The ripple effects from the final play of Super Bowl XLIX will be felt for in Seattle for some time. The memory of that infamous interception on second-and-goal from the 1-yard line remains fresh, but the Seahawks are using the offseason to move past it.
The day after Seattle lost to the Patriots in devastating fashion, GM John Schneider got on the phone and started a dialogue with Marshawn Lynch's agent, making it clear that Beast Mode would be getting a raise in 2015 if he wanted to return to football. This was an effort to not only let Lynch know he remains an integral part of the Seahawks' offense -- a "heartbeat guy" in Schneider's words -- but to mend some damaged feelings caused by Seattle's dogged refusal to give Lynch a new deal prior to last season.
Lynch will get $4.5 million in guaranteed salary in 2015, and that fat, crisp $7.5 million signing bonus check can go straight to Lynch's bank account, and that can't hurt in mending fences. Perhaps more important, though, Carroll, Schneider, and owner Paul Allen made it a point to meet with Lynch and his agent personally before putting pen to paper. In an act of conciliation, the two sides hashed out some of the things that caused tension last year and the hope now was that this helped to restore some trust, which would allow Lynch to just go out and play football.
The next goal was trying to replace outgoing free agent Byron Maxwell and nickel cornerback Jeremy Lane, who is set to miss much of the 2015 season with an ACL tear suffered in the Super Bowl. They targeted recently released Eagles corner Cary Williams and landed him, then added veteran Will Blackmon for depth.
Seattle wasn't done exorcising some of their demons from the wildly successful yet ultimately crushing 2014 season. By the time the drama of the NFC Championship Game and Super Bowl took away our collective breaths, Harvin was a distant memory. But it's hard to forget that, after six weeks, Seattle dumped the guy that cost them a first-round pick and millions of dollars to acquire.
So, in one final defiant, cathartic act, the Seahawks damned the torpedoes and went full speed ahead, brushing off that fiasco by once again trading away their first round pick for a special talent. This time, Seattle acquires New Orleans Saints' tight end Jimmy Graham, and while it's much too early to judge this one, it's clear the Seahawks are not gun-shy from their previous failed trade.
"There's no finish line"
At its core, the Jimmy Graham trade was a move the Seahawks made because they thought that it would improve their roster and their team. Seattle had one of the most dominant defenses in the NFL last year -- the most prolific run game in the league as well -- but as GM John Schneider pointed out after making the trade, "you're just constantly pushing the envelope in every aspect of the organization."
It's how they approach every aspect of the business of winning games.
"Obviously, everybody sees the acquisition part of it," he said. "That's the number one thing that everybody sees on the outside. But I think what happens is it's every department. For us it's coaching. It's what are we doing in the player performance department -- how can we figure out guys' sleep patterns, whatever we can do to help the players out. However we can help out with our technology and moving us forward, we're pushing that."
A constant quest to get better. Or, as Pete Carroll would say, Always Competing.
"It just never stops," Schneider added. "That was one of the things that Pete and I talked about right when we got here was that we were going to try to be out front and doing it better than anybody's done before -- I know you've heard Pete say that a lot, but it's real. It's about competition and it's about not ever being complacent. We actually talked about it right after the Super Bowl last year. Nothing ends, especially in this business. If you're complacent in this business, you'll lose your job."
Fitting Graham in
Jimmy Graham is a touchdown maker. While it's obvious that Graham won't rack up the absurd numbers he's posted over his career now that he's in Seattle, it's worth pointing out that it's not irrational to expect better production even from a low-volume passing offense like the Seahawks employ.
Compare and contrast receiver and tight end numbers of the Seahawks' low-volume passing offense (454 attempts), which got a team-high three touchdowns from Doug Baldwin, to that of the nearly equally as low-volume (476 attempts) passing attack of the Cowboys, who got 16 touchdowns out of Dez Bryant.
Pete Carroll and John Schneider both made it a point to say that Graham comes in behind only Marshawn Lynch and Dez Bryant for touchdowns scored over the last four seasons -- so while it may not be realistic to expect Graham's scoring rate to continue in Seattle, he is one of those players that has consistently been able to make big-time catches in the end zone.
The Seahawks value this, because, well, you need to score more points than your opponent to win. Many of these chances to score -- most of them, really -- come in the red zone.
Despite making an average of 3.7 trips to the red zone every game (ninth best in the NFL), Seattle's offense finished the 2014 season just 20th in the league in red zone touchdown percentage, grabbing pay-dirt on just 51 percent of their trips inside opponents' 20-yard line. That's a conversion rate behind teams like Oakland, Tampa Bay, Kansas City, Houston, Minnesota, and Chicago.
John Schneider and Pete Carroll are acutely aware of the fact that as the field gets compressed and defenses have less ground to defend, Seattle's offense tended to stall. Part of the reason for this was that they were without a true No. 1 type of go-to receiver all year, and their tight ends were more of role player types.
It goes back much further than one snap, of course, but the final play of the Super Bowl is a microcosm for Seattle's struggles in that area this year.
As Jacson Bevens wrote over at FieldGulls in dissecting the trade,
Despite Marshawn Lynch's prowess, his career TD conversion rate from the one yard line is 42.9% (44.8% in Seattle, 37.5% with Wilson), well below the league average of 54.7%. Last year he was just one for five. Much of that has to do with defenses having the luxury of knowing that Marshawn is Seattle's only outlying goalline threat and clogging the defensive front as a result. Those numbers are not an indictment of Lynch nearly as much as they are a highlighting of Seattle's desperate need for another option.
