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The game ended with a series of cataclysmic coaching decisions, bad run blocking, and a Blair Walsh shank. It would be easy to focus there, and we will return to that in a bit, but the real story of this game happened far earlier. The Seahawks were playing for a chance to make the playoffs at home against a battered divisional rival with Drew Stanton at quarterback, Kerwynn Williams at running back, and a guy named John Wetzel at left tackle. Arizona had nothing to play for other than pride, and yet, they were undeniably more motivated from the opening snap all the way through the halftime whistle. In a game the Seahawks needed, they had zero yards of offense in the first quarter, 24 yards of offense at the half, and allowed Arizona to score 20 points with the 30th-ranked run offense consistently finding holes to exploit. The last time the Seahawks played at home with a chance to move into the division lead, they trailed 34-0 at halftime. There were no new major injuries, though, to point to this time. I have seen this before, but not since Jim Mora was the head coach. There are more than a few players in that locker room who did not want to be there, and were already thinking about the offseason. A big part of Pete Carroll and John Schneider’s offseason will be identifying those players, and the coaches who lost them, and clearing them out of the system.
Compare this to the 2010 season finale when a 6-9 Seahawks team was facing a 7-8 Rams team at home to decide a division title. Matt Hasselbeck was lost to injury a week earlier when he hurt his hip simply by jogging untouched into the endzone. Touchdown Jesus himself, Charlie Whitehurst, was thrust into the spotlight. The defense was led by aging Lofa Tatupu, David Hawthorne, Marcus Trufant, Jordan Babineaux, and Lawyer Milloy. The game was ugly. Ruvell Martin led the team in receiving with 85 yards. Mike Williams caught the lone touchdown. Raheem Brock led the team with 2.5 sacks. What was never ugly was the effort and desire. Leon Washington was beaming when the game ended 16-6 in favor of the Seahawks and he got to wear a division champion cap. They did not care that they were a 7-9 division champion and everyone was laughing at them.
The coaching staff wrung every ounce of potential out of that roster. They won with guys like Kenwan Balmer and Will Herring and Kelly Jennings. Juxtapose that to losing with Russell Wilson, Doug Baldwin, Earl Thomas, Bobby Wagner, K.J. Wright, Michael Bennett, Frank Clark, Shaquill Griffin, Paul Richardson, Jimmy Graham, and others. Not only losing, but losing to team led by a journeyman quarterback who was apparently playing with a partially torn ACL, a injury-decimated offensive line (that was not good to begin with), and a defense missing both their starting safeties and their second-best pass rusher.
A learning disability is technically diagnosed when a person’s IQ projects a far higher expected test score for a given skill (like reading or math) than the person’s actual score. That gap implies the person has the general capacity to do better, but there is some impediment keeping them reaching that potential. Some of what ails this Seahawks team is absolutely a learning impediment. Penalties, repeated mistakes, and inability to demonstrate clear improvement across the season tells us that. How much of that is players who are checked out an disengaged from the learning process versus coaches who are failing to reach their players is not as black and white.
The offense has been a disaster for two seasons. Darrell Bevell helped this team win a Super Bowl, and is a better coordinator than we give him credit for. It is also time for him to move on. He has had enough kicks at the can, and this team needs a new set of eyes to figure out how to get more from his offense. Bevell has always struck me as a hard-working, earnest, coach who is more competent than gifted as a play caller. I would love to see the Seahawks make finding a fresh face offensive coordinator a priority. They may even have that person in house with guys like receivers coach Dave Canales or even assistant receivers coach Nate Carroll, Pete’s son. I would also love to see quarterbacks coach, Carl “Tater” Smith, transition into retirement. He is going to be 70, and has never been the right person to help Wilson get the most out of his skills.
Those two changes alone could be big. But as much as Seahawks fans nod their heads at that thought, with the image of what a difference a guy like Kyle Shanahan meant to Matt Ryan, we must also acknowledge that things could get worse. There is no guarantee that change will be positive, only that it is necessary.
Russell Wilson had a confounding season. He set a personal record for total touchdowns and was a legitimate MVP contender, but also played a significant role in the teams struggles to play well early in games. He was pretty bad the past three weeks in a number of aspects. While some are suggesting the team considers trading him while his value is highest to get assets you could use as part of your rebuild, I see that as highly unlikely. It is far easier to swap out coaches around him and try to find a better fit who can unlock more consistency from him.
People who say Wilson is the whole offense and yet is faultless in the team’s struggles are both inaccurate and insulting to all the players who have contributed to Wilson’s numbers. Anyone who has seen Baldwin make defenders look foolish or make ridiculous catches like he did yesterday for the touchdown has to know that it is disingenuous to say Wilson scored all but one of the team’s touchdowns. Even if you think Wilson is perfect, it was clear the team needs more than just relying on him to be a productive offense.
