Thursday, January 31, 2013

Mike Wallace, Dwayne Bowe & Why Only One Makes Sense For Seattle

We are days away from the official NFL off-season, but the free agent conversation is already heating up among Seahawks fans. Chief among those conversations is what the team should do at wide receiver. Pittsburgh Steelers free agent Mike Wallace and Kansas City Chiefs free agent Dwayne Bowe have some Seattle fans salivating. Each would bring something different to the Seahawks. Only one would make much sense to sign.

The Seahawks attempted 405 passes in 2012, dead last in the NFL. They completed 259, also dead last. Before this team goes out and spends major free agent dollars on a receiver, it is important to understand just how big of an impact they could have in an offense that eschews the pass so often.

I know what you must be thinking. Russell Wilson was a different quarterback the last eight games of the season. You are right. He had fewer attempts and fewer completions than he did in the first half of the year It is true.

Wilson went from 26.3 attempts and 16.1 completions to 22.9 attempts and 15.4 completions. Yet, the Seahawks offense went from scoring 17.5 points to scoring 34.0 points.

It was not, though, all about the running game. Wilson became a lethally efficient passer. You notice that his completions stayed relatively flat even though his attempts dropped by over three per game. His completion percentage rose from 61% to 67%. His yards went from 1,466 to 1,652 on the strength of a jaw-dropping 9.02 yards per attempt. Most importantly, his touchdowns went from 10 (1.3/game) to 16 (2.0/game).

Double Wilson's second half numbers and you get a 16-game season that looks like this:

CMP: 246 (NFL Rank Among QBs - 26th)
ATT: 366 (26th)
YDS: 3,304 (20th)
TDS: 32 (5th)
INT: 4 (1st)

Now, Seattle could open things up a little bit more in 2013. They could give Wilson more chances to throw, but Pete Carroll loves how they played last year. He wants to establish the run. This is not going to become the Patriots or the Saints offense where Wilson is throwing the ball 600+ times in a season. Maybe he will throw it 400 times (25/game). That would have been good for 25th in the NFL. The point being, there will not be a ton of passes to be caught no matter who is playing receiver.

We know Sidney Rice is not going anywhere. He will be the starting flanker. ESPN.com says he was targeted 80 times.. That made him the 73rd most-targeted receiver in the NFL. That is not a lot of chances, especially for your number one option.

Golden Tate was second on the team with 68 targets (94th in the NFL). Zach Miller was third with 53 (128th), and Doug Baldwin was fourth with 49 targets (137th).

Go nuts for second. Say the Seahawks start throwing the ball 30 times per game next season. That would be 480 attempts, or a 31% increase compared to the second half of 2012. That would have still finished 22th in the NFL this past season. There just are not many passes to go around.

That means players that can make the most of their chances are far more valuable in this offense.

Both Bowe and Wallace were targeted over 100 times last season. They are used to geting the rock. Bowe has a far higher catch rate over his career, catching 55% of the passes thrown his way while Wallace has only caught 27% of the passes thrown to him. Where Wallace makes his money is not on efficiency of targets, but explosiveness of receptions. His career yards per catch average of 17.2 blows away Bowe's 13.8. In fact, Bowe has never had a single season that matches Wallace's career average. Wallace went as high as a mind-blowing 21.0 yards per catch in 2010. That's how someone turns 60 receptions into 1,257 yards.

Wallace has had no less than 6 touchdowns in any season, and has had at least eight each of the last three years. Bowe has only had more than 8 touchdowns once.

Everyone knows that Bowe has had terrible quarterbacks throwing to him, and Wallace has had an elite quarterback throwing to him. That does not change the type of player each of them are. Bowe is a guy that is targeted 20 yards and in. Wallace is a guy that often gets the ball 20 yards and out. Wallace has caught 12 passes that traveled 31+ yards in the air over the past two years, while Bowe has caught two.

Wilson throws a great deep ball. The Seahawks offense is predicated on the play-action pass to get the ball down-field. A player like Wallace fits wonderfully with both the strengths of the quarterback and the philosophy of the offense. A guy like Bowe is nice to have, but it is hard to see this offense dinking and dunking their way down-field. The running game is used to jab and pound the body. The passing game is meant to be an uppercut.

Wallace is also accustomed to being one of many weapons in an offense, as he shared the load nearly evenly with his two other receiver buddies in Pittsburgh. Bowe is used to being The Man. That simply will not happen here.

Add in Wallace being two years younger than Bowe, and there really is no question which of these two premium free agents better fits the Schneider and Carroll mold. The bigger question is whether Wallace is worth the price it will take to sign him. Tate caught six passes of his own last year that traveled over 31 yards. He has one more year on his deal, and has developed a trust with Wilson. Signing a guy like Wallace would essentially close the door on Tate, who becomes a free agent in 2014, and is not at all suited to play the slot. On the other hand, Tate may be gone once he hits the market anyway.

Players with Wallace's speed simply do not come around very often. Finding a player in the draft with his speed and his productivity is highly unlikely. Seattle will not get in a bidding war for Wallace's services, but it would not be surprising to see them kick the tires. 

Monday, January 28, 2013

PODCAST: Season Wrap-Up With Softy

Softy and I took a moment to wrap-up the 2012 Seahawks season and tried putting it in context. We also talked Matt Flynn, and whether the best team in football is always the one that wins it all.

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Sunday, January 27, 2013

Ranking The Seahawks Roster #1-57

Managing an NFL roster is no easy task. Finding talent is paramount, but is only the first step. A savvy general manager must look ahead and weigh a variety of factors to determine who to build around and who he needs to prepared to replace. These factors go well beyond what fans see on the field. Seattle is an enviable situation with the second-youngest team in the NFL, and one that was statistically the strongest in 2012. These moments, however, are fleeting. A loaded young roster quickly becomes untenable when rookie contracts expire and massive raises flood the team's salary cap. The Seahawks are in great shape for 2013, but how the front office handles this off-season, and the three years that follow, will determine whether this is five-year championship window or one that could last a decade.

The only way to make sound decisions about the roster is to have a firm grasp of which players are foundational. These are the rocks in the river that all other decisions must flow around. Seattle had no players that qualified for this high bar when Pete Carroll and John Schneider took over in 2010. They do now.

I have devised a formula that gives each player on the Seahawks roster a numerical value based on the factors I believe are most important to managing a roster. The result is a 1-57 stack ranking of every player that played for Seattle in 2012. The factors are as follows:

AGE - The younger, the better. Some positions, like RB, are more harshly rated as age is a larger factor.

HEALTH - This could also be called dependability as it encompasses injury and absences for other reasons like suspension. A player with a current injury is rated more harshly as their recovery is unknown.

IMPACT TO DATE - This is about how the player has performed on the field thus far through their career. What level of performance have they already demonstrated?

POTENTIAL GROWTH - How much better can they be than they are right now? A great player may not have much more room to grow.

HARD TO REPLACE - This combines a variety of considerations including: salary for that position type, scheme demands on that position, uniqueness of skill set for the player, and typical ability to find fill that position played in to that level in the NFL.

Not all of these factors are equal. It is far more important, for example, to have demonstrated your impact on the field than it is to be young or have potential. I weighted the factors to address this:

IMPACT TO DATE = 30%
HARD TO REPLACE = 25%
POTENTIAL GROWTH = 20%
AGE = 15%
HEALTH 10%

The formula looked like this:

(AGE*0.15) + (HEALTH*0.10) + (IMPACT TO DATE*0.30) + (POTENTIAL GROWTH*0.20) + (HARD TO REPLACE*0.25) = PLAYER SCORE

And here are the results:



You can see that players have been grouped into categories based on their scores. Scores of 8.0 or higher are classified as "Core Players." These are your rocks in the river. Fans that are trying to decide which jersey is safe to purchase may want to start with this group. There were a few surprises in this group.

Bruce Irvin does not feel like a core player at this point after having an uneven rookie season. His Impact To Date score is the lowest of the core players by far. Where he makes his case is in Potential For Growth and Hard To Replace. He set the Seahawks rookie record for sacks, and led all rookies, and will be on his rookie contract for the next four years. Pass rushers are not easy to find, and players with his speed are certainly not easy to find. He does get marked down a little for Age, being a 25-year-old rookie. You can count on Irvin being here for at least the next few years, and probably through his rookie deal at least.

Bobby Wagner also came out a little higher than expected. He outscores fellow young linebacker K.J. Wright based largely on the challenge of replacing a player like Wagner. There is a good chance Wagner will be named NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year and he has demonstrated above average skills in coverage and in tackling. He has also shown flashes of pass rush ability. It is generally easier to find an outside linebacker than a middle linebacker.

Kam Chancellor is a player that has the potential to climb into the 9.0+ category, but he needs make a bigger impact on 2013 in terms of impact plays like turnovers and tackles for loss.

