Here we are again, already at the crossroads of the Seattle Seahawks' season, the intersection of frustrated ambitions and diminishing returns, the point where we psychoanalyze the defense and decide whether to euthanize the offense.
It's not even Week 4, yet the Seahawks are already coping with their annual identity crisis.
We used to know these Seahawks as well as they knew themselves. They were the NFL's brash new breed of champions. They roughed you up on defense and exercised all of their options on offense. They were bigger, faster, tougher and more ornery than you, but they were also smarter and craftier. And cockier, but that's endearing when you can back it up.
But the current Seahawks look like a later season of a once-great television show that has run out of ideas. The characters are now caricatures, the twists familiar, the writing stale. The Seahawks aren't quite The Simpsons yet, but they are starting to repeat themselves in the worst ways.
Early-season losses to the Packers and Titans, plus a hog-slop of a win against the 49ers, have brought on the familiar questions and soul-searching that now arrive earlier and earlier each Seahawks season.
Offensive Line: Threat or Menace?
Early in the Titans loss, two Seahawks linemen were called for three different penalties on one play—and Russell Wilson still had to scramble to avoid a sack. Later, a line-wide attempt at cut blocking resulted in multiple Seahawks lying on the turf while the entire line converged on Wilson, who fumbled the snap and dove forward for a loss of yardage.
The Seahawks line's Pro Football Focus grades are so low they look like gymnastics scores. The line ranks 24th in run blocking, according to Football Outsiders, and a surprising 14th in Adjusted Sack Rate, with the caveats that a) Wilson's mobility skews their sack totals, and b) there are so many putrid lines in the NFL that the Seahawks don't really stand out like they used to. According to Sports Info Solutions (via Football Outsiders Premium), Wilson has been pressured on 42.3 percent of drops, the highest rate in the NFL.
The rearrangement of the Titanic deck chairs has already begun, with Oday Aboushi swapping in for Mark Glowinski at right guard, to little avail. The line has gone from cracked foundation in 2014 to sinkhole this year; history tells us this problem won't be solved by shuffling the depth chart.
The Defense: All-Pro or All-Hype?
DeMarco Murray's 75-yard touchdown run on Sunday was the longest run allowed in the Pete Carroll era, according to B/R research. The 195 rushing yards the Seahawks allowed to the Titans was their highest total allowed since 2013.
The Seahawks defense is still very good, of course. Many of the unit's problems against the Titans and Packers came from being on the field too long in second halves and losing field-position battles because of offensive blunders.
But lots of teams boast very good defenses in this era of crumbling league-wide pass protection. The Seahawks defense must resemble the historic 2013 unit to make the team Super Bowl competitors. So far, it has not lived up to its reputation.
It has also been uncharacteristically sloppy—seven offsides penalties, two neutral-zone infractions and two fouls for 12 men on the field (only one of them an Aaron Rodgers quick-snap special) in three games, according to the NFL—and all too characteristically prone to roughness fouls. Which brings us to our next question...
Richard Sherman: Passionate Leader or Team Disruptor?
Hey, we love Richard Sherman: He's a great player, a compelling personality and a smart dude with a lot of important things to say on and off the field. He also turns into Mister Rush Hour Traffic Road Rage Guy with increasing regularity when things go a little bit awry.
Sherman's one-play penalty hat trick against the Titans last week—pass interference, which nullified a Kam Chancellor interception, holding on Chancellor's return and unsportsmanlike conduct for a helmetless tirade about the other calls—breathed life into an opponent incapable of moving the ball early in the game. A late hit on Marcus Mariota later in the game nearly caused a brawl and came just short of prompting an ejection.
Yet Sherman was hardly in "personal accountability" mode after playing a huge part in his team's loss, claiming the calls raised "suspicions" about the referees' motives, demanding better explanations for the penalties and playing the game has gotten soft card about the Mariota hit.
Sherman's battles and beefs used to be thrilling B-plots to the Seahawks' Super Bowl runs. Now he sounds like a ref-baiting wrestling heel. Perhaps he has grown a little too comfortable with his own rationalizations, a problem that may be endemic to the whole organization.
Russell Wilson and the Offense: Dangerous to Opponents or Itself?
Remember Beast Mode? Unpredictable, unstoppable read options? Percy Harvin in the slot? The Seahawks offense of 2012-14 was at the vanguard of the Read Option Revolution, but it was so much more: It beat defenses horizontally and vertically with power, misdirection and speed.
The current Seahawks offense consists almost entirely of Wilson scrambling around and heaving bombs. Non-Wilson rushers are averaging just 3.4 yards per rush. Eight Wilson passes of 20-plus yards and one 29-yard scramble have accounted for 30 percent of the Seahawks offense. The Seahawks live and die by a handful of chunk plays per game.
The inability to play offense the normal way reached peak hilarity when Wilson threw a fourth-down Hail Mary with over seven minutes to play against the Titans. For the Seahawks, desperation tactics have become standard tactics.
The Seahawks have largely abandoned the option for the same reason many teams have marginalized it: Coaches are conservative old-school guys who don't want their quarterbacks injured on running plays when they should be getting injured standing in the pocket behind horrendous offensive lines. But they have also de-emphasized their old spread-screen game with the receivers. As for power running, they appear to have given up on Eddie Lacy after five carries.
So here we are again, sifting through the Seahawks' identity crisis and realizing the real crisis is that this is their identity. The Seahawks think they are some defense-and-ball-control juggernaut. But they are really just a team that thinks it's a defense-and-ball-control juggernaut. They've talked themselves into thinking they don't need to get better. They justify their errors instead of fixing them. They slip a little further off the pace each season, but hot streaks, Wilson-Sherman heroics and weak divisional foes keep them in the playoff picture.
But this may be the year it all unravels.
The Seahawks host the Colts on Sunday and visit the Rams next week. Anyone chiseling in two victories watched neither the Rams' performance last Thursday night nor the Seahawks' narrow escape against the 49ers. (Nor the Colts' strong starts against the Cardinals and Browns, for that matter). For years, the Seahawks have been capable of beating the best teams on their schedule or losing to the worst. This year's Seahawks look more prone than ever to nationally televised and divisional-rivalry pratfalls.
Even if they pick up some cheap wins and get back into the playoff chase, the Seahawks are still just blurry copies of copies of the 2013-14 team. Sherman is already in Ranting Man mode, the offensive line playing musical chairs, Wilson playing rugby on the freeway. What happens after an injury or two? What happens when the Seahawks face a really tough pass rush?
Here's what happens: The Seahawks close ranks, talk tough and lose close games because of sacks, penalties and defensive lapses at the worst possible moments.
That's just who they are. And they won't be able to get better until they admit it.
Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. He is also a co-author of Football Outsiders Almanac and teaches a football analytics course for Sports Management Worldwide. Follow him on Twitter: @MikeTanier.