Sunday, September 23, 2018

Seattle slump

Nfl Seattle Seahawks At Chicago Bears
Only Cleveland has allowed more sacks than 0-2 Seattle (Credit: USA Today)

The season's hopes are draining away fast.

Starting with two road games is tough, but the Broncos and the Bears were both beatable teams coming off terrible 2017 campaigns.

Injuries have exacerbated the impact of high-profile veteran departures on defense. The secondary remains decent, but a poor pass rush and rookie linebackers have let mediocre Bears and Broncs passers carve us up like roast poultry.

So far, Mike Solari's revamped O-line has proven as porous as its predecessors--Tom Cable's deservedly maligned units. Offensive coordinator Brian's Schottenheimer's puzzling playcalling has achieved the incredible feat of making me nostalgic for Darrell Bevell. Despite vows to run the ball more, we continue to throw too much and invite defenses to blitz, swarm the pocket, allow Russell Wilson no avenue of escape, and reap a rich harvest of sacks.

This is looking more and more like the rebuilding year skeptics predicted.

Here's hoping the 12s can inspire the Seahawks to a better showing today.

Earlier this month, SI detailed how Seattle's dynastic ambitions disappeared into the gaping chasm separating the defense and Marshawn Lynch from Coach Carroll and his allegedly privileged pet, Wilson. The lack of input from Carroll and Wilson's camp makes it difficult to evaluate whether this is the whole story or just one side of the story, but the article provides helpful context for understanding why our roster and team culture remain in flux.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Rest in Peace, Coach Knox

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Coach Chuck Knox confers on the sideline with quarterback Dave Krieg, c. 1989 (Credit: Bellingham Herald)
An old-school badass, Coach Knox seized the reins in Seattle in 1983 and wasted no time remaking the team in his winning image: a smashmouth, run-first offense, coupled with a bruising, larcenous defensive juggernaut.

Ground Chuck's journeymen run-blockers paved the way for halfback Curt Warner, whose ankle-busting cuts froze and frustrated hapless defenders. To compensate for an offensive line far less adept at pass blocking, Knox boldly benched fan favorite Jim Zorn in favor of backup quarterback Dave Krieg, an uncanny gamer who remained reviled by ungrateful Seahawks fans despite a consistent knack for winning, vastly superior chemistry with Steve Largent, and Hall of Fame-caliber statistics that clearly establish him as one of the finest passers of '80s.

On defense, Knox knew how to stuff the run, pressure passers, and force turnovers. In his 3-4 scheme, All-Pro nose tackle Joe Nash wrecked the middle while linebackers knifed through for the kill. A long, tall Texan--the All-Pro sackmaster, defensive end Jacob Green--sped in to haul quarterbacks to the turf, force fumbles, and even grab an occasional interception. How fast was Green? In 1983, he finished Cleveland by picking off a Brian Sipe pass and sprinting for a 73-yard touchdown. In 1985, #79 scooped up a fumble and ran for a 79-yard score.

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A Denver defender peels away from double-teaming nose tackle Joe Nash (#72) too late to save quarterback John Elway from getting sacked by defensive end Jacob Green (#79); Seattle won this 1991 game, 13-10 (Credit: Getty)
Knox's secondary lacked a catchy nickname, but it hit as hard as hard as the Legion of Boom--and grabbed far more interceptions. All-Pro strong safety Kenny Easley hit like Kam Chancellor, nabbed picks like Earl Thomas, and returned punts as well as Golden Tate. Though decent before Ground Chuck came to town, Dave Brown blossomed into an All-Pro shutdown corner under Knox.

Knox made Seattle a winner and took the Seahawks to the playoffs several times. Critics blamed the coach's conservatism for limited success in the playoffs, and there is something to that, but Knox proved more resourceful than his detractors remember. 

