Monday, April 29, 2013

Latest Thinking On Linebacker Situation

In what is becoming the worst-kept secret in Renton, Bruce Irvin is moving to SAM (strongside linebacker). I hinted at this last week, but focused more on K.J. Wright moving to WILL (weakside linebacker). The truth is, I think the Seahawks are going to explore all options. They like Malcolm Smith as WILL in the role Leroy Hill played last year and Smith backed him up in. They will see if Irvin can swing over to SAM. They will see how Wright looks at WILL. How do I know? Deductive reasoning.

John Schneider, Pete Carroll and Dan Quinn have all stated in one form or another that Irvin will be played at SAM to some extent. They have also all stressed that Cliff Avril can play linebacker as well. Avril is not a candidate to play WILL, given it requires someone who can tackle in the open field, shed blockers in space, and can play the run. Take a look at the way a 4-3 under formation sets up in the diagram below:

Notice the strongside linebacker (SAM) is lined up directly on the line of scrimmage next the defensive end. That end would always be Red Bryant in the Seahawks defense. The weakside linebacker is off the line of scrimmage, and can play anywhere from behind the defensive tackles to shading outside the right defensive end. Remember that Wright's first career start in the NFL was at middle linebacker. The critical aspect to that WILL spot is being able to hold up against the run as teams are induced into running that direction. An undersized defensive end is over there facing the offense's left tackle, which is generally a better run match-up than going after Bryant and a linebacker standing over Bryant's shoulder.

Wright has a nice skill-set for that role. Now, when the team goes to their Nickel defense--which happens a ton--an extra defensive back comes on the field (Antoine Winfield) and a linebacker leaves. Last year, that was Hill that left. This year, that could be either Irvin or the team could consider pulling Bryant and sliding Irvin or Avril in at left end. The major point being that Wright would stay on the field as much as he did last year, but just from a different spot on the field.

Irvin is incredibly athletic, and putting him in this role means that he won't have to face offensive lineman as much. He can battle tight ends while Bryant takes on the tackle. This can make him a more effective pass rusher, and get him on the field more often. He also has shown the ability in practice to run down ball carriers from behind. He is tenacious. Part of the SAM responsibility is to scrape down the line and pursue the ball carrier. This was one of the few things Aaron Curry did well from the SAM spot. Irvin will still need to improve his technique in setting an edge against the run, but he's got a better chance of accomplishing that against tight ends than left tackles, which would have been his job as a LEO.

It is still not clear where this leaves Cliff Avril. He might be the LEO, but I have heard Quinn and Carroll refer to Michael Bennett as a "base defensive end." Playing Bennett in the base defense means he would be in on first and second down in many cases. The team is not starting him over Bryant, so that really only leaves the other end spot. Bennett is the only end on the team that is plus against the run and can rush the passer. It makes sense that the team would want him on the edge early, and then slide him inside in passing situations to play 3-technique tackle like Jason Jones did last year.

Avril is a mystery at the moment. Could he be battling with Irvin for starting SAM? Would they possibly just play him as a situational pass rusher a la Raheem Brock? That would be a lot of money for a guy that would play only 30% of the snaps. I had, like most, assumed that Avril would start at LEO, that Irvin would reprise his situational pass rush role from last year and that Bennett would play 3-Tech DT in passing situations. All of that is being challenged now, and my best educated guess is that Bennett and Irvin have a clear role in the base defense, while Avril may not. This will be one of the more fascinating aspects to watch unfold as we get reports from OTAs and mini-camps in the coming weeks.

In case you are wondering, the base defense 3-technique defensive tackle needs to be someone stout against the run. That is why the Jesse Williams pick could be so impactful. He has the best chance of any draftee to earn a starting role. That is a part-time role, that comes off the field when Bennett slides in side, but it is crucial to keeping teams like the 49ers from being able to control the game on the ground. Williams will see competition from Tony McDaniel and Clinton McDonald. Bennett will rotate inside with Jordan Hill and Greg Scruggs. Depth will not be the issue.

So while there is plenty still to be discovered, there are some things we can say with confidence: Wright will not see his playing time diminish, Irvin will get a shot at SAM linebacker, and Bennett will get time inside at DT in passing situations. The scenario I've painted above is the most logical way to accomplish those immovable objects, but it is not the only way this could play out. The Irvin experiment could fail, making it more likely that Wright would remain at SAM and Smith would get a chance to start at WILL. Avril could win the SAM spot. Avril could be the starting LEO. There is even some small chance that Bennett will push Bryant at the 5-technique spot, but I have not seen any indication of that. Things get even more confusing when Chris Clemons gets back, and Carroll is making it sound like that is more likely as his recovery is ahead of schedule.

There is reason to cheer for the Irvin experiment to work, as it would mean the Seahawks would have two legitimate pass rushers on the field at all times without sacrificing run defense. They have not managed to do that yet during the Carroll era. It could make for a key improvement to an already vicious defense.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Rapid Reactions: Seahawks 2013 Draft

Three days and 254 picks later, the 2013 NFL Draft is behind us. There will be plenty of analysis in the days and weeks to come, but here are some immediate reactions to what the Seahawks did:

- The Christine Michael pick stood out more and more as I thought about it. I am not a fan of drafting running backs before the 3rd or 4th round. I don't think John Schneider is either. He and Pete Carroll have never used more than a 4th round pick on a running back. In fact, they did not use any picks on running backs in their first two drafts, unless you count the 4th rounder they sent to Buffalo for Marshawn Lynch in 2010. Robert Turbin was a 4th round pick last year. The position is already a strength on the team. Roll that all together, and it would seem Michael was off the charts on their draft board in order to be worth a 2nd round investment. We still might find out about a suspension or injury at the running back spot that we don't know about yet, but for now, my assessment is the Seahawks believe they added a Pro Bowl running back.

- I can't quite figure out Tom Cable. The team drafted offensive lineman in the 1st and 3rd rounds his first year with the team when both were considered reaches. This year and last year, the team did not take a lineman until the 7th round, and two of them played defensive line in college. Pedigree or project, what do you want? The high level takeaway is that Cable likes the lineman he has on the team. Only their final pick was used on a tackle, which makes it far more likely Paul McQuistan is sticking around in 2013, as he and Mike Person are the only tackles on the roster outside of Breno Giacomini and Russell Okung. Some additional guards were taken, but it would be an upset if they beat out the existing guys on the roster. Keep an eye on Rishaw Johnson, who was an undrafted free agent last season that the team was high on at guard. He could wind up being a sleeper in the guard competition.

- No safeties. This was the biggest surprise for me. Maybe we will learn that Tharold Simon will be tried at safety, or that Byron Maxwell or Jeremy Lane will be cross-trained at safety. As of now, Jeron Johnson, Winston Guy and Chris Maragos have little-to-no competition. Knowing how much emphasis this defense places on safety play, it is surprising the team has not created a bigger pile of talent at the position.

- No linebackers. It sounds like some have been signed as undrafted free agents, but that says a lot about the plans at the position. If the team felt like it needed a starting caliber replacement for Leroy Hill, there is no way they would have gone through eleven picks without taking a linebacker, and most likely would have went early. Look at what the team did with K.J. Wright (first pick of the 4th round) and Bobby Wagner (early 2nd round) when they were targeting a starting linebacker. All signs point to Wright at WILL, with Malcolm Smith, Allen Bradford and Korey Toomer battling for a backup role.

- This draft will be judged by whether the team found at least 2-3 players that become starters, not including Percy Harvin. Although, he will be part of the assessment. At first blush, Jordan Hill seems like highest floor and lowest ceiling of the early picks. His energy and character appear to be impeccable. He feels like a Tim Ruskell pick, and before you freak, remember Brandon Mebane was a Ruskell pick. Michael clearly could become a star. The guy who I think Seahawks fans will be most excited about is Jesse Williams. The Seahawks have not had a defensive tackle of that size and that potential since Marcus Tubbs. If Russell Wilson was the Powerball aspect of last year's draft, Williams is certainly that for this year's draft. Everything else could fail, but if you find a Pro Bowl-caliber interior lineman, your draft was successful. Williams appears to have that kind of upside.

- Chris Harper fits the profile of the type of receiver the Seahawks are lacking. He is 230 lbs, but ran the 40 like Sidney Rice did at 200 lbs. There is reason to compare him to Mike Williams, although Williams was four inches taller and not nearly as fast. This will be the guy the front office will compare to Golden Tate, and decide whether to re-sign Tate after this season. It seems less likely the team will use Harper as a flanker to push Rice. We will learn more come training camp.

