Monday, January 30, 2012

Deals For Guys

An email showed up in my Hawk Blogger inbox a few weeks ago, asking if I would be interested in an affiliate marketing program for some company called Dealometry. I get these now and then, but what made this one different was the name of the sender. It said, "From: Paul Rosenwald." I paused for a second, because I suck at remembering people's names, but I was pretty darn sure that guy was on my indoor soccer team and his son played on my son's soccer team. I wrote back and said, "Dude, Paul, it's me. The guy you see every weekend."

We had a good laugh, and he explained that he and his partner, Bob Crimmins, were starting a new business that did daily deals that were focused on guys.

"Dealometry was born out of the frustration that comes from having your inbox flooded with deals for spa treatments, Botox treatments and bikini waxing," Bob told me.  "When we launched Dealometry, there were no good deal sites for guys -- clearly there was a vacuum in the market.  Every deal on Dealometry has guys in mind.  But we also know that smart guys take care of their ladies so we'll occasionally help guys out with a deal that they can purchase for their better halves.  The response has been terrific."

I still am somewhat proud to say I have never made a dime off my work here. That's not why I write. Helping a friend get some attention for what sounds like a cool business idea met my bar. 

I hope the banner ad is not a big turn-off. Let me know if it is. Paul and I agree we'd give this a shot, and see how it worked out. Enjoy!

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Greatest Ever? Don't Bet Against Doug Baldwin

Doug Baldwin was deeply depressed and fighting for his football life. Stanford head coach Jim Harbaugh had relegated him to the scout team at the start of his junior season, and there was little indication his role would change. Baldwin called his parents, his touchstones, and tried to figure out if there was a way he could afford to remain at Stanford without his athletic scholarship. He had lost his passion for the game that had been a central part of his life since the age of six. Baldwin thought God was giving him a sign that football was not a part of his future.

His parents, Cindy Baldwin and Doug Baldwin Sr., did not raise a quitter, and were not about to let him give up on his dream. Baldwin had few options. Stanford has a tradition where each incoming freshman gets a "father" to help guide him. Baldwin's father at school was then-wide receiver, and current breakout Seahawks cornerback, Richard Sherman. Sherman faced a similar crisis, and decided the future was so bleak at receiver, that he switched to defense so he could learn to play cornerback. Maybe it would have made sense for Baldwin to follow Sherman's lead. Maybe he should transfer. Maybe he should stick it out. Baldwin was running the most crucial option route of his life, and was nearing the top of his break. He had to make a decision. And as he had done so many times before, he read the situation correctly and made the best choice, breaking away from his opposition.

Baldwin stayed at Stanford, as a receiver, and spent his entire junior season playing on the scout team. As depressed as he was, he never doubted his abilities. The scout team faced the number one defense every day in practice, and Baldwin made plays all the time. His chance to prove himself in a game did not come until his senior year when starter Chris Owusu was injured. In one half, Baldwin blew away his entire 2009 yardare total (36 yards) by pulling in four receptions for 111 yards and two touchdowns. He got another chance against USC a few weeks later, again due to injury, and had a career-high 8 receptions for 98 yards and two more scores in the Cardinals victory. The trend continued when he re-set his career-highs with 10 catches and 123 yards against @ASU while subbing again for an injured Owusu.

His performances were not sufficient to convince the intractable Harbaugh that he had been wrong about Baldwin. The 49ers had ten draft choices, including three in seventh round, in Harbaugh's first year as head coach. If any team should have seen Baldwin's potential, it should have been the 49ers. Instead, they drafted one receiver in the sixth round, ironically out of USC (Ronald Johnson), and three players in the seventh that proved to be non-factors in 2011. They were one of twenty-plus teams that made a free agent offer to Baldwin after the draft, but it was just a nibble. Given Baldwin's experience with Harbaugh in college, it is not clear there was an offer the 49ers could make that would have convinced him to sign.

Instead, John Schneider was in his ear recruiting, sending him tapes of Brandon Stokley, telling Baldwin that he could come and contribute right away. The Seahawks already had Golden Tate, but they were looking looking to play him more on the outside. Baldwin's agent, Buddy Baker, was good friend's with Schneider, and Baldwin had a good rapport with Seahawks receivers coach Kippy Brown. The Seahawks offer was near the top, but was there were other teams that wanted to sign Baldwin badly. Seattle seemed to provide the best overall opportunity, and it could not have hurt to have a coach who was known as Harbaugh's biggest rival and to play in a division where he'd face his old coach twice each year.

Baldwin joined the Seahawks to open training camp, and immediately made a name for himself. Charlie Whitehurst made what may have been his greatest contribution to the Seahawks with his witty description of Baldwin while watching practice tape, "That's not separation. That's a divorce." Quarterbacks in camp soon came to realize that Baldwin was going to get open consistently and be a reliable pass catcher. His first two pre-season games produced a disappointing six receptions for 43 yards. The rookie offensive line was struggling to protect the quarterback for two steps, let alone a three or five-step drop. The offensive woes continued in Denver, so Baldwin took things into his own hands with a 105-yard kickoff return for a touchdown. He ended the pre-season tied for the team lead with nine receptions and a paltry 69 yards, only a 7.7 yard average. It was enough to make the team.

Seattle opened the regular season in San Francisco to take on Harbaugh and his 49ers. The Seahawks offense was barely able to function, but Baldwin was a star. His 55-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter brought the Seahawks to within two points of the 49ers, 19-17. He finished the day with four receptions for 83 yards and a score. It was the beginning of what would become a memorable rookie season for Baldwin. By the time it ended, he had accomplished what no player had done since the AFL/NFL merger in 1970, lead his team in receptions and receiving yards as an undrafted rookie. Even Harbaugh could not deny Baldwin's accomplishments.

“Well, I should have drafted him,” Harbaugh said before the teams faced each other again late in the season. “Yeah, I’m kicking myself for not doing that."

Baldwin scored another touchdown in that game, meaning half of his touchdowns this season came against Harbaugh and the 49ers. It was not enough for Baldwin. His mom taught him to get better everyday at everything he does, to be a better person today than he was yesterday.

