Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Seahawks 2011 Season Preview Part II: 2010 Recap, Off-Season and Offense


A look back at 2010
Last year will go down as a major milestone in Seahawks history. It was Pete Carroll and John Schneider's first year at the helm. Matt Hasselbeck played his 10th and final season with the team, while becoming the franchise leader in victories. The front office made a team-record 284 roster transactions. The result was the franchise's seventh division title, and one of the best playoff victories in Seahawks history. Marshawn Lynch, one of the 284 transactions added during the year, made sure there would be a historic record of the team's victory by helping to register a seismic event during his unforgettable 67-yard "Beast Quake" run. Almost any season that includes a division title and a playoff victory would be considered successful, but this one was special considering the state of the roster to start the season and amount of key injuries that piled up. Carroll and Schneider knocked it out of the park.

There will be fans and pundits that point to the weakness of the NFC West and the 7-9 record as evidence the kudos are overstated. Ask those same people to find a scout that ranked the talent on the Seahawks roster higher than 27th or 28th in the NFL when Carroll and Schneider arrived. Jim Mora Jr. only managed five wins the season before despite playing in a weak NFC West, and Mike Holmgren got the team to four wins the season before. San Francisco, St Louis and Arizona all arguably had more talent on their rosters and still found themselves looking up at Seattle when the season ended. However the team got there, and no matter what national "experts" say, this was a stellar beginning to the Carroll and Schneider era.

2010 Off-Season Grade – A-
Carroll talks constantly about competition. His philosophy is to bring in a steady stream of new talent and let the players sort out who should stick around by the way they perform. It sounds so simple and common, but very few teams truly adhere to those principles when faced with making a decision to cut bait on a failed draft pick or free agent acquisition. Ego keeps many front offices from admitting their mistakes and moving on. Those decisions become mill stones around their necks that can eventually lead to their demise. Ironically, it is that very same ego that Carroll relies on. No matter where a player was drafted or how much he is paid, playing time is earned. Any man can tell you that ego and shame are stronger motivators on the field than money and fame. This philosophy is what caused Carroll to wait so long to get back into the NFL. He would need to have final say on player personnel and have a general manager that was aligned with his thinking. Seattle was the first to offer that.

Schneider and Carroll's second off-season was scarred by the NFL lockout. Fans will never know how things may have turned out differently if the lockout had never happened or was shorter. Having the draft before free agency had undeniable trickle-down effects on free agency decisions. It also may have had a significant impact on the most visible decision the front office made, quarterback. The impossibly short pre-season reduced the choices at quarterback to players who could walk in and run the offense without much prep time. Matt Hasselbeck, Kevin Kolb, and Tarvaris Jackson were the quarterbacks who best fit that bill. Kolb was the only one of those three that would require a long-term commitment. The front office clearly was not convinced he was the player they wanted to pin their future to. The team talked itself into moving onto Jackson during the lockout. The reasoning was that they really needed a veteran quarterback for the next two seasons, and Hasselbeck was far less likely to stay healthy, which could have left the team shopping for another veteran next year while still paying Hasselbeck who was already more expensive than Jackson. Jackson's ability to escape a pass rush became even more critical when the team decided to go young and new on the offensive line during the draft. It is the one decision the front office made that is highly questionable, and is the reason they get an A- instead of an A here.

The only other questionable move was drafting James Carpenter at tackle in the first round. Drafting a right tackle in the first round is already pretty rare as the position is not valued the way left tackles are. Picking a less heralded player in Carpenter when a highly touted tackle prospect like Gabe Carimi was available put even more pressure on the pick. Early returns show Carimi ahead of Carpenter, but it will be tough to judge until both players have a full off-season to train and learn.

Eight of the team's nine draft choices either made the team's roster or were signed to the practice squad. The lone exit was their 2nd fifth-round draft choice, S Mark Legree. The team's first two draft choices, Carpenter and G John Moffitt will begin the seasons as starters. Linebackers K.J. Wright and Malcolm Smith, the latter drafted in the 7th round, made strong impressions during camp and the pre-season. WR Kris Durham is a promising longer-term project who will only see playing time if injuries pile up at his position. Both Richard Sherman and Byron Maxwell have the potential to be long-term pieces in the revamped secondary. The 2011 draft lacked the upside that 2010 did when the team added players like Russell Okung, Earl Thomas, Kam Chancellor, and Walter Thurmond III. It appears to be solid, but much of that will depend on whether the team has succeeded in remaking the right side of their offensive line in one draft.