- Michael Robinson is going to face his toughest roster test to date. He is due to make $2.5M, the fullback position will likely get fewer snaps this year with read option and Harvin playing in the backfield, and the team drafted a player in Spencer Ware who could very well be converted to fullback. You have to wonder if Robinson, a Pro Bowl player, would fetch anything in a trade.

- The cornerback battle is going to be insane. Simon will be going against Maxwell, Lane, Thurmond, Winfield, Will Blackmon, and Ron Parker. Lane and Maxwell have a leg up because of their terrific special teams abilities. Maxwell has to prove he can stay healthy. There should be some trade value out of this group once it sorts itself out.

- No quarterbacks. There may end up being a player pushed off another team that is interesting to Seattle, like Dennis Dixon in Philly after the Eagles drafted Matt Barkley. I still have trouble seeing this as the back-up QB group come training camp.

- Darren Fells, Luke Willson and Sean McGrath will be a training camp battle worth watching. Willson spells his name with two "Ls," which is one strike against him, but he can spell it any way he wants if he is going to run a sub-4.5 40 at over 250 lbs.

This was not a sexy draft that will have instant impact all over the field. If any of these players start in 2013, it would be either a very good sign (they earned it) or a very bad sign (injuries forced it). These are the Freshmen coming into a team with 20 Seniors returning from a National Championship caliber season and 5 highly touted JuCo transfers. They enter the roster closer to the cut line than to the starting lineup. Have at it, young fellas! Super Bowls await.

NFL Draft: Thoughts Through Three Rounds

For a moment, I thought Pete Carroll and John Schneider had pulled the ultimate shocker by drafting the first woman in the NFL draft. Then I saw this:

And I saw this:

That is either one ugly woman, or one badass running back. Which brings us to the next immediate reaction, a running back? Seattle is blessed with Marshawn Lynch and Robert Turbin. Many people are not even counting Percy Harvin, but they should. He very well may get more reps out of the backfield than Michael. That's right--it is conceivable that the Seahawks just spent their first selection on a fourth-string player. If that is not commitment to a draft board, I don't know what is.

It was this sort of mindset that had me wondering aloud if the Seahawks would shock everyone by taking a quarterback early. Clearly, the team did not had high enough grades on any of the players available at that position to go that direction. 

Michael is a potential franchise running back. He has upside that jumps off the screen, and a running style that is well-suited to the type of offense Seattle runs. Lynch did not quite make my list of Core Players when I did my roster stack ranking a few months back, largely because of health concerns and ease of replacing his position. Lots of people were not happy about that. Lynch is 27, makes a hefty salary, runs with reckless abandon, and has been nursing a chronic lower back issue for a couple of years. It will be an upset if he is still on the roster in two years. This is a Ricky Watters and Shaun Alexander situation, except there are two Alexanders in this scenario. 

This does at least raise the question about whether there is a suspension the Seahawks know about that will effect the backfield. The team has a lot riding on Lynch's health and availability, but nearly as much now.

Jordan Hill was a more predictable selection in the third round. Schneider admitted as much in the post-draft press conference by saying DT was the one real need they had heading into the draft. It was such a need from his perspective, that he was worried they were artificially pushing guys up their draft board. He mentioned there was a big drop-off in talent after Hill. There is always a lot to learn from listening to Schneider in terms of how his mind works, and what trade-offs he will make. 

The team took Michael because his draft grade was so much higher than the other players available that it would betray their philosophy to do anything but grab him. Would they have preferred a DT to have a grade that high and still be on the board? Absolutely. But drafting is not as simple as taking the highest player on their board, or else there would be little need for Schneider and Carroll to even be there. Hill was picked to address a need. There may have been players rated higher on their board, but Schneider was not going to leave the draft without a DT of certain quality level, and there was not enough left after Hill to take the risk the team would come up empty. Middle linebacker was like that last year when the team had Bobby Wagner and Mychal Kendricks in the same class, and knew they needed to get one of them in the second round, or likely find themselves without a starting caliber player.

Hill appears to be a three-technique defensive tackle, the position Alan Branch played. He reminds me, though, a little of Brandon Mebane--squatty, active and disruptive. He is more known for his interior pass rush ability than his run stuffing, but I'm not so sure run defense is a weakness in his game. He was at the Senior Bowl, so fire up that DVR if you remembered to save those practices. I know I will.

This draft is so odd as a Seahawks fan. An average draft is roughly 30-40% about finding players to fill  roles in the upcoming season and 60-70% about finding prospects for future years. This draft for Seattle feels like that ratio is maybe 10% / 90%. Even a coaching staff that aggressively includes younger players in their rotations will have trouble finding meaningful snaps for many of the players taken this year. In some ways, this feels more like a baseball draft, where it could be years before the players ever impact the team.

That reminds me. The NFL does so much right with the way they run a draft, but this whole delaying of announcing the picks on the TV is broken. Announce the picks when they are made, or remove media access to the picks prior to the TV announcements. It is taking away from draft experience the way things are run now. Fix it.

A few extra notes:

- I don't mind the move the Cardinals made to add a talented player like Mathieu. He could be a great fit for them. I do mind that the GM and Coach spent a lot of time talking about him being on a short leash and that he apparently will submit to weekly drug tests. That sounds great, but it is a terrible plan to change behavior. They are saying from the outset of this relationship that they do not trust the player. If they believed the support he was getting and the changes he has made thus far had him on the right track, they would not need all this extra machinery around him. If they do not trust he is capable of turning around his life and behavior on his own, I question why they would invest a 3rd round pick in him. Punishment avoidance is only so effective as a behavior modifier. Smack a dog on the nose for going to the bathroom in the house, and he will find a hidden corner behind a plant to do it next time. 

- Tank Carradine is a nice pick-up for the 49ers. He does not appear heavy enough to play defensive end in their 3-4 at only 276 lbs. He seems more like a back-up to Aldon Smith. Vic Fangio knows what he is doing, though, so assume that will be a name the Seahawks get acquainted with.

- I like Vance McDonald a lot at tight end, but he will be nothing like Delanie Walker. There was a physical toughness that Walker brought to the offense that is completely lacking in McDonald. Walker was also capable of speeds and routes that McDonald is not. This was a nice pick-up for San Francisco, but still a downgrade from where they were.

- Still no Justin Smith replacement to speak of for the 49ers. They may be waiting until next year's draft to attack that role, but it is a major risk to their title hopes. I would have expected them to target a player aggressively to mitigate that risk, but perhaps there was nobody they liked enough.

- The 49ers continue to do a better job of stock-piling future picks than the Seahawks. A number of the  SF trades result in 2014 or 2015 picks, while Seattle just keeps adding picks for 2013. I will continue to prefer a 2014 4th round pick to a 2013 5th round pick. 

- Having said that, trading back six spots in the 2nd round to pick up a 5th and a 6th was a nice haul for Seattle. Those three 5th give the team flexibility today. Two of them could very well turn into another 4th today, or one of them could help move their 4th up the board should they choose. Then again, the 3rd through the 5th round is the meat of this draft. The team may just prefer to take a few more kicks at the can and hold onto all of them.

- Expect to see some offensive lineman come off the board on the earlier side for Seattle. Many of the talented wideouts have been taken at this point, but I would still expect one or two to be selected today.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Expectations For Seahawks 2013 Draft

You mean there is more? After gorging themselves on NFL free agency, and stocking up on elite talent the past three drafts, the Seahawks front office bellies up to the table once again and asks for dessert. The draft has always been among the most hopeful aspect of any NFL calendar. There are unknown trades to be made, players to be selected, and reactions from every direction. This draft is going to be very difficult for the Seahawks to navigate. Their starting 22 are quite possibly the most talented in the NFL and nearly every one of them is young. The quality of talent in this draft is not high compared to other years. Think 2009 without Mathew Stafford. Seattle has already traded away their first-round pick, putting that much more pressure on hitting it with picks that do not start until 55 players are already gone. It is a daunting concoction of risks that would overwhelm most front offices. John Schneider and Pete Carroll will stick to their guns, and it should be fascinating to see how they approach this gauntlet.

Seattle enters tonight with ten selections. Davis Hsu adroitly pointed out on our podcast that the Seahawks have never selected fewer than nine players since Schneider has been the GM. Assume that they will take at least that many again this year--despite my hope that that turn 2013 picks into 2014 or 2015 selections--and use those selections to buttress areas of the roster that are more risky than others.

Nothing is a lock with Schneider at the helm, but these are as close as it gets given the state of the roster and the positional value in this draft. I would be shocked if these positions are not drafted.

