Friday, December 22, 2017

Seahawks at Cowboys: Good vs. Evil, Part II

Dallas owner Jerry Jones with All-Pro domestic abuser Ezekiel Elliott (Photo Credit: ESPN)
Most NFL games are mere mercenary bouts with little on the line but civic pride.

But there are real moral dimensions to Sunday's Seahawk-Cowboy showdown.

Back in 2015, Seattle faced a Dallas team then coddling Greg Hardy, a defensive end whom Carolina had cut for getting caught throttling his girlfriend and threatening to kill her.

Two years later, the Cowboys continue to harbor bad men who hurt women.

Sunday will mark the return of All-Pro running back Ezekiel Elliott from a six-game suspension for several separate episodes of violence against an ex-girlfriend.

Last summer, Cowboy linebacker Damien Wilson backed his truck into a woman and brandished a rifle at a man in a Dallas stadium parking lot. The Cowboy candidly told arresting officers, "I had road rage."

Dez Bryant--the team's All-Pro wideout--hit his mom and tore her bra and T-shirt back in 2012.

Jerry Jones remains the NFL's vilest owner. That is no mean feat in a league that includes scoundrels like Stan Kroenke (who stole the Rams from St. Louis) and pervy bigot Jerry Richardson, who erected a 13' statue of himself outside Carolina's Charlottesville stadium, but is now selling the Panthers in an effort to forestall investigations for sexual harassment and racial slurs.

What makes the Dallas owner so vile? Jones not only condones domestic violence, but also opposes free speech. Earlier this season, Jones threatened to bench any player who knelt during the national anthem, and cited President Trump as the inspiration for his ultimatum.

The owner's threat has evidently cowed the entire Cowboy roster from exercising their First Amendment rights during the pregame patriotic observance.

Seattle, however, remains the home of free and the land of the brave.

Center Justin Britt supports left tackle Duane Brown as he kneels & defensive linemen sit during the national anthem last week (Photo Credit: Q13)

In 2015, Seattle and Dallas met in midseason, each entering the contest under .500. The Seahawks edged the Cowboys, 13-12, and their fates diverged from there. Dallas tanked to 4-12, while Seattle finished 10-6, won a wild card road game before losing to Atlanta in the divisional round.

This Sunday, the two teams meet in penultimate week of the regular season, each with identical 8-6 records and slim playoff hopes. A loss would conclusively doom either team's playoff hopes.

The Cowboys ride in on a three-game winning streak, while Seattle reels from a close loss in Jacksonville followed by a humiliating home blowout by the Rams.

Nothing went right for Seattle last week.

We learned that our run defense crumbles when All-Pro middle linebacker Bobby Wagner is hobbled by a hamstring injury and unassisted by his Pro Bowl counterpart KJ Wright (out with a concussion). And we learned that our defense will quit when it gets no help from the offense.

Offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell reverted to customary form as a playcaller early in the game. Normally, he gets a feel for the defense and calls better plays in the second half, but last week he innovated by deploying his reverse Midas touch until the game's bitter end.

Seattle fell behind early, abandoned the run prematurely, and threw too much.

After getting shut out against Jacksonville, Pro Bowl tight end Jimmy Graham--instead of stepping up in the clutch--limited his production to one catch for a one-yard loss, plus a 15-yard personal foul penalty for pointlessly pushing a Ram in the back well out of bounds.

(Credit: #Go Hawks 24/7)

The Seahawks have endured Job-like bad luck with injuries this year, but on Sunday they have a chance to redeem themselves, the city, and the season by defeating Jerry Jones and evils for which he stands: violence against women, Donald Trump, and the oppression of people of color.

Go, Hawks!

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Shedding last week's shame & playing hurt against the Rams

The Seahawks battled valiantly in Jacksonville last week and nearly pulled out a win. Seattle defenders had every right to crash into the Jaguars' victory formation in hopes of forcing a fumble, but--no matter how dirty the Jaguar O-Line played--Michael Bennett brought enduring shame upon our city and team by taking outrageous cheap shots at the Jacksonville center's knees both before and after the whistle. The NFL should suspend Bennett and any other player who so obviously attempts to inflict gratuitous and potentially crippling injuries on opponents--and couple those suspensions with stiff fines.