Free agency was a thrill ride for Seahawks fans who saw their team add big names like Sidney Rice, Robert Gallery, and Zach Miller while also keeping a key piece in Brandon Mebane. The most impressive part of this haul was that Miller was the only guy who anyone could conceivably say the team overpaid for. The $18M in guaranteed money for Rice is a bargain even if he continues to struggle with injuries. He has the potential to be a legitimate number one receiver, which few teams have. Outside of Gallery, all the additions were young as well, and experience was desirable at Gallery's spot. There were no Grant Wistrom or Patrick Kerney-style signings that are likely to be retiring in two seasons, or see their production drop off after their careers had already peaked. The team shined even more with their second-tier additions like Brandon Browner, Alan Branch, Raheem Brock, Dominique Byrd, Doug Baldwin and Leroy Hill. All of these players were acquired at bargain basement prices, and each could end up having a meaningful impact on the coming season.

One more off-season like the last two, and this team will be in the upper-third of the NFL in talent. That's astonishing given where the roster was in 2009.

Offense – Starters
Tarvaris Jackson* – QB
Marshawn Lynch* – RB
Mike Williams – WR
Sidney Rice* – WR
Zach Miller* - TE
Anthony McCoy* - TE
James Carpenter* – RT
John Moffitt* – RG
Max Unger* – C
Robert Gallery* – LG
Russell Okung – LT
* New Starter or New Position
** Pro Bowl


Offense – Running Game
This team will approach the running game with more commitment than any since "Ground" Chuck Knox was in town. Tom Cable was brought in as assistant head coach and offensive line coach for one reason, get the running game going. Carroll's offensive philosophy is reliant on a strong running game to alleviate pressure on the quarterback. There may never have been a Seahawks season where the running game was more important given how hard it can be for a young line to pass protect, the quality of the quarterback under center, and the shortened off-season. Fans should prepare to see runs on 1st and 2nd down that may only yield a few yards. The result is less important early on than the commitment to calling those running plays repeatedly. Cable and Carroll share the mentality necessary to make this work. Look for the team to attempt 30-35 runs each game, compared to their 28th ranked 24 attempts/game in 2010.

Offense – Passing Game
Darrell Bevell replaces Jeremey Bates as offensive coordinator, but he is really in charge of the passing game and allows Cable to manage the running attack. Bates was a gambler who famously called low percentage plays when all that was needed was a single yard. His approach also led to 11 pass plays of over 40 yards, good for 6th in the NFL last year. Bevell is a more classic West Coast Offense coordinator who is likely to be more conservative. He has some high-profile targets to utilize, but some serious question marks about his line and quarterback. Building a game plan that adjusts for his teams weaknesses and utilizes their strengths will a serious test for Bevell. Expect more screen passes, more two tight end sets, and more bootlegs. 

Offense – Quarterback
Jackson will be a polarizing figure all season. He will make some terrible decisions, demonstrate poor pocket presence, and be high on a fair number of his throws. He will also throw the best deep ball Seattle has seen since Trent Dilfer, escape the pass rush better than anyone since Jim Zorn, and display a toughness that will gain the respect of the guys in the locker room. Jackson is a flawed quarterback, but he could also be good enough to make the Seahawks competitive. The coaches will do everything they can to make the game simple for him. Even so, his performance will be under the microscope every play. Not helping matters is the intractable Charlie Whitehurst contingent that believes putting in a different flawed quarterback that has no prior experience with this offense is somehow a solution. Whitehurst may, in fact, get a start some point this season. He may even keep the job. He still will be a player without hope of developing into a legitimate starter. This QB "competition" is equivalent to a dunk contest on a 7-foot hoop. Winning isn't much to brag about.

Offense – Offensive Line
It only took one season for Russell Okung to become the pillar of the offensive line. The fact that he did that despite two painful ankle injuries speaks volumes about his talent. Okung was injured again in the first pre-season game, but will play in the opener. His presence in the lineup allows the coaching staff to shift protection and help over to Carpenter, Moffitt and C Unger. Okung is not Walter Jones, but his absence has a similar effect because there is no other lineman on the team who can be left on an island to pass protect. Gallery has a long injury history, and may miss the opener with a sprained knee. There is quality depth this season with players like G Paul McQuistan  and T Breno Giacomini. Tyler Polombus played a lot last season as well. Moffitt looks like a guy that could be around a long time. He's a grinder, and appears prepared each game. Unger may be the weak link. Carpenter is still young, but Unger looks physically over-matched at times.The goal for this season is not to have the line play really well. The goal is to exit the season not needing to draft or sign an offensive lineman for 2012 because these guys have proven to be healthy enough and promising enough to stick together.