"The year I had was real average, regardless of where I was drafted," Baldwin said during his phone interview. Technically, he is correct. His 51 receptions ranked 62nd in the NFL (40th among WRs). His 788 yards in receiving ranked 42nd in the NFL (33rd among WRs). Baldwin's goals are bigger. Much bigger.

"I don't want this to come across the wrong way," Baldwin explained. "But I want to be the best there ever was. I want to be one of the best receivers to ever play the game, and everything I do goes into that."

He talks about greats like Jerry Rice, and refuses to lower his goal despite being almost exclusively used as a slot receiver. He plans to fight everyday for a chance to play outside. Studying players like Steve Smith has become a habit, but he also watches slot greats like Wes Welker, Brandon Stokley and even retired Seahawk Bobby Engram. He knows he took too many big hits last season, and is watching other receiver's routes hoping to find better spots where he can avoid the beatings that could derail him from his goals.

Baldwin exudes intensity whether he is talking about what foods he eats, how he trains, or facing his former Stanford father, Sherman. When asked who would win a one-on-one battle if they went 10 rounds, Baldwin did not hesitate with his answer.

"Sherm would probably say it would be 50/50, 5 out of 10 for each of us," Baldwin said. "The truth is I would win 8 or 9 out of 10."

Sherman stands 6'3" and nearly got Peter King's All-Pro vote at cornerback in his own impressive rookie season. There may not be a challenge out there that intimidates Baldwin. He speaks with the confidence of a man who has faced his deepest fear and come out the better for it. He has been a fighter all his life, to the point where his football coaches played him at tight end in 8th grade because he loved to block, even at 5'7". His favorite position on the basketball court is banging around in the post. A former coach told him and a bunch of childhood teammates that less than 1% of them would play football in college. Baldwin beat those odds, and he has given little reason to think he is done doing the unexpected.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Suck It, San Francisco

The average San Francisco 49ers fan will wake up this morning disappointed to have come so close to the Super Bowl without making it, but buoyed by an undeniably strong season. Nationally, the story will closely mirror the feeling of the 49ers fan. Jim Harbaugh will be lauded for turning around a 6-10 team, and getting to the brink of the Super Bowl. But I'm not a 49ers fan, or a national writer. I'm a Seahawks fan, and I saw it a little differently. I saw a team that won its division in a new coaches first season. I saw a team that won one playoff game before bowing out against a team they had beat earlier in the season. I also see a team that will have trouble repeating their results as the team is currently constituted. I saw the 2010 Seattle Seahawks, and the 2012 Seattle Seahawks.

Alex Smith is a free agent. Seahawks fans should hope that the 49ers focus on his results, and not his underlying weakness as a quarterback. The logical step would be for the 49ers to re-sign Smith on a multi-year deal that is thick with incentives and a clear opt-out structure after 2-3 years. Smith will not be heavily pursued in the market because most teams know he is the player who completed 12-26 passes in the championship game yesterday. His 97.6 passer rating belied the reality that Smith was ill-equipped to lead a playoff offense with any level of consistency. The conditions were horrible, but that did not stop Eli Manning from completing over 50% of his passes, and Manning was under far more pressure from the opposing defense. Moving away from Smith would be risky, but the 49ers could be a surprise pursuant of a guy like Matt Flynn. That's what I would do.

Repeating their luck with injuries will be nearly impossible. None of the 49ers key starters went on injured reserve, and only a few missed meaningful time. Imagine the 49ers without Joe Staley, Mike Iupati, Carlos Rogers, Ray McDonald, and Justin Smith. Think that's unrealistic? Look at the Seahawks. Look at the Rams. It happens every year. It just didn't happen to the 49ers this season.

There were things a Seahawks fan could take away from what the 49ers accomplished. They represented the formula Pete Carroll has started to install in Seattle, and they nearly got to the Super Bowl. It was not an accident that they eventually lost in a game when they lost the turnover and time of possession battles. If Kyle Williams doesn't fumble twice, the 49ers very well may have won that game, even with a QB completing less than 50% of his passes. There was very little in that game the Seahawks could not have done, even this year.

Pressure on the passer was the obvious difference between what SF could do and what Seattle could. Seattle's secondary is superior, though, as is their home-field advantage. A healthy Seahawks team, with a third-place schedule, and high first-round pick, have every reason to target a 3-5 game improvement over this season. The 49ers helped prove that an elite quarterback is not required to be among the NFL's best teams. The best quarterbacks did not always win this year. Aaron Rodgers did not win a game. Drew Brees lost to Alex Smith. Tom Brady certainly did not win the game for the Patriots yesterday. Don't be surprised if hard-nosed football is making its way back in the NFL. Seattle is better positioned to take advantage of that trend than perhaps any other team.

The 2011 San Francisco 49ers had a great season. They have a great (mostly) young defense, and a solid running attack. They protected the ball well, and took it from opponents at an unbelievable rate. We learned that those qualities can be enough to knock on the doorstep of the Super Bowl. We also learned the New Orleans Saints will need to find a path to the big dance that doesn't lead through the NFC West. Seahawks fans learned that the future is bright, and there is ample reason to expect the division championship returns home in 2012.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Podcast With Softy: Season Review, Off-Season Preview

Sports Radio KJR host Dave "Softy" Mahler and I recorded our regular conversation about the Seahawks.

This time we talked about the 2011 season, and started debating how the QB, running back, and TE/WR positions should be handled this off-season.

Tell me what you think. Tell me what you'd like us to cover in the future. Hope you like it!

**Listen to the Podcast**

Monday, January 9, 2012

Most Improved Since 2009

After comparing the improvement of teams from last year to this year, I was curious which team has improved the most since Pete Carroll and John Schneider came aboard following the 2009 season. The following shows team strength from the end of 2009, compared to this past season. For Seattle, that was the Jim Mora, jr. season.