Offensive Tackle - Will take 1-2
The team needs someone to push Breno Giacomini and provide tackle depth in case of injury. Ideally, this would be a guy who could swing to guard, which would also allow the team to potentially move out from under Paul McQuistan's contract.

Edge Receiver - 1-2
Sidney Rice has a significant price tag in the coming years, Golden Tate is in the last year of his deal, and this draft is stocked with edge receivers. The team is well covered at the slot position.

Defensive Tackle - 1
The defensive line is the oldest position group on the roster. It is also among the most expensive. Run defense eroded at the end of last year, and their are largely unknown replacements for Alan Branch on the team. They need a guy 315+ lbs who can compete with the like of Mike Iupati.

These are positions just short of locks to be drafted, with the only risk being a player they like not falling to them.

Quarterback - 1
Seattle just signed Jerrod Johnson, and now have four quarterbacks on their roster. Expect it to be five after this draft. Every back-up on the squad right now has major question marks. That is not a position to leave to luck.

Cornerback - 1
Walter Thurmond and Antoine Winfield hit the free agent market after this season. There is other depth at the position, but nobody with clear aptitude for the nickel corner role.

Safety - 1
Kam Chancellor just got an extension. Earl Thomas should get one this year as well. Still, the depth behind them is thin. This, more the other positions in this grouping, depends on who falls to the team.

Tight End - 1
There are some nice options at this position in the draft, and the team will want to add some competition for Darren Fells as the third tight end.

The team has some needs at these positions, but selections will rely largely on what they do with the above positions and what talent presents itself on the board.

Linebacker - 1
Finding good linebackers is just not that hard, and the team could use another player to battle at the WILL spot even if K.J. Wright is moving there.

Offensive Guard - 1
Ideally, the team selects a tackle that can swing to guard. Tom Cable cross-trains all his lineman for multiple roles anyway. It is possible they choose to select a guard that could swing to tackle, but only if he is a steal at the point they draft him. The tackle skill set is more important to this roster.

LEO Defensive End - 1
Chris Clemons is injured. Cliff Avril is a two-year signing. Michael Bennett is one year. Bruce Irvin is already 26. They will never shy away from taking a guy they believe can rush the passer, even if he sits for a bit.

Here is my best guess at a draft recipe for 2013:
2 - Offensive Tackles
2 - Wide Receivers
1 - Defensive Tackle
1 - Quarterback
1 - Safety
1 - Tight End
1 - Linebacker
1 - Defensive End

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Permalink: Seahawks 5-Year Roster Outlook

I got tired of looking up contracts in Google everyday, and decided to capture the state of the most crucial players on the Seahawks in the new 5-Year Roster Outlook housed in the top-right tab above. If you are on a mobile device, click the drop-down menu that likely shows "Home" and choose "5-YR Roster Outlook."

It would have been WAAAAAAAY easier to create this in Excel or Google Docs, but I know Google Docs does not work well on iDevices, and many of you read the site on those. I built it as an HTML table, so it should display well on all browsers and screen sizes. You will likely need to view as landscape on a phone.

This should be a valuable resource for the Seahawks community. I hope you get some use out of it. I know I will!

>>>>Take a look

PODCAST: Talking Kam Chancellor, Possible Surprise Cuts, and Seahawks Draft with Softy

I joined Dave Softy Mahler today to talk about the recent signing of Kam Chancellor, what it means for players like Richard Sherman and Earl Thomas, and what to look for in the upcoming draft. Always a good time.


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Kam Chancellor Stands Tall Among Great Strong Safeties

Arizona Cardinals strong safety Adrian Wilson has put together a sterling career. He has made five Pro Bowls, was a First-Team All-Pro once and a Second-Team All-Pro twice. He is one of only five players in NFL history to have more than 25 sacks, 25 interceptions, and 15 forced fumbles over the course of his career. He is what Seahawks safety Kam Chancellor can be.

Chancellor signed a four-year contract extension with the Seahawks yesterday. The Seattle front office has to think of players like Wilson and Lawyer Milloy when investing in Chancellor for the long term. Milloy was 6'0" 210 lbs. Wilson stands at 6'3" 230 lbs. Chancellor represents the next step in punishing safeties at 6'3" 232 lbs. He was, as of last year, the biggest safety in the NFL. 

Chancellor's first two seasons as a starter stack up with some greats
Chancellor had a far more productive 2011 than 2012, especially when it came to impact plays like forced fumbles, interceptions, tackles for loss and sacks. The hope is the bone spurs in his ankles that were removed this off-season can help him return to the Pro Bowl form of 2011. He was All-Pro worthy in his first season as a starter. That is worth investing in.

Monday, April 22, 2013

TUNE IN: Hawk Blogger Joins Softy On KJR Tomorrow @ 4PM

I will be reprising my role as Softy's better half tomorrow afternoon at 4PM PST. I hope you all can tune in and give us a call if you want to talk Seahawks. 

PODCAST: Davis Hsu And Brian Talk Salary Cap And Draft

Kam Chancellor signs an extension. People want to know what that means for re-signing Richard Sherman and Earl Thomas. It is time to invite Davis Hsu back to get into the nitty gritty of the salary cap and so that's what I did. Davis and I covered the latest signing and went into detail about why we believe it will not preclude the team from keeping Thomas, Sherman, Russell Wilson and even Russell Okung. We debated Golden Tate's future on the roster and talked a little draft. Hope you enjoy it!


Note: My iTunes podcast solution recently changed the way things work, so this will not show up on iTunes. I will try to get that worked out for future podcasts.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Starting Matters On The Road

Pete Carroll loves to emphasize finishing. He was giddy when reinforcing the message after falling behind early in Washington during the playoffs, only to come roaring back. He even scoffed at a question on the radio about getting off to faster starts, saying he never talks about starting fast. History would tell Carroll to take another look at that stance.

The Seahawks have now played 37 seasons of football. They have exactly two seasons when they have had a winning road record (2005, 1984), and even then, each team only managed five road wins. Only twelve teams in franchise history have even finished with a .500 record. The franchise's overall road record is 110-179 for a winning percentage of 0.381. Not great. It is, however, rather typical for West Coast teams. There was a nice article written by Scott Kacsmar about how NFL teams perform on the road based on their time zone. In it, Kacsmar reviews the road record of every NFL team since 2007 and breaks out their performances by a number of axes. Care to guess the cumulative winning percentage of West Coast teams when traveling on the road from 2007-2011? It is 0.381.

Kacsmar goes on to examine the impacts of early starts vs. late starts and the data suggests the travel matters more than the start time. Pacific time zone teams traveling to the East Coast lost 74.6% of the time in the five seasons between 2007-2011, compared to a league average home winning percentage of 57.2%. The facts are, road games outside the Pacific time zone are very tough to win for teams on the West Coast.

I was curious how important fast starts were to winning these games. It turns out, pretty important if you are a Seahawks fan. In the three years Carroll has been coaching in Seattle, the team is 1-12 when trailing by even a single point at halftime. Overall, the franchise is 23-144 when trailing at halftime for a winning percentage of 0.138.  Conversely, when the team is tied or ahead on the road at halftime, they are 7-4 in the Carroll era and 87-35 overall (.713 winning percentage). If the Seahawks can manage a halftime lead on the road of even one point, their winning percentage rises to 0.753.

How the Seahawks start certainly appears to have a significant impact on whether they finish with a victory. Encouraging news for Seattle fans is that Carroll's 2012 Seahawks set the franchise record for most games where the team was either tied or ahead after the first quarter (14). In 14 of the team's 16 regular season games, they were either tied or ahead. They led after the first quarter in half their games, and went 7-1 in those games. They were tied or ahead at halftime in 12 of their 16 games, tying a franchise mark. So while Carroll may not emphasize fast starts, his team looks to be well-suited to them.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Cause and Effect: Seahawks Off-Season Thus Far

Scarcity is a hidden hero of NFL football. The salary cap, the roster limit, the off-season calendar all conspire to create urgency and boundaries that force hard decisions. A general manager can have the best quarterback on the free agent market, but that very well may force him accept league average players at two or three other positions. Big-name acquisitions can be misleading. Landing an older player can mean a younger and cheaper one does not develop. A team that loses a bidding war with a division rival can find themselves the winner when they are left with more cap space and draft picks. John Schneider and the Seahawks have had as dramatic an off-season as any team in the NFL, and each move brought repercussions. Cap room dwindles. Roster spots are taken. Needs are met. This off-season began with a labyrinth of possible directions for the team to go. The totality of theirs moves to date has illuminated a few possible paths forward for the roster, while dimming others. 