Offense – Backfield
Lynch, Justin Forsett and Leon Washington make for a well-blended trio of running backs. Lynch is the primary ball carrier, who will pound teams over and over again. Washington is going to shock people with his running ability and his prowess on screen passes. He possesses the best vision of the three, and is most capable of explosive plays. Forsett is a mix of both, who runs effectively inside and can make defenders miss. He is also the best blitz pick-up back of the bunch, which makes him especially valuable on a team with protection issues. Michael Robinson rejoins the team at fullback, and is a willing blocker. Lynch does best when Robinson is in the game. These guys can get the job done, but are not superstars. Look for the yards per carry to rise over 4.0 yards per game in the second half of the season.

Offense – Wide Receivers/Tight Ends
No position group can claim a greater talent transformation since 2009 than this one. Deion Branch, TJ Houshmandzadeh and Deon Butler were the top three receivers heading into the 2010 pre-season. Chris Baker and John Carlson were the top two tight ends. None of those players are on the roster this year, and only Butler has an outside chance to play here before the year is out. In their places are Rice, Mike Williams, and Ben Obomanu for receivers and Miller and McCoy at tight end. Even the back-ups offer more promise than some of last season's projected starters. Guys like Dominque Byrd and Doug Baldwin could play meaningful roles this season. The weapons here are good enough to contend for bigger things than the NFC West crown. It certainly appears to be the most talented group of pass catchers in the division.

The team will deploy a number of two tight-end sets on offense, which will diminish the role of the slot receiver. Carlson's season-ending injury was a blow, but there is real upside to having McCoy and Miller run the two tight-end plays. Both players are good blockers and good receivers, which will make it very difficulty for defenses to read run or pass. Either could release into a route or stay in to block. When Baker was here, people knew he was going to block. Carlson was an obvious receiver and incapable blocker. Byrd is stronger receiver than blocker, and offers a down-field threat that neither Miller nor McCoy can really provide. Miller is a consensus Top 10 tight-end in the NFL, but does it more with good routes and good hands than blazing speed.

Rice is 6'4" and Williams is 6'5". Both make great plays on the ball in the air as well. They will be difficult to defend with smaller corners, and if either can command a double-team, the middle will be open for the tight-ends or slot receivers. Obomanu is less-heralded, but came into his own last year with a number of big plays down-field. Golden Tate was supposed to be a player the team could turn into a Percy Harvin-style player, but it has not happened so far. This units biggest challenge may be ego. Everyone is getting along fine right now, but there would be trouble getting all these guys the ball with a great quarterback and a great offensive line. This team has neither. Jackson will default to his security blanket in Rice. Williams will eventually get tired of only catching 2-3 balls a game, especially when he starts getting questions about whether he is back-sliding into the player he was when he initially entered the league. Miller was the primary receiver in Oakland. He did not come here to catch 30 balls. How this group handles a struggling passing game will be critical. A close second will be health. Williams battled injuries last year and has done so again during the pre-season. Rice has his own injury problems as well. All that said, this group could be the most breath-taking collection of receiving talent this franchise has ever seen. And they are young...

Offense – Overall 2011 Outlook
Seattle's offense in 2011 will need to walk a narrow path to be successful. There is not enough talent at quarterback or experience on the offensive line to be certain this year's team will outperform the 2010 squad. The running game is the most important aspect of this team on either offense or defense. Any sort of effective running attack will reduce pressure on the passing game, reduce turnovers and increase time of possession. If the team falls behind early in games and needs to pass their way back into it, things are liable to get worse before they get better. Fans patience will be tested by head-slapping mistakes. Coaches ability to adjust will be tested as young players will be exposed. There is a greater chance of this offense being in the bottom third of the league than in the top half. There is a greater chance of this offense scoring less than the 19 points/game the 2010 team managed than scoring more. There is, however, the potential for a much more efficient and reliable offense than the Seahawks have run out there in recent seasons. They could be a Top 10 rushing offense, and if they are, things could get interesting.

In the final part of my season preview, I will break-down the defense, our division and predict game-by-game results. Stay tuned. 

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