Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Dissecting the 35th Anniversary Seahawks Team

2015 will mark the 40th season for the Seattle Seahawks.

The occasion offers an opportunity to improve upon past efforts to compile a roster of the all-time greatest Seahawks.

Consider, for example, the 35th Anniversary team, reflecting fan voting on the franchise's official website (following each athlete's name is his tenure in Seattle):

WR Steve Largent (1976-89)
LT Walter Jones (1997-2008)
LG Steve Hutchinson (2001--05)
C Robbie Tobeck (2000-2006)
RG Bryan Millard (1984-1991)
RT Howard Ballard (1994-98)
TE John Carlson (2008-2011)
WR Bobby Engram (2001-08)
WR Brian Blades (1988-1998)
QB Matt Hasselbeck (2001-10)
RB Shaun Alexander (2000-07)
FB Mack Strong (1993-2007)

DE Jacob Green (1980-92)
DT Joe Nash (1982-96)
DT Cortez Kennedy (1990-2000)
DE Michael Sinclair (1991-2001)
OLB Chad Brown (1997-2004)
MLB Lofa Tatupu (2005-10)
ILB Fredd Young (1984-87)
OLB Rufus Porter (1988-94)
CB Marcus Trufant (2003-12)
CB Dave Brown (1976-86)
NB Shawn Springs (1997-2003)
SS Kenny Easley (1981-87)
FS Eugene Robinson (1985-95)

Special Teams
K Norm Johnsonv (1982-90)
P Rick Tuten (1991-97)
KOR Steve Broussard (1995-98)
PR Nate Burleson (2006-09)

The online poll evinced two deep flaws:

1. A predictable presentist bias; and
2. An alarming lack of depth.

Presentist Bias

To see how badly the presentist perspective of voters skewed the results, let's start by splitting up team history into four major coaching eras:

I. The Patera Era (1976-82; includes an '82 season under McCormick); 20%
II. The Age of Knox (1983-91)
II. The Flores & Erickson Errors (1992-1997)
IV. The Holmgren Era (1999-2008)

Now, consider the percentages of offensive, defensive and special teams players drawn from each era:

I. Patera  = 1/12 offensive players (8%), 1/13 defenders (8%), 0/4 special teamers (0%)
II. Knox = 1/12 offensive players (8%),  6/13 defenders (46%), 1/4 special teamers (25%)
III. Errors = 2/12 offensive players (17%), 2/13 defenders (15%), 2/4 special teamers (50%)
IV. Holmgren  = 8/12 offensive players (67%), 4/13 defenders (31%), 1/4 special teamers (25%)

It is hard to argue with the under-representation of Patera Era Seahawks. Although those years comprised 20% of the first 35 years of team history, Seattle was a pretty dreadful football team in those years, with a real dearth of talent.

While the '80s defense received due respect, voters seemed to have forgotten about the dynamic offensive production of Ground Chuck and Air Knox that contributed to the team's successes in its halcyon Silver Age. No love for Curt Warner? John L. Williams? Dave Krieg?

Voters got the Flores and Erickson Errors about right, except with regard to Steve Broussard. Bruiser was a good player, but his selection as the best kick returner in Seahawk history is explicable only as blatant homerism from Wazzu voters. (I didn't realize there were that many Husky grads with the time, patience and big hearts to help WSU alumni operate a PC, read and vote online.)

Obviously, the real problem is the gross over-representation of Seahawks from the Holmgren Era. Of course, Holmgren's decadelong tenure as Seattle's coach consumed 40% of the team's first 35 years. Moreover, those years included most of the best seasons in the team's history through 2010, and featured the most explosive offensive in team history.

So, some over-representation is understandable, especially on offense. But John Carlson as the best tight end in team history? Was that supposed to be some kind of joke? The kid could catch passes (and still can), but I've coached flag football 5th graders who block better than he did (and does).

Lack of Depth

I like depth on real teams and on all-star teams. Don't just name starters. Seattle has had enough great players to fill out an entire roster, including backups.

We can do better for the 40th Anniversary squad.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

By the skin of our beak

That was a huge victory, especially for the defense, which once again rode to the rescue of our sputtering offense by producing a preposterous series of game-saving plays.

Improbable interception by a prone defensive tackle? Check. (Nice grab, Jordan Hill.)

Big pick six? Check. (Bobby Wagner knocked the ball from the hands of Lance Kendricks before he could complete the catch or take possession, so when Bruce Irvin grabbed the ball and took it to the house, the statisticians coded it as an interception instead of a fumble recovery.)