Graham is that option. He's a red zone freak, and whether you put a safety, linebacker, or cornerback on him, he'll have the advantage in speed, length, or power in almost every case.
"It's so rare that you get the opportunity to get a player that can make these kinds of plays," said Carroll in a conference call with reporters. "It really got us excited. He's a fantastic target that we can implement in a number of ways. He plays big and makes plays on top of guys. He's a very effective player in the red zone and a consistent scorer."
I went back and watched all 10 of Graham's touchdowns from 2014 and what was remarkably consistent was the excellent technique he used in boxing out and shielding opponents from the flight-path of the football. This allowed him to make catches with his frame -- exploiting his length to ward off any attempts to knock passes down.
His pass-catching ability -- good footwork and smooth route running -- means that defensive backs have to not only respect the quick slant, they have to respect the fade, the in-and-out route, and the back-shoulder throw. It's nearly impossible to defend unless you just purely gamble.
On this touchdown below, Ravens' safety Will Hill gets a strong jam, carries Graham out to the flag, but still has to play with inside leverage in case Graham jukes outside then cuts it back in. The seven inches Graham has on Hill helps in the end, as Drew Brees just puts it where Hill can't get it. There's been talk of Graham being a "soft" player, but in the overwhelming majority of plays I watched today, Graham attacks the football in traffic, bodies corners and safeties, runs right through jams at the line, then wins at the stem of his routes.
He's been able to rack up 46 touchdowns in four years because of his ability to win at the catch point. Period.
"He's been a very productive player. He's a big target that has a basketball background," Carroll noted on Wednesday. "He has the ability to get off the ground and play up high. He has a real sense for finishing plays around the goal line and finding his way in after the catch. He's just a fantastic talent and great weapon for us. I'm sure he will be a great benefit to our passing game. He brings us an obvious opportunity to get the ball in the end zone."
The basketball background is apparent, and you can see that he has not only an innate ability to keep a defensive back on his hip, but a natural feel for timing his jump for the ball.
Graham is a threat over the middle of the field, out on the wing, and even does some stuff coming out of the wingback spot or the backfield. Seattle plans to use him in a variety of roles, said Carroll.
Below, Graham starts on the right side, motions left, then runs a wheel route against Tramon Williams, subtly pushing off and timing his jump to reel in the touchdown. Seattle will likely use him on similar routes out of the backfield or in-line.
"We play a lot of two tight ends, that's something that we love doing, so that's just a part to fit together," Carroll said. "The ability to spread things around and move Jimmy around -- and he's already demonstrated this for a number of years -- this gives us another way to make our attack difficult."
Graham caught two-thirds of his passes lined up as a "receiver" in 2014, so while the Hawks are getting a tight end to put on the field in different sets, he can play the role of a big-time No. 1 receiver. Below, the Browns put Joe Haden on Graham and add two additional defenders to his area, and it doesn't matter.
This bracketed coverage -- Graham being the center of focus for any defense -- could pay dividends for the guys around him.
"We really hope that with Marshawn leading the charge," said Carroll, "And Russell doing the same stuff that he does, fitting in with the guys that we have, a tight end like this could really be a factor. So, hopefully the red zone stuff will be a factor, the third down stuff will be a factor, and he'll complement a really great group of guys catching the ball for us."
With Graham as a true No. 1, Doug Baldwin can play in the slot, where he's been extremely effective. Jermaine Kearse can play the X or Z as a No. 3, and guys like Kevin Norwood and Chris Matthews can be role players underneath or over the top, which is really what they should be.
"In complementing the rest of our team," said GM John Schneider Wednesday, "We think he's just a fantastic target that we can implement in a number of ways. It's pretty clear, he's a big receiver, plays big, makes plays in a crowd, makes plays on top of guys, he's a very effective player in the red zone, he has been a terrific, consistent scorers, so all of that stuff, we're just going to fit it into our offense and make him hopefully a very complementary part of it.
"When you have to Marshawn -- it starts with the running game and Russell doing his thing -- the complement of the receivers that we have that have made so many plays for us and done so many cool things, we think this is a great addition. Really, as your best players always do, they help other guys play well and be productive, and that's what we're hoping for."
Salary cap implications
Graham is due to count $8 million against the cap, $5 million of which is a roster bonus that the Seahawks can convert into a signing bonus to prorate it over the next three years. Additionally, Max Unger takes $3.2 million against the cap to New Orleans, and Seattle recently released Zach Miller, saving $2.4 million against the cap. The bottom line is that for this year, Graham's addition isn't a major drain, and for an impact player like him, his 2016 and 2017 cap hits of $9 million and $10 million are reasonable (and they're not guaranteed).
"In some respects, (the trade) actually helps us (financially)," Schneider said, referring to using a draft pick to acquire a player whose signing bonus is paid by his former team. "It turns out a first-round draft choice costs close to three and a half million. And to go out and sign a tight end to a big bonus ... would cost more."
Regardless, said Schneider, "We are on course. We are on budget. We have a lot of goals, a lot to accomplish."
For what it's worth, I don't think Seattle's even done.
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