The next category of players is what I am calling "High Value Players." This is a mixed bag of young players trying to claw their way into the Core group, older players that might be Core they had more years ahead of them, and players that are high on potential while low on proving it.

The most controversial player in this group is Marshawn Lynch. He is not even knocking on the doorstep, and will probably slide more in the coming years. Lynch is the only High Value player that gets a 10 for Impact To Date. There is no questioning what he has done on the field. He loses value on Potential For Growth as he appears to be in his prime right now, and he loses points on Health and Hard To Replace because his chronic back problem could become a serious issue for a player that runs with his ferocity and running backs simply are not that tough to replace. Yes, it is tough to find another Lynch, but Robert Turbin might be able to do 85% of Lynch, and he's already on the roster. It would not shock me if Lynch was off this roster in 2-3 years.

Brandon Browner and Chris Clemons may also be surprises in this group. Clemons was a guy I modified my formula for a few different times because he seemed artificially low. The truth is, he's on the wrong side of 30, is coming off an ACL injury that could dramatically effect his performance, and does not have much room to grow. His outstanding on-field performance and the challenges of replacing him give him the highest combined score in those categories among this group.

Browner loses points for potential growth, as he already is the player he can be. He also is far less difficult to replace than most may realize. People look at his size and think he cannot be replaced. The truth is that this scheme does not require as much of the corners as one might think, and there are already players on the roster that can perform near Browner's level. That was proven when the team had its best run of the season with Browner serving his suspension. I am a huge fan of his style of play, but roster math ain't easy.

The wide receiver rankings may not match the average expectations, especially Baldwin being a reasonable distance ahead of Tate. I will take on this topic in more detail in an upcoming post. For now, Baldwin gets higher marks for growth potential and being more difficult to replace. Finding slot receivers is tough, and I remain unconvinced that Tate is the answer at split end for the long-term. He is the definition of play-maker, but the repeatability of his style is much lower than someone like Baldwin. If Baldwin does not have a healthy and productive season next year, this all changes.

CLOSING THOUGHTS
Of the 31 players that are classified as High Value or Core on the roster, only #29 and #31 are free agents. It is likely the team will move on from player #30 (Matt Flynn) as well. In a future post, I will share some potential surprise moves that involve players in that Top 31. From a position group perspective, it is encouraging that two-fifths of the offensive line are Core, as are two-thirds of the linebacking corps.

The obvious missing area that list of core players is a dynamic playmaker on offense. Sidney Rice is on the edge, but is not a dominant player in this offense yet. The other group that needs some young talent is the defensive line.

Only nine of the Top 31 were free agents, and only two of those (Zach Miller and Rice) were significant deals. A full 19 of the 31 were drafted in the last three seasons.

The roster is in terrific shape from a variety of perspectives. These numbers are completely subjective, but are a fair representation of the way I expect the roster to be handled in the upcoming off-seasons. Injury and change in performance can cause drastic shifts. I will attempt to update this list at various points through the year to reflect these changes.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Follow-Up: Impact of Harbaugh vs. Carroll on Starters

I ran out of time to add this view into the impact that Jim Harbaugh and Pete Carroll have had on their respective talent levels. It helps to see the actual names, and the actual areas of impact among the starters. In the article from last night, starters were more narrowly defined. In the tables below, you will see the top three wide receivers, the top two tight ends, as well as the top three corners of each teams from the seasons prior to each coach taking over and where they are now. Players each coach added to the roster are highlighted. There are some players that were on the roster, but were not starters. Red Bryant, would be an example of this. 

A number of readers have pointed out that Harbaugh did the right thing by sticking with his talent instead of overhauling. That is fair. It is also not the point. Carroll has proven in a very short time that he will add significant talent to the roster every single year at almost every position. He can upgrade anywhere and any time. Harbaugh has proven he can lead a talented team, but his impact additions are limited. No matter how talented this year's 49er team is, they would have loved to add another player the caliber of Donte Whitner or Aldon Smith in the 2012 draft. Instead, that whole draft class looks anemic. Dead drafts can hamper a franchise for years, the same way boom drafts can propel them. Consider this, Carroll and Schneider have added at least one All-Pro in two of their first three drafts (Russell Okung, Earl Thomas, Richard Sherman), and Russell Wilson or Bobby Wagner could very well make it three-for-three next season. 

In any event, take a look at the make-up of the starters on both squads. It is rather revealing.




Thursday, January 24, 2013

Comparing Harbaugh & Carroll: Franchise Builders

Pete Carroll is sitting at home. Jim Harbaugh is preparing for the Super Bowl. Ask the average fan which one has done a better job in the NFL, and most would point to Harbaugh's record and roster as evidence that he is the more valuable organizational leader. Put even a little effort into your analysis, and it becomes clear not only that Carroll has done more to improve his organization, but that there really is no comparison. Carroll, with the help of John Schneider (a GM he helped select), has arguably improved his team more than any coach in the NFL in the last three seasons. The Seahawks trajectory is so much steeper than the 49ers, San Francisco better get their ring this year, because the evidence suggests it may be the last time Caroll allows them a shot.

Carroll took over one of the worst rosters in the NFL in 2010 from Tim Ruskell and Jim Mora Jr. Consider that 32 of 59 players that took snaps for that 2009 Seahawks team did not play in the NFL last season. That  was just three years ago. Over half the players were either not good enough to make another NFL roster, or were old enough to be at the end of their careers.

Many joked about the way Carroll and Schneider turned over the roster in 2010. Nobody is laughing now. A full 50 of the 57 players who took meaningful snaps for the Seahawks in 2012 were brought to the team by Carroll. That's 87.7% of the roster. Carroll was not just adding roster fillers. Twenty of the teams twenty-five starters (11 offense, 11 defense, 1 kicker, 1 punter, 1 long snapper) were brought to the team under Carroll's regime. Three of the Seahawks four All-Pro players were added by Carroll, as were five of their six Pro Bowl players.

Compare that to Harbaugh. Of the nine All-Pro players from the 49ers, Harbaugh inherited eight of them. There were 58 players that got meaningful snaps for San Francisco this season. Only 32 of them (55.2%) were brought to the team under Harbaugh. Even worse, only seven of their twenty-five starters were found under Harbaugh's watch. That's less than 30% of his starting unit. Patrick Willis, Navarro Bowman, Justin Smith, Mike Iupati, Dashon Goldson, Ray McDonald, Joe Staley, Franke Gore, and even Andy Lee were all gifted to Harbaugh.

He gets credit for utilizing the talent he inherited, but his ability to sustain a high level of competition is questionable. The 49ers notoriously play their starters more than any other team. There is little being done to develop the next wave of talent. At one point in 2012, they were the only team in the NFL to have zero snaps for their 2012 draft class. Add that to having one of the older teams in the league, and one has to wonder how much Harbaugh is building a horse to win a single race versus one that can compete for the triple crown.

Even when comparing the two franchises progress by wins, Seattle looks healthier. The 49ers won two fewer games this season, while Seattle won four more than in 2011. FootballOutsiders.com takes into account schedule strength and various other objective measures and Seattle went from the 19th ranked team  in 2011 to the 1st in 2012. The 49ers went from 6th to 4th.

And while the 49ers are among the older teams in the NFL, that plays their young draft choices less than almost any other team, the Seahawks are the 2nd-youngest team in the NFL and played their draft choices more than nearly any other franchise. Add to that Seattle has $18.6M in cap space to work with compared to just $3.9M for San Francisco.

San Francisco fans can revel in their Super Bowl appearance. Their roster is fantastic. Their success is well earned. It may also be fleeting. Not because they are going to become a terrible team overnight, but because there is another team that happens to be in their division that is improving at a far greater rate that has been sustained for three straight years. Seattle is built for the long game. Building perennial winners is about more than coaching on Sundays, and Seattle does not seem to be hurting their either as it was the Seahawks who had their coaching staff on the hot list for head coaching positions. There really is no comparison to be made between Carroll and Harbaugh. One has maximized the performance of a supremely talented roster he had little to do with. The other took one of the worst rosters and cap situations in the NFL and turned it into one of the best in three short seasons. Harbaugh may get his one ring this season, but Carroll is aiming to look like Liberace when all is said and done.

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A look at the 2012 rosters of each team, and their coaches influence:




Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Potential Players Matt Flynn Could Fetch In Trade

John Schneider could not have been any more clear during interviews with both 710 ESPN and 950 KJR that he intends to trade Matt Flynn. He even used the same phrase, "I'd be lying if I told you were weren't going to listen to offers for Matt." The question becomes what the team can get in return for their starting-quality backup. Draft pick compensation is always an option, but there are unique reasons in this situation that a player may make more sense in return for Flynn.

Seattle has ten picks in the upcoming draft, and is already going to be in a situation where they will be either packaging picks to move up, or trading for more picks in coming years. It makes no sense to bring in ten new draft choices to a team that is largely set in most positions. The most likely scenario will see the Seahawks turn picks this year into higher picks next year (e.g., trade two 2012 6th-round picks for a 2013 4th). Seattle could add more picks to their pile this season for Flynn, or take higher compensation for a pick delayed to 2014, but there certainly is no pressing need to do so.

