Friday, September 7, 2007

Seahawks Season Preview Part I - 2006 Recap, Off-Season, and Offense

A look back at 2006

The Seahawks were the first Super Bowl losers to return to the playoffs the following season in years. That’s about where the positives end for the Hawks ’06 campaign. If you are around sports long enough, you get painfully familiar with the concept of “championship windows.” It felt an awful lot like Steve Hutchinson slammed the window shut on his way out before the start of last season. Many folks are sick of hearing about Hutch, but it was the single largest factor in the team’s decline. Walter Jones was less effective. Robbie Tobeck was less effective. The running game went from best in the NFL to below the league average. Hasselbeck got sacked more than twice as much and threw far more interceptions. And perhaps, most importantly, the offense sustained far fewer drives and left a defense built for speed on the field for far too long. I mentioned in last season’s preview that the Hawks needed pro bowl years from their safeties. All you need to know is neither starter is even on the *team* this year. Important starters like Hass, Shaun and Marcus Tubbs missed extended periods of time. Young players like Chris Spencer, Rob Sims and Kelly Jennings were thrust into starting roles. In other words, last year looked a lot more like a team in transition than a team gearing up for another championship run.

Off-season grade – B-

The Hawks are very proud of their additions of DE Patrick Kerney, FS Brian Russell, and SS Deon Grant. I’ll talk more about them later. What did the Hawks really need? A mauling offensive lineman and a run-stuffing defensive tackle would have been great. They made the o-line position a priority, but were embarrassed by the Chargers Kris Dielman who accepted less money to stay in sunny San Diego. What really puzzled me was the lack of priority the team put on getting the d-tackle position addressed. DT Brandon Mebane was drafted in the third round, but there seemed to be a reliance on Tubbs returning from his knee surgery, and that gamble did not pay off when Tubbs tore his ACL in the pre-season and is was lost for the season. The lack of a run-stuffer could sink this season before it begins, especially when facing Frank Gore and Steven Jackson four times. Trading your leading WR to your most dangerous division rival for a 4th round pick just because he doesn’t get along with the front office is simply brain-dead. I would have rather seen them trade him for a 2015 7th round pick to an AFC team if they really need to get rid of him at all. Overall, a less than stellar grade for the front office.

Offense – Starters

Matt Hasselbeck – QB

Shaun Alexander – RB

Mack Strong – FB

Deon Branch – WR

D.J. Hackett – WR

Marcus Pollard - TE

Sean Locklear – RT

Chris Gray – RG

Chris Spencer – C

Rob Sims – LG

Walter Jones** – LT

** Pro Bowl

Offense – Running Game

When people think Mike Holmgren, they think about QBs and the passing West Coast Offense. This Seahawks team, though, lives and dies with the run. Over the last two seasons, the Hawks average ~150 yards rushing in games they win, and ~95 yards in games they lose. When you look at the fact that they *averaged* 153 rushing yards/game in 2005, it’s not hard to see why they went to the Big Game. They lost more than 30 yards off that average in 2006 due to Shaun’s injury, problems with the offensive line and the loss of superior blocking WR Joe Jurevicious and TE Ryan Hannam. A consistent, dominant running game comes from chemistry, execution and a star runner. It seems a little unrealistic to expect the line to match the standard the 2005 line set. If people can stay healthy, though, the running game should be improved.

Offense – Passing Game

Dropped passes, invisible tight ends, and an injured quarterback made for a very uneven passing attack last year. The loss of Darrell Jackson will be interesting. Despite the fact that he was Hasselbeck’s favorite target, and a statistical success, he rarely seemed to be a difference maker in winning games. When was the last time he caught a game-winning TD? A clutch reception to seal a win? Much of what was lost from Jackson could be made up by others. Nate Burleson is poised for a big year. I would not be surprised to see him emerge as our second-leading receiver, and possibly our top scoring threat at that position. Marcus Pollard should be solid at TE. The Hawks passing game is at it’s best when Hasselbeck is spreading the ball around. Expect to see a lot more people contributing this season.

Offense – Quarterback

Matt Hasselbeck was the best QB in the NFC in 2005. Even before his injury last season, he was not the same player. His decision making regressed. His accuracy was off, and he held onto the ball for too long. He had off-season shoulder surgery on his non-throwing shoulder. This is a concern more because of the fact that Hasselbeck relies heavily on off-season reps to establish a repoire with his receivers. Hasselbeck must be a pro bowl player this season if the Hawks are going to contend in the NFC. It has been encouraging to hear a more positive tone from him thus far. Last year, he seemed very discouraged about the losses of teammates like Hutch and Kaz, and the absence of Robbie Tobeck.

Offense – Offensive Line

A hidden story line to watch is the Center position. Chris Spencer very nearly was put on IR this season due to shoulder problems. There is little-to-no backup plan at that position. If Spencer doesn’t go the distance, the line could be in disarray again. Jones and Locklear both sat out much of the preseason nursing sore shoulders. There is some depth at guard and tackle, but really, we need the line to be significantly better than it was last season. Having a tight end that can actually block should help a bit.

Offense – Backfield

Alexander turned 30 this year. Most running backs go in the tank quickly at that age. If Alexander’s numbers don’t recover this year, it will be much more about his line that about his age. He has always been a vision runner. Reading blocks and finding holes shouldn’t get worse, and he never really beat anyone with his speed or strength. Only one season removed from the MVP award, most have written him off. I saw Jerome Bettis list his top 5 fantasy RBs and Alexander didn’t even make the list (Willie Parker did!). A little extra motivation can’t hurt. Mack Strong returns for another season at FB, but the team will hopefully try to find some time for Leonard Weaver. I’d love to see him on 3rd downs as a threat in the running or passing game. His horrible pre-season did nothing to help there.

Offense – Wide Receivers/Tight Ends

DJ Hackett rocks. The guy caught everything thrown his way last year. He’ll catch the deep ball, take the big hit over the middle and lay out for a 3-yard gain. He earned the starting spot this year, but I think we’ll see Nate Burleson turn the tables on Hackett this year and once again have the 3rd WR overshadow the 2nd. Deon Branch is still an unknown for me. We heard he never drops passes, but I saw a bunch last year. I honestly can’t say what’s so great about him. He needs to assert himself this year and leave no doubt he is a #1. Marcus Pollard has a real chance to catch 35-45 balls, even at age 35. After him, it’s ugly. Will Heller is a blocking TE that can’t block and Ben Joppru…Ben Joppru?? Watch out for Ben Obamanu at our 5th WR spot. The 2006 7th round pick has got 4.4 speed and was the best player on the team during the pre-season.

Offense – Overall 2007 Outlook

Expect some fireworks in the passing game and some frustration in the running game. The Hawks may have their most balanced and dependable receiving corps ever, and Hasselbeck is poised for comeback. The offensive line remains too much of a question mark to say with any certainty that we should expect a Top 5 or Top 10 offense again. The key things to watch will be sacks against, INTs, yards/carry, and of course, red zone efficiency.

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