The offensive line has been a disaster for three seasons, and subpar for seven seasons. Every Seahawks fan seemingly wants Tom Cable to be replaced. That one is not as clear to me. We are in a time when almost every team in the NFL is struggling with line play. Where Cable is clearly a problem is his consultations with the front office on what types of players he wants to work with. He asks for guys who are raw so he can mold them. He fixates on strength and run blocking potential and almost ignores quick feet, balance, and awareness in pass protection. There is evidence, though, that he is capable and willing teacher. That has a lot of value in a landscape where nearly every linemen coming out of college is going to be need to be taught how to run block due to the proliferation of simplified spread offenses in college.
It was Cable who moved Max Unger from guard to center. It was Cable who turned James Carpenter into a near-Pro Bowl guard, turned J.R. Sweezy into a highly sought-after guard after playing defensive line in college, and shaped Justin Britt into a Pro Bowl alternate at center. He also helped revive Marshawn Lynch’s career. People forget, but Lynch was far from a productive back in his first season-and-a-half with the Seahawks. Yes, he had the Beast Quake run, but he averaged 45.5 yards per game and 3.6 yards per carry in his first 22 regular season games for the Seahawks. The headstrong Lynch finally relented and went into Cable to ask what he needed to do, and after a productive conversation about how to succeed in a zone blocking scheme, Lynch went on to average 104.6 yards per game and 4.5 yards per attempt in the final 9 games of the 2011 season. Believe it or not, Lynch had not eclipsed 100 yards in a regular season game with the Seahawks before that talk with Cable, and then went over 100 yards in six of the final nine games of that season.
Cable is also a person who players almost uniformly respect in that locker room. He was asked to work with a very young and cheap line the past few years. The fact that the plan backfired big time is not all his fault. Are we sure that another line coach would have gotten more out of these players the past few years? I’m not. However, if keeping Cable means keeping him closely involved in player evaluation, than the team is probably better off taking their chances elsewhere. Just be warned that it is damn hard to find really good offensive line coaches, and this is not exactly an attractive situation to enter.
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Kris Richard was a big drop-off from Gus Bradley and Dan Quinn. He may be capable of reaching their level one day, but he was far more raw as a play caller from day one. I don’t think he is as strong of a positive motivator as Bradley, or as confident in his game planning as Dan Quinn. Unlike Cable, he has been handed immense talent. The results have been mixed. They managed to remain the top scoring defense in his first season, and 3rd in scoring defense last season, but fell to 13th this year. When injuries struck both last season and this season, Richard showed no ability to coach his way through the deficits.
The Seahawks were 25th in scoring defense after losing Richard Sherman and Kam Chancellor. My question with Richard has always been whether he was experienced enough and clever enough to amplify the talent on the field or whether he was simply a custodian. The implication of such major slides when guys like Earl Thomas, Chancellor, Sherman, Bobby Wagner, and K.J. Wright miss time is that he is not a guy who can scheme around weaknesses, which also implies he will not be the best at amplifying strengths. Rocky Seto was somewhat of a co-coordinator with Richard when they both were promoted following Quinn’s departure. Seto left to become a minister this past offseason. There are a number of indications that Seto was a key part of that defensive staff, and helped to augment where Richard was weak. I think it is very unlikely that the Seahawks will move on from Richard, but my current assessment is they could do much better and would be wise to pick someone else to coach the next wave of young defenders about to join the system. Vic Fangio would be the dream hire.
Seattle continues to mismanage their special teams. The fact that the team resigned Jon Ryan to an expensive contract without bringing in any competition goes directly against their core philosophy and has cost them dearly in field position. Ryan was a disaster again yesterday. Even his long punts were completely lacking in hang time. I greatly appreciate what Ryan has done in his Seahawks career, but I never want to see him punt for this team again. Walsh was a disaster from the moment they signed him. The punt and kick coverage teams were not good this season. I would love to see the team bring in a new special teams coach, but I don’t expect Carroll to let Brian Schneider walk.
That brings us to the big kahuna himself. Carroll shot down rumors that he was considering retirement. I’m glad. There is a decent amount of chatter on Twitter that Carroll needs to get with the times and update his philosophy to incorporate more passing. That may be true. What I know is that there is nobody, outside of possibly Bill Belichick, who I would rather have in charge of rebuilding this Seahawks team. Carroll knows who he is. He knows what he wants. He is an excellent evaluator of defensive talent and has a proven scheme. When times get tough and numerous hard decisions must be made, you want someone who is clear-minded about their philosophy and values. Few are better equipped than Carroll in that regard.
Beyond whether he stays or goes, my hope for Carroll is that he challenges himself to reevaluate some aspects of his messaging and areas of focus. There is new hope there as Carroll finally acknowledged in his postgame press conference that it was not enough for the team to be great at finishing. Their slow starts in games and seasons have doomed them. Study the teams that start the strongest. Adopt some new approaches, and make that a point of emphasis from your very first OTA practice.
