The Seahawks had an awful year last year. With a new coaching staff and significantly new personnel, on both sides of the ball, the Seahawks and their fans are both in for an awakening, be it rude or polite.
There are essentially two schools of thought on the reason for the Seahawks down 2008 season: They were faced with a multitude of injuries, or they simply really are that bad.
Optimists will rattle off a list of feasible, injury-related causes. Matt Hasselbeck, Walter Jones, Nate Burleson, Deion Branch, Bobby Engram, and several other Seahawks starters struggled to stay healthy in 2008.
Pessimists will point out that Hasselbeck had his worst season as a Seahawk in every important statistical category, and that age and health aren’t on his side.
They’ll point out that Walter Jones had a microfracture, and that the injury has ended careers of players much younger than Jones.
They’ll point out that the team was led in receiving by John Carlson, a rookie tight end.
They'll say that the remaining Seahawks consist of a lot of "has beens," "never weres," and "never-will-bes."
And they’ll point out that Jim Mora, the team’s new head coach, was given the task of coaching defensive backs, perhaps the most criticized unit on the team.
However, perhaps each has been misrepresented as a wholesale change, while the Seahawks employed each under Mike Holmgren, at least in part.
The real focus, at least for pessimists, should be on the third, less audacious phrase that has littered offseason chatter, “emphasis on the running game,” in reference to the offensive philosophy of the team’s new offensive coordinator Greg Knapp.
It’s not as if a Cover Two team has never won the Super Bowl; in fact, between Indianapolis and Tampa Bay, as well as the Chicago Bears appearance in 2006 against the Colts, the once-trendy defense has been well represented.
Similarly, zone-blocking is almost solely responsible for the Denver Broncos getting over the hump, as the team finally had a formidable running game to pair with John Elway.
There have also been several run-first teams which won the Super Bowl in recent years, Pittsburgh beat the Seahawks in 2005 with a heavy run-pass ratio scheme, and the Baltimore Ravens ran their way to a Super Bowl victory in 2000.
However one thing that has proven difficult across the league, is to pair a heavy run-pass ratio with an emphasis on Cover Two defense, and have elite success.
The super-talented back may be the best in the league right now, and especially in today’s NFL, finding a talented back who can take a pounding for 300 or more carries is a rare feat.
But the team has been mired in mediocrity despite boasting a respectable defense.
Today’s NFL has become a game of big plays, of explosive plays, of extraordinary athletes making extraordinary plays in extraordinary situations.
There’s no doubting that the Ravens, Steelers or New England Patriots have had the ability to make huge plays of defense. While the two latter teams have likely hall of fame quarterbacks, they’ve both won behind ball-control running games.
Conversely, the Colts, who employ a largely Cover Two based scheme, had struggles on defense, but an explosive offense has made them a Super Bowl contender year in and year out.
The Bears however, may be the best—or worst beacon for worry among Seahawks fans.
The Bears have had mixed success under head coach Lovie Smith. The team has made two playoff appearances, including their 2006 Super Bowl appearance, but has gone .500 the last two seasons.
The team forced 42 turnovers in 2005, the first of their two playoff appearances. The team rode Kyle Orton’s game management, 314 carries from Thomas Jones, but also ranked in the top 10 in both sacks and turnovers, and intercepted almost one of every 20 passes attempted against them.
In 2006 Rex Grossman stepped in under center, and the offense was more explosive. He threw passes of 40 or more yards in seven of his 16 regular season games, something Orton did in only three games the year before.
The team also drafted Devin Hester. Hester returned three punts and two kickoffs for touchdowns, and helped the Bears scored the second-most points in the NFL in 2006.
The team kept up its elite defensive ways, and ended up playing on the biggest stage in sports.
Since then, the team has gone 16-16, opting to put Orton back under center for a time, eventually turned over most of the skill positions on offense, converted Hester from a cornerback to a wide receiver, and traded for Jay Cutler.
The Cover Two is a “bend but don’t break defense.” Like chess strategy, it concedes defeat on occasion. The Cover Two isn’t great against the run, and is inherently at its most effective when the team running it has the lead.
By contrast, a run-first offense concedes that a defense, given enough cushion, can hold whatever slim lead or field position advantage the team may have.
Field position football is a bad way to obtain a sizable lead, and Cover Two is a bad scheme for holding a slim one.
In Tampa Bay, where the team’s version of the Cover Two was so successful that the entire scheme is often mistakenly referred to as “Tampa Two,” for years Tony Dungy paired the defense with a run-heavy offense.
Dungy eventually got fired, and in would step John Gruden.
Gruden had turned Rich Gannon, a former journeyman quarterback, into a Pro Bowler in Oakland. He’d do the same for the Bucs’ Brad Johnson in 2002, and eventually emerge triumphant over his former quarterback in Super Bowl XXXVII.
Dungy went on to win a Super Bowl in Indianapolis, but not without the aforementioned explosive offense.
Both Gruden and Dungy acquired elite squads on the side of the ball they weren’t known to coach.
Mora, by contrast, is stepping into a group of “maybe-still-ares.” He won’t have the luxury of an explosive, though unrefined quarterback in Michael Vick like he and Knapp had in Atlanta, and unless Aaron Curry is the second-coming of Derrick Brooks, the team’s defense appears nowhere near the quality of the formerly great Bucs defenses.
2009 will be in educational year, but perhaps the just the first of few for Mora and Knapp in Seattle.