Note: This was written before the news about Michael Bennett possibly needing surgery on his knee. Everything in here still applies.
Anxiety levels escalated for Seahawks fans this week when news broke that Russell Wilson was limited in practice for the first time in his career. The injury report revealed a new injury to his pectoral muscle that likely occurred when Cardinals defensive end Chandler Jones hit Wilson’s arm as he threw. Nails were already being bitten by many after a game on Sunday where the Seahawks offense was nowhere to be found. This new news about Wilson became just the latest flashpoint for what has to be an unprecedented level of anger and fear among a fan base for a team with just one loss that is in firm control of their division. There are hyperbolic doomsday narratives bouncing between fans and some in the media that are unchecked. No more. Let’s talk about the state of the Hawks. The reasons for optimism are abundant.
“The Arizona game proves how bad this offense is!!!!!!!!!!!”
Twitter was teeming with frustrated fans this week who believed what they saw on Sunday was the lowest of lows for the Seahawks offense. Some saw it as proof that Seattle is incapable being good on that side of the ball. The sentiment is understandable, but lacks perspective.
Take a look at these two games below. They represent two different performances by a Seahawks offense.
Which one would you prefer? The first game had a few more yards, but was woefully short on passing yards and yielded fare more sacks and turnovers. The second game was clearly worse when it came to production in regulation. Both games saw the offense become far more productive in overtime, with the game one group gaining over 27% of their total yards after regulation and the game two group gaining nearly half their yards there.
As you might have guessed by now, the second game is the one played this past weekend in Arizona. The first game was the one played in 2013 versus the Houston Texans. That game featured a healthy Marshawn Lynch and Russell Wilson. It also featured three turnovers caused by the defense, including a pick-six. The offensive line was a complete disaster. The Seahawks won that game in unforgettable fashion. They went on to win a Super Bowl.
The Broncos played division rival Kansas City on the road last season and lost 29-13 in a game where Peyton Manning and the offense produced just 227 yards. They trailed 29-0 before Manning left the game and Brock Oseweiler led the team to two meaningless scores late.
The Seahawks offense was awful on Sunday. They cannot expect to achieve their goals with that level of production. A dismal performance, though, does not deny entrance to the NFL’s pearly gates, especially one that does not result in a loss. Forgotten in all the hand-wringing is the fact that the offense put together great drives that first tied the game, and then put the team in perfect position to win. Even at their worst, they found a way.
“It’s not just this game. Our offense is hopeless. Admit it!!!!!!!!!!!”
Hopeless. Without hope. The desire to shield our hearts from disappointment by surrendering hope is a common defense mechanism. Feel free to take that path, but there is little evidence to indicate the way the offense has played thus far should limit anyone’s aspirations for where it can be when it matters most. Look at the Seahawks performance over the first six games of each season since Wilson joined the league.
The rank listed on the right is where the current Seahawks team ranks out of the five years, including this one. You will notice that the offense ranks fourth out of five seasons in both points scored and yards gained. The 2012 year was worst on both counts. Scoring is basically the same as it was that season, and yardage is up quite a bit from the 300 yards the team averaged those first six games back then.
If you look at last year, the scoring is a few points better and the yardage is a little better, but it is not far off from where the team is right now. A good performance in New Orleans could make those two years nearly identical. The 2014 team is way out in front on points, but similar in yardage.
The next obvious question is what became of these offenses?
The 2012 squad blew up with games of 58, 50, and 42 points near the end of the season. They added nearly 100 yards per game to their offense. Much of that was due to Wilson finding his stride, the coaches letting him loose, and the adoption of the read-option to their run game. There were unique aspects to what fueled that turnaround. Let’s come back to that.
The 2013 team actually regressed a bit in the second half of the season. Few remember the dreaded final month where the team when 2-2, including a home loss to the Cardinals. They averaged just 19.3 points per game and 263 yards per game over their final four games. Wilson was getting sacked 3.5 times per game and the story was that defenses might have figured him out. Uh huh.
In 2014, the Seahawks started with a bang as Percy Harvin looked like he was going to supercharge the offense. They scored 36 points in the first game against the Packers and 27.5 points per game over their first four. We all know how that worked out. The offense scuffled for a bit until it recommitted to the run game. They went from 29 rush attempts and 145 rushing yard per game in the first half of 2014 to over 36 attempts and 197 yards per game for the last half.
