In a ritual completed in 19 other NFL locker rooms Monday, Seahawks’ players removed their belongings for the final time this season in an attempt to cleanse themselves of a forgettable 5-11 campaign.
Craig Terrill, a backup defensive lineman, and D.D. Lewis, backup linebacker, toted massive, plastic-covered posters containing the 2009 team picture upon their departure. Many of the players in the photo are unlikely to appear in next year’s version.
“I think this year more than other years, there’s a lot of uncertainty,” said quarterback Matt Hasselbeck. “There has been uncertainty here before. I think back to 2004, there were 20-something unrestricted free agents, and no one in place to sign those people. This is a similar situation in a sense.”
The first major change occurred Friday with the reported firing of coach Jim Mora. Mora met with team officials Friday morning and was informed of their decision not to retain him, in a story first reported by FoxSports.com. The Seahawks went 1-4 and were outscored a combined 140-57 since team CEO Tod Leiweke made assurances that Mora’s job was safe in early December.
After finishing the year with 17 touchdowns and 17 interceptions, a bruised and battered Hasselbeck openly questioned the player’s trust in first-year offensive coordinator Greg Knapp’s system. Seattle’s patchwork offensive line provided the quarterback with little time to throw and allowed 15 sacks in the last five games of the year.
Even worse, Hasselbeck became too hurried to develop chemistry with free agent wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh or Nate Burleson, who returned after missing nearly the entire 2008 season.
“I think that’s just something you’ve got to ask yourself: ‘Did you trust the play? Did you trust the guy coaching you?,’” Hasselbeck said. “When I’m cutting the ball loose, I (need) to trust that the guy I’m throwing to is going to help me out. At the same time, when I’m standing in the pocket, I’ve got to trust the guys around me got my back.”
One day after Hasselbeck ended the season with an interception that sealed the Seahawks’ fourth straight defeat, the 34-year-old quarterback said he hopes to be back in Seattle next year.
At a wrap-up press conference on Wednesday, a Seattle-area radio host asked Mora “When you close your eyes and imagine this team in September do you see Matt Hasselbeck as your starting quarterback?” Mora jokingly complied by shutting both eyes on the stage, pausing for a moment, before resoundingly saying “yes.” With a new coach, Hasselbeck’s status is now in question, as well.
Houshmandzadeh, for one, would welcome the return. The offseason prize signing said Hasselbeck and Mora were the two primary reasons why he chose to come to Seattle. Houshmandzadeh finished with 135 targets, but only 79 catches (his lowest total in four years).
More tellingly, the former Bengals receiver said in early December he would have had “90-100 catches,” if he had as many targets as Texans wideout Andre Johnson. At the time, Johnson had the ball thrown in his direction 130 times.
“There were certain things (Matt and I) got better at timing-wise, and certain things that we didn’t, some of it my fault,” Houshmandzadeh said. “You run routes a certain way your whole career and then you come here and it’s a little bit different. There’s times where you try to go back and do them how you’ve done them, and he’s not used to that.”
One receiver who may not return is Deion Branch. The former Super Bowl MVP ended the season with 45 receptions for 437 yards and has not finished with more than 51 catches in each of his four years with the Seahawks. Though the ex-Patriots wideout had a strong game in the season-finale against the Titans, Branch struggled filling in for Burleson at split end in the final month of the year.
“I’ve got two years left on my contract,” Branch said. “This is where I want to finish my career.”
Seahawks left tackle Walter Jones, a virtual lock for the Hall of Fame, hopes his career is not finished. Jones has missed the team’s last 20 games with crippling knee and back injuries and hinted at retirement near Thanksgiving. The nine-time Pro Bowler went on injured reserve in October and spent the majority of his time rehabbing in Florida.
“My knee feels a lot better. I feel pretty good in the direction that I’m going,” Jones said. “The decision (on whether to return next year) is going to be made pretty early, hopefully in the next couple months.”
Without Jones, the offensive line had difficulty opening holes for running backs Julius Jones and Justin Forsett in Knapp’s zone-blocking scheme. Jones had trouble hitting the hole quickly and finished with 3.7 yards a carry, the second-lowest in his career. Forsett, meanwhile, averaged 5.4 yards per run in primarily a backup role. Jones is unsure if he will return.
“I don’t know,” Jones said. “Some crazy things happen. I like the team, I would like to be here, but that’s not up to me.”
An encouraging sign for Knapp is that the Seahawks’ running game finally started to show improvement as the season wore down. Seattle averaged more than 4.0 yards per carry in each of its last three games. In their previous 12 contests, the Seahawks eclipsed that average only three times.
“I think it’s closer to where we want it to be,” Mora said. “I think that’s an indication of guys understanding the scheme, and how it does take some time.”
On defense, the loss of middle linebacker Lofa Tatupu for the season in late October stung as badly as the absence of Walter Jones. Though David Hawthorne filled in admirably with a team-high 117 tackles, the unit had to play more than half the year without its defensive quarterback. Tatupu has been pleased with his progress, as he recovers from a torn pectoral muscle.
“I’m not (bench) pressing 300 yet, but I’m doing okay,” Tatupu said. “I expect to be ready for offseason lifting (in) mid-March, (when) we usually get back into it.”
Unlike the running game on offense, the defense regressed in the final month of the season. During the month of December, the Seahawks allowed an average of 30.75 a game and a season-high 48 to Green Bay. Mora, however, was impressed with how the defense stifled Chris Johnson last week, when the Titans back was held to 3.7 yards per carry.
“I feel like, coming out of that game Sunday, it might’ve been the very first time I felt all year, defensively, that we kind of had it,” Mora said. “The players really understand the package and how we want them to play it. We want to make sure we continue that, and then add problems for the offense. That’s when you become a really good defense.”
Still, questions remain. Defensive end Patrick Kerney (elbow) and strong safety Deon Grant (wrist), both 30 or above, underwent surgery this week. Darryl Tapp, a fourth-year defensive end, will become a free agent in the offseason.
Personnel decisions cannot be made until a new front office and coaching staff are put in place. Mora politely sidestepped questions on the new general manager on Wednesday and it is not yet known if he knew his fate at that time. His firing may signal the first major change.
“I really have no say in (the general manager’s decision),” Hasselbeck said on Monday. “It’s unfortunate that this year, we didn’t put our best stuff out there, what we showed on game film, which is kind of like your resume in a sense. That’s disappointing. There’s nothing you can do about it except get better and, given the opportunity, make it happen.”