Only two teams have shown more improvement in that time than the Seahawks. Detroit was far and away the most improved team, going from their dismal 2-14 record with an injured Matthew Stafford to drafting Ndamukong Suh. Oakland just got better by playing someone other than JaMarcus Russell at quarterback. You know the story with Seattle. This feels like a pretty accurate reflection of how much ground the Seahawks have made up league-wide since the regime took office.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

2011 Most Improved Teams

The Hawk Blogger final power rankings of 2011 were posted earlier this week. Each year, I like to compare the final rankings from the previous year to see which teams rose and fell the most. Here are the results.

Seattle makes the 6th-largest jump, and the NFC West makes up half of the Top 6. Note that it also captures the weakening of teams like Pittsburgh (#21) and Atlanta (#24). Green Bay manages to be better the year after winning the Super Bowl.

2011 Seahawks Progress Report: Season's End

- Quarter-Point Progress Report
- Mid-Point Progress Report
- Three-Quarter Progress Report

Where to begin? First, be aware that there will be more season review reports to come. There will be a post detailing how this team's numbers compared with last year. There will be an analysis of how each player improved/regressed statistically. There will be positional reports gauging where the team needs to make strides in the off-season. This report is the last in the four-part series that measures the team's progress after each quarter of the season. Being that this is the final report, it will also share some 1st half/2nd half of the season comparisons where those are worth going over.

No stat may better capture the transformation of this team than the most basic of them all, points for and point against. Seattle spent the first half of the season being outscored by nearly eight points per game. They were
giving up over 23 points per game, which would rank 22nd in the league if they had finished the year there. The offense, meanwhile, was only putting up 15 points per game, which would rank 27th in the NFL if they had kept that up all year. Those numbers saw dramatic shifts in the final eight games. Seattle outscored opponents by almost nine points per game. Only four teams in the NFL posted a higher differential over the season. Yes, doing something for a whole season means far more than doing it for less, but half a season is not exactly an insignificant sample size. The degree of change was remarkable. Scoring was up 56% to 24.9 points per game, and the defense dropped opponent scoring by 29% to 16.3 ppg.

You can see the crossover clear as day when breaking out the scoring by quarters of the season. It is almost a mirror image. The scoring continued to rise all the way through the final four games, as the team averaged an impressive 26.3 points. The defense peaked in games 9-12, but was still holding teams to 17.3 during their 2-2 and final stretch. Seattle almost doubled up their scoring average from the first four games, where they managed only 14.5 points per game. Consider that Tarvaris Jackson was dealing with his injury that second half and that Sidney Rice was out for much of it as well, not to mention the offensive line injuries. Impressive.

They managed this transformation largely through three areas: (1) better running game (2) better turnover differential (3) weaker opponents. Take a look at how different the offense was from first-half to second.
Seattle went from passing for 1.5X the yards they were gaining on the ground to within spitting distance of a 1:1 rushing yards-to-passing yards ratio. That was no accident. The Seahawks were averaging 35 pass attempts and only 22 rush attempts through eight games. When Pete Carroll and Tom Cable had their fateful post-game chat after losing to Cincy, things changed in the game plan. Seattle flipped the script and ran 34 times per game and passed only 28. 

Try to look past the complexity of the chart above, and notice a few key trends. Seattle more than doubled it's rushing yardage from the first quarter of the season, even with a slight dip toward the end. Take a look at the purple line with X's marked on it. That is opponent passing yards. Seattle's pass defense stiffened considerably as the season wore on. Allowing only 171 yards passing per game for that final quarter was impressive. It is also worth noting that opponent rushing yards spiked the last four games. The negative trend in opponent yards per carry was noted in my Cardinals recap. Interestingly, it was not until the final four games that the Seahawks averaged more total yards than their opponents.

Most of the improvement in pass defense can be credited to the insertion of Richard Sherman into the starting lineup. Opposing quarterbacks struggled mightily as soon as he started playing opposite Brandon Browner, but the team's pass rush also played a part. Sacks never tell the whole pass rush picture, but you can see the team made a steady climb as the season progressed. They more than doubled the number of sacks they had been producing when the season opened. The league leaders in sacks this year ended with 50, which works out to an average of just over 3 sacks per game. Seattle was closing in on that as the year completed. Opponent sacks had been steadily declining, but took an uptick with all the injuries to the line.

It should come as no surprise that the improvement in the running game led to a shift in time of possession. Seattle was one of the worst three teams in the NFL when it came to TOP in the first half of the year. The below charts show how Seattle did in TOP during the first eight games and the final eight. Half, in this case, refers to the half of a season, not half of a game.
A big part of why the run defense weakened as the season went on was the amount of time they were on the field for the early part of the year. If the running game had not clicked when it did, and the pass defense had not improved so significantly, those opponent point and yard totals would not have looked nearly as nice in the second half of the year.

Seattle won the bulk of it's games during the third quarter of the season, and so it is no wonder that it enjoyed its best TOP advantage during that time. Only the Redskins won the TOP battle during that stretch, and only the Redskins beat the Seahawks. Seattle was equal with their opponents on TOP during the fourth quarter of the season, and predictably, were 2-2 in those four games.

Running the ball is not the only thing that impacts TOP. Seattle significantly cut down on the amount of turnovers it was giving opponents, and drastically increased how many turnovers they were creating. They went from giving opponents nearly three extra possessions per game in the season's second quarter to giving them only one in the last quarter. Their defense went from creating almost no extra possessions at year's start to giving them 2-3 extra shots in the final half of the season. That obviously went a long way toward generating more time in possession, and less for the opponent. It also put the team in better position to score, or even turned into defensive scores that helped increase the point totals.

The team finishes the year with 1 win in each of the first two quarters of the season, 3 wins in the third quarter and 2 wins in the last quarter.

