Last April, right after the Seahawks drafted Russell Okung, it sure looked like they finally were on their way to fixing an offensive line that had been in a continuous downward spiral since Steve Hutchinson was allowed to leave in 2006.
Line guru Alex Gibbs seemed to have a plan for ending the Curse of Hutch.
“I’ve got two pieces of the puzzle,” he told reporters right after the Hawks drafted Okung to put next to newly signed left guard Ben Hamilton. “And I’ve only got a couple more things I’ve got to get done to get to where we can go back to being what they were three, four, five years ago.”
Five years ago. That would be when the Seahawks went to the Super Bowl behind the best front five they have ever had: All-Pros Walter Jones and Hutchinson, vets Robbie Tobeck and Chris Gray, and young riser Sean Locklear.
“It was a tightly knit group that understood each other, that communicated, and they lost that,” Gibbs said. “We’ve got to get it back and, trust me, we’re hard at work, getting that done by the minute.”
Well, that was before Gibbs walked out on the team less than two weeks before the season. It was before Okung missed most of the preseason with a high ankle sprain. It was before Hamilton was beaten out by second-year guard Mike Gibson. It was before Ray Willis was put on injured reserve with a knee injury. And it was before right guard Max Unger was lost for the season with a toe injury suffered in the opener.
So, as the Seahawks prepare to go to Denver, they are about to start their 16th different line combination in the last 34 games. That’s one change to the front five every other game. And you wonder why the Hawks have won only 10 of their last 33 contests. It’s the Curse of Hutch, of course.
From 2001 until 2005, Jones, Hutch, Tobeck, and Gray started 66 games together—the only significant missed time when Hutch sat out the final 12 games of 2002 with an injury. The right tackle position was never quite settled, but those four were the core of the line for five years.
In 2005, they were unquestionably the best front five in football, leading the way for Shaun Alexander to rush for a league-best 1,880 yards and set the NFL record with 27 rushing touchdowns.
But then Tim Ruskell made one of the worst personnel decisions in franchise history, letting Hutchinson go.
The Seahawks made the playoffs the next two years, but the foundation was already cracking.
The last time they fielded the same starting line all season was in 2007, with Jones, Rob Sims, Chris Spencer, Chris Gray, and Locklear. Not so coincidentally, Matt Hasselbeck had the most prolific passing season of his career, and the Seahawks won the NFC West for the fourth straight year and reached the playoffs for the fifth straight time.
But the unit was already on the decline. That was Gray’s final season, and Jones was wearing down after 11 seasons. The running game ranked 20th in the league and was horrible in short yardage. Sims, Spencer, and Locklear could never stay healthy and didn’t start a single game together in 2008, when the Hawks ran through eight line configurations.
They went through six more combinations last year.
In October, as the team was preparing for its fourth quintet in the first six games, line coach Mike Solari told The Seattle Times, “It’s a problem. Your offense doesn't have any consistency. ... You don't have that communication. You don't have that sense or that feel of the lineman next to you. You just don’t.”
Even though Pete Carroll’s Hawks are still suffering through the same problems, Carroll told reporters he’s not going to worry about it. “...I’m not looking at that like it’s a negative. I’m not looking at that like that’s a deterrent to us playing well.
“We’ll stay with the basic principles in what we’ve been doing all along,” he said. “There are always protection issues depending on personnel and stuff like that, but we’re not going to have to do anything drastic at this point.”
That’s because starting two guys who have been in Seattle for less than a month is drastic enough.
Spencer and Locklear remain the starters at center and right tackle, surrounded now by guys they hardly know. Tyler Polumbus, the fill-in left tackle, and left guard Mike Gibson will make their second starts, while recent trade acquisition Stacy Andrews will start in Unger’s spot at right guard.
One of the reasons the Eagles were willing to get rid of Andrews, a high-profile signing in 2009, for a seventh-round pick is that he didn’t fit at guard for them. Even though the 6'7", 340-pound Andrews is not even close to the body type Gibbs preferred, the Seahawks obviously think the big man will fit at guard for them.
“Two weeks ago, we didn’t have the luxury of being able to plug in a guy like Stacy,” line coach Art Valero told reporters. “We didn’t have a guy like this. But they went out and were able to make a deal and bring Stacy in here. As the chips fell, it just happens that he’s there for us not to be able to skip a beat.”
Well, we’d hardly put it that way. The Seahawks have been skipping beats up front for over two years now.
As bad as it has been for the last 34 games, though, there could be some hope.
Hamilton, Andrews, and Chester Pitts are versatile veterans who have started a lot of games in the NFL. Hamilton can play guard and center. Andrews can play guard and right tackle. Pitts can play guard and left tackle.
The Hawks also have inexperienced guard Evan Dietrich-Smith, and they brought back Mansfield Wrotto, who played left tackle all preseason but was released in the cutdown to 53.
The Seahawks also worked out guard Josh Beekman, who started 20 games the last two seasons for Chicago, and they could look at former Colts first-rounder Tony Ugoh once he’s healthy.
Fortunately, the Hawks’ bye comes in Week 5, which gives Okung an extra week to get up and running and gives the coaches time to figure out how best to configure their line the rest of the way.
When they go to Chicago in Week 6, it ideally would be Okung, Pitts, Spencer, Andrews, and Locklear.
Of course, that assumes the Curse of Hutch has not claimed yet another victim.