A look back at 2007
The 2007 season was a pleasant surprise. An offense that looked so lost in 2006, became dangerous again. The running game was still a disaster, but Matt Hasselbeck had his best season, setting multiple team and personal records along the way. Shaun Alexander got injured early again, and the offensive line couldn't clear a space big enough for Mini Me to run through. We went from the best short yardage team in the NFL in 2005 to the worst just two years later. Much of the blame went to Alexander, but no back was going to succeed with last year's line. Three of the five lineman played poorly, and even Big Walt had a subpar season for him. The WRs were probably the most talented group we've ever had. Bobby had a career year, Deion Branch flashed some of the star talent we thought we were trading for and DJ Hackett made an impact whenever he was healthy enough to play. And, of course, my man Burleson led the team in TDs.
Besides the passing game, the biggest storyline last year was the growth of the defense. We saw fantastic linebacker play, combined a solid pass rush and mostly error-free coverage. That led to the Hawks highest defensive ranking (15th) since 1997. Many of the 2006 off-season moves turned into gold with folks like Patrick Kearney (Drago), Deon Grant, Brian Russell and Brandon Mebane all contributing. Ruskell continues to demonstrate an ability to stock the defense with the right talent. The Hawks beat a very hot Redskins team in the playoffs before losing to a better Packers team. Unlike the year before, the season did not feel like the beginning of the end. As long as we have Matt, this defense and Mike Holmgren, we've got a shot.
2008 Off-season grade – B+
By far the best move of the off-season was firing our o-line coach and hiring Mike Solari. More than any other addition, Solari will be at the center of a dramatic turnaround in our running game this season. His impact has already been felt as the Hawks averaged 173.8 yards/game in the preseason on the ground (2nd in the NFL), after finishing 20th last season with an average of 101.2 YPG. Granted, those are preseason numbers, but there is reason to believe they matter. The other major addition to the running game was Mike Wahle. Teaming Wahle with Jones gives us at least one side of our line that will play relatively mistake-free football. Re-signing RT Sean Locklear was smart as well. I think we wasted our money on Julius Jones and TJ Duckett. I would have much rather us aggressively trade up for a talent like Jonathan Stewart than spend good money on mediocre veteran stopgaps. We need a featured back for the future, and it was hard to beat this draft for getting one. Instead, we waited until the 7th round to draft one, and may have gotten a decent one there in Justin Forsett. John Carlsen was another solid addition who should contribute right away, as was Lawrence Jackson who is the likely starter at DE opposite Kearney. Losing DJ Hackett was a big hit, and a questionable decision. He's been injured quite a bit, but he was our best receiver when on the field, and we are going to miss his big body and chemistry with Hass. For the third straight season, the front office has shown the ability to make impactful defensive additions. The jury is still out on the offensive side of the ball.
Offense – Starters
Matt Hasselbeck** – QB
Maurice Morris* – RB
Leonard Weaver* – FB
Courtney Taylor* – WR
Nate Burleson* – WR
John Carlson* - TE
Sean Locklear – RT
Rob Sims* – RG
Chris Spencer – C
Mike Wahle* – LG
Walter Jones** – LT
* New Starter or New Position
** Pro Bowl
Offense – Running Game
I saw enough in the preseason to think this might be the best kept secret in the NFL. Our lowest rushing output was 130 yards in the final game that saw none of our starters play. Mo Morris averaged 6.7 yards/carry. Justin Forsett averaged 5.4 YPC. TJ Duckett averaged 4.2 YPC. Julius Jones average 4.1 YPC. The team average was 3.8 YPC last season. I saw holes larger than any I saw last year, and they were there pretty consistently against decent run defenses. The difference in the blocking schemes was noticeable from the very first series where players like Rob Sims were intentially yielding 3-4 yards to their defender just so he could use the players momentum to push him to the outside. We finally got out of the predictable draw play, and found some toss plays that worked with the backs we have. Blocking improved at the WR spot as well as Courtney Taylor appears to be a willing blocker and Logan Payne is a superior blocker for that position. Nate Burleson compared Payne to Hines Ward in that regard during a radio interview. High praise, for sure.