Summary Stats (Rankings)
Scoring - 20.1 +2.1 (23rd +3, meaning they were 26th after twelve games and have improved 3 spots in rankings since)
Rushing Yd/Game  - 109.8 +5.7 (21st +2)
Yards Per Carry - 4.0  +0.1 (T21st +1)
Passing Yd/Game - 194.0 -0.4 (22nd +3)
Yards Per Attempt - 6.8 +0.0 (20th no change)
Sacks - 50 +11 (29th +2)
QB Rating - 77.6 +2.8 (20th +4)
Turnovers - 23 +4 (14 INT +1, 9 Fumbles +3)

Opp Scoring - 19.7 -0.8 (7th +6)
Opp Rushing Yd/Game - 112.3 +8.8 (15th -3, meaning they dropped three spots in the rankings)
Opp Yards Per Carry - 3.8 +0.1 (T4th no change)
Opp Passing Yd/Game - 219.9 -16.3 (11th +7)
Opp Yards Per Attempt - 6.9 -0.2 (T10th +4)
Sacks - 33 +11 (T19th +1)
Opp QB Rating - 74.8 -5.7 (6th +5)
Turnovers Forced - 31 +8 (22 INT +6, Fumbles 9 +2)

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Evaluating The Rookie Season Of K.J. Wright

Well once again I have the pleasure of contributing to thanks to Brian asking me to perform another analysis. This time, we're looking at K.J. Wright and the season that he had as a rookie in 2011 for the Seahawks. This was a fun analysis to do because I learned some things on 2nd, 3rd and even 4th glance about Wright that I didn't notice initially during the season.

Often times many of us make the assumption that if we don't hear a guy's name called a lot, then he must not be doing anything spectacular. In fact it's funny how frequently we talk about guys who do a lot of things well but nothing spectacular, when in reality doing a lot of things well is pretty spectacular when you compare the performances of an "unspectacular" player with a guy who may do one thing extremely well but is insufficient in other areas. Breathe, Derek.

Did you get that?

The more accurate way to analyze a players performance is to ask "what does he do well?" and "how consistently does he do it?"

As a draft analyst and a guy who scouts a lot of players, it's consistency, proper fundamentals and instincts, and then the consistency with which a player displays those proper fundamentals and instincts that are much more important than the spectacular measurables that many scouts and media seem to be fascinated by. One of the things that I've learned very quickly in studying the draft and scouting prospects, is that the goal should be to find players to make impact plays consistently, rarely repeat mistakes, and to not worry about the measurable or numerical factors that may make a guy look bad or good on paper, save a few (i.e. completion percentage for a QB, receptions and drops for a WR, and a few others).

Take for instance Aaron Curry. Everybody loved this guy coming out of college. Scouts drooled over his physical makeup, his athleticism, his speed, and his overall look. But we quickly learned that as physically gifted as the guy may be, the instincts are simply inadequate, at least in the scheme that Seattle has been running.

Look, I was right there along with the others cheering when Seattle picked him, because I spent more time listening to the "experts" than I did watching the tape. Now that I watch the Wake Forest tape, I see that there was a big difference. One NFL scout told me, "Never scout on what you hear. Ever. Scout only on what you see." And boy was that ever true in the case of Curry.

In college, there are far more "don't have to think" schemes and plays than there are in the NFL. Guys get by on athleticism a lot more at the college level than in the NFL. In fact, name me a guy who has lasted at the NFL level on athleticism alone. There really are none. Curry had a lot of opportunities in college to simply run, blow up blockers with his power, and finish on his target, primarily by hitting them rather than wrapping them up. In coverage, he really didn't drop back a whole lot, and spent more time up on the line of scrimmage, as Pete Carroll and Gus Bradley tried to do with him last year. While it helped a bit, you could see that Curry simply lacked the consistency off the ball to generate enough leverage to hold the point of attack, disengage and make plays. In college, he didn't need as much leverage. Again, we're talking fundamentals here.

Now take K.J. Wright. He steps in for Curry and suddenly, the mistakes at the position begin to dwindle. Was he making game-changing tackles for loss right away? No. But he stopped the bleeding. He displayed gap control - a sign of discipline, which was something that Curry lacked, perhaps more than any other critical attribute. He showed that he could correct mistakes almost immediately, without coaching and knew where to be in zone situations - these are what you call instincts. He didn't need to know from a coach that he over-ran his gap and left his zone early, because he knew it when it happened, and corrected it on the next play. He didn't get excited and leave his post in an attempt to drop a guy 5 yards behind the line, when he was supposed to simply man his gap and hold position when engaged with blockers against the run. He stayed, waited, filled his hole and forced the carrier to change direction and funnel into Hawthorne, Hill, or one of the two beasts Seattle had sitting in the middle of the D-line, in Branch, Mebane and/or McDonald. And he did it all from his first start, through the end of the season. Sure, he made mistakes, but he corrected them with consistency and displayed discipline with the same consistency. In coverage, there's plenty of room for improvement in terms of when to flip his hips and get his head around to locate the ball, but he possesses the natural fluidity and awareness in space to keep tabs on his man, yet remain aware of what's going on behind the line of scrimmage.

Bleeding stopped.

As the season progressed, Wright began taking more chances - assumably at the prompting of coaches. He had proven that he could be a disciplined, instinctive and consistent performer, and now he started getting opportunities to put his explosiveness, "plus" range and freelance craftiness on display. Rather than simply sitting in his gap, he was turned loose to penetrate the gap, take more risks and show that he could finish on his target to convert impact plays. He went from 21 tackles and 2 tackles for loss in his first 6 starts, to 35 tackles, 6 tackles for loss and 2 sacks in his final 6 starts. He began instilling confidence in coaches that he could be counted on.

Funny enough, looking back on his college game tape, these are attributes that Wright showed over and over at Mississippi State. Even funnier, scouts didn't seem to care for the first 3 rounds and in fact, some called him a reach where Seattle took him in the 4th. He did nothing "spectacular" in school, yet he was spectacularly consistent, disciplined and instinctive in addition to having more than enough range, burst, size, speed and explosiveness to be considered a physically "plus" athlete.

A couple of discoveries to be noted here...