Earl Thomas forcing a fumble at the goal line to snatch a turnover via touchback from the jaws of a near-touchdown? Check.

Some other good things happened.

Steven Hauschka recovered from his failures in Arizona and returned to his customary clutchness,

Paul Richardson had a breakout game as a receiver.

Seattle successfully established the run against a tough St. Louis defensive front. Marshawn Lynch and Robert Turbin combined for more than 100 yards.

The Seahawk offense mounted one impressive touchdown drive.

But the pass blocking was horrible again, and Russell Wilson's decisionmaking was poorer than usual. On the interception, for example, he should have pulled down the ball and run--he only had one defender to beat for a first down--rather than force the ball into coverage.

Earning a bye and home field advantage is huge, but it was disappointing that the offense took a step backwards.

Go, Hawks!

Finish strong

Old Diehards remember the futility of the Patera Era (1976-82), the Behring Error (1989-1996) and the brief but painful Holmgren Fade (2008-9).

Thus, we appreciate how great it is that the Seahawks are playing a meaningful game in the regular season.

It doesn't get much more meaningful than a chance to win a first-round bye and home field advantage throughout the playoffs for the second consecutive year.

Beating St. Louis today would almost certainly win pole position for Seattle. The nightmare scenario is relatively unlikely: a Dallas victory (plausible) plus a Detroit-Green Bay tie (extremely improbable).

Of course, beating the Rams ceased to be easy once Jeff Fisher took over. The man is an evil genius with a knack for winning divisional matchups. We played them tough in St. Louis only to lose thanks to special teams trickeration.

The Rams defense has grown tougher in recent weeks.

Russell Wilson will face pressure from an intimidating pass rush. Our O-line, coming off its best performance of the year, must establish the run.

The St. Louis offense doesn't scare anyone.

But last week Seattle scared the world with both our offense and defense. Today's contest is a chance to build on that offensive explosion and strike terror into the hearts of teams that may need to visit Seahawks Stadium in the playoffs.

Given that one of our likely playoff opponents is Dallas, which already beat us at home, the need to revive that sense of doom is critical.

Go, Hawks!

Some other great plays last week

Marshawn Lynch's epic 79-yard run has gotten all of the love it deserves, but unfortunately that has come at the expense of some other extraordinary plays in last week's triumphant trampling of the Cardinals.

Luke Willson's 80-yard touchdown catch: Most of the Cardinals buy the fake handoff to Marshawn Lynch. Russell Wilson rolls left and forgoes an easy short pass to Doug Baldwin because he sees Willson get open deep behind the defense. DangeRuss hits the tight end in stride with a nice 40-yard pass. Willson displays impressive speed in his sprint to the end zone. Safety Rashad Johnson dives for his ankles and takes a heel to the head that knocks off his helmet and bloodies his nose. The game in a nutshell, really.

Russell Wilson's long runs. Arizona's defense generally provided good outside containment, but that left gaps in the middle, which DangeRuss mercilessly exploited.

Richard Sherman's interception. What I really loved about this play was how fluidly the defense shifted into attack mode, with defenders turning into blockers to set up a 50-yard return. It is clear that Seattle not only practices getting turnovers, but also capitalizing on them. "We want the ball, and we're gonna score" is not a normal defensive attitude.

Russell Wilson's 6-yard touchdown run: Most of Arizona's defenders bit hard on the fake handoff to Marshawn Lynch, but linebacker Alex Okafor recognized Russell Wilson's bootleg to the left and moved to meet the quarterback nine yards behind the line of scrimmage. But it is not easy to pull off an open-field tackle on an athletic quarterback. DangeRuss victimized Okafor with a stutter step and a stiffarm takedown that left Okafor--five inches taller and more than 50 pounds heavier than Wilson--lying prone while the quarterback ran for the goal line. All-Pro cornerback Antonio Cromartie is there to defend the corner of the end zone, but it didnn't matter. DangeRuss juked him and ran untouched into the end zone.

More on last week's epic run

The play call was 17 Power--the same run play called for the Beast Quake against the Saints. In that playoff game three years ago, imperfect blocking forced Marshawn Lynch to make his own hole.

This time, Seattle's blockers executed effectively at the point of attack. From the Seattle 21-yard line, center Patrick Lewis snapped the ball and exploded into defensive tackle Dan Williams, driving him two steps outside before left guard Richard Carpenter piled on to complete a superfluous double-team. Meanwhile, backup left tackle Alvin Bailey wrestled Pro Bowl defensive end Calais Campbell aside, while tight end Luke Willson held off linebacker Matt Shaughnessy, opening a wide hole in the C-gap between Bailey and Willson.

