The Morning After: Seahawks Make Case for More, Beat Cards 38-30

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It’s not how you start, it’s how you finish. We have heard those words from Pete Carroll since the moment he arrived. We have debated them since they were first uttered. There was ample evidence to validate and challenge that philosophy on display Sunday as the Seahawks beat the Cardinals far more convincingly than the final score indicated.

The game started as poorly as one could imagine. Russell Wilson held onto a ball trying to scramble despite Chandler Jones barreling down on him, leading to a sack, fumble, and Cardinals touchdown. Giving up a touchdown in 12 seconds without the opposing offense even taking the field is hardly the beginning any team wants. Seattle responded with force, and despite another Gerald Everett touchdown mishap, led 17-10 at halftime.

The second half started maybe worse than the first as the Cardinals took the opening drive for a touchdown and then Wilson once again made a crippling error overthrowing his running back for what was an easy interception returned all the way to the Seattle 1-yard line. Down 24-17, the Seahawks once again finished strong, outscoring the Cardinals 21-6 the rest of the way, capped off by a dazzling 62-yard touchdown run by Rashaad Penny.

It’s not how your start…

Zoom out from the game and consider the season. Seattle discovered something genuinely exciting in their closing stretch as players like Jake Curhan, Penny, and Phil Haynes. They beat two division rivals and playoffs teams in San Francisco and Arizona. As much goodness as there was in the finish, and there was a lot, it was not nearly enough to make up for a 3-8 start.

For Penny, the start of his NFL career could not have been more disappointing. He reported to camp overweight, was ineffective as a runner in limited chances and battled injuries that kept him off the field most of his rookie contract. Three years go by. Twelve more games go by. Down to the last 5 games of his rookie contract, Penny authored one the best stretches of football for a running back in NFL history. That is not hyperbole.

He ran for 170+ yards in back-to-back games. Only Derrick Henry has done that recently (2018) and only Earl Campbell and O.J. Simpson have done it three straight times. He finished the season with a 6.3 average per carry. Only two players in the Super Bowl era have done that with at least 100 rush attempts (Jamaal Charles in 2010, Mercury Morris in 1973). His 6.3 yards per carry led the NFL (min 100 rush attempts), and was nearly a full yard higher than the next back (Tony Pollard, 5.5). He had 6 runs of 30+ yards. Only one team (Colts, 10) had more such runs all season than Penny had as an individual in five starts. I could go on. And on.

The idea that he did this against inferior competition is just silly. Arizona held the Cowboys to just 49 yards rushing one week earlier. The quality of competition argument always falls flat for me when you are talking about historic level accomplishments and performance. You don’t think Barry Sanders ever played inferior defenses? Or Walter Payton? It is totally fair and reasonable to question whether Penny can sustain this over the course of a season, but it is equally unreasonable and pig-headed to disqualify what he has done in these five games.

As someone who has consistently said it would be a bad idea to resign him after the season due to durability concerns, cost, and relative ease of finding a young, cheap, replacement in the draft, I have been swayed. How can anyone have watched these games and not want the kid back for another go even if it winds up being a poor roster decision for all the reasons mentioned above?

Seattle has had many amazing running backs through the history of the franchise, but few have had the breakaway ability that Penny has displayed throughout his career. His 5.6 career yards per carry average is a yard above any other back that has run at least 250 times for the team. He is running it for more yards on average than many NFL quarterbacks throw.

Forget the numbers. It’s just fun. This is why we watch the game. I want to see more.

He is not doing it alone. The Seahawks offensive line has been run blocking better than we have seen in years. It started with Curhan entering the lineup in Houston and continued with great play from Phil Haynes and even Ethan Pocic.

Curhan has done enough to earn a chance to compete for the starting right tackle spot next season. It would be going too far to simply name him the starter without adding more competition to the spot. He is still overmatched in pass protection too often, but he reminds me a bit of Breno Giacomini.

What is most encouraging is seeing the chemistry start to build on the line in how to make these combination blocks, and when to release from the double team and move to the second level. The physical and technical play of guys like Haynes and Gabe Jackson has been key.

Guard play has been good enough that Seattle probably does not need to add much there in the offseason. Even as Pocic has played well at the end, I still would love to see the team try to improve there. Pocic has always been smart and had some skill, but he gets physically overwhelmed to the point of blowing up games. That will not change. I would rather the team get a stronger player to anchor the middle of the line. Someone like Haynes or Damien Lewis might be worth trying.

The great run blocking and running has helped the pass protection. Wilson was sacked only once in this game, and it was on the second play where he should have never held the ball in the first place. Go back and look at the sacks over the last five games. Almost all could be attributed to the quarterback.

What we saw to end the season was what Carroll has been pleading for the last few years and what many smartpants on Twitter have been dismissing as outdated and foolish. Seattle has been so dominant in the run game that defenses have had to dedicate more attention and resources to stopping it. That has only helped slow the pass rush, led to fewer 3rd and longs, and made plays like bootlegs even more effective.

Did the Seahawks offense look outdated in putting up 51 and 38 points the last two weeks? Did running the ball seem stubborn? Did it hold Wilson back?

I will just say that I thoroughly enjoyed watching the return of a dominant run game, and the emergence of truly explosive offense that threatened the end zone from the air or the ground on every play. It is absolutely true that you can win in the NFL with a pass-centric system. That is not up for debate. There is nothing wrong, however, with an approach that balances the run and the pass and prioritizes explosive plays.