1. K.J. Wright has shown that he possesses everything that it takes to be a long-time NFL starting 'backer.

2. "Everything it takes" is consistency, fundamentals and instincts. Throw in an unusual ability to correct mistakes quickly, a 6'4, 246-pound frame, natural burst, fluidity in coverage and freakish length and you have the makings of a far-above-average NFL linebacker.

3. Quiet doesn't mean ineffective. Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner made more noise with their combined 10 interceptions and praise-worthy big plays in the defensive backfield, but they made far more mistakes than Wright, and they cost the team a lot more than Wright did. And that's not to say that Sherman won't be an incredible corner in the NFL for a long time - I think he will. But that's a story for another day. Mistake-free, smart football isn't simply role-playing material, folks. It's starter material. Let teams pick the Aaron Curry's, Vernon Gholstons and even the A.J. Hawks with high picks, and be just fine with getting the K.J. Wrights, Leroy Hills and David Hawthornes of the world where you get them.

4. Never grade players on what you hear, and don't take the media scout's word for it (including mine). Learn the game and watch the player on the field. This always tells the real story. Again, are they consistent, fundamentally sound, and do they display good football instincts and awareness? These are more important than their 40 time or Pro Day numbers.

5. John Schneider and Pete Carroll may be on to something. After picking what many called the weakest draft crop in the division in 2011, they ended up with 4 regular starters (excluding Browner and Baldwin in this analysis - weren't draft picks), and an improved offense and significantly improved defense to go with them. These weren't emergency starts due to lack of depth. These were earned starts by capable starting NFL players. The front office appears to grade players more by what they see, than what they hear. Though Pete Carroll carries with him a reputation that sometimes infers a healthy dose of "hype", there was nothing "hype" about anyone in this draft class, yet the Seahawks arguably had the strongest draft in the division, when considering the number of quality starters they pulled from the 2011 crop.

Looking ahead to April's draft, keep these 5 points in mind as you consider the picks that Seattle will be making, and look for K.J. Wright to be a long-term, key piece to the Seattle defense for years to come (cue the "barring injury" disclaimer).

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Pass Rush May Not Equal Defensive End

Seattle ended the season in the Top 10 of just about every meaningful statistic on defense, from scoring to yards per play to opposing passer rating to turnovers. They finished tied for 19th in sacks. puts Seattle as 23rd in the NFL in sack percentage, the percentage of opponent passing plays that resulted in a sack. Philadelphia led the league at nearly 9% (meaning they sack the QB almost 1 out of every 10 times he drops back). The Seahawks posted a 5.73% sack percentage, same as they did a year before. Pete Carroll mentioned the challenge in his season-ending press conference yesterday, stating the team needed to improve in that area. Most people are assuming that means adding another defensive end. Not necessarily.

The foundation of Seattle's defense has been about stopping the run. Moving Red Bryant to defensive end, and adding players like Alan Branch in the middle are aimed at making the Seahawks line a shield instead of a spear. They may not get up-field, but the opponents have a terrible time getting down-field. This style comes at the expense of a pass rush from your defensive end spot, as only one end is rushing the passer effectively. Red Bryant is a free agent, and the team will certainly try to bring him back. Even if some calamitous happens, and he is not back, the team will bring in another player who can reprise the same over-sized end role. In other words, don't expect the Seahawks to change the fundamental scheme of their defense in order to generate more pass rush.

Seattle has relied on substitutions to put them into "pass rush mode" thus far. Raheem Brock was the guy who came in last year, and I'm pretty sure he played this season, even if he never showed up. Anthony Hargrove was the interior lineman who would enter in passing situations. The problem with depending on substitutions to generate pass rush is that the offense is not going to tell you when they are passing. Sure, 3rd and long is a pretty good bet, but it gets dicey otherwise. That means that you will be forced to generate pressure with your base personnel quite a bit. Where does that pass rush come from when Red Bryant is on the field? That's the more important question.

The answer probably is in one of two positions. Either the team finds a linebacker who excels at rushing the passer, or it finds a young defensive tackle that can wreak havoc collapsing the pocket while still being stout against the run. Ideally, you find both. K.J. Wright already showed some flashes of being a decent pass rusher late in the season, and he will be part of the solution one way or another. The question is whether Leroy Hill is also part of the solution.

Hill had a very solid year, posting 89 tackles and 4.0 sacks, his most since his rookie season. Even so, his speed seems diminished. He will be 30 going into next season, and is a free agent. The team could decide to get faster at that spot. Rookie Malcolm Smith missed most of the year, but is a intriguing prospect who clocks in below 4.5 in the 40. Pass rushing is more than just speed, so he is not a sure bet. Durability for a smaller player like him is also a question. The team could also choose to slide Wright back to middle linebacker, let David Hawthorne go, and find two new outside linebackers, knowing Smith may fill one slot. Hawthorne played on one leg most of the year, and still led the team in tackles. He played slower than he ever has, but it is hard to say if that's age or injury. He's only 26, so you would hope he could recover that speed next year.

The team will have to weigh the cost of bringing back players like Hawthorne and Hill versus the prospects in the draft, and other free agents. Linebacker happens to be one of the positions where good players make an impact right away in their rookie year. Wright is a great recent example. The team could decide to spend their #11/12 pick on a special linebacker. Depending on the player, it could be someone who doubles as a pass-rush defensive end on obvious passing situations to take the role Brock played. Two birds, one stone.

Finding an interior lineman who can be disruptive is difficult. The Seahawks were hopeful that had one in Jimmy Wilkerson before his pre-season injury. Hargrove has been great in the locker room and was a passable interior rusher. Great interior lineman who can rush the passer are rarely found outside of the Top 10. There are a number of terrific offensive tackle prospects, a running back, and few quarterbacks you may have heard of that could push a normally Top 10 prospect down to the Seahawks. Less probably than linebacker, but still possible.

