Seattle Seahawks: 7 Biggest Concerns for 2011
The 2010 season was an unexpectedly successful first year for head coach/vice president of football operations Pete Carroll and general manager John Schneider.
The team jumped out to a 4-2 start, then lost seven of nine to set up a win-or-go-home scenario to win the division in week 17 at home against St. Louis.
Two home wins and a road loss in the divisional round of the playoffs later, a malicious mid-season slide turned into a somewhat miraculous season, the organization ended up proud; accomplishing their first year goal of winning the NFC West.
If not for that late-season run, the Seahawks would have likely picked in the top 12 of last month’s draft, fully unable to avoid the “re-building” label.
The organization heads into 2011 with the momentum of their strong finish, resulting in the further establishment of the new culture under Pete Carroll; the downside of that momentum being the expectations for the team to continue to “own the division”, a constant pressure that must be negotiated.
The Seahawks are in the unusual position of being both a re-building football team and defending division champion. If they are to continue to uniquely play both roles, the team must be ready to juggle these seven concerns once the lockout is lifted and the 2011 league year officially begins.
Will the Front Office Find Players to Fill Holes at Almost Every Position?
The following is a list of unrestricted free agents that started for Seattle in 2010, started as injury replacements, or played a key role in sub-packages and special teams—(S) denotes starter, (RS) replacement starter, (S/RS-IR) player ultimately ended up on injured reserve:
Quarterback: Matt Hasselbeck (S)
Fullback: Michael Robinson (S)
Wide Receiver: Brandon Stokley, Ruvell Martin
Offensive Line: Chris Spencer (S), Sean Locklear(S), Ben Hamilton (S-IR), Chester Pitts (S)
Defensive Line: Raheem Brock, Junior Siavii (RS-IR), Craig Terrill (RS)
Linebacker: Matt Mccoy
Defensive back: Kelly Jennings (S), Lawyer Milloy (S), Jordan Babineaux
Kicker: Olindo Mare
Restricted free agents: Tyler Polumbus (RS), Brandon Mebane (S), Will Herring
Unrestricted free agents that contributed prior to 2010: Leroy Hill, Ray Willis
The team drafted nine players in 2011 and even if all nine made the roster, Seattle would need to re-sign at least 10 of the players above; filling the remaining holes using the undrafted free agent pool and free agency.
Not all of the players they eventually re-sign, however, are necessarily players that they would ideally bring back in 2011.
But, the Seahawks can lose more than two dozen players, though unlikely that many, that have contributed to the organization in at the least a primary backup role the past few seasons; 19 of those players contributing in that capacity in 2010. Seattle does not have the luxury of being overly picky in a shortened offseason.
The organization has a tall task ahead of them in filling the remainder of the 2011 roster.
Can Key Players Return from Injury…and Can the Seahawks Stay Healthy?
The Seahawks did not make it through training camp unscathed on the injury front in 2010. Isaiah Stanback and Ray Willis were two possible contributors that were placed on IR before the season started; rookie TE/H-Back Jameson Konz also found IR before the season began.
A main reason contributing to the Seahawks mid season tail spin after the 4-2 start was the major rash of injuries that struck the team starting week 8, Halloween, in Oakland.
Max Unger found the list after week 1, Leroy Hill before week 4, Red Bryant and Ben Hamilton after week 8, Anthony Mccoy before week 12; Deon Butler, Roy Lewis and Junior Siavii all found the list between during 14 to 16.
Unger and Hamilton were two of the five starters on the offensive line and Red Bryant was the centerpiece of an unexpectedly stout run defense.
Butler was beginning to look more comfortable in his role, Lewis a special teams captain and nickel corner, Siavii a rotational player with attitude for an oft injured defensive line in 2010.
Seattle consistently lost players of varying importance to season ending injuries, but the health struggles lingered throughout the year for many Seattle players.
Russell Okung started the season injured, and battled dual high ankle sprains as a rookie; Chester Pitts didn’t recover from micro-fracture surgery to make the impact the Seahawks had hoped for; Lofa Tatupu had arthroscopic surgery on both knees after the 2010 season ended; Marcus Trufant played all 16 games while battling various injuries; veterans Colin Cole, Brandon Mebane and Michael Robinson all missed four plus games; Matt Hasselbeck suffered a concussion on Halloween, a broken wrist week 10 and a non contact, swelling injury week 16; Mike Williams suffered injuries to his foot, ankle, thigh, finger, shoulder and knee—the five to six hours of cardio a day this offseason are hopefully coupled with adequate recovery and functional strength training to increase his durability next season.
To say the least, the Seahawks were banged up in 2010. Unfortunately, many of the players that suffered shortened or strained seasons in 2010 are key players for the team, on and off the field.
The Seahawks communication, continuity and consistency on the field will suffer if many of these players—many of them currently under contract—can’t return from injury and/or improve their durability in 2011.
Can They Figure out Where Each 2011 Draftee Potentially Fits?
This is perhaps one of the largest issues the Seahawks face surrounding the lockout, especially given their team building approach that is heavily reliant upon the draft.
In the long run, I believe their 2011 approach of drafting players that complement both other draftees and the core players already in place will reap benefits.
