In their first year removed from the Mike Holmgren era, the Seattle Seahawks will have many of the same expectations they did throughout the tenure of the future Hall of Famer.
Apart from an abysmal four-win season in 2008, the Seahawks have consistently been one of the more dominant teams in the NFL, winning four straight NFC West division titles from 2004-07 and also reaching the playoffs as the wild card team in 2003. And for better or worse, the bulk of the key playmakers during those playoff runs still reside in the Emerald City.
To reach the goals of another division title and make a dent in the postseason under first year coach Jim Mora, Seattle will have to depend on those veteran pieces.
The key to success, as always, will lie in the arm—and back—of veteran QB Matt Hasselbeck. The Seahawks longtime signal caller has played 16 games twice in the last five years and in 2008 he played in just seven games, amassing less than 2,000 yards for the first time since taking over the starting job upon his arrival in Seattle in 2001.
Hasselbeck declined to have surgery on his ailing back in the offseason, so one bad throw or one solid hit could spell a short season for the 33-year-old Hasselbeck once again this upcoming season.
As long as he is healthy, though, Hasselbeck will be asked to do what he has done the last eight years, as Mora and Offensive Coordinator Greg Knapp will run a similar offensive style to Holmgren.
Mora coached under Holmgren last year and both Mora and Knapp come from the George Seifert school in San Francisco, using the West Coast offense.
The offense will have more weapons than last year.
The wide receiving corps, having been bitten badly by the injury bug in 2008, has hope for 2009. The Seahawks used nine different wideouts last season and lost projected starter Nate Burleson for the year in the preseason. He will be back and will be joined by recently signed free agent T.J. Houshmandzadeh who previously played for the Bengals.
Houshmandzadeh’s numbers were down in 2008 with the Cincinnati Bengals, but that may have been more a product of the Bengals’ struggles offensively. He and Burleson give Hasselbeck a pair of reliable options on the outside. Oft-injured Deion Branch and rookie Deon Butler out of Penn State will be in the mix as well.
This offers hope to Hasselbeck and the offense.
Protecting Hasselbeck’s blindside, as always, will be Walter Jones, but the longtime Pro Bowler is starting to show his age and needs help along the offensive line. The Seahawks are far removed from the days when Jones and Steve Hutchinson patrolled the NFL’s best left side and last year's acquisition Mike Wahle did not have the impact the Seahawks were hoping for.
If the line can gel and keep Hasselbeck upright, the offense could be in much better shape in 2009 and will almost certainly be better than last year, ranking 28th overall and 29th in passing offense.
While the offense was bad, the defense was just about the same, if not worse.
The key to returning to the postseason for Seattle will be improving a defense that ranked 30th in the NFL and was the worst team in the league at stopping the pass.
Marcus Trufant has a long way to go in justifying his massive contract after the 2007 season. Last year he tallied 21 fewer tackles and picked off only one pass after seven the year before.
The blame can't all be put on Trufant, though, who suffered through an injury the bulk of the season.
Whether Kelly Jennings or Josh Wilson, the other corner spot was constantly vulnerable. General manager Tim Ruskell brought a familiar face in Ken Lucas back into the fold to help the secondary.
The front seven is still strong, though, despite losing Pro Bowl linebacker Julian Peterson in a trade to Detroit. Emerging defensive superstar Lofa Tatupu is looking to improve on a disappointing year in 2008 and is the unquestioned leader in the defensive huddle. Leroy Hill and rookie Aaron Curry will flank him at the outside linebacker spots.
Curry, the No. 4 pick in the NFL Draft, was an absolute monster at Wake Forest and figures to play a prominent role on a defense looking to be much more aggressive under first year Defensive Coordinator Casey Bradley.
In the weak NFC West, anything is possible, and the Seahawks have realistic goals of returning to the playoffs, where they had made themselves regular participants most of this decade. Avoiding injury will be critical for a team that is fast approaching old age at key spots offensively, and a shake-up at the top on defense could spell relief on that side of the ball.
If the defense cannot rebound, though, it could be another long season in the Northwest, with division rival Arizona more than capable of putting up points and keeping the Seahawks out of the top spot for another year.