The Seahawks have been walking a tightrope all season, and in some ways, since losing to Kansas City last year. Their margin for error has been slimmed, and their propensity for error has increased. They could not overcome the absence of Kam Chancellor early this year. They gambled with their offensive line, hoping their young quarterback and upgraded weapons could compensate for the inexperience while they developed. They allowed their biggest strength, cornerback, to become one of their weakest position groups. Even their choice for defensive coordinator has to be in question. This grand test where the roster has been thinned to allow the team to keep their talented core looks like a failure. This team is talented enough to be ahead of any team they play, but simply not good enough to play winning football consistently. The tightrope is no longer their problem. They have already fallen. It is looking more and more like this season will be about the Seahawks finding their best selves, and not about being the best team.
Whither Kris Richard?
There was this glorious window during an otherwise dreadful defensive game yesterday where the Seahawks unleashed the hounds of hell on the Cardinals. Defensive coordinator Kris Richard called blitz after blitz and helped turn a 25-17 deficit into a 29-25 lead. Carson Palmer looked like an old man as he kicked and coughed up the ball on consecutive possessions.
Then it seemed to stop. Seattle went back to four man rushes, with the occasional extra blitzer. Palmer went back to eviscerating the Seahawks secondary. Then it was over. This is surely an oversimplification, but that was what appeared to happen. It is a pattern that seems to have followed Richard early in his career as the lead dog. He seems to want to be on the attack, but is pulling himself back into a more conservative posture to match what the team’s philosophy has been in the past.
It is his first coaching job with this much visibility and clout. The jury is out on whether he is the right man for the job. What Richard cannot do is try to coach the way he thinks other people want him to coach or call someone else’s game. This is his defense. This is his chance. He should win or lose his way, or he will always regret it.
That is a titanic offensive football team. Seattle completely bottled up their running game, until their final play, and it hardly slowed them down. Palmer is the best quarterback the Seahawks have played thus far, and that includes Aaron Rodgers, Andy Dalton and Cam Newton.
He made terrific throws from the pocket. He showed surprising agility avoiding the rush, and remarkable accuracy on the move. The Cardinals receivers were assassins all night. They did almost all of their damage against zone coverage, finding gaping holes and very small ones. It did not seem to matter. They made the plays.
Possibly the biggest play of the night came when Richard Sherman tipped a ball into the air, with Seattle still leading, and it seemed certain to be the interception he has been looking for all year. Instead, Jaron Brown outfought Sherman for the ball on the type of play that just screamed, “this is our year, not yours.” It was a microcosm of the season, where Seattle makes part of a play, but their opponent wants it just a little bit more and finds a way to finish the play.
The Cardinals are going to have trouble winning a championship with that defense, and their offensive line is vulnerable, but Palmer and those receivers are going to overwhelm most opponents. They were clearly the better team last night.
If anything has become crystal clear as this year has worn on, it is that this is a transitional season for Russell Wilson. It is like a kid who had the training wheels removed and can pedal a few seconds before falling over, but is not capable of keeping the bike upright without help.
The team needed him last night. They could not get out of their own way with penalties early on. That put the pressure on his shoulders to help dig them out of those 1st and 20 holes. He responded with an incompletion on 3rd and 12, a delay of game penalty and another incompletion, and a fumble and safety, and finally two more incompletions. The Seahawks trailed 19-0 after the Cardinals got to start drives at the Seattle 49, the Arizona 41, and the Seattle 45.
The offense got rolling late in the second half, and scored on three of four possessions. Their only hiccup came when the Seahawks had three wide open receivers and Wilson threw one of his worst passes of the season that was easily intercepted and turned into what became a critical field goal for Arizona.
Wilson played with more urgency, and had some inspired runs earlier in the game instead of saving it for the last two minutes. He had some gorgeous throws. Seattle is not dealing with a Colin Kaepernick situation where their quarterback appears to only function when surrounded by the best talent in football. Wilson has the potential to grow into his contract and become a very good passer. The growing pains this season are unfortunately necessary for him to learn how much farther he has to go, and why working on his craft is so much more crucial than increasing his speed or agility.
This feels a little like his rookie year, where things finally clicked in the last quarter of the season. It would not surprise me to see Wilson make an encouraging step forward before the year is complete. The team may not be able to truly benefit from that growth until next season after the damage done so far.
Offensive line does okay
Setting aside the collection of penalties the offensive line incurred to start the game is a little like setting aside the murder weapon and declaring someone innocent. That said, the line played an admirable game. They gave up just two sacks, one of zero yards, after giving up no sacks last week and helped every Seahawks ball carrier outside of Will Tukuafu average more than 5.0 yards per carry.
They helped pave the way for two red zone touchdown runs and kept Calais Campbell from wreaking havoc. It was another step forward for a very young group, even if they made some fatal mistakes early on.
Jimmy looks unfit for big time competition
It has been a bit of a roller coaster for me with Jimmy Graham. I was dead set against the trade when I heard it announced, largely because I felt he was all bark and no bite, and that kind of poser persona is antithetical to the identify of this Seahawks team. They bark. They bite. All these glowing records on prime time games and on big stages was not a coincidence.
After having the chance to meet Graham, and see him with his teammates, it became clear he was a sincere guy and a good guy, who also happens to have a ton of talent. That felt like enough to believe this could work out, and it very well still could.
The thing that has me most discouraged about Graham in Seattle is that he seems to shrink in the biggest moments.
His team needed him last night. His quarterback needed him last night. He fell far short. He dropped at least three very catchable passes and had just three catches on eight targets. While Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd were making tough, physical catches, Graham was dropping easy ones.
He is being paid like one of the best offensive players in football. He did not play like that last night. We need to see him make some catches that he shouldn’t. We need to see him put his body on the line for this team. Until he does, the whispers about why New Orleans was willing to let such a productive player go will only grow louder.
Where to go from here
Saying the season is over melodrama. Seattle can still carve a path to the playoffs. I’m not convinced that is what anyone should be focused on at this point. Seattle does not play for consolation prizes or moral victories. The guys in that locker room know what championship football looks like and feels like. They know they are not playing close to that level at the moment.
The focus has to be inward. Wilson must be given all the support the team can find to help him take the next step in his development. Richard needs Carroll’s counsel and the courage coach his way. Sherman and the secondary must rededicate themselves to studying film to find how they are being attacked and how they can get back to making more plays than they give up. Jeremy Lane will help, but the problem goes deeper than that.
Carroll has one more year on his contract. He could leave after that and hold his head high after bringing a ring to Seattle. That, though, was never his goal. He wants to demonstrate that his philosophy can lead to sustained winning. That is in jeopardy right now. It may take the balance of this season for he and John Schneider to identify the obstacles and gaps and re-arm for next year. That is not how he will look at it.
This team will turn over every stone and compete to the bitter end trying to recapture a championship identity. As frustrating as this season has been, the team is not that far off. Nobody is blowing them out. The hard part for the Seahawks is improvement can only come from player development and coaching growth. There is no set time for those things to occur, or guarantee that they will. So we watch. We wait. We cheer them on, and we maybe drink an extra beer to soothe our frazzled nerves.