Quinton Jefferson's efforts to climb into the stands to get at a fan who threw stuff at him only deepened our shame.

Fined and penalized for his own part in the proceedings, Pete Carroll needs to master himself and get control of his team.

While the penalties last week came after the contest's outcome had been decided, indiscipline is a familiar feature of Carroll's coaching style; it compromises our competitiveness and has blown games for us. Seattle gets flagged both for the penalties our players actually commit, and sometimes also for imaginary penalties that officials call under the influence of our longstanding bad reputation. Since Sunshine Pete came to town, the Seahawks have perennially ranked among the most penalized teams in the league, and this year's squad remains in contention to claim the shameful title of the most flagged team in NFL history.

We're supposed to be the Seattle Seahawks, not the Oakland Raiders.

Carroll's apologists sometimes assert that this indiscipline is an acceptable side effect of the emotional intensity he reliably elicits from the team. Nonsense. That argument posits a false choice between playing hard and playing within the rules, and treats football players as mere animals rather than thinking men capable of complex learning. In actual fact, player indiscipline stems from sloppy, permissive coaching, and bad team culture. This will take time to fix, and it is far from clear that Carroll even recognizes the need to fix it.

Everyone, however, recognizes that the Seahawks must beat the Rams tomorrow to have any chance of winning the NFC West.

Seattle effectively contained the potent Los Angeles offense earlier in the season, but injuries have decimated the Seattle defense since then.

Despite the loss of Kam Chancellor and Richard Sherman, the Legion of Boom has met expectations by holding up relatively well, with the continued leadership of Earl Thomas, the reintegration of Byron Maxwell, the rapid development of Shaq Griffin, solid safety play by Bradley McDougald, and the fortunate retention of Jeremy Lane.

But the Legion of Whom still needs help from the rest of the defense. No secondary can cover receivers indefinitely.

A few weeks ago, the Seahawk defensive line looked so deep that Seattle ditched Dwight Freeney--a foolish choice, in retrospect. Soon after parting ways with him, injuries wracked the unit. Last week against Jacksonville, our front four failed either to stuff the run or mount much of a pass rush. Blake Bortles emerged from the game not only unsacked, but almost entirely unpressured. Seattle hit him just once the entire game.

Attrition at linebacker--the devastating losses of Pro Bowlers Bobby Wagner and KJ Wright in Jacksonville--further hobbled our already-reeling defense, causing the normally stingy Seahawks to forfeit 156 rushing yards and surrender 30 points.

Expect the red-hot Rams offense to experience even greater success against an even weaker Seattle defense.

Still concussed, KJ Wright will not play. Hamstring-hobbled Bobby Wagner has not practiced all week and is listed as questionable. Seeing our defense play without Wagner only bolsters his case for NFL Defensive Player of the Year.

The return of Dion Jordan should help the defensive line.

Seattle's offense, on the other hand, is mostly coming together. Offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell--who I often troll here--is calling better plays.

Russell Wilson continues to frustrate defenses by eluding sacks, running for first downs, heaving long bombs, and lighting up the scoreboard--especially in the fourth quarter. However, he needs to stop throwing at covered receivers, especially early in game, because those picks hurt.

As I predicted a few weeks ago, Seattle is now fielding the best left-side offensive line since Super Bowl XL. Duane Brown already rivals Walter Jones at left tackle. Justin Britt plays better than Robbie Tobeck ever did at center. Grossly overpaid, Luke Joeckel is unfit so much as to gather up the crumbs under Steve Hutchinson's table, but he's good enough when playing between Britt and Brown to blast open some holes for our runners, and help provide decent protection for DangeRuss on most plays.

Mike Davis appears determined to stick as our starting running back. JD McKissic provides a nice change-up with his speed and receiving skills. Thomas Rawls and the obscenely overpaid Eddie Lacy have had plenty of rest and should be able to offer fresh legs if Seattle were able to

Seattle has not yet reaped the benefits of our improved rushing attack because falling behind early forces us to abandon the run.