Weakside Linebacker = K.J. Wright
The linear path would indicate that the Seahawks have a hole at starting WILL linebacker. Sure, they have Malcolm Smith and Allen Bradford, but surely the team needs to bring in more talent to compete for the starting spot, right? There are more and more indications that both Cliff Avril and Bruce Irvin will combine to be the SAM linebacker, shifting K.J. Wright to WILL. Many have already discussed the possibility that Avril will get some snaps at SAM, and Dan Quinn corroborated that in his recent interview with Dave Mahler on KJR. I expect Irvin will see significant time there as well. Keep in mind, he is a converted safety in college. His athleticism could be elite in zone coverages, leading to lighting fast drops that are deeper than quarterbacks are accustomed to. And this still allows him to and Avril to be rushers on any down.

Red Bryant will continue to act as a 3-4 DE, whose primary job is to occupy the tight end and tackle and set the edge while the SAM crashes the corner. Aaron Curry attempted to play on the line of scrimmage in this role, but had no pass rush instincts to speak of. Irvin and Avril could benefit greatly from Bryant's presence and the simplicity of this role. 

Moving Wright to WILL is a risk in that he was effective at SAM, but it is a small risk. Weakside linebackers are asked to make plays in space, shed blockers and read short-yardage plays like screens and swing passes. Wright excels in these areas. This could be the position that maximizes Wright's play-making ability, and helps to get the most talented players on the field. 

As of now, this direction is highly probable. The next indicator if it true will be how early the team drafts a linebacker next week. My guess is we will not see one until round four or later, most likely five or later. 

Fullback Role Marginalized
I love Michael Robinson. He appears to be a fantastic teammate, a tough guy, and a terrific lead blocker for Marshawn Lynch. He also very well may have played his last game for the Seahawks. His snaps were already reduced with the introduction of the read-option package last season. It will be further reduced when we see Percy Harvin in the back-field with Lynch. Lynch was often a single-back runner in college and in Buffalo. The fullback inclusion has been as much about Robinson as it has been about the offense. The team could very well add an H-Back style tight end that can motion into the back-field as a lead blocker. Robinson is also set to make $2.5M this year. He will either accept a significant salary reduction, or he will be taking snaps elsewhere. 

Surprise Draft Choices That Should Not Surprise
Many mock drafts and draft analysts will look at the WILL linebacker spot as the lone remaining starting role from last season that has not been filled, and project a linebacker drafted early. Expect otherwise for the reasons listed above, and do not be surprised if the team to goes after a position like quarterback or wide receiver.

This team acquired Harvin. Why in the world would they use an early pick on a receiver? Harvin is not a classic split end. He gets most of his snaps in the slot, although he can split out wide and be used in 2x0 formations that have him and Sidney Rice as the only receivers on the field on the same side of the formation. Golden Tate is also not a classic split end, and is an unrestricted free agent at the end of this season that is unlikely to fit within the team's budget. This draft is stocked with terrific receiver prospects, many of them lanky and fast, perfect for the split end role. Finding someone that could push Rice would not be a bad idea either, based on injury history and future contract uncertainty. If the right talent is sitting there in the 2nd or 3rd round, Schneider will not hesitate to add talent to an already stocked position group.

Quarterback is a bigger stretch, but Brady Quinn and Josh Portis are unlikely to be alone in the battle for the back-up role. Quinn is a veteran insurance policy. The front office would love to see a younger player with more upside win that spot. If a starting caliber player falls to them, they will pull the trigger. 

Other Clear Needs - Offensive Tackle, Safety, Linebacker
The Seahawks are thin at offensive tackle. Breno Giacomini is not the massive liability that a portion of the Seahawks fan base seems to think he is. His pass protection is below average at times, but his run blocking and fit with the other players on that line is better than most realize. That said, he will have competition and better quality depth behind him. 

Winston Guy may step up as a starting-quality safety behind Kam Chancellor, but the team needs to draft more talent at the spot to be sure. There is little reliable depth at the safety spot if Chancellor goes down, and an even bigger gap if Earl Thomas is out. Chris Maragos, Jeron Johnson and Guy are solid role players, but only Guy would appear to have future starter potential. There are quality safety prospects in this draft that will surely tempt the front office.

Even with Wright, Avril and Irvin likely playing large linebacker roles, the team will certainly look to add players that can play WILL or SAM on the chance that the change of roles for those three players does not pan out.

Less Clear Needs - Offensive Guard, Nickel Corner, Tight End, Defensive Tackle
The health of James Carpenter is paramount. He is the only certain starting-caliber guard on the roster. Paul McQuistan, John Moffitt and J.R. Sweezy all started last year, but none have played well enough to earn starting expectations for 2013. McQuistan is a possible salary cap casualty, meaning guard depth will be even more important as he is the only one who has managed to stay healthy and ready thus far. The team will likely look for a player that could swing between right tackle and guard.

Seattle has an embarrassment of riches at the cornerback position. Set aside Brandon Browner and Richard Sherman for a moment, the combination of Antoine Winfield and Walter Thurmond could start for 70% of the league. That is without even bringing up Jeremy Lane, Byron Maxwell and Will Blackmon. Still, Thurmond and Winfield are unrestricted free agents after this season, and none of the other players have proven they can play nickel corner. The team could spend one of their many picks on this role.

The signing of Darren Fells was a quiet start to what became a frenzy of free agent activity for Seattle. It is not clear whether the team sees him as a long-term project or a potential role player this season. There are a number of tight ends worth looking at in the draft, and what the team does at that position will give a good indication where Fells falls on the depth chart.

Any time the team can add a disruptive interior lineman, they will do so. There is a rather large pile now  at the tackle position with Jaye Howard, Brandon Mebane, Tony McDaniel, Greg Scruggs, Clinton McDonald, and players that swing inside like Michael Bennett and Bryant. Only McDaniel and McDonald are proven gap eaters at 3-technique tackle, and only as rotational players. Quinn may feel comfortable with what he has, but it would not be a surprise to see a thick run stuffer added to the mix.

No True Needs
Ok, I lied. This team does not need the draft next week to compete for a Super Bowl. They have answers at every position. They simply will be adding levels of luxury to an already-loaded roster. Even then, the priorities described above are based on what positions have the most risk now, and in the near future, due to performance, contract status, durability, and importance of position. Pull out your popcorn, because there should be no stress associated with the draft next week. 

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Thanks A Million!

From free agent Julius Jones to free agent Antoine Winfield, from starting cornerback Kelly Jennings to starting cornerback Richard Sherman, from drafting Aaron Curry to drafting Russell Wilson, it has been a pleasure to share my thoughts and analysis with all of you the past six years. After happily writing in obscurity for the first three years, totaling somewhere around 60,000 views, it is more than a little surreal to celebrate crossing the 1,000,000 views threshold this past week.

I started this blog because I had nobody I could obsess about the Seahawks with in my life. And, clearly, I am obsessed. I used to read the Seattle Times, Seattle PI and Tacoma News Tribune Seahawks coverage every day. Commenting on articles was not enough. My hope was that I could pour my obsession into a sort of diary and eventually build a small community to discuss Seahawks football with.

The last two years have turned this hobby into a home away from home. I have met players, coaches, media members, but far more meaningfully, I have met many of you. Only the truly fanatical Seahawks fan would have found their way to this small corner of the Internet. I write now for more than just myself. Seeing people reading and discussing this blog is among the most humbling and rewarding experiences of my life.

In many ways, it was easier when nobody was reading. I could go months without writing an article and few, if any, folks would notice. It was easier to call a player or a coach out when I didn't know they might read what I wrote. I still don't pull any punches, but it has forced me to be more certain of the points I want to make and more clear in how I state my case.

Those of you that have full-time jobs and kids know that life becomes about priorities as you get older. I do not get to discuss things as much with people on this blog as I would like, but I have used Twitter as a way to have the conversation I always hoped to find regarding the Seahawks. The age of stories written 140 characters at a time is upon us. The amount of people that "read" my stories by simply reading the headline on Twitter grows every day. But so does the number of people like you that read the full story and challenge me or agree with me. I love the debate nearly as much as I love the writing.

The next chapter in this blogs story is yet to be written. I rarely think beyond the next article, and only this year attempted to make any money from it, in order to donate it all to Ben's Fund via FEATofWA. I would love to find a Seahawks fan that has web development skills that likes the idea of building a better Seahawks blogging web site. I would like to find a way for the community to contribute content beyond commenting. I probably will stay independent, after turning down a variety of offers to join larger blog networks. I already have one job. I'd hate for this blog to become an obligation instead of a passion. Mostly, I just plan to continue writing when time allows and inspiration strikes. This should be the most exciting period of Seahawks football in franchise history. I can't wait to obsess about it with all of you.

