The Morning After: Seahawks Humbled By Cardinals 20-16
A loss hurts. This loss burns, and it will keep a special effort the next few weeks to keep a fire from starting. The Seahawks arrived in Arizona knowing they were a better team than last year. They leave knowing their case is in need of additional evidence. The pass rush that was supposed to be a new element to this defense was almost completely absent in the first half, and resulted in fewer sacks than Arizona allowed to any defense last season when their offensive line was healthy. The phenom rookie quarterback looked more rookie than phenom. The improved offensive line failed to protect their quarterback. Same old Seahawks is a common refrain for many fans, and the most painful part of this loss was that the elements that caused it were so similar to the ones that led to nine losses last season.
The Seahawks I expected to see showed up for about 25 minutes in the second half. After Arizona had built 10-3 halftime lead, the Seahawks defense overwhelmed them in the second. The Cardinals had a combined 16 yards and an interception over the first six drives of the second half. There was pass pressure on nearly every dropback. There was suffocating run defense. Arizona was over-matched. Seattle’s offense was not strong, but they put up 13 points during that stretch to take the lead. Impenetrable defense and a growing offense was supposed to be the formula, especially against an offense as limited as Arizona’s. The fact that the Seahawks demonstrated that at all represents some sort of validation, but this defense should be ready to play to that level for 60 minutes in Week 1.
Much will be made about the bad showing on offense. It was certainly uninspiring, but expectations are everything there. That is a very good Cardinals defense that, among other things, was 7th in the NFL in sacks last season, 5th in opponent touchdown passes, 1st in opponent 3rd down conversion percentage, and 10th in opponent yards per play. They were playing in front of their home crowd in an opener where everyone had written them off. Give them credit for coming out and playing a very solid game. Russell Wilson already has divisions of Seahawks fans lining up to defend his performance by pointing fingers at the offensive line and receivers, and another division of fans asking how many more performances like that would result in a chance for Matt Flynn. Every bit of historical research I did (here, here, here, and here) made it clear that it is exceedingly rare to have a rookie quarterback play well, especially in their first game, and a road game at that. Five rookie quarterbacks started this week, and four of them followed the historical pattern. That includes Andrew Luck, the “best quarterback prospect in the history of the universe,” who threw for three interceptions and passer rating in the low 50s.
I expected something like this from Wilson. I also expect him to be much better as the season wears on. Remember, because of the way Pete Carroll handled the quarterback competition, neither Wilson nor Flynn got as many snaps with Seahawks starters against opponent starters as any other starting quarterback in the NFL. They also got fewer practice snaps than any starting quarterback in the NFL. It may have been a recipe to find the player with the most talent, but starting fast was much less likely with his method. The lack of precision and chemistry in the passing game was obvious, regardless of pass pressure. Carrying 13 wide receivers for much of camp also contributed to the lack of cohesion, not to mention releasing a primary target the week before the opener in Kellen Winslow Jr. John Schneider and Carroll manage this team with sights constantly trained on improving their potential ceiling, but it fair to question whether they are under-prioritizing the here and now.
Flynn’s presence makes this such a unique situation. Other teams starting rookie quarterbacks do not have an option like him available. Could he have played better than Wilson yesterday? Possibly. He might have made better reads and got the ball out faster. He also may have been sacked five more times than the mobile Wilson was. He may not have found Sidney Rice in the end zone for that touchdown. It is truly impossible to say with any certainty which player would have performed better. What we do know is that Wilson is the Seahawks starting quarterback, and that he threw only one interception (a Hail Mary at halftime), and very nearly led a game-winning drive in his first start on the road. I do not think Carroll and Schneider put him in the best position to succeed early in this season, but I do believe Wilson is talented enough and smart enough to climb out of that deficit faster than most.
Now, that offensive line. I will need to watch the game again, but it looked like Arizona was sending extra rushers with regularity in the first half from my vantage point, and none of them were getting a free path to the quarterback. The line was getting pushed back into Wilson’s lap, but it did not appear to be a disaster. Russell Okung limped off again, which is a far bigger concern. I will reserve judgment on the line’s pass protection until I can re-watch the game. Tom Cable remains the best offensive line coach in football, and I have nothing but confidence in his ability to make necessary corrections.
The running game was encouraging. Marshawn Lynch ran hard and well. The line played physically against eight and nine defenders in the box. Seattle ran for 115 yards, and showed commitment to the rushing game. The downside is that receivers were not winning many match-ups against favorable coverage. Doug Baldwin was almost completely absent. His injury in pre-season made it hard for him and Wilson to get any time together. That connection must become stronger to help Wilson through the early part of this schedule. He is the one guy on this roster that has shown the ability to separate from defenders and present an open target. Sidney Rice and Braylon Edwards tend to make their living making catches with defenders all over them. That is hard on a quarterback, especially a young one, who has to trust the receiver can make the play even when they are not clearly open. Zach Miller had three catches for 40 yards, a single-game yardage total he did not reach until week 13 of last season.
Other encouraging individual performances included K.J. Wright’s 9 tackles, Leon Washington’s big returns, Richard Sherman’s sparkling coverage that was so close the refs could not believe it, and Chris Clemons sack and pressure through the second half. Jason Jones also had a game that could go unnoticed due to the largely empty stat sheet, but he was disruptive on both the edge and up the middle, and his size helped bat down two passes.
The refs were a joke. Most people will talk about the blown timeout debacle at the end of the game, but the refs made egregious errors earlier that resulted in points for the Cardinals. Seattle forced a fumble before half, but the ref had blown the whistle far too quickly, resulting in a dead ball. The Seahawks would have had the ball near mid-field. They blew the whistle again on a pass from Wilson that was ruled incomplete, but somehow were able to review that call, despite blowing the play dead, and award possession to the Cardinals, who kicked a field goal. The pass interference call on Sherman on the Cardinals last drive was terrible. It was as bad as one could expect, but I saved bringing it up until the end because it should not have mattered.
This week will suck. The next few weeks may suck. I am not here to blow sunshine up anyone’s butt. My faith in this team, though, is unshaken. We now know this will not be a wire-to-wire dominant season. The offense will take time to get untracked. The defense has to be even better than they were yesterday. They are capable of it. The time, however, for talk of potential and capabilities is over. This defense must be great right now. The season depends on it.