Flynn is due to make $7M next year. The Seahawks have plenty of cap space, so they do not need to get rid of that salary. Trading for a player could allow them to shift that spend from the quarterback position to another part of the team. Schneider already has to be thinking of spending more money on a front-line receiver, tight end, defensive tackle or defensive end. This trade could allow him to mark an item off his shopping list without having to bid on the open free agent market.

There are a limited number of teams that will be in the market for a new starting quarterback. Nine teams finished with passer ratings below 80.0 in 2012:


Arizona - 63.1
Kansas City - 63.8
NY Jets - 68.3
Cleveland - 73.5
Jacksonville - 74.7
Indianapolis - 76.4
Miami - 76.7
Tennessee  - 76.9
Philadelphia - 78.6

Another three teams have quarterback situations that could have their General Managers in the market for a new starter: Oakland, Buffalo, and Minnesota. Let's eliminate Indianapolis and Miami as they have the quarterbacks of the future already in place. It is probably safe to say Tennessee is also in that category with Jake Locker in just his first season as a starter and a high draft choice invested there. That leaves nine teams with varying levels of interest in acquiring a new starter:

Arizona
Kansas City
NY Jets
Cleveland
Jacksonville
Buffalo
Oakland
Philadelphia
Minnesota

The Vikings made the playoffs last year and Christian Ponder had a season with ups and downs. The ups and the high draft choice spent on him makes them among the less desperate teams for a new starter. Philly has Nick Foles who flashed some promise, and it's not clear that Chip Kelly wants a player like Flynn. Oakland already spent two first-round picks on Carson Palmer. Cleveland spent a first-round pick on a quarterback just last year. It is unclear whether they are desperate to get a veteran to start in front of him. That leaves four teams that will be targeting the quarterback position as a top priority:

Arizona
Kansas City
NY Jets
Jacksonville

Alex Smith will be the quarterback for one of the teams looking for a starter. He will be almost certainly be cut by the 49ers by March 1st to avoid the team having to pay him more than $1M in salary for 2013. Teams know the 49ers will not keep Smith on the roster, so a trade seems unlikely. The Cardinals will definitely go after Smith, but it is hard to see any free agent quarterback willingly choosing to play against the San Francisco, Seattle and St. Louis defenses six times each season. That's like trying to sign a hitter to play in Safeco Field. Smith may surprise and go to a place like Philly where his under-rated running ability could fit well with what Kelly wants to put on the field. I don't see Seattle trading Flynn in the division, so let's really focus on three possible landing spots:

Kansas City
NY Jets
Jacksonville

I combed over the roster of each of these teams, and created rough formula to score potential trade targets based on player talent, fit for Seattle's system and needs, and likely availability of the player. Keep in mind that availability takes into account player age, contract, and how those factors match up with the state of the team. A 29-year-old with a big contract playing for a team like the Chiefs may be more available than one might think. I did not include players like Justin Houston, Darrelle Revis, or Justin Blackmon as there is zero chance their teams will move them.



*All salary numbers supplied by Spotrac.com

Kyle Wilson tops the chart as a talented young corner playing for a team with ample talent at that position. Wilson has played a fair amount of nickel corner, and is just 25 years old. It would not surprise me if John Idzik was more motivated to try and move Antonio Cromartie who is older and far more expensive than Wilson. Cromartie's contract is much closer to Flynn's, and would actually clear a little cap space for Idzik, who will be desperate to do so. Cromartie may be able to play inside, but he gets marked down on fit with Seattle because it's not clear he could stick with the smaller players like Danny Amendola. Bringing in his personality and his big salary while Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner make far less would also be a mark against that move on Seattle's side.

Tyson Alualu is an interesting possibility. He has been battling knee problems, and has had two down seasons after a promising rookie campaign. His contact is something Jacksonville would be thrilled to move, and my early guess is Gus Bradley will be the most eager purser of Flynn after defending him in practice all year. Alualu could hold up better in a heavy rotation at defensive tackle with the Seahawks than he has as a primary starter for the Jaguars. Carroll should know Alualu well from his days at Cal. The Seahawks would likely be okay with taking on the contract for this season, and then look to restructure if he does not live up to it. A guy like Muhammed Wilkerson would be a fantastic addition for Seattle, but I just can't see the Jets giving him up.

The Chiefs have some intriguing pieces to offer, should they be interested in Flynn. Tony Moeaki would be a terrific weapon to give Russell Wilson, and the value disparity between a starting quarterback and a starting tight end makes that a possibility. Next season is the last year on Moeaki's contract, which increases the chances that the Chiefs would be willing to move him in the right deal. Seattle could choose to use some of their cap space mid-season to extend Moeaki should they see fit.

Tamba Hali jumps off the list. He is a prodigious pass rusher, and would make any team better. He is, however, 29-years old and will have a $15.5M cap number next season. This was the worst team in football by a long shot last season, and they have a young pass rusher in Houston under wraps for a while. It is unlikely the Chiefs will be contending in Hali's prime, and they could get a lot out of a younger Flynn and the cap space they would gain. It is not clear to me that the Seahawks would be willing to take on that contract, but the talent is undeniable in an area of need that is tough to address.

Jon Baldwin is a talented, if troubled, young receiver that fits the Carroll mold of tall and fast. I put Ropati Pitoitua on there as a guy that could be a great young 5-tech defensive end. He's not a guy that a trade would center on, but he could be included if the team can re-sign him at a price the Seahawks agree to.

The Jaguars have a couple linebackers that could be of interest to replace Leroy Hill on the weakside.

There was not a perfect fit on any of these rosters, but Wilson, Moeaki, or Hali would be exciting additions. Alualu's injury history would make me nervous, but a young disruptive interior pass rusher would be among the most valuable additions a team could make. We will learn more about potential suitors as other pieces fall into place. Schneider will be motivated to make a deal before March 1st to avoid Alex Smith's release effecting the market. Keep in mind that this examined a one-for-one scenario. The most likely trade will involve draft picks and a player, and possibly multiple players. Seattle can use their extra picks plus Flynn to grab a guy that would not be available in a straight player swap. 

Most Improved Teams 2012

Progress can be judged in a variety of ways. A team's record can improve. They can make the playoffs. They can go farther in the playoffs. Seattle did all of those things in 2012, and also demonstrated statistical improvement that had them, once again, among the most improved teams in the NFL.

Each year, I compare the final power rankings of the past season to the previous one. The results are meant to illustrate which teams are rising or falling from year-to-year. This most often helps find teams that are laying in the weeds--teams that are gaining ground without fan fare, or losing ground without public awareness.

St. Louis, for example, checks in as the 5th-most improved team this year. Few fans outside the NFC West recognize the Rams as a team on the rise. Similarly, New England, Green Bay and Houston all took steps back. Even though their overall strength was still near elite, they weakened this year.

Seattle checks in as the 3rd-most improved team this season, largely on the strength of the third-largest improvement in passer rating (77.6 to 100.6), an over five point gain on offense and over four point reduction on defense.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Early Thoughts On Trading Matt Flynn, Drafting Matt Barkley

Everyone has Seahawks backup quarterback Matt Flynn on the first bus out of town this off-season. The logic goes that Russell Wilson is a quarterback deity, so what's the point of spending "all this money," on Flynn who will never play? I will explain why that logic is flawed in a moment, but the outcome could wind up being the same no matter the reason.

NAGGING MYTHS


Matt Flynn's Contract Will Force Seattle To Move Him - FALSE
Flynn is scheduled to make around $7M next year, which is a lot for a back-up quarterback, but Wilson makes under $400K. The total cost of that position is still well under the NFL average. Wilson' contract cannot be re-negotiated within the first three years due to the new CBA. The team may like the idea of spending that money elsewhere, but they can meet all their roster goals without moving Flynn.

Keeping Flynn Is Pointless - FALSE
Ask the Redskins, Steelers, Cardinals, 49ers, and Vikings the value of a starting quality back-up quarterback. Nobody can convince me Flynn is anything less than a Top 20 NFL starting quarterback if he gets a chance, and likely Top 15. He is that good. Having that kind of talent backing up a Top 5 talent is extremely valuable, as a starting quarterback injury is generally the surest way to a disastrous season.

The Read Option Means Flynn Has No Place Here - FALSE
Flynn will not be running the read option, but it is just one part of this offense. He would do some thing better than Wilson in the passing game, and the coaches would just emphasize his strengths. It is a consideration, but not a nail in the coffin.