Cooper Helfet, a second tight end, lined up outside of Willson, but looped inside to run interference in the hole with linebacker Glenn Carson. Helfet made no effort to block Carson, but the linebacker made perfunctory contact presumably intended to disrupt the route of an eligible receiver.

Right guard JR Sweezy pulled, sprinting left to hit the hole just ahead of Lynch, who had taken the handoff. Sweezy found no one new to block, but needed to clean up some unfinished business. Campbell shed Bailey's block and shoved Carson toward Lynch. Sweezy peeled back and shot out both arms, repelling Campbell with his left while using his right to redirect Carson's dive from a viable angle to a futile grab at the ball carrier's ankles.

The wideouts made their blocks on the second level. Paul Richardson hooked safety Tony Jefferson and drove him to the turf as the Beast burst from the hole. When Rashad Johnson--Arizona's other safety--ran up to meet Lynch, Ricardo Lockette's slant route ran right into him, allowing the Beast to cut back toward the right sideline.

Trailing Lockette in coverage put All-Pro cornerback Patrick Peterson in good position to make the play, but he overran Lynch's cutback.

Now it was a footrace. Johnson fought off Lockette's block and ran with Peterson after Lynch, with the Rocket in hot pursuit.

As the Beast crossed the 30-yard line, Peterson took a good angle, and used his superior speed to meet Lynch outside the numbers at the Seattle 43-yard line. After hand-fighting for a few steps, Peterson stepped in front of Lynch and grabbed at his outside shoulder, but the Beast just flung him off the field with his free arm.

This encounter slowed Lynch, allowing Johnson and Lockette to catch up with him at the Arizona 45-yard line. Lynch and Lockette shoved the safety to the ground out of bounds. Still trying to make a play from the sidelines, Peterson hurdled his prone teammate, but Lockette ran off the field and blocked him. The Rocket then ran back on the field in search of someone else to block.

At the Arizona 20-yard line, linebacker Alex Okafor face-planted while diving ineffectually for Lynch's ankles.

All-Pro cornerback Antonio Cromartie had slowed to a jog in mid-play, assuming that Peterson and Johnson could tackle Lynch on the sideline, but when he saw the Beast escape, he resumed sprinting. As Lynch neared the goal line, Lockette rocketed downfield and blocked Cromartie to ensure that the Beast could complete his glorious run with an inglorious crotch grab.

Lockette's hustle provided the perfect counterpoint to the Beast's epic run. In the course of Lynch's 79-yard run, the Rocket ran farther and faster, throwing four blocks on three players, two of whom were All-Pros.

Ricardo Lockette is a badass.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Another close parallel for Sunday's big run

I sensed that Marshawn Lynch was going to break a big run on Sunday. When the TV crew announced that the Beast wasn't starting because he had an upset stomach, I nodded and declared, "That's lucky."

My long-suffering partner rarely pays attention to my football games or to me when I'm watching them, but she noted my comment and judged it odd.

I do not generally regard nausea as beneficial for athletic performance. Intestinal distress is fortunate only in one specific case: when the ailing player is a Seahawk running back playing in Arizona.

I know this because I've seen it before. In 2005, I was in Sun Devil stadium when Shaun Alexander overcame a "tummy ache" and ran for 173 yards.

Alexander's ailment contributed to his struggles in the first half. He said, "Every time I got tackled, I felt like I was going to throw up or go the other way." (The latter would have been unfortunate in Seattle's all-white visiting uniforms.). 

After making some halftime adjustments, Alexander told a teammate, "Hey, I feel a little lighter now. Watch me break the first run." And he did, taking the initial handoff of the third quarter 88 yards to the house. There was no Beast Mode in that sprint, and no need for it. Alexander shot through a nice hole opened by his all-world O-Line and then outran everyone to the end zone.

So, I knew that once Beast Mode conquered his own tummy ache, he was gonna go off and make Arizona nauseous.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Don't call it "Beast Quake II"

Marshawn Lynch's long touchdown run Sunday night ranks among the season's most exciting NFL highlights and rates among the greatest plays in Seahawk history.

Many have likened Lynch's 79-yard rampage to the Beast Quake run four seasons ago. 

Certainly, the two plays share many parallels. Both clinched crucial, high-stakes games with big playoff implications. In both cases, Lynch carried the ball, broke free from early contact, produced an impressive burst of sustained speed, deployed a mean stiffarm, and benefited when from clutch downfield blocks thrown by hustling teammates. Both runs ended with Lynch falling backwards into the end zone, cradling the pigskin in one arm while his other hand clutched his crotch in crude defiance of the defenders he had just dominated.

