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O’Neil’s 3 Questions: Do Seahawks need to change their approach to 4th down?

The final offensive play by the Seahawks of the 2019 season was a punt in a playoff loss. (AP)

It’s one of the firmest rules that I was ever given in being a sports reporter. How can you expect people to read what you’ve written, an editor told me, when you start out by telling them what you don’t know.

How to fix the Seahawks in three steps

That was almost 20 years ago now, and while I can see that editor’s point, I don’t think I agree with it because the best sports stories always start out with a question that needs to be answered. So I’m going to do the same, giving you three questions that I’m trying to answer:

1) Should the Seahawks be willing to make Jadeveon Clowney the highest-paid defensive player in the league?

They might have to if they’re going to keep him. Arizona just promised $15 million a year to D.J. Humphries, a former first-round pick at left tackle who played really well last year. Of course, he’s also missed 21 games over the previous four seasons because of injury and that’s not to mention the rookie season when he didn’t play at all. If he’s worth $15 million a year in anticipation of the free-agent market, then what in the world might Clowney fetch?

While he’s never had double-digit sacks in any season, it’s very rare to get a player with his talent to get to unrestricted free agency so there very well may be a bidding war.

2) Do the Seahawks punt too often?

Almost any statistically minded football fan will tell you that they do, something that is epitomized by the fact that Seattle’s final play from scrimmage in the 2019 season was punting the ball back to Green Bay instead of going for it on fourth-and-11. So I decided to take a look at fourth-down statistics across the league over the past five years, and sure enough, the Seahawks have gone for it on fourth down 57 times from 2015 through 2019, fewest in the league. They’ve converted 61.4 percent of those fourth-down opportunities, the third-best rate in the league. That’s not necessarily a shock given that Russell Wilson is one of the league’s best quarterbacks.

Here’s what was surprising: The Kansas City Chiefs are right behind Seattle when it comes to going for it on fourth down. They’ve done it just 58 times the past five years this in spite of being even better at converting than Seattle, turning 63.8 percent of those opportunities into first downs. No one accuses Andy Reid of being antiquated in his approach to offense, though that doesn’t mean he’s necessarily willing to take chances on third down.

New England ranks sixth in fourth-down conversion percentage (55.1) with the ninth-fewest attempts. New Orleans leads the league in fourth-down conversion percentage (70.7) but has the 12th-fewest attempts. I guess the point is that the teams that seem to benefit most when going for it on fourth down rank in the bottom half of the league in attempts and are also among the more successful teams in the league, so I’m not sure it’s as simple as saying the Seahawks should go for it more.

3) How does the XFL have a better replay system than the NFL?

That question is not rhetorical. The XFL has one guy, a live mic and what appears to be an Xbox controller, and in two weeks they’ve come up with a better system than what the NFL has managed in more than 30 years since replay was adopted in 1986.

Listening to the judge talk through what he’s seeing makes it clear not just what he’s seeing but what he’s looking for when it comes to sufficient evidence to overturn a call. Replay was instituted to correct clear mistakes. In the NFL, it’s now being used to try and split the atom and re-officiate each second of every play. The XFL’s process is simpler, more transparent and it eliminates the guesswork of why the replay official ruled as he did. He’s telling us in real time.

Follow 710 ESPN Seattle’s Danny O’Neil on Twitter.

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