No prisoner to philosophy, Coach did what he needed to do to win. In 1984, after Seattle lost star running back Curt Warner to injury in Week One, he adapted by wisely ditching Ground Chuck and adopting an Air Knox offense. The team rallied around Krieg, who rose to the occasion and posted Dan Fouts-like numbers. In the playoffs against the Raiders--who had eliminated Seattle the previous year en route to a Super Bowl win--Knox confounded the Raider defense by reverting to Ground Chuck and running the ball right at All-Pro defensive end Howie Long. Backup fullback Dan Doornink carried the ball 29 times for 126 yards, and the Seahawks won, 13-7, eliminating the defending Super Bowl champions from the postseason. Long curses Doornink's name to this day, but he should blame Knox.

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Backup fullback Dan Doornink (#33) runs over a Raider defender in January 1984 (Credit: Seahawks

Unfortunately for Knox, a series of poor personnel decisions by the team's front office squandered draft picks and diluted the team's talent. Coach kept the team competitive, but still got blamed for the team's lack of progress. Matters grew worse when Ken Behring bought the team, fired Knox, and intentionally wrecked it to justify a move to Anaheim. It took more than a decade for the team to recover fully from Behring's vandalism.

Knox had won NFL Coach of the Year honors with the LA Rams & the Bills before earning the award a third time in Seattle. After leaving the Seahawks, he returned to Los Angeles to coach the Rams. He inherited a terrible team and failed to improve it much. After three seasons, the erratic owner fired Knox and moved the franchise to St. Louis.

Coach's mind began fading into the fog of dementia a few years ago, but Seahawk Diehards of a certain vintage will always remember Knox for making Seattle a winner and engineering the team's first Silver Age.

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Coach gets carried away by guard Reggie McKenzie (#67)--who came with Knox from Buffalo to Seattle--and other Seahawks in celebration of Seattle's 27-20 win over Miami in January 1984 (Credit: Seattle Times

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Seahawks trade soul, cut out heart

Richard Sherman (25) and Michael Bennett (72). (Bettina Hansen/The Seattle Times)
The Seahawks just jettisoned All-Pro cornerback Richard Sherman & Pro Bowl defensive end Michael Bennett (Credit: Seattle Times)
This is madness.

Trading Michael Bennett for nearly nothing makes no sense.

Cutting Richard Sherman makes even less sense.

In addition to degrading roster talent, these personnel decisions eliminate long-established locker room leaders, imperil team identity and morale, and threaten the winning legacy of Coach Pete Carroll.

In nine years with the team, Carroll worked with General Manager John Schneider to build the best defense in team and league history. Through good drafts, inspired recruiting, and careful talent development, they erected an enduring defensive bulwark that allowed fewer points than every other NFL team for an impressive five-year run from 2012-16.

Last year, injuries decimated Seattle defenders, causing the unit's performance to plummet from excellent to just slightly above average.

To their credit, Carroll and Schneider are willing to take bold action restore the team's defensive dominance.

It began with firing defensive coordinator Kris Richard.

Now it continues with a purge of veteran players.

Last year's injury plague hit long-tenured defenders especially hard. Pro Bowl defensive end Cliff Avril and All-Pro strong safety Kam Chancellor sustained serious, potentially career-ending neck injuries.

Early in November, Sherman tore his Achilles--an injury from which some players never fully recover.

Carroll and Schneider have evidently decided to jettison the aging nucleus of our defense before further injuries compromise the unit's performance.

But you don't upgrade the best fortress in league history by demolishing a load-bearing wall and dynamiting the cornerstone at the same time.

Michael Bennett, a Load-Bearing Wall

As the anchor of our defensive line, Bennett rarely left the field.

This is unusual. Defensive linemen have uniquely difficult jobs. They are big men who every down must push through or run around even bigger men (offensive linemen), and then chase and tackle fleeter and more agile men (running backs and quarterbacks). Because this is such exhausting work, most teams rotate defensive linemen consistently to let them catch their breath and keep their legs fresh. Consequently, most starting NFL defensive linemen play less than 60% of their team's defensive snaps.