For these reasons, some have lazily dubbed last night's run Beast Quake II.

That is a misnomer, because no real seismic activity registered in Arizona on Sunday night. The original Beast Quake was an authentic tremor caused by 66,000 fans rocking Seahawks Stadium by jumping up and down in celebration of Lynch's epic 67-yard run. There were plenty of Seattle fans in Glendale that night, but not enough to shake the stadium.

To compound the foolishness, one Seattle newspaper set up an online poll asking readers which run was better; the original Beast Quake, or Beast Quake II?

Of course, it's no contest. Sunday night's run was magnificent, but the original Beast Quake featured more broken tackles, a more vicious stiffarm and a better team effort from a convoy of Seahawks blocking downfield to help usher Lynch into the end zone. Moreover, it took place on a bigger stage and in a more heroic underdog context: the only losing team in history to win a division, host a playoff game and eliminate the defending Super Bowl champions.

So, we need a better name for Sunday night's run. I invite suggestions from the teeming legion of Diehard readers. In the meantime, my own proposal draws inspiration from Michael Bennett, who said, "That's the best run I've ever seen. It looked like he was running for his freedom."

Thus, I propose "The Jailbreak."

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Tougher test tonight

Arizona is undefeated at home this year. Bruce Arians has clearly earned coach of the year honors for consistently fielding a competitive team despite a crippling epidemic of injuries to key players.

Yet, Vegas and most analysts give the Cardinals little chance of winning tonight. They fixate on Arizona's dire quarterback situation while ignoring the team's relentlessly excellent defense and increasingly credible run game.

Seattle's defense can probably handle Arizona. The Sea-fence has rounded into championship form in recent weeks, and should be able to stack the box to stymie Cardinal run efforts and dare Ryan Lindley to throw at the Legion of Boom.

It would be lazy to label Lindley as untested; the fact is that he has faced few tests and flunked most of them. His stat line is truly dreadful: one win vs. five losses as a starter, zero touchdowns and seven interceptions.

But all of that happened when injuries pressed him prematurely into service as a rookie 6th-round draft pick back in 2012. Presumably, two years of work as an understudy have yielded some improvement. Arians knows how to coach quarterbacks and how to get the most out of his offense. 

Last week, in the first half, Colin Kaepernick had some limited success throwing against Seattle, completing several crossing routes against Richard Sherman and other defenders. It will be interesting to see if Arizona is bold enough to try to exploit the same apparent weakness, and equally interesting to see how the Seahawks react. Against the 49ers, our defense responded primarily by intensifying the pass rush.

Winning tonight will require another superhuman performance from the Sea-fence to compensate for Seattle's faltering offense. The team's defensive resurgence has helped to mask a dramatic decline in offensive production. After averaging 28 points per game through week 10, the Seahawks have posted just 20 points per contest since then.

Optimists characterize this as Seattle reverting to its roots as a run-first offense paired with a solid defense, an old-school team playing smash-mouth football on both sides of the ball. There is some truth to that, but I would be more comfortable with the small ball approach if it were built on a more solid foundation.

Unfortunately, our offensive line is still a wreck, the team's undisputed Achilles heel. When healthy, they are a serviceable crew, but they are rarely healthy. The chief cornerstones--center Max Unger and left tackle Russell Okung--will not play tonight. Guards Richard Carpenter and JR Sweezy are banged-up and underperforming. Rookie second-round pick Justin Britt is one of the worst right tackles in the league. Alvin Bailey looked bad in relief of Okung last week. The return of backup center Lemuel Jeanpierre is the sole bright spot in this picture.

With the O-line in shambles, Seattle's offense continues to rely on the superhuman talents of Beast Mode and DangeRuss. The offensive line provides sporadically decent run blocking, but Marshawn Lynch can always grind out a few yards by making his own holes.

The greatest concern is the O-line's inept pass protection. Every week, Russell Wilson faces more pressure than any other quarterback in the league. As the 21st century's answer to Harry Houdini, DangeRuss eludes most pass rushers and takes relatively few big hits, but it is only a matter of time before he takes an unlucky shot and we get to see what our offense looks like with a mere mortal under center. Tarvaris Jackson is serviceable backup, but anyone other than Wilson would get sacked twice or thrice as often under the pressure our offensive line permits.

Offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell and O-line coach Tom Cable have their work cut out for them.

Go, Hawks!