Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Seahawks Preview

I recently submitted the following essay to the Football Outsiders as my application to write for their book, the Pro Football Prospectus. Let me know what you think.

Introduction

Last year, the Seahawks fell victim to one of professional football’s most sinister curses. No, not the “Madden-Cover Curse” or the “Super-Bowl-Loser’s Curse” – we refer instead to the well-known “Running-Backs-with-370+-Carries-in-the-Prior-Year-Will-Almost-Certainly-Get-Injured-in-the-Following-Year Curse.” It took only two games for reigning MVP Shaun Alexander to injure his foot, prompting him to miss the next six games and causing much gnashing of teeth and rending of garments among fantasy football players and Seahawks’ fans alike. And Alexander wasn’t the only Seahawk who seemed cursed in 2007: quarterback Matt Hasselbeck (“Campbell’s-Chunky-Soup Curse”) missed four games; wideout Darrell Jackson (“Ongoing-Contract-Dispute-With-The-GM Curse”) missed three games; and tight end Jerramy Stevens (“Character-Issues-Plus-Bad-Hands Curse”) didn’t start playing until week six.

Yet the Seahawks were not foiled, as the team managed to stumble to 9-7, win their third straight NFC West title, and come within one fourth quarter, fourth-down conversion of playing in their second consecutive NFC Championship Game. Unfortunately, the Seahawks’ 2007 schedule is as tough as last year’s was cupcake, and a team that was already aging managed to get even older during free agency by adding players such as Marcus Pollard (age 78 in NFL years). Nonetheless, the Seahawks have no glaring weaknesses, and the NFC West remains relatively soft, so if Seattle can stay healthy, they can – and should – win the division once again.

Offensive Line

In 1982, famed mergers & acquisitions lawyer Marty Lipton invented the “poison pill” as a way of deterring hostile takeovers of public companies through dilution of a company’s outstanding shares. Although the use of corporate poison pills is widespread today, many critics feel they prevent efficient management and destroy shareholder value. So do the Seahawks. After the Minnesota Vikings “poison pilled” their contract to guard Steve Hutchinson by offering to guarantee his $49 million if he played more than four games in the city of Seattle – an offer the Seahawks simply could not match – the team was left with a gaping hole at guard that caused problems all of last season. Want proof? Last year, Seattle experimented with nine different combinations on the offensive line. The year Seattle went to the Super Bowl, they used only two. Continuity is important, and last year, the Hawks didn’t have any.

In the offseason, the Seahawks actively pursued San Diego’s Kris Dielman, but he turned the team down when he discovered that the Northwest is cold and rainy, leaving second-year Rob Sims as the starter at left guard. The coaching staff couldn’t stop talking about Ray Willis during May’s minicamp, and Coach Holmgren suggested Willis may start at right guard or right tackle. As a result, RT Sean Locklear is competing to keep his starting job, although it’s unclear who else could play on the right side: Floyd “Pork Chop” Womack is already injured (this article went to press in June), and during the regular season Tom Ashworth looked horrible at every position he played. It’s possible that fourth-round pick Mansfield Wrotto – the player Seattle drafted as a result of trading Darrell Jackson to the 49ers – will see some playing time, but he’s still learning how to play guard after converting from defensive tackle during his senior year. Center Chris Spencer replaces the retired Robbie Tobeck and will start if he’s healthy, but he’s still recovering from off-season surgery to both shoulders. If Spencer can’t go, the appropriately named Chris Gray, age 37, will fill in. About the only sure thing is all-world left tackle Walter Jones, who allowed four sacks and may be starting to show signs of finally slowing down.

Defensive Line

During their Super Bowl season, the Seahawks ranked 3rd in defensive DVOA against the run. Last year, they slipped to 23rd. The dramatic fall off was largely due to the season-ending injury to DT Marcus “So Hot in the Hot” Tubbs, who fractured his right knee in November and who’s run-clogging abilities Seattle never managed to replace. The good news is that Tubbs’ recovery is ahead of schedule, so much so that he was seen dragging his strength-and-conditioning coach around on a sled during minicamp. Tubbs is joined by Rocky Bernard and Chuck Darby, two players whose performance regressed last year, and third-round pick Brandon Mebane from Cal, who may see significant playing time.

Seattle’s major free-agency acquisition was to overpay for Patrick Kerney, an aging defensive end with a history of injury problems, to replace another old and overpaid defensive end with a history of injury problems (the now-retired Grant Wistrom). Of course, Kerney, like Wistrom, is a “high motor” guy, so he’s got that going for him . . . which is nice. Although Kerney isn’t worth $19 million in guaranteed money, he will improve the team’s moribund pass rush. The remaining defensive ends are a bit of grab-bag: second-year man Darryl Tapp played effectively in spot situations, but doesn’t have the size to be an every-down end; Bryce Fisher turned 30 in May and is in decline; rookie Baraka Atkins converted to DE from DT while attending “The U,” and will have a limited role this year.