Thanks for reading, and making my experience as a rabid Seahawks fan, so much more fulfilling. Go Hawks!

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Birds Of A Different Feather: The 2011 Eagles and 2013 Seahawks

It is entirely possible that the Seahawks front office has signed another marquee free agent in the time it took me to write this sentence. They are setting the NFL ablaze by adding big name after big name to a roster that already was among the favorites to win the Super Bowl. A few things start to happen when a team adds so much talent, so quickly:

  1. The national media starts to pay attention
  2. Casual fans start to talk about the team as if it is a dynasty in the making
  3. More knowledgeable fans remind the casual fans that Super Bowls are not won in free agency
  4. People start to point out the model franchises like Green Bay, Pittsburgh and Baltimore rarely make a splash in free agency 
  5. And, the most recent addition, someone will point out the 2011 Philadelphia Eagles as a cautionary tale

Bringing up the Eagles is fair when evaluating the 2013 Seahawks off-season. Seattle has arguably added more talent than the Eagles did, and the amount of talent Philadelphia added that year was unprecedented. If the lesson to be learned from the disastrous Eagles 2011 off-season was that adding too much talent, too fast, was a bad thing, then the Seahawks fans should be worried. Take a closer look, though, and you will find significant differences to both the style and substance of how these two franchises became the talk of their respective off-seasons. You may even come to believe the 2011 Eagles are not the cautionary tale so many would have you believe.

The Lead-Up

The Eagles and Seahawks started their respective off-season shopping sprees from different places. Philadelphia was coming off a division title they had won with the help of a near-MVP season from reborn Michael Vick. They lost in the first round of the playoffs at home to the Packers. Their team was comprised of a potent offense that could score from anywhere on the field and an opportunistic defense. It was a defense that was too often victimized through the air as they surrendered the third-highest number of passing touchdowns in the NFL.  Overall, it was the 21st ranked defense in points allowed, 15th in rushing yards surrendered and 14th in opponent passing yards. This was a lopsided team that appeared to have a championship caliber offense that was held back by a middle-of-the-road defense.

Seattle finished last season just out of the division title themselves, even though they had one more win than the 2010 Eagles had managed. This was a team that featured the 2nd-youngest starting lineup in the NFL, and a rookie quarterback that burst onto the scene. They won their first playoff game on the road, and were thirty seconds away from reaching the NFC title game. Their defense ranked first in the NFL in points allowed, and fourth in yards allowed. The offense averaged over 33 points per game over the last half of the season, and finished the year as the best offense in the NFL when considering the opponents they faced, according to, In fact, the team finished as the top ranked team in the NFL overall based on Football Outsiders weighted rankings. Las Vegas sports books saw the Seahawks as a top five Super Bowl favorite before making any moves in the off-season. The team, however, saw areas that were holding them back from true dominance. The pass rush was inconsistent and finished below league average. The offense was built for power, but lacked explosiveness at times.

The Players

Philadelphia attacked their perceived weaknesses. First, they traded backup quarterback Kevin Kolb to the Arizona Cardinals for a 2nd-round pick and a Pro Bowl cornerback in Dominque Rodger-Cromartie.  They shocked the league, and themselves, by landing another Pro Bowl corner in Nnamdi Asomugha. Defensive tackle Cullen Jenkins brought more pass rush along the interior line, while Jason Babin added  pass rush to the edge. They added a few less heralded signings like running back Ronnie Brown, guard Evan Mathis and backup quarterback Vince Young, who dubbed the Eagles, "The Dream Team."

The Eagles had seemingly shored up their secondary with fantastic corners to compliment already accomplished Asante Samuel, added to their already potent pass rush, and convinced a starting-caliber quarterback to accept a back-up role behind the often-injured Vick. The moves were logical and involved players of proven talent.

Seattle started their off-season with a blockbuster trade as well when they landed Percy Harvin from the Minnesota Vikings for three draft picks. Harvin was an MVP contender before getting injured last season. The Seahawks added Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett to help address their pass rush challenges. It remains unclear exactly what roles both will play, except that Avril will rush the passer from the edge, and Bennett will rush the passer from the inside on passing downs. Most recently, the team signed Antoine Winfield to play their nickel corner position. Nickel corner had been a weakness on a secondary that still held opposing quarterbacks to the 3rd-worst rating in the NFL.

Age & Money

A truism in free agency has always been that it is always more expensive to buy talent on the open market than to develop it through the draft. It has also been true that signing older players in free agency can back-fire due to injury and fading physical abilities. With that in mind, let us look at the money both teams spent and the ages of the players they spent it on:

The Eagles and Seahawks both spent $25M in guaranteed money on one player. History would suggest putting that kind of money into a 29-year-old as the Eagles did with Asomugha is riskier than spending it on a 24-year-old as Seattle did with Harvin. The release of Asomugha just two years after he was signed is further evidence to the risk of contracts like that for players of that age, especially when switching teams and schemes. Interestingly, the less heralded signing of Evan Mathis ended up being the big haul for the Eagles, as Mathis has become an All-Pro guard.

Babin and Jenkins signed flashy long-term deals that look impressive on paper, but neither is on the Eagles roster two years after signing, and the team is only paying $600K in dead money for cutting those deals short. The guaranteed money shows a similar level of commitment the Eagles had with those players that the Seahawks have with Avril and Bennett. The numbers are just more sincere out of the gate.

The upside of signing players like Avril and Bennett versus Babin and Jenkins is their age provides Seattle a greater chance to find a player that could be a longer-term solution should the team and player decide the match is a good one. Both players would be younger when signing their next contract than Babin and Jenkins were when signing with the Eagles.

Not every Eagles and Seahawks signing was included. Darren Fells made the list because he was given a three-year deal and has the opportunity to be the under-the-radar addition that Mathis was for the Eagles. That is not to say he will be an All-Pro, but at age 26 with little fanfare, he could be a surprise.

Rodgers-Cromartie was not included in the Eagles list since he was not signed to a new deal when he was acquired by Philadelphia. Harvin, to some extent, is really a 2014 free agent signing as the Seahawks extended his deal that was set to end after the 2013 season. Still, the commitment was made this year.

Winfield is the outlier for Seattle at age 35. He is not part of the team's long-term plans, but the risk is almost nil considering the length and dollars in the contract.

The Intangibles

Seattle and Philadelphia look pretty similar when examining the guaranteed money spent. The real differences come in items that are not as easy to quantify. Asomugha, for example, was asked to play more zone coverage with the Eagles and less of the press man that he excelled at in Oakland. There is debate about whether the scheme changes were at fault for his significant falloff in performance or he was slowing due to age. Again, one of the costs of signing a player around the age of 30, is it is harder to isolate what performance issues are physical degradation versus something else.

Harvin, by contrast, is being brought to Seattle to do exactly what he did in Minnesota. In fact, he will have the same offensive coordinator, Darrell Bevell, that he broke into the league with a few years back. He will be playing opposite the same wide receiver in Sidney Rice that he played with in Minnesota. He is also 24, leaving little concern that he is nearing any point of wearing down physically.

The other high-profile players the Seahawks signed are to fill very specific roles on the defense that emphasize things they have already proven they can do well. Winfield will be a nickel corner, something he is arguably better at than any other player in the NFL. Bennett, like Harvin, is being reunited with the coordinator he worked with when breaking into the league. Dan Quinn was the line coach for the Seahawks when Bennett was signed as an undrafted free agent, and is now the Seahawks defensive coordinator. Bennett played defensive end for the Bucs, but made most of his money swinging inside on passing downs to the three-technique defensive tackle spot. The Seahawks employed Jason Jones as the interior disruptor last year, and Bennett offers Jones' interior ability while also providing better upside on the edge. 

Avril is likely to get a shot at the starting LEO position, which is where the injured Chris Clemons has played the last three seasons. It is a place for undersized speed rushers to attack the passer from the edge on every down. Avril may not do everything well, but he can get to the quarterback. There is some talk that Avril may become the team's starting SAM linebacker, which he has experience with in college, but that would qualify as the biggest reach of the moves the team made. Pete Carroll has shown a pattern of testing out fits for players in mini-camps and training camp before committing one way or another. If the team does want to see what Avril looks like at linebacker, they can do so while having the safety net of knowing he can play LEO if the linebacker role does not look good.