BARKLEY TO SEATTLE MAKES SENSE


Myths aside, Flynn could very well be on his way elsewhere. If I am John Schneider and Carroll, my ideal involves drafting Matt Barkley and getting draft choices back for Flynn. That may sound insane. After all, Barkley is a likely first-round pick, and would be the certain back-up. Let's take a closer look.
First, there may be no USC player that Carroll thinks more highly of than Barkley. He has repeatedly had to stop himself in the midst of effusive praise of Barkley whenever the topic of great young quarterbacks comes up. I do not think "man-crush" is too strong of a description of Carroll's admiration for Barkley as a person and a player.

Second, Barkley's stock has fallen dramatically from last year when he was considered a lock for the Top 10. Many are projecting him in the last first-round or early second.

Third, drafting a back-up quarterback would mean the team would have two quarterbacks making microscopic salaries for the next few years, allowing them to have an exorbitant amount of cap space to retain their veterans and sign other key free agents. Seattle would be the envy of the NFL. Remember, it would take nearly 46 years of Wilson's salary to equal one year of Peyton Manning's. Manning's one-year salary is about the same cost as the entire Seahawks starting defense.

Fourth,  Carroll is not kidding about this competition thing. No greater statement could be made than bringing in another young stud to push Wilson for that spot. Nobody would think Barkley would unseat Wilson, but no player would try harder.

Fifth, Barkley would be become a significant trade chip in the next year or two. Nothing garners more interest than a young back-up quarterback that has demonstrated real talent in the pre-season and possibly a spot start here or there. Seattle would likely more than recoup their investment in terms of draft choices.

POTENTIAL ASKING PRICE FOR FLYNN


Barkley is not the only option, but he is a higher probability than some may realize. And don't forget the compensation for Flynn. The likely asking price would start at a 1st round pick in 2014. It would not shock me to see an even higher asking price given the sad state of the quarterback market this off-season and the glut of teams desperate to have new hope at the position. The top-end price could wind up being a 2nd round pick in 2013 and a 1st round pick in 2014. That would be a deal similar to the Matt Schaub scenario (two 2nd round picks and swapping 1st round picks). The other option worth exploring is the Kevin Kolb scenario where Seattle gets a quality player in return for Flynn.

For example, the Jaguars just hired a new head coach in Gus Bradley that knows first-hand how good Flynn is. Maybe he would be interested in parting with a defensive lineman like Tyson Alualu along with a draft choice. Alualu registered 3.5 sacks from a defensive tackle position last season for the Jaguars, and is scheduled to have a cap number of around $6M next season. The Jets have Muhammad Wilkerson, who might be an ideal replacement for Alan Branch, although it is hard imagining them surrendering a young talent like that.

The point is that Seattle will likely have the option of at least a 2nd round pick or taking on a player that fits a need. Knowing the high cost of interior lineman on the open market, the high cost of receiving talent, and the high cost of edge pass rushers, my early bet would be Seattle would look for a player plus a lower-round draft choice (maybe a conditional 5th that could move to a 4th depending on Flynn's performance). 

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Thoughts On Bradley, Bevell, & The Ripple Effect

Both Seattle coordinators are looking more and more likely to land somewhere other than Seattle next season. There seems to be a fair amount of hand-wringing going on among Seahawks fans on how that will impact the team next year. Much of that angst is misplaced. Gus Bradley and Darrell Bevell are important members of the staff and team, but neither of them are the key to either Seattle's offense or defense.

Bradley is possibly the best person I have met in the Seahawks organization. He is genuine, affable and dedicated. There is no doubt that he brings energy and positivity to the defensive players. He is also a respected defensive coach that has a good football lineage tracing back to Monte Kiffin. What some people overlook is that he was not the first or second largest reason the Seahawks defense became as good as it is. Bradley was the defensive coordinator under Jim Mora Jr. in 2009 when the Seahawks finished 24th in total defense and 25th in scoring defense. Two things changed the following year. Pete Carroll came in to be the head coach, and John Schneider started drafting young studs. It was Carroll who installed the Seahawks under defense. It was actually Dan Quinn--now the University of Florida defensive coordinator and potential candidate to replace Bradley--that suggested moving Red Bryant to the 5-technique defensive end. Bradley is the custodian of Carroll's defense, but not the architect. Even with Carroll's help, the defense did not become a force until there was enough talent on the field last season.

Losing Bradley would be a blow to the organization because it is never good to lose great people or disrupt something that is working. I would be surprised, however, if it negatively impacted the product on the field. The talent remains. Carroll remains. The scheme remains. There also are some obvious candidates to step up. The leading candidate might be Todd Wash, the defensive line coach. The networks covering Seahawks games already seem to think he is the coordinator since they always show him on the sideline, mistaking him for Bradley. He is a high energy guy, with a little more fire than Bradley. Quinn had Wash's job before leaving, and is highly regarded by Carroll. It is not clear whether he'd want to come back to the NFL for a position like this, but you can bet Bradley would be giving Quinn a call to join his staff. Kris Richard is another sleeper candidate that has done a nice job with the secondary. He is poised and pointed. He brings an intensity that is different than some of the other coaches. Richard appears smart and ambitious. Don't count him out. People want to talk about Ken Norton Jr as well, but that seems unlikely. Norton is the perfect position coach for linebackers, and a terrific part of this staff, but I'm not sure calling plays and dealing with the administrative aspects of being a coordinator are where he wants to spend his time, or are strengths. I would be surprised to see him move into the lead role.

Bevell would have a greater impact than losing Bradley, but not necessarily as big as some may think. Again, Bevell was the coordinator last season when the offense was mediocre. It was the addition of Russell Wilson, and the health of the offensive line that opened things up this year. Bevell was not responsible for calling, "scramble around for five seconds and then throw the ball a 30-yard gain." Nor was Bevell responsible for calling 20-yard scrambles. Wilson has some skills that are coordinator-agnostic. Bevell did show willingness to adapt to his personnel, and that was a huge part of how the offense caught fire at the end of the year. Carroll is a defensive coach, and needs someone to balance him on the offensive side. Truthfully, that guy is Tom Cable. One of the Seahawks most unintentionally clever moves may have been naming Cable the Assistant Head Coach instead of Offensive Coordinator. Cable is responsible for the team's running game, and sets the game plan with the offensive coordinator. Losing him would be a far bigger blow than Bevell. Where the Bevell loss would hurt is that it takes time for a head coach and quarterback to get on the same page with their offensive coordinator. Bevell owned the passing offense, and we have seen the impact a coordinator change can have on quarterbacks in the NFL, especially a young one.

That said, the Seahawks have something that is largely working. Carroll would be able to find someone who would come in and fit within what is already working. It would be foolish to bring in anyone that would install a new offense. That emphasis would have to be on a person who is a grinder that can match Wilson's work ethic, and a collaborator who will be looking to add and adjust instead of break down and rebuild.

The interest in Bradley is not a surprise, and once a team interview him, it is hard to imagine them wanting to hire anyone else. Bevell, on the other hand, is surprising. He is a fine coach, but I can't say there has been much genius in what he has done and he is not the most charismatic individual. I have not met him, but listening to him speak at press conferences and watching his demeanor makes it hard to picture him as a head coach. You would think that would show up in interviews. My best guess is that Bevell returns next year.

The most important thing for Seahawks fans to keep in mind is that Bevell and Bradley are not the parts that make this team go. The players, Tom Cable, Pete Carroll, John Schneider. Those are the keys to this team's success. Change is not always negative. Having a great offense and great defense attracts great coordinators who want their own chance to be a head coach, and maybe win a Super Bowl in the process. Maybe a new defensive mind will help the pass rush or the late-game meltdowns. Maybe a creative thinker on offense can make better use of Sidney Rice and Doug Baldwin. In any event, this very well could become the norm around here as the team becomes more successful and more respected around the league. Next man up.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Seahawks Off-Season Priorities & Early Free Agent Targets

The proper order of events following the end of the season is to review what happened, dive into each position group, scout for the draft, look at free agents and then make some well-informed projections about what genius General Manager John Schneider will do. All those things will happen on this blog, but there are some things I already know to be true, so why wait?

There are a few guiding principles to keep in mind when evaluating whether Schneider will pursue a team need through free agency or through the draft:

1. Deals for more than one year will only be offered to players 26 or younger. 
That was the case for Sidney Rice, Zach Miller, and Alan Branch. Robert Gallery was the exception.
2. A Seahawks free agent must be considered central to the team's success and young to get a multi-year offer
Red Bryant is an example of a guy who was right on the edge. He was clearly a big part of the team's defense, but was also 28-years old, and sought after on the open market. The team paid above it's comfort level in that deal, and may regret it based on Bryant's performance this year due to injury. Lynch is a better example, and even then, the team was prepared to let him walk before overpaying at that position.

3. Positions that are tougher to find and develop are top free agent targets
Drafting and developing a wide receiver can take 2-3 years. See Golden Tate. That is part of why the team was willing to spend big on Rice, and went after proven wideouts via trade, like Brandon Marshall. They will almost certainly draft a wideout at some point this year, but that doesn't mean he will be a central figure in 2013. Interior pass rushers are among the toughest players to find. Running backs are pretty easy to find. You may never see Schneider make a multi-year offer to another team's free agent running back.