But not Bennett. The Seahawks have hyperexploited that man since 2014, forcing him to play more than 80% of the team's defensive snaps for four straight seasons.

Last year, Seattle accelerated the hyperexploitation with callous disregard for Bennett's advancing age. At 32 years old, and despite a lingering heel injury, the team made Bennett play 84.7% of Seattle's defensive downs. Only five defensive linemen in the entire league played more downs in 2017, and their average age was 28.

How did Bennett respond to this increasingly brutal regime of hyperexploitation? By playing hard. Every down. Without complaint. By consistently disrupting opposing offenses, and making three Pro Bowls.

There is a cold, actuarial argument for ditching Bennett. Although his body has betrayed no outward signs of breaking down, no man could forever endure what Seattle has been doing to Bennett.

If Carroll and Schneider are right that Bennett is due to lose a step, then a 5th-round pick and a reserve wideout could represent good value for him

But if they're wrong--if Bennett remains capable of playing at a high level--then Seattle just gave away a great talent to our conference rivals, the defending Super Bowl champions.

Moreover, why would the NFL's best athletes want to play for Seattle if we develop a reputation as a team that cynically uses up players and then callously discards them?

The deal provides little immediate salary cap relief. Bennett was due just $6.7 million in 2018--a bargain for a Pro Bowl defensive end. But trading him frees up $20 million in cap space in 2019-20.

The saddest aspect of the Bennett trade is the suspicion that the team may be ousting him for his activism.

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Bennett sitting during the national anthem with the support of center Justin Britt (Credit: The Nation)

Bennett angered many by sitting during the national anthem. He did this to express concern over racial injustice, and to show support for Colin Kaepernick, a starting-caliber quarterback apparently blacklisted by NFL teams in 2017 as punishment for his 2016 anthem protests.

I admired how Carroll publicly supported Bennett's freedom of expression. I appreciated Justin Britt's decision to show support for Bennett and the teammates who joined him on the bench. I rejoiced when our generally progressive city and region embraced or at least respected Bennett's activism--in stark contrast to many less enlightened NFL fan bases, which evidently believe that black men forfeit free speech when they sign on as professional athletes.

So, it is disappointing to think the Seahawks may have traded Bennett to rid the team of his activism.

(In my own work as a public educator, I often encounter people who believe I, too, have forfeited free speech as a condition of my employment. For that reason, I offer the following clarifications: I share Bennett's concerns about racial injustice, because I attend to objective reality, listen to people whose experiences differ from my own, and because, as a careful lifelong student of history, I have some concept of the scope and depth of the problem. Even if I did not share Bennett's concerns, I would support his right to protest, because I understand and endorse the Bill of Rights. In the unlikely event that Bennett were to ask my opinion, I would recommend that he protest during the anthem not by sitting--which many construe as disrespectful to veterans who have fought for our country--but by kneeling. Kaepernick himself shifted from sitting to kneeling to show greater respect, at the suggestion of ex-Green Beret Nate Boyer, a former Seahawk. Kaepernick's teammate Eric Reid aptly observed that kneeling "was like a flag flown at half-mast to mark a tragedy." I would add that kneeling has a football-specific meaning: on the gridiron, we take a knee to show respect for an injured player on the field. By extension, I find it eloquent to take a knee for a country harmed by centuries of continued racial divisions.)

Bennett is a natural leader, but it is hard for outsiders to gauge whether he wielded that power for good or ill in the locker room. The fact that his teammates nominated him for the NFL Walter Payton Man of the Year award, however, suggests that his leadership was probably mostly constructive.

Of course, Bennett is no saint. Penalty-prone, he often jumped offsides and sometimes hit quarterbacks late--sometimes very late. Last December, in the waning seconds of garbage time, he took a blatant cheap shot at an opposing center's knees.

Still, the Seahawks lost more than a load-bearing wall by parting ways with Bennett. The team traded away its soul.