John Moffitt and James Carpenter have complementary styles of play, as well as both being moved from the left side to the right side. Players such as Mark Legree, K.J Wright and Byron Maxwell were drafted to bring versatility and athleticism to the defensive back seven and special teams—the ultimate goal being to fit Earl Thomas into a roving role that could be similar to Troy Polamalu's during his time at USC; on top of that, possibly even finding a role for Aaron Curry to focus on attacking the line of scrimmage.
However, the lockout is currently preventing the organization from seeing how the players actually fit into the scheme, as any practice the rookies do get with their teammates is unofficial, and learning what adjustments need to be made going forward are merely theoretical at this point for the coaching staff.
Furthermore, the Seahawks are likely counting on the majority, if not most, of the players from the 2011 draft class to at least be fringe men on the game day roster next season.
Figuring the best role for those new players to fill, without being able watch the beginning of the learning process on the practice field, will be a hurdle this organization will need to overcome; and swiftly if they hope to start 2011 with a ready group of rookies.
Can a Young Defensive Coaching Staff Turn Around a Staggering Defense?
Though not receiving much attention this offseason, the Seahawks defensive coaching staff is undergoing significant transition into 2011. As highlighted previously, these changes all follow the “fit” hallmark of this organization.
Todd Wash comes in at Defensive Line coach, replacing Dan Quinn; the promotion of Kris Richard, replacing Jerry Gray, to Secondary Coach equals new head position coaches at two of the three defensive positions.
Wash and current defensive coordinator Gus Bradley played defense together in the late 1980’s at then D-II powerhouse North Dakota St; Wash has followed in Bradley’s footsteps as a coach at Fort Lewis College, NDSU and with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Wash turned down an extension from the Bucs to come to Seattle. His hiring is another telling example of the importance scheme background and common football lineage holds in the Seahawks re-tooling of this coaching staff.
The promotion of Richard is another clear example of prior experience playing a key role in the composition of this coaching staff. Richard played for Carroll at USC, and when he graduated Carroll told him to look him up if he wanted to coach. Richard was eventually hired by Carroll at USC, and brought to Seattle.
What the defense will look like in 2011 is somewhat of an unknown, but Carroll has put together a staff that has a lot of experience, not to mention vast experience together, thinking the same football principles, speaking similar football language.
With nearly a quarter century of football experience together (Bradley and Wash), their continuity and the expertise of linebacker coach Ken Norton Jr.—Super Bowl champion linebacker as a player and long time coach at USC under Carroll—should help the front seven continue to gain familiarity with one another in 2011.
I believe the most vulnerable of all the coaching changes came to the secondary, but it’s a move that has Carroll's fingerprints all over it.
Carroll is counting on Richard to mature into a solid NFL position coach, a role Carroll has envisioned Richard in since the player left USC in 2002. Though an inexperienced NFL coaching duo, Richard and Rocky Seto have great familiarity with each other and Carroll’s expectations for the secondary from their tenures at USC.
While the changes have potential, gaining continuity, and quickly, will be a major challenge in 2011.
Will the Offensive Line Gel Quickly Enough?
The more high profile coaching changes for Seattle this offseason came on the offensive side of the ball.
Darrell Bevell comes in as offensive coordinator with a West Coast offensive scheme, likely similar to what was seen in Minnesota during recent seasons; a consistent short passing game and power running attack the hallmark, a complementary vertical element in the passing attack secondary.
The more spirited addition to the offensive staff is new o-line/assistant head coach Tom Cable. Pete Carroll has been enthusiastic from day one about the expertise and attitude that Cable brings to the culture of the entire team, not just the offensive line. Carroll worked hard on facilitating the get-to-know-each other process between Cable and Bevell, attempting to create as short a transition as possible.
Look back no further than the 2010 Raiders to see the results of a Cable influenced offensive line; ranked first in the league in runs over 20 yards, second in rush yards per game, yards per carry and touchdowns.
Cable turned undrafted free agent receiver, former U “dub” Husky Marcel Reece into a dynamic H-back type and saw Darren McFadden have a breakout season in 2010 behind the solid blocking of the Raiders line.
Coming to Seattle, Cable inherits one of the most volatile offensive line situations in the league. The team started 11 different combinations in 2010, as ESPN’s John Clayton notes, the team is hoping to replace three starters and the longer the lockout ensues, the more un-coached Cable’s line will be heading into 2011.
He is inheriting perhaps the youngest offensive line in the NFL; four of the five currently projected offensive line starters for 2011 have been taken within the first three rounds of the past three drafts—two of them in the 2011 draft.
The challenge will be using the inexperience of the line as an advantage, molding their collective skills to fit the Seahawks scheme; it won’t be as tough to break the nuances that a veteran may already have ingrained and the Seahawks do have a talented group of young players to work with.
The Seahawks have expectations that the running game, and offensive line play in general, will improve in 2011; no improvement to a 31st ranked running game would be a major disappointment for this organization.
Can the Organization Create a Quarterback Competition, with a New QB Coach?
The Seahawks quarterback quandary has been a consistent topic of conversation this offseason.