Even better for the Seahawks, they may not need these players to excel in order to reach their championship goals. Again, this was the #1 defense in football in terms of points allowed without any of these new defenders. They lost one key member to injury in Clemons, although his availability is still to be determined for 2013, and they lost two important members in Alan Branch and Jason Jones. There is some belief those players replacements were already on the roster.

Assume, for a second, that Clemons cannot come back this season. The team now has Avril, Bennett and last year's number one pick, Bruce Irvin, on the roster to replace him. It is a good bet at least one of them will pan out. Branch will be replaced by some combination of McDaniel, Clinton McDonald, and Jaye Howard. Jones will be replaced by Greg Scruggs, Bennett, Howard and possibly another draft pick this year. If Winfield gets hurt, or is ineffective for any reason, Walter Thurmond, Jeremy Lane, and Byron Maxwell are waiting in the wings.

The Seahawks hopes are not dependent on these additions "completing the puzzle." They have been done to create depth and increase the odds that weaker parts of the team get stronger. Should they all fall flat, and that seems highly unlikely given the players past performances and how it matches with what they will be asked to do in Seattle, the Seahawks will still compete for a championship with one of the best young quarterbacks in football, one of the best running games in football, and the best secondary in the NFL.

The Taboo

If after all this, you still think the Seahawks are following the Eagles footsteps into a certain downward spiral caused by a gluttonous off-season, consider the unthinkable--the Eagles 2011 off-season was largely effective. 

Remember how the Eagles had struggled with a mediocre defense in 2010, especially in the secondary?  They improved from a ranking of 21st in points allowed in 2010 to 10th in 2011. They improved from 12th in yards allowed to 8th. Where they really fell on defense was that almost impossible to control category of takeaways, as they went from 5th in 2010 to 17th in 2011. Still, the story of the Eagles failed 2011 season had little to do with their off-season additions. 

Vick had a miserable season behind a bad offensive line, and eventually gave way to Young due to injury. DeSean Jackson mailed it in after fighting about his contract. That offense that had ranked 3rd and 2nd in points scored and yard gained, respectively, fell to 8th and 4th in 2011. 

That had nothing to do with Asomugha's ability to play zone coverage. Babin registered 18.0 sacks. Jenkins had a very respectable 5.5 sacks. I already touched on Mathis becoming one of the best guards in the NFL. And the franchise is out from under all these contracts for a very modest $4.6M in dead money just two years later. 

The lesson to be learned from the Eagles 2011 off-season may not be about lavish spending or plentiful additions. It may be that the foundation they thought was solid enough to build on was severely cracked. Vick was a bad bet for a franchise quarterback given his injury history. Maybe Jackson should have been taken care of before spending outside the org, or traded for a big return. The free agents were largely good additions piled on top of a rotten core. 

Only The Clinically Paranoid...

People that want to compare the Seahawks off-season to the Eagles in the hopes that it will spell certain doom are really hoping the 2012 Seahawks were an illusion. They are hoping Russell Wilson was a one-year wonder. They are hoping Richard Sherman, Earl Thomas, Kam Chancellor and Brandon Browner are not the players they have shown the last two seasons. They are hoping Marshawn Lynch, Russell Okung, Max Unger, Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright are due for a fall. 

Opponents hoping that more talent will lead to subtraction by addition is just that, hope. There is not a lot of evidence to suggest the Eagles should be held up as a cautionary tale to big free agent additions. It is much more a cautionary tale of who you bet your franchise on. I will take Wilson over Vick any day in that debate. 

The rest of the league should be afraid, very afraid, if Bennett and Avril total the 23.5 sacks that Babin and Jenkins did for Philadelphia. There may never have been a secondary in the NFL that will match the talent the Seahawks could throw out there if Winfield is the player he has been in the role he knows so well. The most dominant offense in the NFL, based on Football Outsiders objectively weighted formulas, added a player so explosive that he was challenging for league MVP a year ago at the age of 24. He will be reprising the same role with an offensive system built to take advantage of his skill set and with a quarterback better than any he has played with since Brett Favre. 

None of this guarantees the Seahawks will win the Super Bowl, or even have a winning season. There are endless variables from injury to schedule to the bounce of an oddly shaped ball that can turn a season. What these moves do is significantly increase the odds that the Seahawks will be the most dangerous team in the NFL at least in 2013, and possibly for years to come.

Monday, April 8, 2013

The Unauthorized Story Of Matt Flynn In Seattle

History is written by the victors. Matt Flynn will exit the Seahawks roster hoping for an opportunity to finally grab the quill. The accepted narrative of his time in Seattle will be that he was the high-priced free agent signing brought in to start for the Seahawks who was beaten out by an irrepressible rookie. Part of that is true. Much of it is not. I am here to share the story as I witnessed it. The portability demands of a good story require much of the detail and complexities to be removed. Collapsing the story of Matt Flynn in Seattle to 140 characters would rob it of the texture that makes it such a telling tale of life in the NFL. Opportunity and success are fleeting, and the factors that contribute to them are ever-shifting. The path to glory may only open for an instant. Supremely gifted players often find the path is paved. Players like Flynn, the ones whose talent is not as easily discerned, face a gauntlet. They are not to be pitied. Many would gladly take their place. The NFL image is built on the shoulders of superstars that are analyzed and publicized without pause. Yet, it is the untold stories of players on the edge of glory that often merit a second look. This is one such story.

The Courtship

Flynn entered free agency with the same luck he has had throughout his career. He sat behind a #1 overall draft pick in college before getting the chance to start as a senior and win an NCAA title. He sat behind arguably the best quarterback in the league in Aaron Rodgers after beating out a 2nd round pick for the back-up job. Peyton Manning made sure his free agent experience was familiar by creating a feeding frenzy unlike any the league had seen. Helicopters followed his every move. Private jets were sent on the hope teams could entice him to even talk with them. All Flynn had done was throw for nearly 500 yards and six touchdowns in his last start. It was not only Manning that crowded the quarterback picture, but a once-in-a-generation quarterback class exiting the college ranks that included Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III, and at least four or five other players that had franchise potential.

Add to that the Kevin Kolb Effect. The league had seen what happened when Arizona traded for a relatively unproven back-up. Where there had once been potential in the masked value of back-up quarterbacks like Matt Schaub, Mark Brunell, Aaron Brooks, front offices now were fixated on risk. Seattle had felt their own fool's gold pain with the Charlie Whitehurst trade.

Flynn entered a market with no team willing to bet their future on a free agent other than Manning. The draft provided too many low-cost alternatives with the possibility of higher upside. Still, Seattle was interested because their front office prefers to enter the draft without any absolute roster need they have to fill. They approach free agency in stages and for different purposes. Flynn represented a chance to improve their quarterback position, and keep them from feeling the need to do something desperate in the draft like trading up or picking a player too early.

It was a surprise that Flynn chose to visit Seattle first. Seattle already had Tarvaris Jackson, and would certainly not guarantee Flynn a starting role. Miami seemed like the more logical fit. The thought was that Flynn was using the Seahawks to set the market and gain leverage before signing with the Dolphins. Leaving Seattle without a contract to fly down to Miami reinforced that notion. The shock was that, after receiving an offer from Miami, Flynn chose to sign with Seattle.

Nobody can say for sure whether Seattle offered more money. Many like to tell the tale that Joe Philbin was Flynn's offensive coordinator in Green Bay, and that Flynn's signing with Seattle proved that Philbin did not really want him in Miami. That is one of a dozen possible interpretations of that series of events. All indications I gathered over the last year was that Flynn chose the Seahawks because he thought the situation was better for him, not because the Dolphins were not interested in him. It is also true that the Dolphins were content to draft a young quarterback that could grow with their offense after trading troubled wide receiver Brandon Marshall earlier in the off-season.

Flynn's decision to sign galvanized the Seahawks fan base, and sent Dolphins fans into a rampage against GM Jeff Ireland. Despite saying all the right things about having to earn the starting spot and being eager to compete, I am convinced that Flynn was not fully aware of how Pete Carroll and John Schneider ran their roster.

He knew he would have to compete with Jackson, but also knew the front office was looking to improve the position or they would not have signed him. There was every reason to believe he would be the Seahawks starting quarterback, and be starting for a very good team.

The Draft

The signing of Flynn had the intended impact on the Schneider's approach to the draft. Both he and Carroll were fond of Ryan Tannehill, but could afford to see if he fell to them. There would be no mortgaging of future draft picks to climb up the board. Instead, they traded back and got 4th and 6th round picks that turned into Jaye Howard and Jeremy Lane. They drafted Bruce Irvin at #15. They traded back again in the second round and gained 5th and 7th round picks that turned into Korey Toomer and Greg Scruggs before selecting Bobby Wagner.