4. What cannot be signed young and early in free agency, may be signed older and late
Leroy Hill, Marcus Trufant, Raheem Brock are all examples of the team addressing a need with a veteran free agent. These deals tend to come late in free agency after other options have been exhausted. Signing a vet for a one-year deal helps the team get through the coming year without threatening the future by reaching on a young guy they don't believe is worth the money. 

5. The Seahawks salary cap space is not just for free agents
Look for the Seahawks to sign Kam Chancellor to an extension this off-season. He is among the most important players on the roster, had a modest season, and will become a free agent after next season. Brandon Browner is another possibility, but I expect them to roll the dice there as they have some other options at corner that they will want to see play out. The important point is that the Seahawks front office is thinking their cornerstones first, and then what can be added without threatening that core, so the available cap space for free agents is much less than what it appears.

Possible Free Agent Targets

Alright, so let's talk about a few places where Seahawks need matches up with free agents that could fit within the principles above.

RECEIVING TIGHT END
There is plenty of talk about adding wide receivers, but I believe a pass-catching tight end will be the team's top offensive priority. They tried and failed with John Carlson, Kellen Winslow Jr., and Evan Moore. Zach Miller will be the starter, but they are clearly after a guy who is a borderline receiver with more speed to pair with him. It would make the offense almost impossible to defend, and Russell Wilson loves the middle of the field. There also happen to be some interesting options.

Tony Gonzalez
Crazy? Probably. Gonzalez is about to lose in massive fashion to the 49ers. He is coming off a 93-catch season. He just saw first-hand what Wilson and the Seahawks are capable of, and Pete Carroll is one of the best recruiters in the biz. Signing him to a one-year deal to pair with Miller makes sense even if Gonzalez is not the prototype for what the Seahawks are after. 

Jared Cook
Cook is 25, an unrestricted free agent, and the Titans may have bigger fish to fry in rebuilding that team. They will want him back, but will they want him more than another team? Cook has 4.5 speed, is 6'5" and is just one season removed from nearly 800 yards receiving. 

Fred Davis
Davis is coming off an injury, which will make his asking price lower. It could be a rare chance to get a quality receiving tight end at a lower price, and Carroll obviously knows Davis from USC. The Redskins probably bring him back, but the Seahawks may sniff around.

Martellus Bennett
Bennett is 26 and caught 55 balls for over 600 yards. He is slower, running around a 4.7 when he came out, but he is 6'6" and can be an appealing target for Wilson. The Giants probably keep him around, but he could get a look from Seattle depending on price.

INTERIOR PASS RUSHER
Jason Jones has an injury history and it showed up again this season. The team loves him, but I'm not sure they are ready to rely on him again. It is crucial that the team finds some inside push.

Michael Bennett
I talked about Bennett last year as an alternative to Jones, but he was a restricted free agent, and stayed with Tampa. He is unrestricted now, and would be an ideal add for the Seahawks. He tallied 9.0 sacks last year, largely at defensive end, but he can swing inside and be incredibly disruptive. There may be no other player who can add to the Seahawks edge and interior pass rush better than Bennett. He's 27, and could be a player the team spends real money on.

Henry Melton
Melton is 26, and was a force inside for the Bears. He will be sought-after, but Seattle could get into the mix if they see a fit.

Richard Seymour
Seymour is the veteran guy who could get 1-2 year deal to play on a Super Bowl contender like Seattle. Carroll saw what kind of force Seymour was two years ago when he injured half of the Seahawks offensive line in one game. One of the most disruptive interior lineman of his generation, Seymour may have enough left to push the team over the top without breaking the bank.

EDGE RUSHER
The team will most likely look to the draft for an edge rusher due to the price of these players on the open market, but if they can't find an interior guy, this is where they might go next. They cannot enter the draft without having any additional pass rush help.

Cliff Avril
Avril is only 26, and is a proven pass rusher. He is a perfect LEO body type, and could be a guy who replaces Clemons while allowing Bruce Irvin to grow at his own pace, and continue to be the other edge rusher instead of the primary LEO.

Dwight Freeney
Freeney is old, but could be a one-year deal guy that could make one last push for a Super Bowl.

Osi Umenyiora
Umenyiora is another guy who has already mentioned he likes the idea of rushing the passer in Seattle, and could take a short-term deal to get a chance at the title again.

Adding a veteran edge rusher on a short-term deal and spending the real money on a younger interior rusher makes more sense. It should be fun to see it all unfold. 

Monday, January 14, 2013

The Night After: Seahawks Bow Out, Lose 30-28 To Falcons

My son sat silently next to me on the drive back from an impromptu trip to Five Guys where we attempted to drown our sorrows in oil and grease. "Don't ever let depression get a hold of you," I told him. "It's the most useless emotional state to be in. Find anything that will make you feel anything else. Anger, happiness, stress, anything is better." A day later, I still hold to that sentiment, but mourning has a place as well. There are so many great days ahead for this team and this fan base, but today is not one of them. Today, we mourn  the best team in football losing in excruciating fashion.

Very few will be comfortable naming Seattle the best team in the NFL. That is okay. I have seen every team left in the playoffs. Seattle beats every single one of them on a neutral field more times than not. This team became what I knew they could become. Those that read this blog know my love for stats, but it was the parts of this team that cannot be quantified that led me to predict a special season. And, oh what a ride it has been.

The game yesterday typified what we have come to know all year--Seattle is so talented that they are really playing themselves. No team in football can stay with them when they find their footing. Seattle was so much better than the Falcons that they overcame a twenty point deficit too quickly. They slept through the first half. Something Seattle fans have seen all-too-often in 10 AM starts to think it is a coincidence. Pete Carroll loves to boast about never discussing "fast starts" with his team, as he likes to focus on finishing strong. He may want to at least talk about getting out of bed before halftime. 

Many fans were furious about the defense surrendering all those points, especially in the first half. Not me. This Falcons offense was primed for this game, and was destined to score. The much bigger problem was the Seahawks offense. The fumble by Lynch was an absolute killer. That drive had all the makings of a touchdown that would have put the team ahead 7-3, or at least a field goal to tie. It was coming off an early Matt Ryan interception that would have put so much more pressure on a team with fragile confidence. 

There has already been lots of second-guessing Carroll's decision to go for it on fourth down when the team was trailing 13-0. It may be worth questioning the play call, as it has been all over the team's short yardage tape. The playoffs is a great time to deviate from your tendencies, especially against a team that had two weeks to break down your film. If I was Atlanta, that is the one short yardage play I am ready for, and they were. Handing the ball off to Robinson has worked in those situations all season, and making a team stop what you believe in is a defensible decision. Going for it did not bother me. Not converting certainly did.

Seattle's first half on offense went: punt, fumble, punt, downs, time runs out at half. That means three of their five possessions in the first half had absolutely crippling errors. That is how you nearly out-gain your opponent in a half and manage to be losing by twenty points. That is tough to do. 

The key to the game ended up being exactly what I thought it would be, run differential. There was so much talk about the Falcons passing game, but their chances of winning went up dramatically if they could run the football. Chris Clemons injury showed up there, but it was more than that. The Seahawks were so committed to pass defense that they could not adequately gang tackle Michael Turner. The Falcons averaged just 79 yards rushing in their last eight games, but managed 167 against the Seahawks. 

Seattle, meanwhile, had been averaging over 200 yards rushing the last six games, but came away with 123 against a poor Atlanta run defense. That was their lowest total since playing Miami, and third-lowest total of the season. A positive run differential for Atlanta was not something I thought possible in this match-up. Take that away, and their passing totals are pretty ordinary.

Roddy White led the receivers with five catches for 76 yards. Those are not exactly dominant numbers. Matt Ryan threw for 250 yards, but 41 of those came in the final 30 seconds and he had two picks as well. 

Bruce Irvin was a non-factor. One can only hope he uses this game as motivation to work his tail off this off-season to come back stronger. There are no guarantees Clemons will be ready for the start of next year. I did not expect dominance from Irvin, but I did expect more than what I saw.

The biggest coaching gripe I had was the defensive calls on the last drive. The Falcons previous three drives had combined for 28 yards and an interception. Yet, with the game on the line, the Seahawks changed what had been working. Carroll was heard saying on the radio this morning that they pressured, and it was not a prevent defense. That may be strictly accurate, but Seahawks players were heard calling it a "soft zone," and did not sound pleased about it, according to Ian Furness of KJR. The result was all too familiar, both for Seahawks fans and  Falcons fans.

Atlanta pulled off an even more amazing rabbit-out-of-the-hat victory against Carolina this year when they trailed 28-27, and took over at their own 1-yard line with less than a minute to play. They completed a 50-yard bomb to get them to mid-field, and then another two passes to get in range for a field goal to win 30-28. Ouch. It was all I could think about when I saw how much time was left following the Lynch touchdown.

