Monday, August 27, 2012

Seahawks 2012 Season Preview Part I: The Franchise

HAWK BLOGGER 2012 SEASON PREVIEW PART I: The Franchise
Players are told to approach each game one play at a time and each season one game at a time. Coaches and general managers build up their rosters and teams one season at a time. Fans are different. Seahawks fans have been around long before any current coaches, players, general managers, or even owners, and will be here long after they are gone. Fans endure. Seahawks fans have endured playoff droughts that last more than 10 years. They have endured referees that feel so bad about the quality of their championship calls, that they feel compelled to come forward and apologize years later. Being a fan allows for a big picture perspective that nobody else can afford. History is always the best predictor of the future. Even while some teams have broken from their franchise histories in recent years (e.g., Patriots become champions, 49ers become a joke for a decade), much can be learned by exploring the patterns across generations. Before diving into the detail of this 37th season of Seahawks football, take a moment to see what history tells us about how things may unfold.

FRANCHISE QUARTERBACKS
It all starts with the most important position on the field, the quarterback. This season is already historic in that it marks only the 9th time the Seahawks will open the season with a new starting quarterback. Although, this will be the third new starting quarterback in as many years. Matt Hasselbeck enjoyed the longest stint as opening day starter in franchise history, starting 10 seasons for the Seahawks. Dave Krieg and Jim Zorn each opened eight seasons as the starter. The franchise history at QB looks like this:

OPENING DAY STARTER AT QB
1976 - 1983: Jim Zorn
1984 - 1991: Dave Krieg
1992: Kelly Stouffer
1993 - 1996: Rick Mirer
1997 - 1998: Warren Moon*
1999 - 2000: Jon Kitna
2001 - 2010: Matt Hasselbeck*
2011: Tarvaris Jackson
2012: Russell Wilson
*Indicates at least one opening day start was the result of another player's injury

That is a rather remarkable level of stability at the QB position, especially for a franchise that has yet to win a Super Bowl. Hasselbeck's tenure was not only the longest, but the most successful with six playoff appearances. All the other QB's combined only have five playoff appearances. Tarvaris Jackson's departure makes him only the second Seahawks quarterback in franchise history to be a one-year opening day starter. The other was Kelly Stouffer. Stouffer made it until the 5th game before yielding to Dan McGwire who eventually gave way to Stan Gelbaugh. That was the worst season in Seahawks franchise history, setting the NFL record for fewest points scored in a season. Jackson fared much better last season, but will be remembered more for his toughness than for his production.

The Seahawks are a combined 55-69 in the first year under a new quarterback, but that includes the franchises first season (2-12) with Zorn. A better indicator may be the effect on team win totals from the previous year. For example, the team upped their win total from 9 to 12 in Krieg's first season as opening day starter. From that lens, the Seahawks are +7 in wins in the first year of a new opening-day starter. In fact, the only time the team win total declined in a year with a new starting QB was in 1992, when the team dropped five wins during the change from Krieg to Stouffer. Jackson maintained the seven win pace from the previous year (not including the playoff win versus New Orleans). There are a number of reasons to believe Wilson's first year as starter will again lead to a win total boost over his predecessor. We will touch on those in the future parts of the season preview.

TEAM STRENGTH
There are many ways to judge team performance, but point differential is a great way to get a quick overview.   The Seahawks have outscored their opponents in 16 of their 36 seasons. Their peak being during the 2005 Super Bowl season, and the floor being the inaugural season in 1976. Pete Carroll inherited a team that was trending down from +102 in 2007 to -98 in 2008 to -110 in 2009. The team was able to stop the free-fall in 2010, but still had the franchise's 6th-worst point differential. Three of those bottom six have come in the last three seasons. That paints a rather grim picture that the team has been struggling both to score points and to keep opponents from scoring. The franchise total differential, over 36 seasons, works out to -492.
Pete Carroll managed to stem the tide last year, making a big leap
That means the Seahawks have been outscored by an average of 0.86 points per game. Think about that. After playing 572 regular season games, the Seahawks have played their opponents almost to a standstill, separated by less than 1 point per game. The sunny spin on that would be to say the franchise is competitive. The gloomier interpretation is that this franchise is defined by mediocrity. That can be the kiss of death in the NFL. Mediocre teams are rarely bad enough to land the franchise-defining talent found at the top of NFL drafts, but also not good enough to win the ultimate prize in a Super Bowl ring.

Only four Seahawks teams have had a negative point differential and a winning record. None have had more than nine victories. The +6 point differential was a massive jump from the 2010 squad, and represented the best evidence of real progress in the quality of this team. As you will see later, the biggest improvement came from limiting opponents scoring. As exciting as it was to see this step forward, this was only the second time in franchise history that the team posted a positive point differential and had a losing record. The other was in 1991. The last two times the Seahawks posted a +6 differential was the 1983 and 1979 seasons, when they won nine games each time.

BATTLING MEDIOCRITY
Take a look at how often the franchise had churned out teams that won between seven and nine games.
NOTE: If you cannot see the chart below, click here.