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A former Seahawk shares his displeasure with his former defensive coordinator Kris Richard (Credit: Clutch Points)

Richard Sherman, the Cornerstone

Seattle's handling of Richard Sherman is similarly incomprehensible.

Sherm is the nationally notorious face of the franchise. The best corner in the game. First among equals in the Legion of Boom. The greatest Seattle defender of all time--rivalled only by Earl Thomas III. And--after the incomparable Walter Jones--the greatest Seahawk ever.

In cutting Sherman, the team is cutting out its own heart.

Like Bennett, Sherm played hard, with reckless disregard for his body. He knew his Achilles tendon would snap sooner or later, but he gave his all until that happened.

His reward? The team tried to punish him for getting injured by extorting a pay cut from him. Sherm opted to test the market, instead.

Here again, cutting Sherman makes possible actuarial sense. Some players never regain full speed after an Achilles injury.

But Sherm is relatively young, with an impeccable work ethic and a longstanding history of punishing people who underestimate him.

And--again--why would the NFL's best athletes want to play for Seattle if we develop a reputation as a team that cynically uses up players and then callously discards them?

Like Bennett, Sherm is a team leader. But while Bennett makes public statements on national issues, Sherman publicly challenges coaching decisions--including yelling at coaches on the sideline. Carroll tolerated those antics more than most coaches would, but if Sherm were less talented, the team would have cut him long ago.

There may have been good reason to move on from either Bennett or Sherman, but not both at the same time.

If you want to strengthen a fortress, you do not start by knocking down a load-bearing wall and blasting out the cornerstone.

In purely athletic terms, it is hard to imagine finding a serviceable replacement for Sherman or Bennett in the draft or free agency.

It will be harder still for the team to compete in 2018 without its heart and soul.

Monday, January 1, 2018

Beyond Blair Walsh: Blunders, silver linings, and prescriptions from a season of frustration

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Choke Machine #7 strikes out again (Source: 24/7 Sports)

Blair Walsh did not blow the game yesterday.

Seahawk coaches should know by now not to bet games on the erratic kicker's foot.

Seattle's final drive began on their own 25-yard line with 2:18 remaining. Always clutch in the 4th quarter, Russell Wilson promptly completed two 20+ yard passes to Doug Baldwin and Jimmy Graham.This gave the Seahawks 1st down on the Arizona 31 at the 2:00 warning--plenty of time to continue the drive.

Instead, Seattle coaches reverted to inexplicable conservatism: A vanilla handoff netted just one yard on first down. After an incomplete pass on second down, the Seahawks basically surrendered, first by calling another lackluster handoff on third down (no gain), and then again by inserting Walsh to attempt a 48-yard field goal.

Scoring from that distance is far from automatic even for the league's best legs. But for a subpar placekicker like Choke Machine #7, 48 yards might as well be 48 miles. This is the guy who almost single-footedly blew the Washington game by missing attempts from 44, 39, and 49 yards--forfeiting 9 points in a game Seattle ultimately lost by a mere 3-point margin. And, yes, this is also the guy who--when he played for Minnesota--averted a Viking victory over the Seahawks in the playoffs by shanking a 27-yard try.

Why, then, would the coaches ask the Shankmeister to go out win this one?

Why, when DangeRuss is by far the league's best 4th-quarter passer, and is also by far the team's leading rusher, would coaches take the ball out of his hands on 3 out of 4 downs on that final series?

Of course, beating the Cardinals would not have won Seattle entry to the playoffs. That close loss to Atlanta back in November gave the Falcons an enduring wing up on the Seahawks in the wild card chase.

Still, losing to Arizona was a big deal. 10-6 would have looked and felt a lot better than 9-7 does.

But 9-7 still feels pretty good.

Longtime Seahawk fans who suffered through the '70s and '90s know not to take any winning season for granted.

