This time last year there was an optimistic feeling around the Seattle Seahawks. Mike Holmgren was approaching his final year with the team and the attitude emanating out of the veteran filled roster was very much 'win one for Mike'. The heir apparent had been named in the form of Jim Mora and a smooth transition into a new era was laid out for a franchise that had simply become used to winning.
Four successive division titles and a visit to Super Bowl XL had put the Seahawks in the public eye. The fans didn't hope anymore, they expected. Yet nobody predicted, let alone expected, the dramatic fall from grace that results in a 4-12 disaster.
Tim Ruskell and the front office have spent most of the off season looking to paper over the cracks. Big name free agents have arrived in the form of T.J. Houshmandzadeh and Ken Lucas, whilst the team invested a top five draft pick in a guy some ranked as the best in the entire class - Aaron Curry. The additions have certainly boosted a roster that needed fresh blood, but the key to a Seahawks revival remains elsewhere.
They need to stay healthy. It's as simple as that.
No franchise can afford to lose its quarterback. Just a year removed from a career best year statistically, Matt Hasselbeck was restricted to just seven starts in 2008 (his lowest number since joining Seattle in 2001). The games he did start were far from fluid - a back injury that stopped him working in training camp dogged him from start to finish and concerns still remain if the problems are fully in the past. Hasselbeck got a vote of confidence in April's draft when the team decided against taking Mark Sanchez fourth overall, he needs to repay that trust with a healthy return in 2009.
It wasn't just a quarter back issue for the Seahawks last year though. Patrick Kerney also only featured seven times in 2008, ridding the team of it's most effective threat on the defensive line. The former Falcon led the NFC in '07 with 14.5 sacks and managed a respectable 5 sacks in his fleeting appearances last year. But without Kerney pressuring from the front opposition quarter backs were afforded to pick apart Seattle's secondary - which buckled under the pressure. Many attribute the Seahawks' league worst average of 259 passing yards conceded per-game as a fault of the secondary. For me, it was the team's inability to garner any pressure in the trenches that ultimately led to their defensive downfall.
But perhaps the biggest crisis came amongst the receiving corps. Losing proven veterans like Deion Branch and Bobby Engram for the first half of the season was bad enough but nobody could foresee the troubles ahead. Ben Obomanu broke his collarbone in the final pre-season game, whilst Nate Burleson picked up a season ending knee injury in week one. Both went on I.R. and were soon joined by Logan Payne. Just one step short of holding open try outs, the Seahawks soon found they'd lost any kind of balance on offense.
Unsurprisingly, opposition defenses just didn't fear 'in off the street' Billy McMullen and camp-fodder-that-actually-cost-a-draft-pick Keary Colbert. Daring the Seahawks to pass, teams stacked the box and blitzed till their hearts content. No passing game equated to no running game and the rest is history.
The signing of T.J. Houshmandzadeh will help matters in 2009 - his health record is exemplary. But he can't do it on his own and he'll need support from the returning Burleson and terminally injured Branch. Third round pick Deon Butler is raw but could be thrust into a more prominent role should another crisis evolve.
By the time the disastrous 2008 had been completed, the Seahawks entire starting offensive line had been placed on I.R. and previously ever present Lofa Tatupu missed his first career start. No doubt the Seahawks will be hoping their bad luck ran with injuries ran out last year.
But whilst the team remain dependant on ageing veterans (Hasselbeck is approaching 34, Walter Jones 35, and Houshmandzadeh 32) health will always be the key. To have any kind of impact on the NFC West this year the Seahawks need their franchise players on the field. The Arizona Cardinals are no longer the nearly men of the NFC West and will rightly be favourites to win a second successive division title. If Larry Fitzgerald can continue where he left off, they will even be amongst the early Super Bowl favorites.
The Seahawks can bounce back in 2009 and regain their crown in the west. To do so, they need to stay healthy.