By the way, for a team whose number one priority is "the ball," they sure have trouble holding onto it when they cross the goal line. That was a problem all year long.

The offense and the defense had their ups and their downs, but the special teams was almost all down. Jon Ryan picked a terrible time to have his worst game as a Seahawk. Ryan Longwell was mediocre on kickoffs and kick coverage was not great. Atlanta getting the ball out to the 28-yard line on that final drive was inexcusable. 

For all the frustrations, it is hard to feel anything but jubilant about the performance of one Russell Wilson. He set all sorts of records, but the way he did it was more impressive than any statistic can convey. He was relentless. Back-to-back touchdown drives of 80 yards to start the second half, and four touchdowns in their first five possessions. There was no sense of give at any point. Drew Brees would be proud. Those greats have this air of inevitability around them where no lead feels safe. People are understandably all over Colin Kaepernick's jock right now, but when has he overcome serious adversity? His shining moment was responding to the Patriots tying the game in New England. Wilson brought his team back from a 14-0 and 20-0 deficit in playoff games. His first two playoff games! It is worth mentioning that a little bird told me Matt Flynn played a meaningful role in helping Wilson through the second half of yesterday's game. That guy has been nothing but class all year.

There are sure to be some rookie of the year voters who will be claiming pregnant chads in their ballots. Nobody can reasonably deny who the most accomplished rookie in the NFL was this year. 

Zach Miller and Golden Tate deserve a tip of the cap for special performances as well. Both players stepped up and made fantastic plays all day long. Tate may be the most adept at being in tune with Wilson when the play breaks down. He flashes across Wilson's field of vision with regularity, and is being rewarded for it. Miller could challenge for an All-Pro spot at tight end next season. He very well may be the best blocking tight end in football, and may end up breaking the Seahawks record for receptions by a tight end in a season next year.

This one is going to hurt for a long time. It was a classic. Carroll appears to have a knack for historic playoff games in Seattle. His first was the biggest upset, by point spread, in NFL history and resulted in seismic activity in SODO. His second quietly featured an NFL record-tying 21 points in the 4th quarter when they lost to the Bears. The third saw the second team in NFL history to come back from a 14 point first quarter deficit on the road. And you know about his last. 

Nobody could watch that game and leave feeling anything but awe for what Seattle can become. Next year will not look like this one. Schedule, coaches, draft choices, free agents, injuries, player development are all variables that ensure change. We saw a team this year that was good enough to win the Super Bowl. Enough variables lined up to where that was a realistic possibility, and leaning toward a probability. The front office, coaches, and players will need to use this off-season as a spring board. They must hold onto the pain of this loss and use it as fuel to propel them to greater heights. The goals heading into this season were things like a winning record, making the playoffs, finding a quarterback. Those are now so far beneath the team, they look like base camp from halfway up Mt. Everest. Goals next year will be things like home-field advantage, sweeping the division, Defensive Player of the Year, NFL MVP, Super Bowl. 

Let this one sink in. Allow yourself to feel anger and disappointment. Moral victories, even of this magnitude, will no longer be celebrated. This franchise is transforming. It's best seasons will not include losing it's last game any more. Not now. Remember what this game feels like. Remember what losing feels like. It may be a while before this team loses again.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Go Ahead, Lean Forward

I had a Seahawks pen growing up that had a rubber stamp on the cap shaped like a football. Every day I would position the pen on the edge of a desk, karate chop one side of it to send it flipping into the air, and then caught it, before marking a day off on my calendar. If it had been a Seahawks game day, I would write down the score on the calendar and add a Seahawks stamp if they won. How my psychologist mother did not rush to diagnose me with OCD is a wonder. That pen was like a Hanukkah miracle. It lasted for eight years instead of eight days. Long enough for my now-wife to have witnessed me performing the ritual in college. That is not exactly something to be proud of, but I was so anxious about every Seahawks game that this gave me some measure of belief that I had done my part. Of course, when I hear other fans tell me of their superstitions, I think they are nuts. I gave up that routine a long time back, and have slowly eliminated most others as I have learned more and more about what real factors led to my favorite team winning or losing. The absolute best way to set aside superstitions is to cheer for a great team that should win every time it steps on the field. The Steve Emtman Huskies. The 2001 Mariners. The 2005 Seahawks. These were teams that would win games when the odds were against them, and dominate when the odds favored them. Your 2012 Seattle Seahawks are one of those teams.

Did your stomach just turn? Maybe your teeth clenched. It is strictly against the Jinx Rules of Sports to speak confidently about your team right before a big game. I have practically invited a flash flood of the team hotel in Atlanta. And, let's be completely honest, the Seahawks may lose today. The Falcons feature a quarterback who looks every bit the franchise player who could lead a team to the Super Bowl one day. Their mentality will be the best it could be for this one contest. They are a veteran group that is solely focused on getting their first playoff win. Never mind that they would get eviscerated in the next round. They will play today like it could be the last game of their career (Tony Gonzalez), or their last game as coach (Mike Smith), because it could be. Eliminating any team is hard. Eliminating a talented, focused and desperate team on their home turf is really, really hard. The thing is, beating the Seahawks may be harder.

Playing this Seattle team is like going through the boot camp. You think you are tough. You think you are prepared. Then you start to question yourself as your body and will wears down. Just when you think the finish line has to be in sight, you look up and see nothing but more pain and suffering. There is no escape. Some will be able to run the gauntlet. Most will not. Most will ring the bell and pack for home.

Yoda took Luke Skywalker into that hole to face his greatest fear. Pete Carroll is Yoda, and he has made that fear portable.

The Falcons will complete passes to their dynamic receiving talent today. Those receivers will also hear the rhinoceros footsteps of Kam Chancellor and Brandon Browner closing in on them before feeling pain that will wake their ancestors. They will have to get up and do the whole thing again. And again. And again.

John Baker will be ready for Bruce Irvin's 4.4 speed the first few times Matt Ryan drops back, but the cheetah is a volume hunter. He may be unsuccessful the vast majority of times, but it only takes one kill to feed his family for a week.

Teams have avoided Richard Sherman all year long. He still managed to get eight interceptions. This looks like the first game all year when he will be targeted. Putting the cross-hairs on an assassin is a dangerous game.

That is just when Atlanta's offense is on the field. Seattle's offense may have more pelts on their wall than the defense in terms of opponent injuries. Marshawn Lynch appears to put equal weight on hurting opponents and gaining yards. He treats linebackers like human shields, barreling through the defense while opponents hit their teammates as often as they hit him.

Russell Wilson has shown in his brief history that he takes a little time to acclimate to a new speed of play. It happened from OTAs to training camp, from pre-season to regular season, and regular season to playoffs. He also has consistently rebounded with stunning precision and productivity.

This offense will pound on the undersized Atlanta defense. They may celebrate once, twice, three times even before realizing that the pain will not stop. Tom Cable and his merry band of maulers will not relent.

The Falcons think they are ready to win a playoff game. They will be proud of themselves if they play well early. They will be basking in the glory of proving that they came to play. Ask the Redskins how that went. Fear and doubt will enter their system when they realize playing well does not equal winning.

Playoff football is ugly. It is a grudge match. The Seahawks are an armored truck. The Falcons are a Ferrari. Sure, it is possible that the Ferrari wins the race, but it will need some serious body work before it's next race.

This Seahawks team requires no superstition. We know who they are. More importantly, they know who they are. Today, the Falcons get a personal introduction. 

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Abraham Injury May Be Bigger Than Clemons Absence

Atlanta Falcons defensive end John Abraham injured his left ankle in the last game of the regular season versus the Tampa Bay Bucs. It has been assumed since he practiced in a limited basis earlier this week that he would be fine to play against the Seahawks. Jason LaCanfora reported yesterday that Abraham will, indeed, play despite being listed as questionable on the official injury report. More importantly, the indications are that Abraham will be playing at far less than 100% health. Abraham is instrumental to that Falcons defense. So much so that him playing injured could have a bigger impact on the outcome than the Seahawks Chris Clemons missing the game.

Abraham is the only significant pass rusher. The Falcons get pressure with blitzes from a variety of players, but any team would prefer to rely on four lineman to bring pressure. However, like Clemons, the larger impact will be in the run defense. Abraham is already an undersized rush end who would have trouble setting the edge against either of the Seahawks tackles. Trying to accomplish that feat with a bad ankle is going to be really tough. Heath Evans, of the NFL Network, made this point on Atlanta sports radio yesterday, and that was before Abraham was listed as questionable on the injury report.

Further, the Seahawks have been running this thing called the read option you may have heard of. It requires a lot of discipline and speed from the defensive ends. It also demands quick lateral movement as the end has to hold the edge against the quarterback before diving into the line after the running back, or vice versa. That change of direction will be especially tough with a badly sprained ankle.