If we have grown so accustomed to winning 10+ games and making the playoffs that 9-7 feels like failure, then that attests to the greatness of Coach Pete Carroll, GM John Schneider, and the teams they have built. During their 8-year tenure, Seattle has averaged 9.9 regular season wins per year, earned 6 playoff berths, taken the division title 4 times, won 2 conference championships, and garnered 1 Lombardi Trophy. In that span, only the Patriots have done better; thirty other NFL franchises did worse. Most of them did a lot worse.

Coping with an Unprecedented Plague of Injuries

The Seahawks eked out a winning record despite incredible bad luck on the injury front.

Over the summer, the team's top draft pick--defensive tackle Malik McDowell--screwed Seattle by crashing his ATV and sustaining a concussion so severe that he missed the entire season.

Early in the season, serious injuries robbed Seattle of the services of Pro Bowl defensive end Cliff Avril, our best running back (rookie Chris Carson), third-down back CJ Prosise (again), and--after a promising preseason--left tackle George Fant.

In midseason, injuries sidelined two-thirds of the All-Pro Legion of Boom (strong safety Kam Chancellor and All-Pro cornerback Richard Sherman).

Late in the year, injuries temporarily sidelined or severely limited several other defensive stalwarts, including All-Pros Earl Thomas III at free safety and Bobby Wagner at linebacker, starting cornerback Shaq Griffin, and Pro Bowl linebacker KJ Wright.

Injuries also afflicted the offense, sidelining the following for several games: costly free agent left guard Luke Joeckel, utility O-lineman Rees Odhiambo, and running backs Thomas Rawls, Mike Davis, and free-agent bust Eddie Lacy.

If--before the season--someone had asked you to forecast Seattle's record and postseason prospects under these wretched conditions, then you probably would not have guessed that the Seahawks would post a winning record and remain in playoff contention until the season's final week.

How did Seattle manifest surprising competence under such trying circumstances? Primarily through Schneider's inspired personnel moves.

It began in the offseason with the signing of several veteran free agents, including starters Joeckel and linebacker Michael Wilhoite, and safety Bradley McDougald, who subbed in ably for both Thomas and Chancellor for much of the season. Defensive back Justin Coleman contributed as expected on special teams, but also came up big in limited duty on defense, evoking the spirit of Big Play Babs by nabbing two clutch pick sixes.

Solid free agent pickups continued in midseason, with the inspired acquisition of All-Pro left tackle Duane Brown from Houston, and the fortunate but unexpected retention of Jeremy Lane. Initially traded for Brown to the Texans, Lane failed his physical, reverted to Seattle, and recovered to shore up a suddenly injury-wracked Seahawk secondary until Legion of Boom veteran Byron Maxwell returned at a bargain rate to reclaim his starting position.

What Seattle Must Fix

Despite these savvy personnel moves, Seattle's season foundered due to several critical and persistent errors.

1. Too Many Penalties. With 148 accepted infractions, Seattle did not just lead the NFL in penalties in 2017. The Seahawks drew more flags than any team since 1998, and became the fifth-filthiest team in league history. (The only dirtier teams were the '89 Oilers, the '98 Chiefs, and the Raiders in '94 and '96.) As I have often observed here, this has been a chronic problem under Carroll, and the cause of too many penalties is sloppy coaching. To his credit, Coach Carroll owned the problem in his postgame remarks yesterday and took responsibility for fixing it.

2. Offensive Coordinator Darrell Bevell's Terrible Playcalling. I've written this more times than I can count, but here I go again: Bevell's playcalling--especially early in games--is killing us. The Seahawks failed to score on every opening drive in 2017. The lack of offensive production in the first quarter, the first half, the first three quarters--it causes Seattle to fall behind early, increasing pressure on our defense, and forcing our offense to abandon the run prematurely. Bevell tends to find his mojo sometime in the second half--often not until the fourth quarter--but by then it is often too late. Seattle must either find a new offensive coordinator, or augment Bevell with a starting pitcher--someone who can script or call viable plays in the first 2-3 quarters until Bevell enters in relief to close out the game.