Last year should be more fresh in your memory. The team was a mess on offense in the first half of the season. They ranked dead last in sacks allowed, and it was not even close. The line was giving up sacks everywhere, and Wilson was making matters worse by holding onto the ball too long. Their starting running back, Lynch, was out with an injury. Worst of all, the team was losing. It was the only season that saw them below .500 in the first six games. The team battled back from the brink by implementing a new passing offense that featured more rhythm passes and a dynamic runner in Thomas Rawls. Their yards per game ballooned to over 400 and they added ten points to their scoring average, finishing fourth in the NFL in that category by years end.
What have we learned from all that? The Seahawks do not need to make history. They simply need to repeat it. There is a clear pattern of the offense finishing stronger than it starts in every season except one. In each case, the coaching staff needed time to adjust their approach to their personnel and how defenses were attacking them in order to find a formula that worked.
You might say that the turnaround we saw in 2012 could only happen once because how often does a new wrinkle like the read option come along? That is fair. Consider, though, the quick passing game the team added just last year. That was not a novel concept by any stretch. It was new to this offense, though, and keyed a historic run of offensive dominance.
One has to imagine the current offenses struggles have the coaches attention and they are looking for any adjustments they can make to right the ship. My vote, not that they are asking, is to be more committed to the running game even if it is only gaining 2 and 3 yards per carry in the first half. It will reduce the hits on Wilson and the strain on his pec, and allow the young offensive line to get the repetitions needed to create holes.
“But they’ve never had to do it without Marshawn!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”
People keep saying this. Was last year a mirage? Lynch only played in a handful of games where he started and finished. Even after Rawls went down, the offense continued to flourish.
Nobody would be happier than me if Lynch walked through the door and was as good as he ever was. That’s not going to happen, though, and does not need be a reason to jump ship.
The Seahawks did not just produce without Lynch last year, they dominated. It is fine to say that the team has nobody like Lynch on the roster. That is true. They also have nobody like Walter Jones or Cortez Kennedy. I’d argue that in most cases, the Seahawks offensive resurgence in the back half of seasons was keyed more by Wilson than by Lynch. It is Wilson’s injury leg injuries that are playing a major role in the offensive problems more than the lack of Lynch.
The read-option has been a staple of their run offense since 2012. One has to plan for a future where Wilson cannot be a read-option threat. Tom Cable and the offense need to get back to more classic running plays. He is well equipped to lead them there. That is where the innovation and growth will have to come from.
Rawls is also close to getting back. He will help. C.J. Prosise just played his first full game. He will help. Christine Michael will return to a change-of-pace back. That will help. Alex Collins may improve and could pitch in as well. The team has experimented without a fullback. They just brought Will Tukuafu back. Joey Hunt at fullback with J’Marcus Webb as a tackle eligible is a promising heavy package the team could use more often.
If things work out just right, Wilson may also get his legs back and the team could add the read-option back to whatever existing running plays the team would have relied on while he was injured.
“The offensive line is terrible!! Russell will never make it!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”
People hate this offensive line so much that simply saying they are better than an ice pick to the eye is tantamount to Hawk Treason. It is a shame, because there are reasons to be bullish on this group. Most lines usually take at least a season to gel, and usually a few seasons. Expecting a group of five players who have never played together to be great from the start is just plain unreasonable.
One could argue—and I did during the offseason—that putting the team in a position where they had to rely on a young and unproven line was a flaw in John Schneider’s roster plan. I wanted to see the team sign a guy like Donald Penn or Evan Mathis or Jahri Evans, and preferably two of them. That could have provided at least some known quantity and veteran know-how. The team largely went the opposite direction.
They did bring in Evans, and he was clearly beat by the younger players on the team. That was not just the opinion of the front office. Hugh Millen saw it that way. Brock Huard saw it that way. I saw it that way. That was because their young guards, Germain Ifedi and Mark Glowinski have real upside and Evans looked overmatched and over-the-hill.
Justin Britt has worked out better at center than anyone could have expected. Those three have now played a total of three games together this season. Give them time. The idea here is that the interior pressure that wrecked the Seahawks season last year will be reduced, giving Wilson a cleaner pocket from which to throw and step up. There is no reason to think that cannot happen as these guys grow together.
It is not even as bad right now as many claim it is.
The Seahawks are passing for more yards per game, on more pass attempts, and allowing the fewest sacks than they ever have with Wilson at the helm. It is not even close. Their sacks allowed per dropback is in among the ten best in the NFL this year.
Line haters give all the credit to Wilson for getting rid of the ball sooner. You can be sure those same people placed all the blame on the line when he was holding onto the ball longer than any quarterback in the league. People would do well to realize pass protection is not any one thing. It is all the things.