Maybe this will end up being nothing. That is what I assumed after Abraham practiced early in the week. Knowing that Abraham was limited all the way through Friday's practice, that there are real questions about whether he will play, and the report from LaCanfora that he will play despite the injury, sure makes it seem like there is blood in the water there.  

Seahawks All-Pro Goodness

Championships are won by great teams, and those great teams must include dominant players. The Pro Bowl  is one measure of a player's performance, but the selection process is terribly flawed. A better benchmark is All-Pro performers. The All-Pro team has it's own selection flaws, but it offers the benefit of being conference-independent and limited voters. Where the Pro Bowl is setup to be an All-Star game that includes players the fans want to see play, the All-Pro attempts to be purely about picking the best players at every position. Reputation certainly plays a role, but less so than the Pro Bowl. The Seahawks enjoyed four 1st Team All-Pro selections this season for the first time since 2005.

Earl Thomas, Richard Sherman, Marshawn Lynch, and Max Unger all were selected as 1st Team All-Pros. This is Thomas's first time making the first team. He was a second-team selection last season. The sweetest selection has to be Sherman, who was snubbed for the Pro Bowl after a faulty PED test tarnished his reputation and effected voting.  Not only did he make the first team, but he received more votes than any other defensive back. It is well deserved  recognition for the most dominant corner in the game.

Thomas received the most votes at safety, essentially naming him the best safety in football. Dominant.

Something about Lynch being named to the first team was especially satisfying. Nobody lets his actions speak for him more than Lynch. He refuses all interviews, and shuns camera time. Every Seahawks fan knows him, but Russell Wilson has become the spotlight player, pushing Lynch into his shadow. Wilson clearly has no control over who fans and media talk about, but it was nice to see Lynch recognized for the fantastic season he had after signing his big new contract when many wondered if he would run as hard after cashing in.

Unger is a guy who was miscast as a guard when he came into the league. He struggled there, faced injury, and then was moved to center. It has been nothing but goodness since then. This is another guy the team just locked up with an extension. He is smart, talented, and level-headed. There is a reason he was named as one of the team captains this year. His selection to first-team is a credit to All-Pro voters who certainly had heard more about either of the Pouncey kids. Unger has been an integral about the NFL's best rushing attack.

If playoff games are truly decided by elite players, the Seahawks may be headed toward another win as the Redskins had more All-Pro players (two) than the Falcons (one). Their next opponent may be a different story as the 49ers have ten selections.

Next year could see players like Russell Okung, Kam Chancellor, Brandon Browner, and Bobby Wagner join the All-Pro ranks. Depending on how things fall, K.J. Wright, Sidney Rice, and Jon Ryan have a shot as well.

The trend shows Seattle is becoming recognized for their excellence, and becoming the dominant young team we all know they are capable of being. Congratulations to all the guys who were selected.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Falcons vs Read Option

Listen to people that follow the Falcons, and you are likely to hear a myth being propagated. The story goes something like this: someone asks the Falcons expert how the team will handle Russell Wilson and the read option, and the expert replies that the Falcons faced Cam Newton twice, Robert Griffin III, and Michael Vick so the team knows how to deal with the likes of Wilson. It sounds plausible. It is also very misleading. The Eagles do not run much read option with brittle, fumble-prone Vick. RG3 ran exactly one read option play against the Falcons before leaving the game with a concussion. Newton did run it quite a bit, and absolutely trashed the Falcons in both games with it.

The Panthers posted rushing totals of 199 yards in Atlanta and 195 yards in Carolina. Newton ran for 86 yards and a touchdown in the first game and 116 yards and a touchdown in the second. The Panthers should have won both games, but a late Newton fumble led to a slim Falcons victory in game one. Below are some selected examples of how Carolina pounded the Falcons with the read option.

NOTE: Click on any image to see it full size or to restart the video clip. Each image is a clip, so if it is not playing, click it. Please excuse the poor quality in some frames. 

Cam Newton Read Option Keep for 17 yards

DeAngelo William Read Option Right Side for 10 yards

DeAngelo Williams Read Option Dive, 13 yard TD

Cam Newton Read Option, 72 yard TD

There were more, but you can see the Falcons never were able to adjust. The last clip of the 72-yard touchdown happened in the last game. If Mike Nolan and the Falcons defense had a scheme to stop the read option, you would expect to see a notable difference. Not only did the Panthers rush for nearly the same massive total, but they scored 30 points after scoring 28 in the first, and went for 475 yards of total offense after 404 in the first. Watch both games and it will be hard to come away believing the Falcons have the personnel to stop this type of offense.

The Redskins did not run the read option for some reason. They did post 129 yards rushing by hitting the edges of the Falcons defense. They had a lot of success running the left side of their line. Two of Newton's runs above came running left as well. Do not be surprised to see the Seahawks test that edge, possibly with the help of Zach Miller and/or Anthony McCoy. The following two clips are consecutive plays from the Redskins game. Note: Check out how different the FedEx field looks early in the season.

Alfred Morris Pitch Left for 11 yards

Alfred Morris Pitch Left for 16 yards

This last clip shows Newton in the first game breaking the pocket and scrambling up the middle for 17 yards. They blocked up the Falcons blitz and the receivers had run off the secondary deep into the end zone. This may not be read option, but it sure looks like a play we have seen from Wilson a dozen times this season.

Cam Newton Scramble for 17 yards


There will continue to be a lot of talk about the Falcons offense versus the Seahawks defense, but it will be plays like these that determine whether Seattle wins. Not shown here are the number of read option passes that Carolina ran successfully against the Falcons. Atlanta linebackers were consistently fooled into stepping toward the line to attack the run, allowing Newton to complete simple 10-15 yard slants behind them.

There is very little evidence that the Atlanta defense is equipped to battle an offense like Seattle's. The Seahawks defense will likely surrender points to the Falcons, but nobody has dominated them all year when it comes to putting points on the board. The last time Wilson and the Seahawks offense played in a dome on turf, they put up 270 rushing yards, Wilson ran for 3 TDs and the team scored 50 points. That was against a run defense statistically superior to the Falcons. Putting up those kinds of numbers this weekend is not likely, but matching the Panthers output of 28-30 points and 190+ rushing yards seems very likely. 

PODCAST: Previewing Falcons/Seahawks With Softy

I was able to distract Softy long enough from the Sonics news to talk a little Seahawks. We covered the win against the Redskins, the impact of the Clemons and Hauschka injuries, and what I expect against the Falcons.

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Tuesday, January 8, 2013

These Teams Played Not So Long Ago

Many Redskins fans wanted to remind folks in Seattle that Washington had beat the Seahawks in CenturyLink field just a year ago with Rex Grossman at quarterback. The problem with that logic was that both teams were significantly different, at least on offense, than the ones that matched up the year prior. I took a cursory glance at the game, and found way too many variables to make it worth further exploration. Atlanta also beat the Seahawks in Seattle last season by a score of 30-28. There were significant personnel differences in that game, but most of them were specific to Seattle. With that in mind, I re-watched the game from start to finish and came away with a few observations.

Richard Sherman Sure Would Have Helped
It was almost painful to watch Atlanta receivers, Roddy White and Julio Jones beating Marcus Trufant knowing that an All-Pro corner was sitting on the bench. Trufant was not particularly bad, but Jones and White are deserving of all the accolades they get. These guys run nice routes, especially White, have fantastic hands, and make great plays on the ball. Their length gave Trufant fits at times.

Brandon Browner was just two games removed from his tough game at Pittsburgh, and was playing in only his fourth NFL contest. It showed. He looked tentative at the start of the game, and was fooled a few times. His confidence emerged as the game wore on, and he made some of his signature tackles on bubble screens to Jones.

Kam Chancellor Would Have Helped, Too
Atari Bigby started in place of an injured Chancellor, and the communication challenges early on were clear. Seattle had no answer for Tony Gonzalez. This was only the second start for K.J. Wright, after replacing Aaron Curry, and Gonzalez made him look silly a few times. David Hawthorne was on a bad wheel, and struggled in coverage all year. I am not convinced anyone on the Seahawks can shut down Gonzalez, but Chancellor is where I'd start. Bobby Wagner could be a major difference with his ability to get deep in his drops, and natural instincts in coverage.

Seattle's Running Game Was Pre-Natal
Marshawn Lynch had 24 yards, but more striking was the way he ran. There is a marked difference in his decisiveness and commitment to a cut. This was the Lynch pre-Dallas where he was as likely to dance laterally in the hole as Shaun Alexander.

Lynch had a signature highlight, but was not the same player
The running game, as a whole, was disjointed and less talented. Justin Forsett is not the runner Robert Turbin is. He may not even be the runner Russell Wilson is. There was no read-option, and the offensive line had barely played together. James Carpenter was the right tackle, and Max Unger was starting his fourth game at center under Tom Cable.

The Falcons seem to miss Curtis Lofton at linebacker as well.