Jon Ryan's clutch punts make him the real 12th Man of the Seattle defense. He can even tackle. Did anyone else notice him make a tackle and nearly strip the ball last week?

Sadly, Blair Walsh remains the Anti-Clutch. The slumping kicker is still shanking fairly routine field goals, but Seattle is stuck with him because we lack the salary cap space to cut and replace him.

Beating the Rams will require an inspired performance like the one Seattle mounted just two weeks ago against Philadelphia. I hope, but I do not believe.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

The Legion of Boom & the Fall of Troy

Sports - Seattle Seahawks  Richard Sherman Kam Chancellor Earl Thomas Wallpaper
Seattle's Legion of Boom: Ajax, Achilles & Odysseus (Credit: AC)
Despair has spread across Hawkdom, for many good reasons:

1. In the second quarter of that pyhrric victory over Arizona, the Legion of Boom lost its Achilles. With apt poetic injustice, a heel injury felled our team's best player. Like the nigh-invincible warrior of Homeric myth, Richard Sherman dominated the left half of Seattle's defense over the course of an epic 99-game starting streak. Early on, opposing offenses quickly learned not to throw Sherm's way; quarterbacks who dared test him usually came to regret their hubris. After establishing himself early on as a true shutdown cornerback, the Seahawks' Achilles continued to hone his craft, showing increasing skill as a sure tackler and fearless run defender. Losing Sherman for the year now exposes Seattle's defensive left side to unprecedented aerial attack.

2. Late in the same game, the Legion of Boom also lost its Ajax. Before it became associated with cleaning products and programming acronyms, that name denoted the next mightiest Greek warrior (after Achilles) in the seige of Troy. Just as the mythical Ajax outlived Achilles, Kam Chancellor helped ensure Arizona's defeat before exiting late with a neck injury that may sideline him for the season. Like his ancient Greek analog, Bam Bam is a basically a brute. Like most strong safeties, he plays decent pass defense, but in Seattle's scheme, he functions more as a fourth linebacker, moving up as the eighth man in the box to punish opposing runners. The loss of Chancellor invites future foes to test Seattle's ground defenses.

3. After Achilles and Ajax went down, it fell to the wily Odysseus to engineer Troy's defeat. Earl Thomas III is the best (and wiliest) free safety in the game. His speed is key to his signature Trojan Horse gambit: lulling opposing quarterbacks into believing a receiver is open in the middle of the field, and then closing the seemingly impossible distance once the ball is in the air. However, an ailing hamstring kept Thomas from playing against Washington or Arizona. He appears set to play Monday night, but a still-tender hammy may limit his range and his ability--as the original Legion's last standing member--to compensate for the youth and inexperience of his peers in the defensive secondary.

4. Attrition has thinned Seattle's ranks elsewhere on the defense. Starting linebacker Michael Wilhoite and run-stuffing defensive tackle Jarran Reed may miss this week's game.

5. Pete Carroll's aggressive defenses often rank among the league's most-penalized, but this year has been worse than most--by far. Culprits include player indiscipline, sloppy coaching, and reputation-influenced officiating. In the last game, wearing eye-aching neon lime uniforms against black-clad foes may have exacerbated the referees' long-established tendency to notice Seattle's sins more than those of our opponents.

6. Our O-Line remains inadequate and penalty-prone. Recent All-Pro pickup Duane Brown plays well when healthy, but the ankle he sprained in Arizona may keep the left tackle off the field Monday. Center Justin Britt remains solid, but the rest of our linemen draw false starts and holding penalties more reliably than they protect the quarterback or open up running lanes.

7. We still miss Beast Mode. Since the departure of Marshawn Lynch, no other running back has managed to remain healthy while replicating #24's uncanny ability to plunge into a gap-plugged wall of defenders and burrow forward for positive yardage, anyway.

8. For lack of help, the normally sensible Russell Wilson is increasingly pushing his luck by throwing at well-covered receivers. DangeRuss has averaged one interception per game since Tennessee, but he has made more ill-considered throws in recent weeks, avoiding greater damage only through the ineptitude of butterfingered defenders. Still, if #3 continues to press, surer-handed opponents will surely make him pay.

