There is no poetry or wisdom or statistical research to ameliorate the sting of the Seahawks latest loss. The Tampa game shook us, but the hope was it was a lesson learned. The Packers game humiliated us, but they were the last quality opponent and the path to a playoff bye was still easily traversed. This loss to the Cardinals should cause all but the most hawktoxicated fans to relinquish championship aspirations. For the third time in the past five weeks, the Seahawks were outmuscled and unprepared. More than the outcome, it was the way this game unfolded that told a more troubling tale.
Pete Carroll talks a lot about connectedness. He sees the way a tough running game sets up big play passes and increases time of possession. That, in turn, limits opponent chances and makes the job easier for the defense. He highlights the way a pass rush connects to secondary play and how a strong run defense sets up that pass rush. More than any game I can remember in the past few years, this Seahawks team looked like a jumble of parts instead of a whole. The defense would do their job only to see the offense fumble. The offense would make some progress only to see the special teams blow a field goal. The running game would appear, only to see the team avoid it thereafter. A hulking 6’7″ manchild bulled his way for a 37-yard touchdown, but was forgotten most of the game. Most egregiously, the moribund offense clawed their way back to within three points after a two-point conversion made it 21-18, only to see the defense give up a touchdown in four plays. That was not a team working together. That was not brothers united. It was a collection of individuals. Football is like those old Christmas lights–it only takes one faulty bulb to render the whole string inoperable.
It starts with the offensive line. Fifteen games into the season, there is no debating the organization’s gambit on going cheap and young on the line has failed. It has failed so completely that the organization would not be holding true to their principles if they do not evaluate whether Tom Cable is the right line coach for this team. After an encouraging start, the Seahawks now rank 24th in sacks allowed and 27th in sack rate (sacks per dropback). This will make the 11th straight season that a Cable-coached offensive line will rank 25th or worse in sack rate. I really like Cable. I like what he stands for and how he approaches the game. There is little doubt that John Schneider and Carroll feel the same way. That cannot stop the truth from being told. Cable has a blind spot. He has shown no ability to assemble either the talent or the scheme necessary to protect NFL quarterbacks.
He has a primary hand in determining the types of linemen he wants. Schneider bears responsibility for the personnel, but his scouting department prides itself on meshing with the position coaches to get them the types of players they covet. Cable likes the underdog. He likes the ingredients spread out for him to mix instead of the partially baked bread he only needs to pop in the oven for a few minutes. It is an admirable approach, but it tends to put a ceiling on the quality of talent he works with because so much has to go right to concoct a fully functional lineman. That philosophy did not keep him from appreciating the off-the-shelf contributions of guys like Breno Giacomini, Russell Okung, or James Carpenter. Letting those players go is probably still defensible even given the current state of this line. The move that appears to be a significant mistake was the trade of Max Unger and draft picks for Jimmy Graham. That was the first time the team clearly emphasized finesse over power and pass over run. It ripped away the leader of the line, and led to more instability on an already unstable line.
Schneider eschewed a bevy of quality veteran linemen this offseason in favor of young players and journeymen like J’Marcus Webb and Bradley Sowell. It was confusing why he was uninterested in mixing some known quantities like Donald Penn or Mitchell Schwartz or Alex Boone with the unknown youngsters. After some time, I came to realize he was trying to create a salary cap advantage by assembling a young and inexpensive line that could grow together and allow the team to keep its talented veteran core together for longer. The goal was certainly tantalizing. The strategy was more hopeful than practical. It might have worked if the team had a line coach who was better able to identify young line talent. The combination of Schneider’s cap strategy with Cable’s philosophy and blind spot has left the Seahawks with a line so awful that it has formed a sinkhole in the middle of the roster, pulling the whole team down with it.
This team should be on it’s way to its fourth Super Bowl in four years. The offensive line has now become a two-year mess with no signs of upward trajectory or evidence-based reasons to expect improvement. They have overwhelming talent at a variety of other positions. Even with the gaping hole where an offensive line should be, all they needed to do was beat a 5-8-1 team at home and a 2-13 team on the road to secure a second seed and a first-round bye. Instead, they came out disconnected and discombobulated. The defense began with a spirited showing that included an avalanche of defenders sacking Carson Palmer. Little did we know that Palmer would drop back 26 more times behind the abysmal Cardinals line without being sacked again. Still, the Cardinals were forced to punt from their own 14-yard line. Tyler Lockett managed just a 4-yard return as the Cardinals successfully flipped the field with a 53-yard punt. Seattle’s first play was an offensive pass interference on Jermaine Kearse. Now 1st and 20, the Seahawks went incomplete pass and then the first of six sacks by the Cardinals, and then a fumble on what was supposed to be a conservative play call on 3rd and 23. Marcel Reece inexplicably tried to pick up the ball instead of just falling on it.
Two series. That is all it took to break the chain between offense and defense. The defense did their job. The special teams did not do theirs. The offense not only did not do their job, but put the defense in a horrible position. Seattle’s defenders responded by surrendering a touchdown in five plays. Seattle got the ball again and Wilson was sacked immediately. That sinking feeling started to settle in. We have seen this show before. We know how it ends. So does the defense. So do the skill players on offense.
