By John Morgan, Field Gulls
After years atop the NFC West, the Seahawks suffered what most perennial contenders suffer: A decline phase in which their core of talent ages poorly and their young talent proves insufficient to keep the team on top. That former general manager Tim Ruskell was willing to sacrifice the future for marginal improvements in the present made the fall that much harder. Seattle suffered its worst season in 16 years in 2008, finishing 4-12 in Mike Holmgren's final year coaching. The next staff didn't fare much better. Seattle finished 5-11 under head coach Jim Mora. Holmgren handled the team's downfall with aplomb. Mora trolled out like an unsupervised 12-year old.
The Seahawks organization started the new year by cleaning house, most notably firing Mora and hiring Pete Carroll. Carroll retained the core of the defensive coaching staff, defensive coordinator Gus Bradley and defensive line coach Dan Quinn. And added two notable coaches on offense, legendary offensive line coach Alex Gibbs and Mike Shanahan protégé, offensive coordinator Jeremy Bates. Carroll also had input in the hiring of general manager John Schneider, in a reversal of power roles from the Ruskell-Mora administration. It's a new brain trust, and newness and change inspire hope, but it's also largely unproven, capable of great victory or great failure.
Significant Offseason Additions and Subtractions
Change inspires hope but it also causes pain. Seahawks fans were discontent and worried when Schneider started the off-season with a flurry of controversial moves: He did not franchise or attempt to re-sign wide receiver Nate Burleson; traded defensive end Darryl Tapp to the Philadelphia Eagles for a fourth-round pick and defensive end Chris Clemons; traded starting left guard Rob Sims and a seventh-round pick to the Detroit Lions for defensive tackle Robert Henderson and a fifth-round pick; and released starting strong safety Deon Grant.
Seattle was not a big player in free agency. It added special teams ace Sean Morey, but Morey has since retired. It signed zone-blocking guard Ben Hamilton. It has recently signed guard Chester Pitts, who is recovering from microfracture knee surgery. Pitts played for Gibbs in Houston.
But while it didn't target many notable free agents, it set a torrid pace of signing and releasing players. Seattle has made over a 100 roster moves since hiring Carroll. That strategy has unearthed at least one potential gem: former 10th overall pick and Trojan, wide receiver Mike Williams. Williams is in shape and setting training camp ablaze with his mix of size and athleticism.
The defining event of the Seahawks off-season was the 2010 NFL Draft. Seattle ruled draft weekend, turning two first round picks into two potential cornerstone players, left tackle Russell Okung and free safety Earl Thomas. It added versatile receiver and return man Golden Tate in the second. Walter Thurmond, who lost footing through the draft process because of a September injury in which he tore his ACL, MCL and PCL, fell to Seattle in the fourth. He is healthy and participating in training camp. The final major addition was acquired through a trade with the Jets. Seattle traded a fifth-round pick for Leon Washington and the Jets seventh-round pick. Washington missed much of last season with a broken leg, but is back and participating fully in training camp.
Former Seahawks offensive coordinator Greg Knapp emphasized two aspects of the passing game: short screens and long bombs. Matt Hasselbeck proved adequate at converting screens but incapable of tossing bombs. And so the offense proved a major liability and Hasselbeck struggled.
Current Seahawks offensive coordinator Jeremy Bates is more like Knapp than many Seahawks fans would like to acknowledge. He leads with the run, emphasizes a moving pocket and roll outs, and, like Knapp, draws up a lot screens and bombs. We shall see if Hasselbeck achieves more under Bates than he did under Knapp, but if not, the Seahawks have acquired two more scheme-appropriate quarterbacks: Charlie Whitehurst and J.P. Losman.
Gibbs is open to starting smaller backs, and Washington and Justin Forsett could get the bulk of the Seahawks carries. Forsett is a skilled zone-blocking rusher that worked mostly as a scatback last season. He could overtake incumbent starter Julius Jones and become the nominal starter. Whoever tops the depth chart, Carroll is committed to a committee backfield.
If everything goes as planned, the Seahawks will attempt a balanced offense that leads with the run and builds the passing game through play-action. Bates employs lots of pre-snap motion, misdirection, bootlegs, wide receiver, tight end and running back screens, and two-tight end sets, with one tight end blocking and the other working as a hybrid wide receiver. The goal, as is the goal for many pro offenses, is to run effectively enough to keep play-action viable and pass effectively enough to keep the safety out of the box.
Coaches get peeved when pressed to define if their offense is a 3-4 or a 4-3. Carroll claims to run a 4-3, but it's debatable. If we define the first number as the number of down lineman, and the second as the number of players standing, then Seattle is the latest team to switch to a 3-4. If we define the 3-4 and 4-3 as totally separate schools of defense, with the former emphasizing gap control and the latter emphasizing penetration, then Seattle will run a 4-3 with 3-4 personnel.
The three down lineman will be oversized players that can control the point. Brandon Mebane is the best among the Seahawks defensive lineman. He will shoot the gap from the weakside and set up the pass rush. Colin Cole is nose tackle type. Cole was a former situational run stuffer for the Green Bay Packers, and though he is capable of holding ground against single blocks, he doesn't hold up to double teams and he doesn't push the pile. Red Bryant is the team's strongside end. At 330, Bryant rivals Haloti Ngata as the largest end in the NFL.