None of this is to say a pass rush defensive end is not a need. It is. The team will also certainly add a replacement for Brock. Carroll is high on Dexter Davis who was out much of this season. Maybe they find a Robert Mathis-style player who can get double-digit sacks without being a starter, but the team needs to find ways to threaten the quarterback when Bryant is on the field. That is what will make the defense truly dominant. Keep an eye on those linebacker spots, and possible a defensive tackle to meet that need.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Final Hawk Blogger 2011 Power Rankings

Power rankings are always debatable. I don't buy into the gut feel methods most places use to determine their rankings, so I developed a formula a few years back that attempts to take at least some of the subjectivity out of the discussion. My approach is simple, I measure offensive and defensive efficiency based on the Yards Per Carry (YPC) and Yards Per Attempt (YPA), as well as points scored and points allowed. The formula to calculate "Team Strength" is as follows:

(YPC (offense) + YPA (offense) + Avg Pts/Game Scored) - (YPC (defense) + YPA (defense)+ Avg Pts/Game Allowed)

The formula has proven to be a pretty accurate predictor of success. Even in the first week of the 2008 season, 5 of the top 10 ranked teams were playoff bound. As with any statistic, it becomes more meaningful as the sample size grows. Only 3 of the top 10 teams from week one of 2010 made the playoffs, and a team as low as #27 (Atlanta) was a league power. Usually, these become most meaningful after week 3. In 2007, 9 of the top 10 ranked teams were playoff teams, with the lowest ranked playoff team coming in at #15. In 2008, 8 the top 10 were playoff teams, with Arizona being the lowest ranked playoff team at #19. In 2010 8 of top 10 teams from week 3 made the playoffs.

If you'd like to see final rankings from 2010, you can read more here.

History has shown the true Super Bowl contenders get strength scores above 10.0. A change at the top for the first time this in a loooong time. The Saints take over the #1 spot from the Packers. Four teams appear legitimate contenders this year, and three are on the NFC. There was also a change way down at the bottom where the Colts vaulted up out of the basement for the first time, leaving the Bucs and Rams tied for last. Seattle has remained steady at #17 with a 0.5 strength rating. They finished #28 last season with a -7.2 rating. I'll do a comparison of which teams improved/declined the most from the previous season in a separate post.

Scatter chart of the rankings. This view helps to give you a view of how teams are grouped together. You will generally see tiers of strength develop as the season wears on.

Matt Flynn To Seattle? Think Again

Matt Flynn put in three hours of great work this past Sunday, and probably earned himself $30M-$40M. Not a bad hourly wage. Throwing for six touchdowns and 480 yards before heading to free agency is like covering yourself in honey before walking into a bear's den. Flynn will be an attractive free agent target for one of the team's desperate for an answer at the quarterback position. A tidal wave of Seahawks fans are already jumping on the Flynn bandwagon, but just like I explained about Kevin Kolb last season, the signs do not point to Flynn wearing Seahawks blue.

That's not to say Flynn to Seattle rumors will die down anytime soon. Flynn has made two career starts, and is 1-1 in those games. The first was on the road against the Patriots last season when he was 24-37, 251 yards with 3 touchdowns and 1 interception for a 100.2 passer rating. The Packers lost that game 31-27. You know what happened in his other start on Sunday. It is hard to recall if any quarterback has had two more impressive starts to open his career. Kolb, actually, was not far off. His first start was against the Saints when he went 31-51, 391 yards with 2 touchdowns and 3 interceptions. His second start was against the Chiefs, and he went 24-34, 327 yards with 2 touchdowns and 0 interceptions. Maybe two starts does not make a career, after all.

John Schneider was in the Packers front office when Flynn was drafted. That connection will be mentioned ad nauseum. In truth, that connection is the only thing that could overcome all the other factors that point to Flynn going elsewhere. Consider that signing a free agent comes down to three things: how much does your team want the player, how much do other teams want the player, how much does the player want any of the teams that want him.

It was clear last year that the Cardinals needed Kolb more than the Seahawks. They have an aging defense, and Larry Fitzgerald is in his prime. There was not time to develop a young quarterback. They needed someone who could come in and contribute right away. Seattle had reason to be interested in Kolb (and were, according to Pete Carroll), but because their interest/need was not as high as the Cardinals, they offered less to get him. Basic supply and demand.

Look at the suitors for Flynn this year. Seattle has a 28-year-old starter who played above expectations, and is under contract for a nominal amount in 2012. Jackson is a core part of the locker room as his teammates named him team captain in his first season, and he played through a major injury most of the year. They need a quarterback to groom behind him, but are not desperate to replace him as starter next season. Fans can complain about Jackson all they want, but that is the reality. There is every reason to think Jackson could lead this team to 10+ wins next season. Bringing in another starter and benching Jackson would not go over well in the locker room, and does not make a ton of sense for Carroll and Schneider unless the guy they bring in is certain to be a big upgrade (e.g., Peyton Manning).

Washington loves to spend big on free agents. They have two quarterbacks that are begging to be replaced. They hold the sixth pick in the draft, and have a great shot at Robert Griffin III if they stay put or trade up. The question for them will be whether they like Griffin or Flynn most, and what other players are available via the draft or free agency? They can afford to kick the tires on Flynn, and fall back to be aggressive in the draft if they lose out.

Cleveland might consider Flynn if they have decided to move on from Colt McCoy, but they have the fourth pick in the draft, so they would have to like Flynn more than Griffin. Their team is young, so getting a veteran quarterback is not a priority. Expect them to find a quarterback in the draft, if they decide to get one at all.

Kansas City could decide to go after a replacement for Matt Cassell, but he's one year removed from posting a 93.0 rating and throwing for 27 touchdowns against 7 interceptions. They also just fired a coach he was warring with. It makes more sense for them to draft a young player in later rounds to groom under Cassell.

Miami has Matt Moore as a starter. He posted a respectable 87.1 passer rating, and is only 27. Brandon Marshall, their stud receiver, is 27 as well. It probably would be 2-3 years before a drafted quarterback would be ready to lead a contending team, so the Dolphins have more of a reason to be interested in a veteran to come in, as long as they believe he is better than what they have. They were ripped last season for not completing the Kyle Orton trade. This fan base will be putting a lot of pressure on the front office to be aggressive.