Doug Baldwin Killed The Seams
Baldwin had 5 catches for 84 yards, and could have easily gone over 100 if not for some big hits that jarred the ball free. The Falcons lost CB Brent Grimes after the first game of the 2012 season, and have been playing Robert McClain in the nickel. Baldwin could be a key part of the game plan again this week.

Tarvaris Jackson and Russell Wilson Play Differently
That will seem like a silly statement to most, but whatever you think of Jackson, he had certain strengths. They happen to be different than Wilson's, and fewer in number, but were strengths nonetheless. Jackson did something in the game last year that Wilson has yet to do, throw for over 300 yards. He did it almost entirely in the second half while the team switched to a hurry-up offense. Jackson made calls at the line and picked the Falcons apart. If not for a false start penalty on Sidney Rice on the last drive, the Seahawks very well might have won that game.

Jackson's weaknesses, though, also were notable. He threw two picks, and was inaccurate much of the day. He looked incredibly indecisive early in the game, and was a reluctant runner.

Wilson undoubtedly presents a far more diverse set of challenges for the Atlanta defense, and does so with far less risk of mistakes. There is little doubt that the Seahawks would have won the game if the Wilson of today had been the quarterback. 

First Look: Atlanta Falcons Are No Joke

Getting to face the Atlanta Falcons in the playoffs is like getting a bye week, right? All they do is lose. Russell Wilson has more playoff wins than Matt Ryan. Seattle is the hottest team in the NFL, so this should be a cake walk. It is possible for the game to play out that way on Sunday, but early signs point to a tense game pitting two worthy adversaries.

Atlanta's Playoff Past A Blessing, Curse
Unlike the ridiculous prattling on about 1983 and road playoff losses for Seattle, the Falcons recent playoff history has relevance since it involved most of the same players and coaches from the team will face Seattle on Sunday. They face questions about it every day, and not just heading into this game. Every accomplishment, every regular season win for the last two seasons is met with indifference and calls of "paper tiger." That wears on a team. It builds a chip on your shoulder. You can bet that the Falcons entire organization has been focused on only one thing this entire season, and it is not a Super Bowl. They want that one win. They want the monkey off their back. Then, and only then, will they allow themselves to think any bigger.

This team will be ready to play, and prepared to put their bodies on the line. They will also be steadfast in the face of an early deficit. Their determination jumps off the screen when watching them. This is a team that won multiple games they should have lost this year. Arizona won the turnover battle 5-1, and lost by four points. The Panthers sacked Ryan seven times, rushed for 199 yards, and had the game in hand before a late fumble led to a Falcons win. Football Outsiders estimates the amount of games a team should win based on their statistical footprint. The Falcons had the numerical characteristics of a nine win team, but ended with 13. Watch their games and it is hard to call it luck. They have developed the ability to win when they should not.

The flip side of this is that the Falcons will be facing two opponents on Sunday, their history and the Seahawks. It will be impossible for Atlanta fans, players and coaches to avoid those nagging doubts if Seattle punches them in the face early or late. The truth is this team thinks it has developed the traits of a playoff winner this year. They know they have never won when it mattered. That distance between belief and knowledge could play a role in the outcome.

Seattle's Rushing Offense Poses Serious Threat
The Falcons only lost three games all season, so finding patterns from those losses is more difficult. In these cases, I like to widen the parameters to look at close wins as well as losses. The Falcons won four games by four points or less, to go along with their three losses. One of the largest disparities in those games versus their 13 victories was rushing yards allowed to their opponent. In losses, the Falcons gave up an average of 162.3 yards on the ground compared to 114.2 yards in their wins. Add in close wins, and they allowed an average of 137.8 yards on the ground compared to 105.4 in wins over four points.

Atlanta has allowed an opponent to rush for over 150 yards three times this season. They surrendered 152 to the Chiefs, 199 to the Panthers and then 195 in the Panthers rematch. They beat the Chiefs 40-24, but that point total represented the second-highest output for the Chiefs all year and the fourth-highest point total the Falcons allowed this season. The first Panthers game was described above, and in most cases would have been a loss, but instead ended in a 30-28 Falcons win. The last Panthers game was Atlanta's worst loss of the season, 30-20.

The Seahawks offense has rushed for over 150 yards in six straight games, including last week's total of 224, and have eclipsed 150 in eight of their last nine games overall. They are averaging 194 yards rushing in those nine games, and 214 in their last six. Seattle has rushed for over 150 yards in ten games this season, and are 9-1 in those contests.


Atlanta ranks near the bottom of the NFL in rushing yards allowed and yards per rush. They are weaker in the middle of their defensive line than along the edges, and Marshawn Lynch excels up the middle. There will be plenty of talk about the Falcons receivers facing off against the Seahawks corners, but Seattle's rushing offense vs. the Falcons rush defense very well could be the biggest match-up in the game, and the biggest mismatch.

Tony Gonzalez Should Be Seahawks Focal Point
Ryan loves throwing to his receivers. Julio Jones and Roddy White are outstanding athletes with great hands. They will make plays on Sunday, even against the Seahawks secondary, albeit fewer than normal. The player that will keep Pete Carroll and Gus Bradley up late this week is Gonzalez. The guy had 93 catches, nearly 1,000 yards and eight touchdowns. He is 6'5", 247 lbs and can still make great catches above the defense. He is the guy that seems to make the clutch third down catch for Atlanta or the contested red zone touchdown.

The Seahawks have had success holding down strong receiver duos, but it is nearly impossible for the defense to take away the outside and the inside. Holding the Falcons under 20 points will be a yeoman's task, largely because of this varied passing attack.

And You Thought The Redskins Had An Easy Schedule...
One of the things that really stood out with the Redskins was how rarely they had been challenged by a great team, a great offense, or a great defense. That showed up during the game with the Seahawks as Washington was dominated on all sides of the ball for three quarters of the game. Football Outsiders ranked the Redskins schedule as 15th-toughest in the league. Atlanta? They check in at 27th.

The Falcons only played three teams that finished the year with winning records. To their credit, they beat each of them by an average score of 28-13. That was aided greatly by a 34-0 victory over the 9-7 New York Giants. They also beat the Broncos 27-21, and the Redskins 24-17. Two of those three games were at home.

Atlanta's vaunted passing offense has faced only one Top 10 pass defense (based on opponent passer rating), and only two of the Top 15 pass defenses. They won both of those games (vs. DEN, vs. ARZ), but both were close, and the passing game struggled in each. Ryan threw five interceptions at home against top-ranked Arizona, and managed only 6.1 yards per attempt against the 11th-ranked Broncos.

They faced three Top 10 rush defenses (four total games) and averaged only 73.5 yards on ground against them.

It is not all bad for the Falcons. Their defense, especially their secondary, has had success against high-powered offenses and passing games. Very few people realize the Falcons are the 5th-ranked scoring defense in the NFL, and fifth in opponent passer rating.

These guys held Peyton Manning to a 58.5 rating, his lowest of the season. They ended Drew Brees' touchdown streak and picked him off five times for a 37.6 rating. They held RG3 to an 82.9 rating, Philip Rivers to 45.2, Eli Manning to 40.7 and Mathew Stafford to 82.7.

Signs point to this being driven by a great secondary, one that deserves to be compared with Seattle's. The Falcons, despite the presence of a great pass rusher like John Abraham, were 28th in the NFL in sacks as a percentage of opponent pass attempts. Yet, they are also 4th in the NFL in interceptions as a percentage of opponent pass attempts. Good scheme. Good players.

Key Tension Point
Atlanta has surrendered more than 24 points just three times all season, are 1-2 in those games, and could have easily been 0-3. Seattle has scored 24 points or more in four of their last five games, and six of their past nine games. The Seahawks are 8-1, including the playoffs, when scoring 24 points or more.


There is a strong correlation (0.53) between Falcon's opponent rushing yards and opponent points. That would seem to bode well for Seattle.

Early Conclusions
Atlanta is not comparable to the Redskins, nor are they as tough as the 49ers, Packers or Patriot teams the Seahawks have already beaten. Seattle will face a focused, motivated and talented team that is fairly favored to win this game. Atlanta will need to play rush defense to a level they have not demonstrated they are capable of to hold down the Seattle offense. The Seahawks will need to be creative against a multi-faceted passing offense, and it would not be shocking to see the bandit defense make a rare appearance. The use of an extra safety and extra corners while reducing the defensive lineman and linebackers on the field could be a logical approach against a team that relies so heavily on their passing.

The biggest warning sign for Seattle would not be Atlanta moving the ball through the air, it would be seeing them succeed on the ground. Chris Clemons injury will get discussed for its effect on the pass rush, but the biggest difference between Clemons and Bruce Irvin is in defending the run. A Falcons team that is able to run and pass would be hard to beat.

The Seahawks, once again, are the team that has faced far tougher competition. They will have no rust, and enter the game brimming with confidence after they won their first road playoff game without the benefit of playing all that well. It very well may take 28 points or more to win this game for Seattle. Their offense is certainly capable of that.

This looks like a pick'em game.