You really have two choices when all signs point to bad things coming your way: you can resign yourself to it and trigger whatever defense mechanism suits you, or you can steel yourself against it and fight to increase the slim odds of outmaneuvering the darkness in order to find the light. A hallmark of this Seahawks team has been their unwavering decision to take the tougher road in the face of often impossible odds.
They did it again yesterday, climbing back into a game they had no business winning. But it felt different. There was a deja vu moment when the team pulled within 21-18. The crowd rose to its feet when the defense took the field. The noise level reached a new high, as the fans were connected to what was happening. Seahawks football was back in that instant. Then, the first play saw David Johnson run for 33 yards after doing almost nothing the rest of the game. The crowd attempted to recover and bring the volume again. Palmer found J.J. Nelson for a short slant pass that he raced 41 yards with toward the end zone. That the defense could show such little resistance at such a critical juncture felt like a betrayal. Obviously, there was no malicious intent and I do not mean to imply they were not trying. It was simply the latest illustration of a team that seems incapable of playing as one.
Those times in the past when things went sour, it was a coalescing of the Seahawks whole that led to miraculous rebounds. The defense worked with the offense and the special teams to form a juggernaught. They were the Voltron of football teams, who nonsensically would start the fight as weaker parts before eventually coming together to make quick work of the opposition. It feels like that script is wearing thin. The parts have trouble fitting together at the right times. It feels more like a theme park where power is only on for certain rides at any one time.
Some will mistakenly point to the Richard Sherman incidents as a cause of the problem. I see them as a symptom. Trust and respect form the foundation of any productive relationship. There is clearly a lack of trust between the defense and the offense and the coaching staff. Who can really blame them? I care less about he said she said, and more about what can be salvaged from this season and this era of Seahawks football.
It is highly unlikely the Seahawks will get the second seed. The Falcons will not lose at home to the Saints. That would mean the Seahawks would need to win at home and then win in Atlanta (most likely) and probably in Dallas. I do not see this team doing that. Steven Terrell has given up at least one huge play in three of the last four games. Matt Ryan would salivate at that rematch in Atlanta, and the Falcons are arguably playing the best football in the NFC right now. The Falcons defense is porous, but not much worse than the Packers defense that held this team to 10 points or the Bucs defense that held this team to 5 points on the road.
Some would call it hyperbole, but the Seahawks likely lost a Super Bowl appearance yesterday. I believe they could have won a home game after a bye, getting back C.J. Prosise and time for game-planning. That would have left either one road game in Dallas or a second home game for the NFC Championship. Winning three games instead of two, and without the benefit of a bye and possible home-field advantage throughout (if Dallas lost, which I think is very possible), makes the Seahawks path significantly harder.
The loss of returner and big play receiver Tyler Lockett was another gut punch. Another injury to Thomas Rawls was just the latest indicator that the team cannot rely on him to be the answer at tailback. There is really only one chance for this team to rise up and do something special to close this season.
The leaders in that locker room must find the authentic chord to strike that unites the team in their common goal. The players must exchange frustration and skepticism with enthusiasm and belief. They continually say there is no panic. Fine, but this must be more than the absence of fear. No panic means they are not running from the challenge, but what is drawing them forward? Who is leading them into the fray with banner held high? An obligatory players meeting will not be enough. The right words will need to be spoken by the right people at the right time. It may sound like witchcraft, but it happened in 2014, and led a less talented team to the Super Bowl and within a yard of winning it. As frustrated as I am with the play on the field, my belief in the men off of it has not wavered. They can do this should they choose to.
There are some practical realities as well. The offensive line cannot have another quarter that resembles what we have seen against Arizona or Tampa. No more mulligans. No more excuses. They do not need to be great, but they cannot be tissue paper cutouts of men leaving Wilson or whoever is at running back left to face countless unblocked defenders. Prepare. Practice. Do your job.
Paul Richardson and Jermaine Kearse must step forward in the absence of Lockett. Both had arguably their best games of the season yesterday.
The pass rush must find more consistency. That may require Richard to be more aggressive in his blitz calls. Palmer did most of his damage against four rushers. It seems unlikely Terrell is going to become more sound in his play with the time left in the season. Seattle might be better off hoping their pressure can cause disruption than leaving an extra defender back in coverage.
Finally, Darrell Bevell must dig deep to find a collection of plays that the team can reliably execute, even if it makes the offense more predictable. Good offenses have bread and butter plays that they can return to when things go awry. There is no bread or butter for the Seahawks at the moment.
It is admittedly an unlikely collection of occurrences that must materialize for a happy ending to this tumultuous Seahawks season. Crazier things have happened. More likely, Schneider and Carroll will be left to examine how a team this talented could underachieve two straight years. If changes on the coaching staff are not in the cards, one would hope there would be some intense collaboration about how to change an offensive line talent evaluation process that has swung and missed so many times. They will need to look long and hard at the $10M owed to Graham and decide if the team would be better if that money was invested in the line or at receiver. They will need to decide whether to extend veterans like Michael Bennett or try to say goodbye to aging warriors like the Patriots have done so often. The path ahead is no longer clearly pointed upward. The lights are not yet turned out on this season, but they have dimmed to a flicker.