Miami probably has the strongest need, followed by Washington. Not surprisingly, those would be the most attractive situations for Flynn. Would he want to come to Seattle where he would be forced to compete with Jackson for the starting role, or would he rather go someplace where he comes in right away to start? Nobody wants to be a $30M backup (well, there are worse things...). Going to Miami offers a Pro Bowl receiver to throw to, a 1,000 yard rusher in Reggie Bush, and a Pro Bowl left tackle. Not to mention, no income tax and Florida Sun (a slight upgrade over Green Bay Sun).

For Seattle to get Flynn, they would need to decide he THE guy. They would have to consider releasing Jackson (his 2012 contract is not guaranteed) to avoid a fissure in the locker room. They would need to give him a huge contract. Those decisions would be largely based on two starts. Flynn would have to be convinced that Seattle is where he wants to move, and that he is a fit for this run-first offense. All this would have to happen, and the other suitors would need to be offering less and be less attractive. There is a slim chance that happens, but it is nowhere near the most probable outcome.

Monday, January 2, 2012

2012 DRAFT: Finding A Trading Partner

Seattle will draft either #11 or #12 in the 2012 draft. The ideal situation would be for there to be enough great quarterbacks available that they could stay where they are and draft a guy worth of that pick. Early indications are that there are a couple QBs worthy of the Top 5, and scrum of players worth a look after #20. John Schneider and Pete Carroll have yet to trade up to get any player in their two drafts. They have traded back more than once. Both options merit consideration, but finding a willing trade partner will be key.

Assume that both Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III are taken in the Top 5. Here are the teams drafting 1-5:

1. Indianapolis Colts
2. St. Louis Rams
3. Minnesota Vikings
4. Cleveland Browns
5. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

The Colts will certainly draft a quarterback, and trading for that pick is so far outside the personality of Schneider, it is not worth thinking about. The Rams are highly unlikely to draft a quarterback. Sam Bradford had a terrible year, but his coach and GM deserve a lot of the criticism considering the lack of talent they surrounded him with. You don't give up on a #1 overall pick who won rookie of the year after one down season. The Rams know other teams will covet Griffin, and will probably be eager to trade down. The problem for the Rams will be that every team that wants a quarterback will know the Rams won't be drafting him, so there's little need to get their pick, as opposed to a pick after them. The combination of Rams need for offensive line help and the top-end offensive tackle talent available in this draft will make trading the pick that much less likely. Expect the Rams to hold their ground and take some non-quarterback.

Minnesota is a little harder to gauge. They just spent a high first-round pick on a quarterback (Christian Ponder) last season, but he was not spectacular. That team would have to be extremely high on Griffin to give up on Ponder so quickly. The things that work in the Vikings favor is that they don't need to draft a QB, the team ahead of them definitely will not pick a QB, and the team behind them is the first real threat to take one. They become the most likely trade partner if Griffin is your target. They have enough needs that moving down a handful of spots to accumulate more picks is just smart management. It is also not out of the question for a team talking trade with them could end up with Ponder instead of the pick, allowing the Vikings to take Griffin. Either way, the Vikings probably help some team address their quarterback need.

If the Vikings do not trade, the Browns are the only team in the Top 5 with a legitimate reason to consider taking Griffin. Colt McCoy will be entering his third season, and did not progress the way most wanted. The Browns only spent a third-round pick on McCoy, so spending one of their two first-round picks on a quarterback is not unreasonable. Mike Holmgren still runs that team, though, and he has said multiple times that his philosophy on quarterbacks is that you pick a guy and stick with him. He picked McCoy. Taking a quarterback in the first-round means they are giving up on McCoy. It would be a surprise if Holmgren allowed that to happen. More likely, they use the rumor mill to put out the word that they are enamored with Griffin to drive up the trade value of their pick as much as possible. Some teams would believe the Vikings were interested in Griffin. Many more would believe the Browns were.

If a team was able to wait out the Vikings and Browns, and Griffin was still on the board, the Bucs phones would be ringing off the hook. The Redskins draft #6, and would almost certainly take Griffin. The Redskins, Dolphins (#8 or #9 pick), and the Seahawks (#11 or #12) are the teams who have the greatest need and the shortest distance to move up. Chances are, one of those teams will have signed Matt Flynn by the time the draft takes place. That would leave two vying for Griffin.

St. Louis is going to be less willing to deal within the division, and could be tempted to by the Redskins since it would only involve moving down four spots. Seattle and Miami know the Redskins will have a better pick to offer, and will need to pay a steep price to move ahead of Washington.

Consider some recent draft history:

- 2011 Draft: Atlanta moves up 21 spots (from #27 to #6) to draft Julio Jones. It cost them a first-round pick, second-round pick, and fourth-round pick this year, and their first-round and fourth-round pick next year.

- 2010 Draft: San Diego moves up 16 spots (#28 to #12) to draft Ryan Mathews. It cost them a 1st, 2nd and 4th, plus linebacker Tim Dobbins.

- 2010 Draft: Philadelphia moves up 11 spots (#24 to #13) to draft Brandon Graham. It cost them a 1st, and two 3rds from that year's draft.

- 2009 Draft: Jets move up 12 spots (#17 to #5) to take Mark Sanchez. It cost them a 1st and a 2nd, plus Kenyon Coleman, Brett Ratliff, and Abram Elam.

- 2008 Draft: New Orleans moves up 3 spots (#10 to #7) to take Sedrick Ellis. It cost them their 1st and 3rd round pick, but also got a 5th round pick back from the Patriots. So, swapping 3 spots essentially cost them trading their 3rd for a 5th.

- 2008 Draft: Jacksonville traded up 22 spots (#26 to #8) to take Derrick Harvey. It cost them their 1st, two 3rds and a 4th.