3. Poor Placekicking. Sadly, the injury-forced in-season personnel moves created a salary cap crunch that made it impossible for Seattle to cut Walsh and pick up a different kicker during the 2017 campaign. Presumably, Walsh's poor performance this year has compromised his market value. Seattle should invite him to training camp for the veteran minimum, and bring in other cheap kickers to compete for the position in training camp.

4. No Home Field Advantage. The good news was that Seattle posted a 5-3 road record. Sadly, the Seahawks fared worse at home: 4-4. If our team ever intends to see the Super Bowl again, then we need to maintain the level of road success, while reviving the days when opposing teams genuinely feared coming here, when we were nigh unstoppable at home. Last week, Cardinals Coach Bruce Arians taunted Seattle several days before the game by calling Seahawks Stadium Arizona's "home field." Instead of making him pay, our team and fans responded by fulfilling his prophecy and meekly letting him claim one final victory, thus to retire as the winningest coach in the history of that (admittedly dismal) franchise. Pathetic.

Reasons for Hope

1. Russell Wilson remains SuperClutch.

2. The Offensive Line should be better next year. Center Justin Britt (a Pro Bowl alternate in 2016) remains solid. All-Pro left tackle Duane Brown played pretty well despite being hurt much of the season, and will prove even better next year as he grows more used to blocking for the uniquely mobile DangeRuss. Presumably, right tackle Germain Ifedi may mature, learn to block better, and stop leading the league in false starts and holding. If George Fant recovers from injury and returns to preseason form, then he could claim the right tackle position and bump Ifedi inside to guard. Several other young linemen gained valuable experience this year. If left guard Luke Joeckel wants to stick with the team, then he'll have to take a hefty pay cut; he gutted it out bravely through injury, but his play came nowhere close to justifying his fat $7-8 million salary. Presumably, more affordable upgrades are possible through the draft and free agency. Unit coach Tom Cable should enter 2018 with the best raw material he's ever, and that should mean the best Seattle O-Line since Super Bowl XL.

3. Seattle has enough good backs and receivers. Lacy proved a certified bust, and should not return. Rawls never really got going, but Carson. Davis, and third-down back JD McKissic all played as well as our O-line allowed. Pro Bowl wideout Doug Baldwin and Pro Bowl returner/receiver Tyler Lockett will need help, as the team could lose Paul Richardson to free agency, and neither Amara Darboh nor Tanner McEvoy appear ready for larger roles. Seattle should let tight end Jimmy Graham go, resign Luke Willson, and seek bargain upgrades to all offensive skill positions through the draft and free agency.

Causes for Concern

1. The NFC West got a lot better this year. The Rams will remain young, gifted, and well-coached. Arizona and San Francisco both had disappointing years, but finished strong. The Cardinals found their defense, and the 49ers found their quarterback. Winning the division will be harder going forward.

2. Tough personnel decisions loom on defense. As our defensive nucleus ages, injuries have become more of a factor. Avril and Chancellor may not be able to return. Sherman threatened to leave last year, and the team may be loath to roll the dice on his Achilles recovery. Many key defenders have a year or less remaining on their contracts, including two out of three starting linebackers (Wilhoite & Wright), defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson, and defensive ends Michael Bennett, Frank Clark, and Dion Jordan, and several defensive backs: Thomas, McDougald, Maxwell, Shead, and Coleman.

3. Jon Ryan, probable cap casualty. The defense's 12th Man--punter Jon Ryan--also needs a new contract. Unless he gets sentimental and settles at a bargain rate, Seattle will compound inconsistent placekicking with uncertainty at the punter position.

Fortunately, Carroll and Schneider have a long-established history of making sensibly coldhearted personnel decisions to retain the best players while finding and developing bargain talent. Seattle should win more games and qualify for the playoffs in 2018.

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.