The team did not draft a quarterback in the 2011 draft. Charlie Whitehurst, who the team gave up a third round pick for, is the only remaining quarterback signed with the team.
Last week I offered that the Seahawks have two quarterbacks that won under playoff conditions last season, if they decide to bring back Matt Hasselbeck; re-signing Hasselbeck to compete with Whitehurst, in addition to finding a free agent with starter experience and an undrafted free agent with developmental potential to compete for the third quarterback spot, is a viable strategy for 2011.
It’s a plan focused on the short term and sets up the bridge to the long term, also setting up the slim chance to find the right quarterback of the future in that third spot-- I think Adam Froman remains a name to watch in the undrafted free agent pool while Tarvaris Jackson and Matt Leinart are popular free agent names associated with Seattle.
Furthermore, the Seahawks don’t need to lock themselves into having Hasselbeck compete for the starting spot past 2011 if they create the right contract.
The Seahawks should be willing to live with the winner of the Hasselbeck/Whitehurst competition for 2011, and not force their hand before the offseason of 2012 when a potential franchise quarterback may arise.
Their challenge lies in integrating new QB coach Carl Smith into the staff, but his familiarity with Carroll roots from the 2004 Matt Leinart Heisman, National title season at USC; before that in New England during the late 1990s.
In between his three stops with Carroll, Smith has spent time as an offensive coordinator and QB coach in the NFL. He should fit in quickly as he is familiar with Carroll’s language and philosophy, his extensive experience in the NFL is not to be ignored as well.
How much of a role Smith plays in deciding who competes for the quarterback position remains to be seen, but Seattle must make sure the competition at quarterback remains as competitive as possible.
Can the Staff and Players Hit the Ground Running, Prevent a Mid-Season Meltdown?
Despite the appearance of a fragmented coaching staff in transition, Carroll has maintained the program is much further along than it was at this point last season.
In building this new coaching staff, Carroll has shown he understands the value of keeping as much continuity as possible during times of progress.
The importance of being on the same page as a coaching staff and front office is being continually discussed for the organization and they feel the downtime created by the lockout gave them continuity in the draft evaluation approach; the vision for the team largely understood throughout the organization.
They focused on finding players who have a potential familiarity with the scheme, or mindset, in place for Seattle; likely a part of their evaluation approach at the combine. Players familiar with the language, concepts and/or mindset should have a smoother transition to the pros, and ultimately have a better chance of making the roster and contributing.
The offensive lineman drafted come from very strong run game programs, Wisconsin and Alabama; finding a small-school, natural ball-hawk to backup Earl Thomas, but also help unleash E.T.’s versatility, was a savvy move.
When injuries struck and depth was challenged mid-season in 2010, the team appeared unprepared and struggled with the new schemes; the defense struggled to “stay inside” the discipline of the scheme, while the offense continually forced the issue and made untimely mistakes, struggling to protect the ball at crucial times.
If not for wiping the slate clean and playing clean, “championship” football during the win-or-go-home stretch at the end of the season, the Seahawks mentality as a program may have remained fragmented, and fully re-building, going into 2011.
I would like to re-visit a few thoughts from an article I published nearly four months ago, highlighting the Seahawks’ offseason plan:
I want to share two quotes I heard during Super Bowl pre-game coverage on ESPN, in regards to building a championship program:
Hall of Fame Quarterback Steve Young on team mentality: “teams need to develop something that can be held on to, year by year, where players can show up and continue to master the program.”
Super Bowl winning Head Coach Sean Peyton on what it takes to be a championship organization: “an organization must have a sound relationship between Head Coach and GM in terms of personnel, character and defined directions the team wants to go. When you have that, you have a dangerous program. You must have patience, ignore the white noise and stick to the plan.”
The new Seahawks regime displays both of those Championship qualities. Yes, a delayed labor situation will bring uncertainty to the roster turnover; do not expect as many transactions as last offseason. One thing is for sure; Carroll and Schneider will not let the labor situation hinder their ability to keep the “program” mentality running strong.
The Seahawks have been able to keep the team mentality running to the extent that the not under contract, former franchise quarterback is presumed to be organizing unofficial team activities; the Seahawks, frankly, don’t care about outside opinions regarding the success of their draft. Carroll and Schneider appeared very comfortable in sharing their feelings of success with the media after the draft.
Seattle has proven this offseason they are a driven program that has patience; building the offensive line before selecting a franchise quarterback.
The challenge for the Seahawks lies in creating and executing a solid plan to teach their players, and the new players, the 2011 version of the program quickly and efficiently, a scenario Carroll is confident the Seahawks can handle.
They must be prepared to weather a potential fast start, and the resulting lull--the Seahawks mishandled the lull in 2010 into a 2-7 stretch--or bounce back from a slow start and remain competitive for the entire season.
The Seahawks’ self-imposed need to come through in the eleventh hour, with the support of the 12th man, was not the desired path to the 2010 division title.
In 2011, the rest of the division is focused on making the ‘Hawks flight path to destination “own the division” as turbulent as possible; if the Seahawks take a flight path as bumpy as their 2010 season, the organization may need to make an emergency landing in 2011.