Looking at these trades, and knowing the demand for Griffin, Seattle would likely have to surrender their second-round pick, and possibly a fourth to move up to #4 or #5. The other option would be to move down to the end of the first-round. That could net them a player like Ryan Tannehill, Kirk Cousins, Nick Foles, or whomever else catches their eye. In that scenario, the Seahawks would add at least a second-rounder, and probably a third. It is not out of the question that they could get another first-round pick next year. That would be very hard to pass up. Teams like the Lions, Giants, Saints, and Bengals could all be possible trade partners if the Seahawks choose to slide down the first-round.

Seahawks fans who want to see Griffin playing for Seattle should be cheering for the Redskins to sign Flynn. That would leave the Dolphins as the only true threat to move up for Griffin, and they may be as few as two picks ahead of the Seahawks. At that point, it's simply a matter of desire. Throw in one more fourth or fifth-round pick than the Dolphins, and you should be golden. 

The Morning After: Seahawks Lose 23-20 to Cardinals

That was weird. Some fans wanted a win, others wanted a loss. Some players were fiery, some were going through the motions. Call it the Indifference Bowl. Neither team was playing a meaningful game for the first time this season, and it showed. Execution regressed. Effort was less. It was the game embodiment of a shoulder shrug. That's not to say players intentionally eased off the accelerator. Anyone who has played a competitive sport knows that there is simply a different level of intensity when something is on the line.

Seattle had plenty of chances to win this game. K.J. Wright got tackled by an offensive lineman on what should have been a fumble returned for a touchdown. Richard Sherman got caught on an interception return that should have been a touchdown. Marshawn Lynch inexplicably became an afterthought for three plays when the team had 1st and Goal before the team got a field goal blocked. These are the kinds of errors that are explained away as a young team learning in 2011 that will not be tolerated in 2012. That, more than anything else, will be outcome of this season. Nobody will be predicting 4-12 for this team next season. Nobody will pleased with another mediocre record. As much as this team progressed this season, and it progressed significantly, it still ended the season losing more than it won.

The primary focus of most Seahawks fans is what the team will do in the upcoming off-season at the quarterback position. Less obvious is the team's growing problem stopping the run. None of the Seahawks first seven opponents averaged more than 3.5 yards per carry. Eight of the last nine opponents averaged at least 3.7 yards per carry. Six of the last nine averaged over 4.2. That's going from a Top 3 rush defense to a Bottom 15 rush defense, and it's not acceptable given the type of defense the team is playing and the sacrifices they make on pass rush to play this sort of defense.

There will be time to break that down in more detail over the next four months. Four pivotal months. It is safe to say this team's ceiling will be set this off-season, and the Seahawks helped themselves by securing no lower than the #12 pick in the upcoming draft. It is anybody's guess how that pick will be used, but there is little doubt it is a valuable spot to be. Many great players are picked right outside the Top 10. Players like Earl Thomas (#14), Patrick Willis (#11), Ben Roethlisberger (#11), and more.

The best news about the game yesterday was that there were no serious injuries. I have stayed silent on Red Bryant's health all year, but seeing him finish a full 16-game season for the first time is big, like Red Bryant big.  Robert Gallery came to the team with a reputation as being oft-injured, and then missed the first few weeks of the season to fan the flame. He played in every game thereafter. Max Unger played his first full season at center. Earl Thomas came into the league with concerns about his size and durability, but has yet to miss a game.

Arizona will exit this season ahead of Seattle in the standings. They still have some short-term potential, but their ceiling is already established with their quarterback situation, and it's not great. One reaction to watching Larry Fitzgerald yesterday would be that they can be a great team. The other reaction, my reaction, is how bad is Kevin Kolb to struggle to play quarterback with a receiver like Fitzgerald on his squad? John Skelton is a terrible quarterback. Fitzgerald accounted for 150 of Skelton's 271 yards passing, and roughly 60-80 of those yards were on bad throws that only Fitzgerald could catch. Skelton ran up to Fitzgerald after his last spectacular grab of a shitty throw and looked like a starry-eyed groupie, "You're soooo good, Larry! I loooove you! Can I get an autograph?" Tearing down the Cardinals too much after a loss can come across as sour grapes, so I made sure to tear them down beforehand.

Analyzing the details of the game feels like wasted keystrokes. One continuing story line to monitor is the coaching staff decisions about when to run and when to pass. The team ended up with 178 yards rushing, which was a season-high, but curiously went away from the run on a number of key occasions. The last of which was a 3rd and 3 in regulation when they even motioned Lynch out of the back-field to take away any threat of the run. On one hand, this could be simply a failing in Tarvaris Jackson's ability to execute in situations the offense demands it. On the other hand, there is an apparent blindness--or unwillingness--to understand Jackson's limitations and stick with the run when it is working. The Seahawks could have easily eclipsed 200 yards rushing yesterday.

The number of deep throws made it clear the staff saw a weakness they wanted to exploit. Ben Obomanu dropped one that should have been a touchdown early in the game (part of a terrible day for the normally dependable wideout). Richardo Lockette made a great play on another that became the Seahawks longest play of the season. That's the thing, though, with deep passes. High risk, high reward is not what this team is made to do.

No part of the team may have further to grow than the offensive playcalling. Bubble screens, odd substitutions of Justin Forsett, total lack of involvement for Zach Miller all need to change. The coaching staff will benefit from a normal off-season as much, or more, than the players.

A couple quick parting notes:

- One remarkable streak continued yesterday when Skelton's passer rating ebbed and flowed past the magical 72.0 mark. Seattle has not beat a team all season when the opposing quarterback posted a passer rating over that mark. Think about that. That's like Rex Grossman, Tim Tebow level of quarterback play. The great part is that the team has held seven quarterback below that level. Skelton was well above that for most of the game, but dropped to 75.1 on Sherman's pick, and got as low as the mid-60s before the end of regulation. But, by the time the field goal was kicked, he was back to 74.1. Fascinating for a geek like me.

- Another remarkable streak was at risk as well, but withstood the challenge. Seattle is undefeated under Pete Carroll when winning the time of possession battle (9-0 through two years). The Seahawks were dominating time of possession for almost the entire game, and ended regulation with an advantage of over three minutes. The Cardinals final drive gave them a 35-33 advantage.