Seahawks 2017 Season Preview Part I: The Start of Something Special
Everyone loves a good walk along the beach. The waves rolling onto the shore create an almost hypnotic mix of sound, smells, and beauty. Part of what makes waves so mesmerizing is their unpredictability. You cannot look away because one wave is not like the other. Just when it looks like a big one is building, the undertow cancels it out and renders it meek. But everyone loves the big wave. Those moments when dozens of variables come together to allow something truly powerful to take shape. Surfers wait hours for that moment. Children scream with glee when it chases them onto the shore. They are treasured because everyone appreciates their uniqueness, and understands they do not happen on-demand. Such is life as a Seahawks fan the past few years. They have possessed the awe-inspiring power to wreak havoc on opponents and bring joy to Seattle. Yet, various elements have conspired to keep them from unleashing their full potential. A new swell is now forming as this season begins. A big one. If you were a surfer, I would tell you to start paddling. If you were strolling on the shore, I’d tell you to get ready to run for high ground. The Seahawks are coming for the rest of the NFL, and there may be nothing that can stop them.
Last year was a down year across the league. The quality of play seemed to dip across the board. Coaches blamed the practice rules that disallow contact or the increased reliance on the spread offense in college rotting away player fundamentals. Whatever it was, it was not going to take a juggernaut to win a ring. Atlanta and New England gave us a marvelous Super Bowl in terms of entertainment, but both teams had real flaws. The Patriots led the NFL in points allowed, but did it largely on the back of an offense that kept opponents off the field. On a per-snap basis, the Patriots defense was vulnerable. Their pass rush was awful. Atlanta featured the most balanced and prolific offense in football, but had one of the league’s most vulnerable defenses. A high-scoring affair was to be expected when these two teams clashed. The only surprise was how and when the points were scored.
Seattle approaches building their team and their strategy far differently than most organizations. They do not want to outscore or outthrow opponents despite having one of the game’s best quarterbacks. They want balance in all things. Not just a strong running game, but one that can attack outside or in, get the tough one yard or the electric fifty. Not just effective running, but equally effective passing that both limits turnovers and greedily collects explosive plays. Not just a balanced and efficient offense, but a stingy defense that can shut down the run and the pass. Not just two phases of the game, but all three so that opponents struggle to gain yards even when the Seahawks punt. If that sounds like Seattle wants to be good at everything, that’s because they do.
They have points of emphasis. They want to be physical, reliable, efficient. Pete Carroll does not believe a team can truly be physical without a running game. A willingness to grind out yards even when opposing defenses are committing extra defenders near the line of scrimmage was a hallmark of the 2011-2014 Seahawks. They lost that last year for a few reasons. First, Russell Wilson was injured and could not contribute as he has in the past. He usually accounts for 20% of the team’s rushing offense, so his personal yards were a big loss, but also his inability to be a threat in things like the read-option hindered running back effectiveness as well. Second, the offense line was a disaster. They get panned for their pass blocking, but their run blocking was the bigger disappointment.
There was a crossroads question facing the team this offseason. They could go all-in with Wilson as a passing quarterback and reduce their reliance on the run, or they could redouble their efforts to recapture the physical running style they lost. The decision may seem obvious now, but it did not have to be. The Patriots were once a balanced run/pass team when Brady was young. They put more and more on his shoulders as he grew up. Carroll very clearly decided not to go that direction by going heavy on running backs with free agent dollars flowing to Eddie Lacy and three very promising young runners on the final roster in Thomas Rawls, C.J. Prosise, and rookie Chris Carson. They picked a right tackle who is far better and driving people off the ball in the run game than keeping them from smacking his quarterback in the passing game, and attempted (unsuccessfully) to add a Pro Bowl guard in T.J. Lang.
The results have been uneven thus far, and there is reason to think the run game will struggle into the regular season. However, it should still be much improved from last year. The varied abilities of the backfield and the overall quality of depth there means the team will have far better runners than Christine Michael (the team’s leading rusher last year) or Alex Collins. Wilson is also healthy enough to scramble and create some of his run yards again. I do not expect him to account for 20% any longer, but it could easily be 15% or so.