Getting rid of the ball on time, pass blocking, pre-snap reads, protection calls, play calls, receiver separation, running back and tight end blitz pick-ups, and more all factor into whether the play ends in a sack. That whole system is operating better than it ever has in the Pete Carroll, Darrell Bevell and Cable era.
That success has become seductive. Bevell and Carroll feel so confident with their new toy that they appear to have forgotten what got them here, and that is the balance of run and pass. That is impacting this line’s ability to impose their will on opponents instead of always retreating into pass protection. Maybe they have not appeared ready to shoulder that burden yet.
Asking them to pass block this often is not necessarily going to help them either. This young group must get the chance to improve in both run blocking and pass blocking. There is every reason to think they will be better as the season wears on, and better yet in the seasons to come. Schneider has made a bet that having a young, inexpensive, offensive line will pay dividends for years to come as they shift money to other parts of the roster.
That bet is looking questionable when it comes to the tackles. For the time being, it appears the Seahawks have swapped being susceptible to interior pressure from last year with edge pressure this year. Part of that plan had to be assuming that Wilson would be healthy enough to evade edge rush as he has so many times in year’s past. It was always interior pressure that ruined him. Now that he is hurt, the poor performance by the tackles represents a real risk to the season.
That’s all it is, though, a risk. Wilson may regain his mobility this year. Garry Gilliam could recapture his acceptable level of play from last year. George Fant might turn potential into performance. Don’t forget, Bradley Sowell did a decent job keeping a guy like Robert Quinn off of Wilson a few weeks back.
Writing off the offensive line is reactionary. There have been pleasant surprises and clear areas where improvement is needed. They have played six games together. The team has lost once. Give it some time.
“You can’t win a Super Bowl with an offense like this!!!!!!!!!!”
Well, actually, you can. Manning may have retired, but his constant stream of commercials has to help you remember that sorry excuse for an offense he piloted last year. That’s right, the one that won a Super Bowl. They didn’t win it, the defense did? Huh, I thought you couldn’t win a Super Bowl with a bad offense. Logic loop.
Maybe this offense will never get much better this year. Maybe Wilson spends the season gutting things out, and it never gets untracked. Even then, all hope is not lost. This defense is better than the one that led Denver to a Super Bowl win last year. It is better than the one that won a Super Bowl in 2013 for Seattle.
Sure, they have a lot of season left to play and some remarkable offenses to face along the way, including the Saints, Patriots, and Packers on the road. What we have already seen from this defense is the best pass rush in the NFL. They are matching the pace set by the Broncos famed pass rush from last season led by Von Miller. They are outpacing Miller’s pass rush this year, and far out-stripping what the 2013 Seahawks did.
Cliff Avril has 6.5 sacks. Frank Clark has 4.5 sacks. Kris Richard has incorporated more blitz packages than this team has featured in previous years. That has made Bobby Wagner a whole new kind of weapon. Cassius Marsh has finally started producing. This group is just getting started.
We already know what this secondary can do. They have had a few challenges these past two games with Kam Chancellor. If he is out for an extended period, the answer here might change, but this is back to being the best secondary in football when he is in there. They defend the run far better than the 2013 Seahawks defense, and that’s after giving up 130+ yards to a committed Arizona team. They have a variety of interior tackles to stay fresh, and are as disciplined as any front seven in football when it comes to staying in their gaps and tackling reliably.
That Broncos team last year relied on a defense to prop up an offense that averaged just 22 point per game. Warren Sapp and the 2002 Buccaneers dealt with an offense that averaged 21 point per game. Ray Lewis and the 2000 Ravens won it all with an offense that averaged 21 points per game. Heck, the 2016 Vikings are the national darlings at 5-1 and their offense is averaging 21.5 points per game and under 300 yards. Don’t tell me this Seahawks defense is not good enough to win a Super Bowl with a below average offense. Actually, please tell the Seahawks defense you don’t think they are good enough to win a Super Bowl with a below average offense.
Keep the faith
There are plenty of ways to go through the ups and downs of an NFL season. The one thing that never happens is an easy path to a championship. Even the 16-0 Patriots stumbled at the moment of truth. Anyone looking for assurances that the Seahawks are the best team in football is wasting their energy. It does not work that way.
This is novel being written one chapter at a time, released to the world for all to read. Even the authors do not know the ending. What we do know is the makeup of the people in that locker room and in that front office. They have proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that no challenge is too great for them to overcome. Assuming a tragic ending sells them short and misses all the good that has already happened.
This, like all their other stories, is not about how they will fail, but how they will succeed. It’s the Seahawks way.