This part of the team is the what I am most excited to see in action come the regular season. We were horrible at running the ball last year, so finishing in the Top 15 would be a big story. Cracking the Top 10 is not out of the question.
Offense – Passing Game
We flashed some serious weapons in the passing game last year. Even Mo Morris and Leonard Weaver added new wrinkles to how we could attack defenses through the air. We start the year without Branch or Engram, and lost Ben Obamanu for the season. I think we can win with just adequate play at WR this year, when superior talent was a must last year. The difference is a renewed running game and the emergence of the TE. Both John Carlson and Jeb Putzier will be consistent threats, and will do more than any WR can in filling the void from Bobby Engram. Remember, Engram had his record year last year in part due to picking up TE routes that folks like Pollard and Will Heller just couldn't pull off.
Our offensive line blocked well for the pass last year, but we have the additional bonus of good blocking TEs and better blocking backs. Matt has been a Top 2 QB in the NFC in 2 of the past 3 seasons. He should be at the point where that is something we expect of him.
Offense – Quarterback
We have it so good. Matt is in his prime. Enjoy it. There is no guarantee we will ever enjoy another QB of Matt's caliber in a Seahawks uniform. That's not just about Matt. He benefited from breaking in under Brett Favre, Andy Reid and Mike Holmgren, before getting more Holmgren, Trent Dilfer and Jim Zorn. All the teaching in the world doesn't allow you to think quickly or throw accurately, but it sure helps. Matt has become more durable, but has been fighting some back issues (although he calls them minor) this preseason. His health is critical. For the first time, though, I can honestly say we can win games without him.
Seneca Wallace has reached another level. His command of the offense and the accuracy of his throws in preseason were unreal. He is a legit starting QB in the NFL right now. Charlie Frye does not deserve all the praise he got during the preseason, but he is more like the typical NFL backup. You could go a game or two with him, but you can't win consistently with a guy like that. Even so, his development frees Wallace up to contribute in new ways.
Offense – Offensive Line
The question here is at the Center position. Chris Spencer has been hurt all of preseason, but Steve Vallos showed the ability to fill-in or takeover if needed. Behind Vallos? It's a little scary. Rob Sims seems better this year, but I am not counting on a huge turnaround. I've already talked about Wahle and Locklear, and most folks know about Big Walt. I expect a better year from Walt with Wahle playing next to him. The depth on the line is a little questionable with Ray Willis and Pork Chop Womack as the only viable fill-ins at the Guard and Tackle positions.
Offense – Backfield
The Seahawks certainly don't lack for options anymore. Mo Morris and Julius Jones are almost the same runner. Mo is a significantly better receiver and appears much quicker. Jones looks a little tougher between the tackles and after contact. I predict Duckett will elicit the most groans of any offensive player. Weaver could be a Pro Bowl FB and Owen Schmitt may be worthy of a man crush. He is more than just a great blocker (and he is a *great* blocker). He flashed real athleticism and terrific hands. I am more excited to see him play than anyone else in the backfield, although it might not happen very often.
Offense – Wide Receivers/Tight Ends
We start the season with the expectation that Bobby and Deion will recover and contribute in the first half of the season. Bobby is 35 and Deion is only 9 months removed from a surgery that usually takes 18 to fully recover from. Counting on those two may not be wise. Burleson needs to be much more consistent in his route running to be a leader in the WR ranks. Another consistent contributor must emerge from Logan Payne, Jordan Kent or Courtney Taylor. Taylor will be given every opportunity to prove it can be him, but it wouldn't shock me if Kent steps into the limelight.
Carlson, Putzier and Heller are a solid TE trio. I expect a lot of two TE sets, especially early in the season when the WR situation is less settled.
Offense – Overall 2008 Outlook
Whenever you have seven new starters on one side of the ball, you need to temper your expectations. I think the changes are all for the better outside of the WRs. The line looks poised for a big year, and the addition of legitimate TE threats will make Matt's life easier and sustain more drives. When Matt and the offensive line are healthy, I see no reason this can't be a Top 10 offense again. If Branch and Engram come back and contribute close to their normal levels, I think the Top 5 is not out of the question.