A troubled offensive line will not be worse. They will still struggle at times, but Wilson appears more ready than ever to help them by getting rid of the ball quickly. He averaged about 2.5 seconds from snap-to-throw during this preseason. That would rank among the fastest in the game should he carry it over. Rees Odhiambo and Germain Ifedi are major question marks at the tackle positions, but Wilson’s quick throws already made both look better in preseason action. A man might beat either player, but his chances of getting to the quarterback in that amount of time are pretty low in all but the most egregious blown blocking situations.
This is the biggest question mark on the team. Everyone knows it. They are probably a year away from being able to grow into a league average offensive line. The goal for this year is to avoid being the worst in football. That is what they were last year, and this team still was the only one to beat Brady. They beat Atlanta as well, and might have been on their way to doing it twice before a special teams penalty. The offense endured a variety of factors ranging from injury (Wilson, Rawls, Prosise, Tyler Lockett) to inexperience (George Fant, Mark Glowinski, Ifedi were starting for the first time). Odhiambo is the only person on offense starting for the first time in his career, and unlike Ifedi and Fant last year, he is a second year player.
People forget the Seahawks were a late-season home loss to the Cardinals away from getting the #2 seed in the NFC and what would have been home-field advantage throughout (since Dallas lost). The offense, and specifically the offensive line, gets most of the grief, but the defense fell apart late in the year after Earl Thomas went down to injury.
No player looks more rejuvenated and poised for a spectacular year than Thomas. He appears to have found new passion for the game he briefly considered walking away from after his injury. His body is noticeably stronger after an offseason of intense workouts. Intensity is Thomas’ hallmark, along with his otherworldly speed and work ethic. He and his battery mate, Kam Chancellor both look healthy and at peace. Chancellor went from holding out two years ago to signing an extension this Summer. He had surgery on both ankles to clean them up and is moving freely without pain for the first time in two years. When the two of them are at their best, this defense becomes very hard to solve. But they are not alone.
Bobby Wagner is coming off a year worthy of NFL Defensive MVP consideration. K.J. Wright made his first Pro Bowl. Both linebackers are in their prime, and welcome new depth in Michael Wilhoite and Terence Garvin. The real news is on the defensive line.
What was already a troublesome trio of Cliff Avril, Michael Bennett, and Frank Clark became The League of Extraordinary Devastation with the additions of Nazair Jones, David Bass, Marcus Smith, and Sheldon Richardson. Richardson may be the best player of the bunch. Equal parts pass rusher and run crusher, Richardson is just 26, and will command all sorts of attention usually reserved for Bennett. They will get less press, but Jones, Bass and Smith all represent upgrades. Adding Richardson to this group took what was a arguably the best defense in football, and made it an unsolvable puzzle for opposing offenses.
There will be games where teams simply cannot function against this defense. The discombobulation will lead to a large increase in turnovers, which in turn, will lower the bar for what the offense needs to do to score points.
Shaquill Griffin will suffer through some bruises during the early part of his rookie season, but he will make this team better already. His speed and ability to cover the deep ball gives the Seahawks elite deep coverage. Teams will almost certainly throw in front of him, but that will only work so long. He has fantastic potential, and has dulled the impact of losing the team’s top pick to injury.
Even special teams is brimming with talent as the team has reloaded with young and hungry athletes who resemble players like Richard Sherman, Kam Chancellor, and Jeremy Lane who all got their starts on special teams. Neiko Thorpe and Dewey McDonald return as the top special teams tacklers from a year ago, but are joined by Delano Hill, J.D. McKissic, Smith, Bass, Wilhoite, and Garvin, to name just a few.
The best players have largely remained the same for five or six years. They have been good enough to make the Seahawks a contender every season. What has been lacking is the depth necessary to weather the storms that invariably come during the long NFL season. This team has not overwhelmed opponents like they used to. That changes this year. Wilson has never looked better, smarter, or more locked in. Doug Baldwin has somehow managed to improve after rising the ranks to one of the top receivers in the game. Jimmy Graham has dropped some weight and gained some speed. Thomas, Chancellor, Wagner, Wright, Richardson, and Clark all are in their prime. Mike Holmgren used to say that to have a Super Bowl season, you needed your best players to play their best. Never has there been a time when this group appeared more primed for such a season. Nothing will come easy, but the swell is rising.