Would Schneider have been able to be patient and make those moves if he had not signed Flynn? Would he have been comfortable waiting all the way to the third round to draft Russell Wilson? Nobody can answer those questions, but there is no doubt that the security Flynn provided allowed Schneider maximum flexibility.

The moment Wilson's name was announced in the third round, I was convinced he would eventually be the team's franchise quarterback. This was a kid that had all the moxie you could want in your QB1, and seemed custom-made for the Seahawks play-action heavy offense. I even played with the idea of him as a rookie starter before training camp began. It just never seemed to be worth the risk to his development or to the team's chances when a player like Flynn was already available.

Carroll decided after rookie camp to add Wilson to the starting quarterback competition. Lots of people, including players, were surprised. People that know Carroll's history at USC were less surprised. It mimicked the Matt Barkley situation when he was a freshman at USC.

It is not clear from the conversations I have had whether Flynn was given a heads-up that the Seahawks planned to draft a young quarterback after signing him. What is completely clear is that he was not expecting to have a three-way competition for the starting role.

OTAs & Mini-Camp

All three quarterbacks took the field for the first time together in late May of 2012 for organized team activities (OTAs). There were three separate OTA periods. Two in late May, and one in early June. All the attention was on Flynn and Wilson. The silent story of those early practices was that Jackson was outplaying both of them. 

I heard it from players, and I heard it from reliable sources inside the organization. I had the chance to speak with Carroll before and after his Win Forever event that followed the mini-camps. He stressed multiple times that Flynn had no advantage in the quarterback decision due to his contract. Carroll and Schneider both said multiple times that they viewed the contract as simply the cost required to improve the level of competition at the position. Most people did not believe them. Speaking to them in person made it clear they were speaking the truth.

A number of additional conversations with sources at the VMAC at that time brought the surprising news that Jackson, not Flynn or Wilson, was winning the quarterback battle after mini-camps had completed. Fans and media had written Jackson off. Coaches, and especially players, had not.

Jackson's lead was partially due to his play, partially due to his chemistry with receivers, and largely to due with the disappointing showings from both Wilson and Flynn. Mini-camps were behind closed doors, but the reports I got were that Flynn was not throwing well, and Wilson appeared overwhelmed.

As was often the case through the quarterback competition, Carroll and Schneider gave clues to their feelings in the media. They were emphasizing Flynn's contract would not decide the race at this time, and also reminding everyone that Jackson was number one on the depth chart. They knew that if Jackson did win the race, they would need to spend months in the media preparing fans and analysts for what would be a shocking outcome. Things quickly changed in training camp.

Training Camp

Day one of training camp was terrible for all the quarterbacks. I walked away from the practice worried that the team had done little to improve the position for 2012. Jackson looked like the player he had always been. There were plenty of inaccurate throws, and periods where he held onto the ball for far too long. Flynn opened camp second on the depth chart. That is a fact many were quick to dismiss. Yet, it represented a very real statement of how the coaches and front office saw the race early on. 

Flynn was paid more than the other two quarterbacks in the competition, but it was not until weeks into the off-season program that he ascended to the top of the depth chart. That ascension began on day two of training camp when nearly ever pass he threw found the hands of a receiver. He was looking safeties off, and demonstrating rare anticipation. A quarterback that came in with a reputation for a weaker arm was making more connections down field than the other two quarterbacks combined. 

Wilson was spending much of his time taking safe, short throws underneath the defense. He was not ready to challenge them deep. Jackson was literally throwing a fair number of passes into the dirt during this phase of camp. Flynn was showing he was capable of elevating his game to heights Jackson was simply not capable of matching. 

The trend continued in the next few practices as each player had their opportunity with the first-team offense and faced the first team defense. The places where this showed the most was in 3rd down drills, red zone drills and full squad scrimmages. 

Seahawks defensive coordinator at the time, Gus Bradley, publicly commented on the difference in the offense when Flynn was running with the starters. The safeties both talked about how Flynn was helping them grow by looking them off so effectively. 

Friends and family of the players watching on the sidelines sensed the shift. Players were talking about it off the record. The transition to Flynn as the Seahawks new starter had begun. Relationships were starting to form on, and off, the field. A locker room was slowly starting to embrace the changing of the guard.

Flynn was earning respect on the field, and this team knew how good it could be with even a league average quarterback. It was an ideal situation for the front office as Flynn stepping forward would allow them to celebrate a modest price to pay for a quality starting quarterback and give their prized prospect in Wilson at least a year to develop. 

Everything I saw led me to confidently predict Flynn was going to secure the position as starter just a few days into camp. 

Pre-Season Begins

Players soon started feeling more confident about projecting Flynn as the starter as time went on. Two offensive lineman made clear insinuations on the radio that they knew who the starter would be, and there was no indication Wilson would be the guy at this point. He was playing well for a rookie, but anyone looking for evidence that he was ready to start would be disappointed.

Curiously, a coaching staff that often gave clues in media interviews to who was leading the quarterback competition, never spent much time talking about Flynn between practices. It was a clue that I missed at the time. They were starting to give him more reps in practice, but did not acknowledge it when asked by the media. They chose to start Jackson in the first team scrimmage. These were chances to help prepare fans for a new starter, but something was holding them back.

They announced Flynn had earned the start in the team's first pre-season game. This was the first public indication of what I had been seeing for a couple of weeks. Flynn would never admit it, but the lack of public praise, combined with the early elevation of Wilson into the quarterback competition, left him questioning how much the coaching staff and front office wanted him to win the job. 

Wilson would outplay Flynn from time-to-time in practice, and the coaches were quick to talk about it in the post-practice press conferences. I cannot recall a single time when they were effusive in praise of Flynn. 

Many would brush that aside as subjective nonsense. Perhaps it is. I look at the whole story to this point, and see a series of small clues that collectively point to a coaching staff and front office that looked at Flynn as an insurance policy, not a player they wanted to hand their team to. There was little urgency to sign him. More effort was made to lower starting expectations for him in the media than to build him up. 

Wilson was the guy the front office and Carroll loved. He was their guy. The only question was when he would be ready to grab the reigns. You could see how special he was in these practices, especially in the red zone where his creativity shined, but his anticipation was so far behind Flynn that is was difficult to see a scenario where he would win the job.

What I never saw, what the media never saw, was the silent battle happening off the field. Wilson was showing up first to the VMAC and leaving last. His now famous work ethic was in full effect. Flynn was a veteran that did not need the same level of study time that Wilson did, but the juxtaposition over the course of training camp was making an impression, and not a good one for Flynn. There was almost a sense that Flynn felt matching Wilson's hours would reduce his standing as a veteran. 

The larger question heading into the first pre-season game was whether the aggressive Flynn could restrain himself in the conservative Seahawks offense that put a premium on protecting the ball. It was clear Flynn approached the first game with that thought in mind as he completed eleven of thirteen passes, with most of them being short, high percentage throws. He looked almost nothing like the player I had seen in practice that was consistently passing up short throws for chunk plays that were higher risk and higher reward. This was a message from Flynn to the coaches that he could be their guy. 

Wilson flashed his potential at the front office like a flirtatious woman flips her hair. He hit Braylon Edwards on a long touchdown throw. It was against second and third string defenders, but for a front office already predisposed to Wilson as the future franchise player, it was impossible to ignore.

The pattern of faint Flynn praise from the coaching staff continued in the post-game press conference. I brushed it off at the time as the media's obsession with the Wilson story that was driving Carroll to answer those questions. Looking back, Carroll would have redirected the subject back to Flynn if he had wanted to. Listen to any Carroll interview, and you will notice he always steers the discussion back to the topic, or topics, he wants to highlight.

Game two of pre-season is where everything changed. Flynn was again named the starter, but by this time, there was another story dominating camp--Terrell Owens. 

The Terrell Owens Effect

Flynn entered his second pre-season start determined to prove that his first start was a demonstration of his ability to work within an offense, not a referendum on who he was as a quarterback. Fans that had only seen his first pre-season start began to see him as a game manager, which was ironic. This was a player who had eclipsed his seventh-round status in Green Bay by proving he could run the hyper-aggresive Packer offense that had helped to lift Aaron Rodgers to league MVP level. 

Complicating matters was the emergence of the Owens story. Seattle brought in Owens to challenge for the split end position opposite Sidney Rice. He had shown glimpses of his past talents in practice and had proved his purpose by exposing Ricardo Lockette as a pretender. Lockette had flashed early in training camp, but faded immediately upon arrival of Owens. This was not a player who would rise to a challenge, but a man who would acquiesce when confronted. Golden Tate had thrown his lot in with Wilson at this point. His girlfriend had made fast friends with Ashton Wilson, and Tate's ability to high point a ball had made him a trusted target of Wilson. 