9. Our entire offense is predicated on Wilson's unique set of skills; if he gets hurt, the season is over.

10. Offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell remains unimaginative, especially early in games. Seattle seldom scores in the first quarter, partly because defenses correctly anticipate Bevell's utterly predictable playcalling. Later in the game, Bevell generally gets a feel for the defense and finds his mojo, but this too often proves too little, too late. Instead of falling behind early, Seattle should hire someone like Mike Holmgren to script our first fifteen offensive plays to give us a chance to keep up or even take a lead early in games.
11. We can't trust Blair Walsh, who single-footedly blew an otherwise winnable Washington game by botching three eminently makeable field goals. Seahawk fans simply can't process this, having long been spoiled by an improbable series of clutch and superclutch kickers, from Norm Johnson (1982-90) to John Kasay (1991-94), Todd Peterson (1995-99), Rian Lindell (2000-02), Josh Brown (2003-07), Olindo Mare (2008-10), and Steve Hauschka (2011-16). Our last suspect kicker was Efren Herrera (1978-81), and he made up for his somewhat unreliable leg by being adorable, Mexican, and an occasional offensive threat. Walsh, however, wore out his welcome in Minnesota by choking at the least convenient times, and threatens to do the same here. He did fine against Arizona, but it will take years of clutchness to diffuse the PTSD-inducing stench of that unforgiveable home loss to Washington.

12. Currently the #6 seed in the conference, the Seahawks (6-3) lag a game behind the Rams in the chase for the NFC West title. In the quest for home-field advantage and a first-round bye, Seattle trails not just the Eagles (8-1), but also the Rams, Saints, and Vikings (all 7-2), plus the Panthers (7-3). With four 5-4 four teams nipping at our heels (Atlanta, Dallas, Detroit, and Green Bay), Seattle will have to fight hard just to remain eligible for the postseason. 

Amid this litany of despair, is there cause for hope? Yes. Here's why:

1. Though diminished, the secondary should remain decent. Carroll has long history of eliciting strong play from new and young defensive backs, as evinced by the emergence of rookie corner Shaquille Griffin. While no one can truly replace Richard Sherman, our cornerback corps has benefited from the unexpected retention of Jeremy Lane and the welcome return of Legion alumnus Byron Maxwell. DeShawn Shead's recovery from injury has reportedly plateaued, but if he can make it back, he can play safety or corner. In the meantime, having filled in ably for Thomas at free safety, veteran Bradley McDougald will slide over to play strong safety in lieu of Chancellor.

2. Stout run defense and a strong pass rush can compensate for a weaker secondary; fortunately, our D-Line is deeper than Puget Sound. Losing Pro Bowl defensive end Cliff Avril should have degraded the unit, but Frank Clark has stepped up his game, new recruit Dwight Freeney appears ageless, and All-Pro Michael Bennett remains relentless. Dion Jordan--just returned from injury and rock bottom on the depth chart--made a case for more playing time with a bull rush sack for the ages, reminding everyone why Miami made him the #3 pick in the 2013 draft. On the inside, Pro Bowl tackle Sheldon Richardson and reserves Nazair Jones and Garrison Smith should be able to hold down the fort until Jarran Reed recovers.

3. When Duane Brown and Luke Joeckel return to action (within a week or two), Seattle should have its best leftside O-Line since Super Bowl XL, when two Hall of Famers (Walter Jones and Steve Hutchinson) lined up beside Pro Bowler Robbie Tobeck. This should mean better quarterback protection and more room for our runners.

4. Russell Wilson reliably learns from his mistakes. He will likely stop throwing into coverage. 

5. If DangeRuss were felled by injury, then Seattle could still salvage the season and profit from the league's folly by signing Colin Kaepernick to augment Austin Davis.

6. Seattle still controls its own destiny in the NFC West. If the Seahawks can stay within one game of the Rams, then we can win the division by completing a season sweep when Los Angeles comes to Seattle next month.