As down as I have been on Shane Waldron, he has made a strong case for another chance. His unwillingness to lean into the run game most of the season, even as the passing game struggled mightily was beyond aggravating. He showed little sense of how to build rhythm as an offense or counter what defenses were doing.

The play of the line and Penny allowed us to see more of his repertoire, and he became far more comfortable calling for the run. Parts clicked in a way that reminded me of the ending of another Seahawks season.

Back in 2002, Mike Holmgren was on the hot seat as the team found themselves at 3-7, with the offense not living up to expectations. The team signed Chris Terry to play right tackle to end the season, and a number of parts seemed to fall into place. Matt Hasselbeck threw for over 400 yards twice, and over 300 yards three times. The offense exploded, scoring at least 30 points in four of the final six games.

His early career in Seattle had been deemed a failure and he had lost the starting job to Trent Dilfer. Dilfer was injured against Dallas that season and Hasselbeck was forced back into the lineup. In what was probably his final chance to save his career over the last six games, he threw 12 touchdowns and looked every bit the part of a rising franchise quarterback.

The team would win four of their final six games and saved Holmgren’s job as coach. He was forced to relinquish GM duties.

New right tackle. A player rising from the ashes to save his career. A 4-2 finish. An offensive explosion. A head coach on the ropes. The similarities are eerie.

The signs were really starting to point to Jody Allen and Bert Kolde moving on from Carroll. There was a reputable report that Dan Quinn was already among the leaders to replace Carroll if they moved on from him, and then Mike Garafolo reported yesterday that Wilson was safe but Carroll’s fate was unclear. It felt like ownership had already made up their minds to move on if they already were identifying replacements.

That still could happen. This finish might just have been good enough to change their minds.

It is odd to feel encouraged at the end of the worst Seahawks season in over a decade. The reality is the Seahawks have not won the last game they played since 2013 when they won the Super Bowl. The last time they ended a regular season with at least two consecutive wins without making the playoffs was, wait for it…2002, when they finished with three straight wins.

I remember feeling like the team was about to explode as that season ended. It is not quite the same as the offense was collectively younger, but it does feel like they are onto something worth holding onto and seeing where it leads.

It is not only on offense. The Seahawks defense held Kyler Murray and the Cardinals to 305 yards, 4.2 yards per play, and just 16 points (not counting the touchdown on the drive started at the 1-yard line). They did it without Bobby Wagner, Al Woods, Jamal Adams, and Ryan Neal.

I did not see that coming. This felt like a game where Arizona would run all over the depleted Seahawks defense. It never happened. Poona Ford, Bryan Mone, Jordyn Brooks and others all helped to stymie the Cardinals run game.

Sidney Jones and D.J. Reed were stellar at corner. Carlos Dunlap and Darrell Taylor and Ford and Kerry Hyder ignited the pass rush. Seeing them sack Murray five times was a reminder of just how valuable a good pass rush can be and just how absent it has been this season.

I expect we will see Seattle go out and spend significant free agent dollars on pass rush. Chandler Jones would make a lot of sense. Maybe Von Miller as well. They have two 25-year-old corners who are playing well and will enter free agency.

I believe both should be paid to stay. That would set Seattle up at corner for years. It is worth the money even if you need to let someone like Wagner leave.

Seattle finishes 11th in the NFL in scoring defense. There were warts for sure, but there are parts to build around and fashion a defense together that is good enough to support a quality offense.

Bringing back Quandre Diggs is a must. He suffered a gruesome injury in this one, but thankfully, it was bone instead of ligament damage. He should be back and ready next season. The injury will likely impact his guaranteed money (e.g., expect more incentives around games played), but the total value should be similar to what he would have received without the injury.

Many expected this defense to fall apart and show themselves as imposters. They definitely weakened, but never fell off the cliff, even with all the injuries.

When I look back at this season, I see coaches decisions to start Kyle Fuller at center and Tre Flowers at corner as two debilitating choices. Pocic was not available early on due to injury, but the fact that the staff put those two players out there could have been the difference between winning and losing games like Tennessee.

We can hope that the recognize the impact it had when there was competent play on the line and at corner. We may yet see Marquise Blair fulfill his potential next season and help raise the secondary further.

It has been a pattern we have seen too often. Personnel and scheme choices to start the year cost the team, and strong finishes are not enough to make up for what was lost.

Carroll had many of his priors confirmed with how the running game performed, how the team finished, and even the pick of Penny over Nick Chubb. Should Carroll return for another go at this, let’s hope he learned enough about the players on this team to start stronger and faster next season.

They have been searching for a new core and an identify that can remain in place across seasons. I believe they have found that. It is not good enough to contend for a ring without more additions, and it will wilt without more good drafts, but there is smoke starting to rise off the moss and the hint of a flame beginning to emerge.

That might seem overly optimistic based on recent events, but the team we saw play the last two weeks would have a good chance to beat most of the playoff teams in the NFC. Remember, Seattle held the #1 seed Packer team to 3 points through three quarters while the offense was a train wreck and the Packers run defense is horrible. The gap is not as wide as it may appear.

It will take a lot of good fortune and great personnel moves to turn this team back into a true Super Bowl contender. I have been pretty consistent since early in the year that Seattle should look at a full rebuild. As the worst Seahawks season of Carroll and Wilson’s tenure comes to a close, I find myself wanting more. Maybe Carroll can prove to us once and for all that it is how you finish.