Twenty of the thirty-six seasons have resulted in victory totals between seven and nine. Only five times has the team won at least 10 games, and only twice has the team won fewer than four games. By those odds, the Seahawks have over a 56% chance of ending 2012 with between 7-9 victories. Getting a player like Wilson in the third round was key for this organization. Their chances of finishing with a record bad enough to draft a top-tier quarterback in the first round is incredibly low. Franchise history shows less than a 5% chance of the a Seattle squad winning fewer than four games. Carroll and GM John Schneider saw to a two-game improvement in the win total from 2009 to 2010, but no win total improvement in 2011.  Chuck Knox remains the franchise record-holder with a 5-game improvement in his first season as Head Coach. Mike Holmgren led a one-game improvement, and Dennis Erickson saw his team improve their previous season's win total by two.

DIVISION FINISH
Carroll and Schneider led the 2010 Seahawks to the franchise's seventh division title, and fifth in seven
Seattle has finished 3rd in three of the past four seasons
seasons. The move to the NFC West has treated the Seahawks well. After only winning one division title before 1999, and only two in all their years in the AFC West, the Seahawks have won five NFC West division titles in only ten seasons. The 2011 team fell to 3rd place in the division. Carroll will have his work cut out for him to match Holmgren's starting sprint with the Seahawks when he led the team to either a 1st or 2nd place finish in eight of his first nine seasons with the franchise.

The front office has stocked the organization with some of the youngest talent in the NFL. They were the second-youngest roster in the NFL last season, and the youngest starters. If the talent plays to its potential, there should be a long stretch of contending. The quality of the division has improved dramatically compared to when Holmgren was running things, so enjoying that sort of sustained divisional dominance may be a little optimistic.


OFFENSE
Scoring a lot of points has always been a key to producing winning Seattle football teams. The Seahawks
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averaged 25.7 points per game in the five seasons that produced at least 10 wins. That scoring pace would have made the Seahawks 6th in the NFL in scoring last season, as a bit of context. The Seahawks have steadily improved from 17.50 pts/game in 2009 to 19.38 in 2010 to 20.06 in 2011. That's a notable improvement, especially after team scoring dropped 30% from 2007 to 2009. Note in the graph to the left  that scoring has a rather strong correlation to team victories. The team's best scoring season happened during the 2005 Super Bowl run. Some franchises are built around defense. The Seahawks have historically relied much more on a powerful offense. It is an area Carroll will be questioned on until the team clicks on offense. His defensive expertise is showing through, as you will see below, but there is significant growth still required on offense to be a contender. Eclipsing the 20 pts/game mark, however, is meaningful. Last year was only the third time in franchise history the team averaged over 20 points and had a losing record. They need the improvement to continue as the Seahawks average only 5.7 wins in seasons where the offense scores less than 20 points per game, and have been over .500 only twice.

DEFENSE
Carroll came to Seattle with a reputation built on defense. He was a defensive player in college, coached

CLICK TO ENLARGE

defense in college and the NFL, and made most of his initial changes to scheme in Seattle on the defensive side of the ball. The results were mixed. Only three Seahawks teams have allowed more than the 25.4 points per game Seattle gave up in his first season, and none since 1980. Outside of 2003, when they gave up 20.44 points/game, all of the Seahawks 10+ win seasons have featured a defense that gives up 18 points or less. That would have ranked as 5th-best in the NFL last season. Score 25+ and give up 18 or less. That's the goal.

The franchise made major strides in 2011 toward reaching that on the defensive side as they shaved 5.75 points per game off their opponents scoring average. Their average of 19.7 point allowed per game ranked 7th in the NFL last year. The 2005 Super Bowl team allowed 16.9 points per game and also ranked seventh. Scoring is increasing in the NFL overall, so Seattle's defense may already be nearing Super Bowl caliber when it comes to holding opponents scoring down.

Defense has not correlated as strongly to Seahawks victory totals over the years as offense. Carroll may be the most defensive-minded coach at the helm outside of Jim Mora Jr. It will be interesting to see how much he breaks the franchise from tradition. Many of the most memorable players in franchise history were defenders. Players like Jeff Bryant, Jacob Green, Kenny Easley, Cortez Kennedy, Sam Adams, Chad Brown, Rufus Porter, Lofa Tatupu, and many others. It is looking like a number of the current crop of Seahawks defenders will add their names to that list.

THE JOURNEY
Some will say that a team that played in 1984 has nothing to do with one that plays in 2011. There are different coaches, owners, players, rules, opponents and virtually nothing shared. One critical thing that is shared is fans. A coach may tell the media there is nothing special about playing a 10AM PST road game, but Seahawks fans know better. A general manager may say that the overall talent of a team is more important than any one individual player like a quarterback, but Seahawks fans know the difference between Kelly Stouffer and Dave Krieg. Even the NFL Defensive Player Of The Year could not stop a Stouffer/McGwire/Gelbaugh-led 1992 team from a massive free-fall. Carroll and Schneider inherited a franchise in its own free-fall. The offense was deteriorating and the numbers were collapsing. The same thing was happening on the defensive side of the ball. History shows that the Seahawks are championship contenders when they score over 25 points/game and allow less than 18/game. That represents a 13.5-point swing from what they inherited in 2009. They have now increased their offensive output by about 2.5 points, and improved their defensive effectiveness by 4.7 points. In other words, they are about 7.2 points down the road to that 13.5-point change they must target. The fact that they were able to gain any momentum at all, let alone a division title and playoff victory, while overhauling the roster was a commendable feat. In fact, Carroll is only the third coach in franchise history to win a playoff game.

There are signs of rejuvenation taking root, but as we will explore more deeply in part two of the Hawk Blogger 2012 Season Preview, the offense must show it can keep pace with what appears to be a championship defense.


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