to add a wrinkle to the looks they were giving to defenses. But they didn’t have that one game-breaking talent that could beat a defense any time the ball was in his hand. Now they do.
Percy Harvin will add a level of explosiveness and multiplicity to the Seahawks’ offense, the likes of which hasn’t been seen in the NFL in a long time, perhaps ever. Over the last couple of years, the Seahawks have run the ball as well as anyone. Lynch as more than 85 rushing yards in 22 of his last 25 games. Last year, the Seahawks passing game finally came together with Wilson, Rice, Tate, Baldwin, and Zach Miller, but it never added up to a lot of yards, because Wilson averaged only 24.5 attempts per game.
However, Wilson also averaged 7.9 yards per attempt (third in the league, 0.2 yards behind the league leader, Robert Griffin III), so he was one of the best in the league at getting yards when he did throw.* But most importantly, he had a touchdown percentage of 6.6%. Only Aaron Rodgers was better, at an ungodly 7.1%.** So even though the Seahawks didn’t throw much, the effectiveness of their running game and Russell Wilson’s downfield accuracy overcame their relative lack of game-breaking talent to make them one of the most efficient offenses in the league.
So why am I looking so closely at the Seahawks’ side of things? Because adding Percy Harvin to an offense that was already performing at that level will make them nigh-undefendable. With an accurate quarterback, Golden Tate and Sidney Rice will win most one-on-one jump balls. Marshawn Lynch averaged five yards a carry against almost entirely eight and nine-man fronts. Opposing teams had a beast (puns!) of a time containing the Seahawks’ backfield as it was structured last year (as a team, they averaged 4.8 yards a carry). Now they’ve substituted Leon Washington’s 3.6 yards a carry for Percy Harvin’s career 6.4 number. When the Seahawks have Rice, Tate, Harvin, Lynch, and Miller on the field at once, they will have every mismatch in their favor.
Now how does Anquan Boldin factor into the 49ers offense? Boldin averaged 62 receptions a season for the last three years he’s been with Baltimore, but the Ravens averaged over 100 passing attempts more than the 49ers over that same period of time, and he was competing for targets with the likes of Derrick Mason, Lee Evans, Todd Heap, and more recently, Torrey Smith and Dennis Pitta. In San Francisco, Michael Crabtree and Vernon Davis will be ahead of him, and he’ll probably be neck-in-neck with Mario Manningham. Essentially, he’ll replace Delanie Walker. He’ll be a third-down machine, a red-zone threat, a quality blocker, and a vocal leader on the team, but he won’t be a focal part of the offense.
Many people have pointed to the compensation required from Seattle and San Francisco as evidence that the 49ers “stole” Boldin and the Seahawks “paid dearly” for Harvin. However, the compensation wasn’t far off of the players’ market values. The 49ers surrendered a sixth round pick for a player who was shortly going to be cut, and took on his $6 million salary, which immediately becomes the sixth-highest cap hit on their team this season.
They’ll have him in a complementary role in a top offense for one year, though they can extend or re-sign him for his age 33 and beyond seasons if they want to. For comparison, the Denver Broncos just signed Wes Welker to a two-year, $12 million contract. They’re paying him the same amount of money this year, and they didn’t give up a draft pick for him (though San Francisco will hardly miss a sixth round pick).
Seattle paid the equivalent of moving up to the 22nd slot in the draft and taking a 24-year-old player who will immediately become a focal point in one of the best offenses in the league. They signed him to six-year contract with $25.5 million guaranteed with a 2013 cap hit of $4.9 million (less than Boldin). Mike Wallace, a wide receiver with a more limited game, signed a five-year contract with $30 million in guaranteed money. The Seahawks got a younger, better player for less money. But they gave up draft picks as well, you say? Look at this comparison.
| Name || Age || Cost (picks) || Cost (years & guaranteed money) || |
Yards from scrimmage (2011-2012)
| Total TDs (2011-2012) || Kick Return Yards |
| Percy Harvin || 24 || 2013 1st/7th & 2014 3rd || 6 years, $25.5 million || 2,085 || 14 || 1,094 |
| Julio Jones || 24 || 2011 1st/2nd/4th & 2012 1st/4th || 4 years, $16.2 million || 2,243 || 18 || 0 |
The Falcons have been roundly congratulated for their boldness in sacrificing a lot to get their guy: Julio Jones. He's turned into one of the best wide receivers in the NFL, and they've benefitted from his production. However, people are questioning the wisdom of the Seahawks surrendering so much for Harvin. But is it really that different? No, it isn't. The Seahawks are paying Harvin more than the Falcons are paying Jones, but the Falcons gave up much, much more in terms of draft stock. Jones has a bigger impact as a wide receiver, but he doesn’t have nearly the production as a running back, and he doesn’t return kicks at all. And Jones played 32 games in the last two years; Harvin played 25 after being put on injured reserve for a sprained ankle. Finally, the kicker? They’re both the same age now.
So the 49ers and Seahawks both acquired talented wide receivers. They’re both better teams now than they were last week. They both filled holes on their rosters. And they both paid approximately market value for their additions. The difference is that San Francisco got a deal on a 1993 Ford F-150 that will reliably get them through the winter and probably get them out of more than one ditch. The Seahawks got a deal on a 2004 Ferrari Challenge Stradale that will make the work commute a lot more fun and Saturday nights a lot more exciting.
*Kaepernick was slightly better, at 8.3 yards per attempt, but he didn’t have enough attempts to qualify.
**Kaepernick, at 4.6%, was much lower, right behind Josh Freeman and Ryan Fitzpatrick and right ahead of Kevin Kolb and Jay Cutler.