The four standing players will be comprised of one standup or "Elephant" or "Leo" end and three linebackers. There is not a lot functionally different from a standup end and a outside linebacker in a 3-4. Clemons will rush the passer on about 80% of snaps. David Hawthorne is Seattle's weakside linebacker. Hawthorne flashed big-play potential filling in for Lofa Tatupu, but was less disciplined maintaining gaps and inferior in pass coverage. Tatupu is returning from a torn pectoral. Aaron Curry will play strongside end. Carroll indicated that Curry will blitz more often than he did in 2009. Apart from blitzing, Curry's job is taking care of the tight end.
Thomas is a talented free safety with the range to cover sideline to sideline and the ball skills to terrorize errant quarterbacks. Seattle is currently starting Lawyer Milloy at strong safety. Carroll makes a meaningful distinction between strong and free safety. Some of Milloy's inadequacies in coverage will be mitigated by playing close to the line as a sort of fourth linebacker. The Seahawks have stacked young talent to challenge Milloy, but it's still his job to lose.
The Seahawks most accomplished corner was its worst corner in 2009. After starting the season on the PUP list, Marcus Trufant returned from a back injury a shell of himself. He couldn't flip his hips and shadow top receivers and was penalized trying or just burned outright. Trufant led the NFL in pass interference penalties despite only starting nine games.
Opposite of Trufant is Kelly Jennings. Jennings is a solid pure cover corner, but his inability to compete for the ball has made him a liability in coverage. Josh Wilson is the team's nickel corner. He has terrific ball skills, is a good tackler and is dangerous on the blitz. Seattle has experimented with starting Wilson and substituting in Jennings on nickel downs, so that Wilson may play both corner and nickel back depending on the formation.
Carroll, Bradley and Quinn will attempt an updated derivation of Monte Kiffin's 4-3 under. The Seahawks have a shot to field a dominant run defense, but without sufficient pass rush, the pass defense could trade interceptions with long receptions. That same basic plan didn't work for Mora. A much easier schedule of opposing quarterbacks could make it work for Carroll.
Olindo Mare is one of the best kickers in football. It is possible that Mare is one of the best kickers ever. He isn't appreciated as much because his best skill, kickoffs, is less valued by coaches and fans. Mare finished fifth in touchbacks and touchback percentage in 2009. His powerful legs keeps the return game at bay, and that keeps opponents starting deep in their own territory.
Jon Ryan is a little harder to pin down. He has a strong leg, for sure. By length of punt, Ryan ranked in the top ten. He ranked 15th in net yardage and was below average in return yardage per punt. It is not completely clear whether Ryan's special teams mates are to blame for the overall poor showing or if Ryan himself punts in a manner that is long and low, making it difficult for coverage units to reach the return man before the punt arrives. I tend to think the latter.
Golden Tate will return punts and kicks for Seattle. Washington, Wilson and maybe even Thurmond will be in the mix. It's an impressive collection of return talent. Tate and Thurmond were dangerous returners in college. Wilson and Washington have each returned kicks for touchdowns in the NFL.
Seattle has an opportunity to field one of the best special teams units in the NFL.
Carroll is a players coach and Seahawks camp has been loose and fun. He's a showman, and likes to entertain onlooking fans by zipping spirals during drills. That is quintessential Pete Carroll. He is not a mastermind like a Dick Lebeau, and he isn't a disciplinarian like Tom Coughlin, but he is charming. Carroll wins by surrounding himself with talent. The warmth of his character and the looseness of camp help him attract talented coaches like Gibbs, and has helped him revive the careers of failed players like Williams.
I believe that talent rather than coaching wins. Carroll's emphasis on competition and willingness to shepherd wayward players has improved the Seahawks talent. Coaching that improves talent may be the best kind of coaching. And if Carroll is successful in Seattle, it will be because of his ability to surround himself with smart coaches and talented players.
Conclusion/Prediction for 2010
Seattle is a fringe contender in what may be a weak division. The team is in transition. Fans want winning, but after two seasons of brutally bad football, fans want proof that the team is building towards a contender as much or even more than contention in 2010. A backdoor playoff appearance like Seattle achieved in 2006 would certainly be better than another season of humiliation and defeat, but even better would be a competent season achieved through its young core of talent.
For a meaningful chance at contention in 2010, Seattle needs a healthy Hasselbeck. It needs a Hasselbeck that starts the season healthy and stays healthy. That still might not be enough. Though injury has exacerbated his decline, Matt might just be getting old. Matt might be winding down his career as a professional quarterback.
Seattle could become a dark horse contender on the strength of its run game, run defense and because of an opportunistic secondary. Turnovers are one of many factors that make the NFL season so unpredictable. The Seahawks secondary is fast, has tremendous ball skills and faces quite a few interception prone quarterbacks. Timely picks can turn the outcome of a game and enough can turn the outcome of a season.
Most likely, Seattle will not contend this year. Much of its best talent is still young. Hasselbeck would have to rebound markedly to be mediocre. The Seahawks do not have a marquee pass rusher, and relying on Chris Clemons could prove deadly. Seattle should be exciting, but it's harder to see how they can be good. After two seasons of turnover, finger pointing and decline, exciting football played by promising talent will be a welcome change.