7. Seattle also controls its own destiny in the conference--to a point. Some of the top six teams benefited from fairly soft early schedules, but all six face several tough games late in the season. For example, Seattle will host Atlanta, Philadelphia and Los Angeles, but must visit Dallas and 6-3 Jacksonville. The Seahawks could rise as high as the second seed by winning out, but would need additional help to wrest pole position from the 8-1 Eagles.

The Greeks could not have felt sanguine about taking Troy after losing Achilles and Ajax in swift succession. Nevertheless, their ranks proved deep with talent, and Odysseus showed that what really matters is how you finish. Seattle fans must hope for a similar outcome.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Required reading on the rift separating Sherman from Carroll & DangeRuss

This article explains why Richard Sherman wanted out of Seattle, and why the Legion of Boom resents Pete Carroll and Russell Wilson.

I hope they can work it out.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Thanks for the memory, Romo

Tony Romo playoffs

Everyone remembers the bobbled snap, but that night in January 2007 aptly encapsulated Tony Romo's career.

Read the story here.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Pound the rock & break the ice

Seahawks fullback Marcel Reece can do more than just block, and he celebrates catching a pass for a two-point conversion against Arizona. (Bettina Hansen/The Seattle Times)
Seattle fullback Marcel Reece (Photo Credit: Seattle Times)

In order to beat Atlanta today, Seattle needs to sustain the strengths that defeated Detroit last week,

After a season of troubled gestation, our offensive line improbably came together and came to life, manhandling Lion linemen and linebackers to make running room for a finally-healthy Thomas Rawls. Even our tight ends blocked well, but the secret sauce in our revitalized ground game is late-season arrival Marcel Reece. Though new to the team, the fullback is an old hand in Tom Cable's run scheme, by virtue of their common Oakland pedigree. Last week, Reece played a key role in clearing those running lanes for Rawls, and then Baby Beast Mode did the rest, grinding out precious yards after contact by busting through arm tackles and dragging defenders with him.

Fortunately, the Falcon run defense ranks 29th out of 32 teams in the NFL, so the Seahawks should be able to gain some yards on the ground today. Less happily, Reece hurt his foot last week, so he may not be able to play as much or as well. To compensate, Seattle might need to run more read-option. Moreover, the possible return of rookie CJ Prosise--a tough and elusive runner with great hands--would add a welcome extra dimension to Seattle's backfield.

By running the ball, the Seahawks can Bogart time of possession, slow down the game, and keep Atlanta's potent offense off the field.

The Falcons struggle to stop opposing passers, too; they rank 28th in pass defense. Atlanta particularly struggles to cover tight ends, so Seattle should target Jimmy Graham and Luke Willson early and often. As for the wideouts, Doug Baldwin and Paul Richardson had monster games last week, and Jermaine Kearse has a knack for playoff heroics.

Special teams may be interesting. Punter Jon Ryan remains consistent, but Stephen Hauschka continues to shank extra points with alarming frequency. Newcomer Tyler Ott may prove a steadier longsnapper than the injured Nolan Frese. In Devin Hester, Seattle replaced the injured Tyler Lockett with the best returner in league history. Hester may have lost a step, but he may have also added value as a source of fairly recent intelligence on Atlanta special teams, having played there from 2014-15.

The main event, of course, is the showdown between the high-octane Falcon offense, which led the league in scoring, and Seattle's defense, which ranked third in stinginess.

Atlanta runs and throws equally well. The Seahawks remain stout on the ground, but have become suspect through the air. In our narrow home win over the Falcons earlier this year, Earl Thomas III showed up big, but Kam Chancellor and Frank Clark missed the whole game and Michael Bennett missed half of it due to injuries. Since losing Thomas, the Seahawks have struggled to stop opposing passers. 

Fortunately, the rest of our defense is reasonably deep and pretty healthy again, and they looked good last week. Three-fourths of the Legion of Boom remains intact: Chancellor continues to enforce; Richard Sherman remains miserly, and DeShawn Shead has held up well on the other side despite relentless targeting. All-Pro linebacker Bobby Wagner continues to play like a man possessed. If our front four can pressure, punish and rattle the normally imperturbable "Matty Ice," then Seattle may be able to slow Atlanta enough to make the game competitive.