The stage was set for a tide-turning game against the Broncos in week two of the pre-season. Carroll and Schneider needed to see if Owens could elevate their split end position. Flynn needed to fend off an ever-increasing challenge from Wilson. 

Flynn played a nearly perfect game that was sabotaged by a rusty Owens who was simply not good enough to be on the field anymore. Flynn flashed the savvy of a veteran by making terrific reads on a back-shoulder throws that Owens simply ran right by, not ready to make the adjustment. He showed he could throw deep as he placed a ball perfectly on Owens hands deep down the field that would have been a touchdown had Owens managed to catch the ball sitting between his hands. 

What should have been a performance that cemented Flynn as the 2012 starter of the Seahawks became a statistically-flawed outing that, coupled with another sterling Wilson showing, left Flynn vulnerable. This was the turning of the tide. 

The Unconventional Decision

Wilson had been more than a garbage time quarterback against the Broncos. His opening game against the Titans was little more than what Josh Portis had done in San Diego the year prior. This game offered a glimpse of the player I was so confident he could become. This was not a short quarterback. This was not a mobile quarterback. This was an NFL quarterback. 

This was great news. It was also late news. Flynn had been receiving starter snaps since before the first pre-season game. The three-way quarterback competition had robbed all three players of snaps and repetition with their receivers and lineman. There was barely a chance to establish a rhythm within a practice, let alone find an offensive rhythm that could be carried into a game. 

Wilson had clearly built a case to be the back-up quarterback, which was a significant accomplishment as a rookie. Jackson would be shipped off to Buffalo within a week of the Broncos game. As well as Wilson had played, it was still coming against players that either never played an NFL snap or likely would never get on the field. This was also pre-season, when defenses are as vanilla as they get. If Carroll really wanted to entertain thoughts of starting Wilson as a rookie, the Broncos game was as late as he could reasonably decide to see him against opposing starters. 

Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III were considered two of the best quarterback prospects in NFL history. They got every starter's snap throughout the off-season leading into their rookie years. Ryan Tannehill was named starter early in pre-season to give him every possible snap to prepare for what was ahead. The same was true for Brandon Weeden. Wilson was such a valuable commodity. The idea of risking his confidence by throwing him into the fire with a fraction of the time other rookies were getting to prepare seemed out of the question. Not to mention, benching Flynn at this point would have largely meant burning that bridge. 

Flynn had not sparkled, but he certainly had played well enough to beat out Jackson, and that was enough to win 10+ games with this team.  The locker room was ready for the competition to be over and hear Flynn named the starter. Everything had gone according to plan. The Seahawks were in great shape. There was no reason to take a risk.  It was 4th and 5 on the 50-yard line with five minutes to go in the fourth quarter, and they were up by a touchdown. Just punt the ball. 

Carroll relishes the chance to defy convention. He talked himself into going for it on this fourth down. Only he knows the reasons why. He has often joked about being "hormonal" during games when making risky decisions. This was not a split-second choice. He had time to think about it.

I was on a trip with my son to Orcas Island when I got a few texts telling me Wilson would start in the third pre-season game against the Chiefs. Those of you that follow me on Twitter know I react vociferously when I see a bad coaching decision during a game. That is what this news felt like.

I knew the message this would send to Flynn. It would confirm what he, and those around him, had believed from the time Wilson was added to the quarterback competition--that the front office wanted Wilson to win the job. No other coach in the NFL would have switched his starter, especially to a rookie, in the third pre-season game. This was a vote of no confidence for Flynn. It was also likely going to lead to a starting role for Wilson as a rookie. Rookie quarterbacks do not typically perform very well, and Wilson would be asked to start with far fewer snaps than any other rookie starter had ever had. This was a potentially fantastic team, with talent everywhere. It was a huge risk to put the season, and the fate of 52 other men in the hands of a rookie.

No matter what the outcome, this was a bad decision. You can go for it on fourth down at the 50 up by a touchdown late in the game and get the first down. That does not make going for it a wise choice. Wilson would eventually become one of the best rookie quarterbacks in the history of the NFL, but the way he was elevated to that role was reckless. Great players have a way of bailing their coaches out of bad decisions. Wilson did exactly that.

The Slow Start

The Kansas City Chiefs own the first pick in the 2013 draft after being the worst team in football last season. Their biggest contribution to the NFL in 2012 may have been helping to lift Wilson to the starting role when they were dominated by Wilson and the Seahawks in that third pre-season game in what became the closing statement of the quarterback competition in Seattle. Or, so it seemed. 

Wilson drew a tough first NFL start on the road in Arizona. The Cardinals defense was exotic and aggressive. His fellow rookie starter J.R. Sweezy was no match for Cardinals defensive tackle Darnell Dockett, which made life miserable for Wilson. When Wilson did get a chance to make a play, he was off-target. Wilson still nearly led a remarkable comeback. Still, his career started with a disappointing division loss.

He rose with a fine performance against the Cowboys where he was asked to do little, but excelled at what he did. His next two games raised questions about whether he was ready to start in the NFL. The Seahawks walked off with a victory against the Packers, but the final play became the league's largest controversy. The start against the Rams was terrible. Things were so bad that Carroll and Schneider were forced to consider replacing Wilson. He passer rating of 45.5 on third downs after four games was among the worst in the NFL, as was his 67.2 rating in the red zone. His talent was no less evident, but the polish only experience provides was nowhere to be seen. The team was losing games they would not have lost with even league average quarterback play.

The locker room was unsettled. Players like Sidney Rice, Zach Miller, Doug Baldwin and Tate entered the season with a lot to prove. They were drawing a lot of criticism for the early season struggles of the offense, but never pointed any fingers at their rookie signal caller. Still, it was evident that Wilson's play was going to effect more than just his career. 

Carroll decided to stick with Wilson for another week, with a focus on improving his play on third down. The decision to stay with Wilson was prudent. Switching back to Flynn at that point would have damaged Wilson's confidence and left the locker room questioning the coaches decision to start Wilson in the first place. 

Seattle went on to beat the Panthers, and Wilson's play on third downs was by far his best of the season up to that point. It was the start of a pattern where Wilson was able to focus on a part of his game and make rapid corrections. He would end the season as one of the best red zone quarterbacks in football, and his third down play from week five on was near elite. It was the last time there was any real quarterback controversy for the Seahawks.

Wilson ended the year as not only one of the best rookie quarterbacks in the history of the league, but one of the best quarterbacks in the game. Flynn ended the year getting a few snaps in mop-up duty of blowout wins.

The Fine Line Between Glory And Goat

Seattle finished one of their best seasons with eleven wins and half-game out of the division title. Wilson finished third in the rookie of the year voting, and made the Pro Bowl. They enter the 2013 season as favorites to win the Super Bowl, in large part due to the quality of the player they have manning the quarterback position. 

Nobody can say for sure what would have happened if Carroll stuck with Flynn as the starter heading into 2012. There is reason to believe the team would have gotten off to much faster start, as Wilson had far more adjusting to do early in the season than Flynn would have. It is not difficult to paint a picture where Flynn starting would have resulted in at least one extra victory and possibly home-field advantage in the playoffs for at least one round. It is also easy to compare Flynn and Wilson and see that Wilson is capable of heights Flynn simply could never reach. Doubting the ceiling of a player that threw for six touchdowns in his last start, however, may not be wise.

What we do know is that Flynn was this close to starting for Seattle. He did not lay an egg in training camp. He was not outclassed by a rookie. A coaching staff and front office that knew their legacy would be defined by the decision they made at quarterback chose to put their weight behind the player they had targeted for more than a year. They chose the player whose tireless work ethic gave them confidence he would overcome the challenges he was certain to face. 

The simple story that will be told is that a high-priced free agent was beaten out by an upstart rookie. There is certainly some truth to that simplicity. I see a hard luck player that partially misread the situation he was entering, and was partially misled about what he was being brought in to do. He was the guy the front office expected to win the starting job, but was never the guy they wanted to win it. He was a player that handled devastating professional news privately, and without incident. 

He will now continue his career in Oakland, surrounded by little talent, and modest expectations. Success may forever elude him. Or, he may pen his own tale of redemption and glory. That is life in the NFL. Men are not measured by how many times they are knocked down, but how many times they stand back up. Flynn is dusting himself off once more, and I hope to see him stand tall soon enough.