Linebackers

Although the loss of Steve Hutchinson hurt the offense, his departure freed the cap space for the Seahawks to sign Julian Peterson, who led the team in sacks and “swagger.” Lofa Tatupu slumped a bit in his second year, but that’s only because he played far beyond expectations in 2005. Leroy Hill struggled early in the season when the coaching staff tried to drop him into coverage, but by the end of the year, Hill returned to his natural pass-rushing role, and he led the team in tackles during the playoffs. If Hill can maintain his late-season resurgence into 2007, the Hawks arguably will have the most exciting triumvirate of linebackers in the NFC.

Secondary

“Hammer” time in Seattle ended this offseason after the Seahawks parted ways with safety Ken Hamlin, who managed to play every game despite suffering a skull fracture in 2005. Hamlin demonstrated that while he can still deliver big hits, he can’t properly position himself or his teammates in defensive coordinator John Marshall’s cover-2 scheme. With Hamlin gone, the Hawks will rely on two free-agent signings, Deon Grant (from Jacksonville) and Brian Russell (from Cleveland) to take over at free safety and strong safety, respectively. Both players are solid – Grant in particular is known as a good on-field general and locker-room leader – if somewhat unspectacular. Mike Green impressed the coaching staff in preseason last year before an ankle injury ended his season. Michael Boulware remains on the roster, but shouldn’t be.

At cornerback, Seattle plans to rely on its trio of “first” picks: Marcus Trufant (11th pick overall in 2003), Kelly Jennings (31st overall in 2006), and rookie Josh Wilson (taken in the second round but Seattle’s “first” pick last year due to the Deion Branch trade). The Seahawks ranked 23rd in pass defense DVOA last year, compared to 25th in 2005, and Trufant has yet to prove he can cover the NFC’s top wideouts. The diminutive-but-speedy Wilson (5’8”, 4.3-40) impressed in minicamp and is the favorite to play nickel back, although playoff hero Jordan Babineaux – it was his shoestring tackle that prevented Tony Romo from running the botched snap in for the winning touchdown – will also see action.

Coaching Staff

Well, Jim Mora Jr. got his wish to coach in Seattle. True, Mora will be working as the Seahawks’ secondary coach instead of the job he apparently covets (head coach of the UW Huskies), but as the world watches the Michael Vick Experience transmogrify into the Brutal Dog Mauling Experience, Mora may conclude he made a smart career move. Seattle also added highly regarded Bruce DeHaven from the Dallas Cowboys to coach special teams. DeHaven should have fun alternating between Josh Wilson and the surprisingly effective Nate Burleson to return kicks, and listening to kicker Josh Brown describe his latest date with Carrie Underwood. Rumors persist that this will be Mike Holmgren’s last year in Seattle.

10 Comments:

Anonymous Nic said...

Excellent piece. The right tone for the publication. Very well edited.

12:55 PM  
Blogger Ben said...

Yes, yes. What about people who didn't help edit it -- any of you want to chime in?

1:15 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well written (and exceptionally well edited) but, unfortunately, have no clue about content....

I did, however, like the "poison pill" analogy.

-- Big Daddy

4:58 PM  
Anonymous Yolohawk said...

How can you comment on so much? Where do I start? I found this site and are kindof bummed that I have to read a book. Call it ADD.

6:48 PM  
Blogger Ben said...

Welcome, Yolohawk! You can safely ignore the political and philosophical rants, and instead focus exclusively on the Seahawks related posts. I just figured for those of us in Sando-withdrawal, this might provide a nice alternative forum for awhile.

Thanks for reading.

8:28 PM  
Anonymous yolohawk said...

Ok Ben,,,, I'm In.
It's difficult.
With Sando I really felt connected to the HAWKS. The withdrawls are getting easier, thank god it's summer.
Fact-backed politics are accepted. The true art is twisting whatever jokes this administration throws at us into something less affecting in the way of my grandkids.

9:15 PM  
Blogger Ben said...

I still feel withdrawal pangs myself. I think we got spoiled, with the constant updates -- even through these dry months -- and the forum for chatting with fellow Hawks fanatics. The News Tribune needs to find someone to step in, quick; when Sando departs on July 1, people will abandon that blog in droves.

9:29 PM  
Blogger Sean said...

The overused structure of First name "funny modification of name" last name is a way of adding a little flair to ESPN news, but it's unnecessary and digressive in print. At least if overused. Some good writing, though.

1:56 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good post! However I don't recall Kerney having a history of being injured. He played in every game for 7 years prior to his pec injury last year. Pretty good, no?

8:47 AM  
Blogger Ben said...

1. Sean, I almost dropped the "So Hot in the Hot" Tubbs reference for that very reason. I decided to leave it in because I think the Pro Football Prospectus guys like "throwback" humor, and this is a throwback to the Eddie Murphy-James Brown hot tub sketch. Same with the "Caddyshack" joke (did you catch it?) Thanks for the praise.

2. Depends on the meaning of "history," anonymous. Kerney is coming off a major injury, so in my mind that means he an injury "history," but you are right that -- prior to last season -- he was not "injury prone." By all accounts, Kerney is a fitness freak, so maybe I overstated the case. I'm more excited about the Kerney signing today than I was when it happened (I wanted Dielman and Graham).

9:48 AM  

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