Players are another matter. Some are easy choices. Blair Walsh. Gone. Ryan. Gone. Jimmy Graham should never wear a Seahawks uniform again. He is a really good guy, who was a terrible fit for the identity of this team. He came in with a reputation of being soft, and leaves with the same reputation. I gained respect for him as a person when I got a chance to meet him and talk with him a few times, but I lost respect for him as a player and teammate when he very clearly appeared to be going through the motions this season with an eye on going elsewhere as soon as his contract allowed him to walk.
There is a hugely important set of lessons there that I hope John Schneider has internalized. First, stop trying to trade established receiving talent. Players who are already successful in another team’s passing offense are highly unlikely to be happy and well-utilized in this offense. Carroll will continue to preach balance. This will not become a high volume passing team. Guys like Percy Harvin and Graham are not going to relish the transition of going from focal point and star to role player. You are much better off relying on developing players through the draft in your system or recruiting players in free agency who opt-in to become part of what you are building and how you are building it. Guys like Zach Miller, Golden Tate, Doug Baldwin, Sidney Rice, and Luke Willson are great examples of the mentality you want.
Second, never ever ever…ever, bring in a player who has questions about toughness. Don’t do it. There are medical red flags and character red flags in the draft process that disqualify a player from even showing up on a team’s draft board. Carroll and Schneider should have a playing style category that all players are screened against. If you regularly turn down contact, you are disqualified. If you sulk when the ball does not come your way, you are disqualified. If you rarely win physical confrontations like 1v1 blocking, you are disqualified. Graham failed all of those. Harvin failed some. Toughness is not just about hitting people. It is about how you handle adversity. Harvin failed there miserably.
Earl Thomas represents a far harder decision. He is young enough, good enough, and important enough, to justify a contract extension. I’m just not convinced the team would get what they paid for. How motivated will he be if Chancellor and Sherman do not return and the defense goes through a rebuilding process? He at least contemplated retirement after his last injury. After never missing a game, he’s missed at least one game in each of the past two seasons. The team talked itself into signing Chancellor to an extension, and now his career is likely over. They will still be paying his contract and have that salary cap hit. Thomas is going to be far more expensive.
Everything I saw on the field indicates that Thomas maintains his level of play regardless of who is around him. The team would be rolling the dice either way here. Keeping him would be a major salary cap risk. Trading him would be a major talent risk. My slight lean is to trade him if you can get at least two first-round picks for him. The Thomas decision is the toughest the front office will have to make.
The front office has room to improve itself. They made their biggest splashes early in the draft when they focused on selecting players with unique physical talents who were then molded by the coaching staff in a way that amplified their strengths. Thomas was the fastest safety most had seen. Chancellor was a massive safety that many thought was a linebacker. Golden Tate had the toughness of a running back playing the receiver position. Sherman was far taller than the average cornerback. Wagner was fastest linebacker. Wright was the tallest linebacker with the longest wingspan. Even guys that did not pan out like Jameson Konz were athletic freaks. They have far fewer examples of players with those unique physical traits in recent years. I’d like to see them get back to taking those players with pronounced gifts in one aspect, even if that means they are higher risk.
This team once prided itself on being bigger, stronger, and faster than their opponents. They intimidated just getting off the bus. That simply is not true any longer. It starts with getting pushed around on the offensive line, and increasingly getting pushed around on the defensive line. For the first time in a long time, the team may be in better shape to step forward on the offensive side of that equation. Cliff Avril is gone, and Michael Bennett seems to think he will be as well. There are no clear replacements for their production. The Malik McDowell injury was massively damaging in a number of ways.
Schneider understands how important toughness is to winning in the NFL. He has to find the best places to infuse it. He also has to take a hard look at his scouting department and ask where upgrades may be necessary. I am willing to believe that some of the reason for the major difference between the early Schneider drafts and the more recent ones is that literally every position was really up for grabs early on. Young players had a real chance to get snaps and compete for starting spots that helped them grow and learn. There simply were less openings the past few years. That is not the whole story. Great players find their way onto the field.
Shaquill Griffin forced the team to play him ahead of Jeremy Lane and others. Justin Coleman did the same. Frank Clark earned a spot in a competitive defensive line rotation. Chris Carson beat out veterans and higher draft picks. Talent finds a way onto the field. All of those names are recent examples of finding new, young talent. There just has not been enough.
This season ended with Wilson leading a late-game comeback drive, the coaching staff getting conservative far too early by relying on a dreadful run game, and then watching a Blair Walsh kick sail wide. It was a comeback that should not have been needed by a quarterback who played a uneven game, an offensive line that was a mess, and a defense that looked disinterested for an entire half. There were terrible penalties that showed a lack of discipline and judgment. Coaches made decisions that indicated they had not been learning and adapting to the team they had instead of stubbornly gripping to the team they wanted. And finally a player who replaced someone far more reliable just so the team could spend money on other players who were total busts could not do his job. The end was fitting and bitter. Cackling Bruce Arians rides off into the sunset thinking he won something meaningful, while Pete Carroll and John Schneider set out to do something Arians will only ever dream of. It is time to build a new champion.