Go, Hawks!

Monday, January 2, 2017

Appreciating Seattle's modest playoff prospects

Image result for jimmy graham
This player should be used almost exclusively for running routes and catching passes

The Seahawks probably won't fly far this postseason, but the team did well to win ten games and secure the NFC's third seed.

Pete Carroll's defense held up pretty well. Bobby Wagner led the league in tackles to secure his reputation as the best linebacker in football. Richard Sherman maintained his All-Pro form. However, injuries sidelined Michael Bennett for several weeks and Earl Thomas indefinitely. After four straight seasons as the NFL's #1 scoring defense, Seattle slipped to a merely excellent #3 in 2016 (behind New England and the Giants).

Special teams suffered primarily due to the team's summertime decision to conserve salary cap space by cutting veteran long snapper Clint Gresham and replacing him with rookie Nolan Frese--a move that contributed to several of Stephen Hauschka's botched extra points and pitifully short field goals. Had we kept Gresham, Seattle probably would have swept Arizona instead of tying the first time and losing the second.

Like many longtime Seattle fans, I believe in investing in the offensive line. (Look what it's done for Dallas!)

However, I refuse to join the chorus condemning Coach Carroll and GM John Schneider for the bargain-rate O-Line they fielded. I understand the underlying economic reality: If you want to keep the league's best defense together, then you have to save money elsewhere. Seattle did the right thing by investing draft picks in the offensive line this year, giving unit coach Tom Cable better raw material than he has had in past years--raw material that will remain under contract at affordable rates for the next 3-4 years. Justin Britt is emerging as a solid center, and the rest of the line shows sporadic promise; I predict they'll be pretty good next year.

An injury epidemic ensured that the offensive line never really had a chance to gel this year. Some of those injuries were on the O-Line, forcing shifts that disrupt chemistry, but a battered backfield created even more chaos. The offense had to change radically early in the season when Russell Wilson was hobbled by a host of hurts, and had to change still more as virtually every running back we fielded succumbed to injury in turn: Thomas Rawls, Christine Michael, CJ Prosise, Troymaine Pope, Will Tukuafu, Thomas Rawls again, etc.! (I did question the decision to cut Christine Michael when he got injured... he seems to be playing well enough for Green Bay. Did his attitude problem come back?)

Russell Wilson played like a champ. He gutted it out through hideous injuries, found ways to survive despite horrid O-Line play, the frequent inability of his receivers to get open, and stupefying play-calling by offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell.

Jimmy Graham's improvement as a blocker on running plays reflects well on his character as a football player and a teammate, but it reflects poorly on Darrell Bevell as an offensive coordinator. We pay Golden Graham the big bucks to catch balls and score touchdowns. If the Ginger Giant can take one or two defenders out of the play just by running a decoy route, then why keep him in to block so much of the time? If you need an extra blocker, use Brandon Williams or Nick Vannett, or throw in a sixth offensive lineman. Reserve Graham (and Luke Willson) primarily for use as receivers.

Seattle continues to dominate the NFC West, having won the division eight times in the last 13 seasons. While the Seahawks struggled to defeat its divisional opponents, the rest of the league had little trouble with our NFC West rivals. We won the division title in large part thanks to Arizona's unexpected implosion, combined with the customary suckitude of the Rams and 49ers.

The Seahawks looked like Super Bowl contenders only once this season, during our road win over New England. We started a robust 7-2-1, but then faded to an anemic 3-3 after Thanksgiving.

Still, ten wins is a real achievement any year, and anything can happen in the postseason. The Lions are an even worse road team (3-5) than Seattle (3-4-1). Moreover, Detroit ended the season with a three-game losing streak, so they're stumbling into the playoffs worse than we are. With the deafening roar of the 12s behind us, the Seahawks need to exorcise the demons of our home loss to Arizona and savage the injury-wracked Lions without mercy.

Finally, apologies to any loyal readers for going AWOL for most of 2016. Life got busy, and what little time I could spare for writing I spent writing about history and current events, mostly in a failed effort to avert the tragic onset of the Fourth Reich.