Seattle Seahawks: I ‘ate you, Butler!
4 yards and Malcolm Butler. That was all that stood between the Seattle Seahawks and 2015 being the year they embarked on a quest for history and three consecutive SuperBowl titles.
As it transpired, those 4 yards and the failure to convert on that now infamous conclusion to SuperBowl XLIX was, in my opinion, the catalyst to 2015 looking very different in Seattle.
After the dust had settled, Pete Carroll and the Seahawks decided their most pressing need was to add another legitimate red zone target to the offense during the off season rather than the all-too-obvious option of Marshawn Lynch trying to hammer it home time and again. Their solution to the problem was a blockbuster trade with the New Orleans Saints for Tight End Jimmy Graham.
Graham was viewed by the front office as something of a “plug and play” option for the offense and Quarterback Russell Wilson, giving him a dynamic pass catcher that suited Wilson’s preferred style of hitting receivers in stride on short to mid-range passes and letting them do the rest.
At least that was how it was supposed to be. What manifested was something else entirely.
As part of the trade, Seattle sent ProBowl center Max Unger to New Orleans (along with a 1st Round pick in the 2015 Draft). When left guard James Carpenter was also allowed to leave in free agency and none of the depth players stepped up to prove capable in either position, the offensive line was looking somewhat threadbare. Seattle’s only realistic option was to move Justin Britt from right Tackle to replace Carpenter, and call upon Gary Gilliam and Drew Novak, both undrafted players who were yet to start in the NFL. Indeed, the latter of the two was a converted D-lineman now playing center, and the transition wasn’t going well.
Off the field there were also issues for Seattle to contend with relating to contract negotiations and cap space, another element not necessarily helped by the arrival of Jimmy Graham.
Kam Chancellor, a player widely regarded as the heartbeat of Seattle’s hither-to dominant defense, was making no secret of his desire to re-negotiate his contract – a deal which was signed just two years earlier and still had a further three years to run. Understandably (in my opinion at least) the Seahawks front office weren’t as keen to come to the table.
In the two years since the Chancellor deal had been inked, they had agreed to new deals with fellow defensive players Earl Thomas, Bobby Wagner and Richard Sherman, and signed Russell Wilson to a new mega-contract that included a signing bonus that was worth more than Chancellor’s entire 5-year deal. Suddenly the ProBowl safety wasn’t so pleased with his deal that saw him go from a 5th round Rookie contract to a $30 million contract with $17 million guaranteed.
With more than 60% of that deal still to run, the Seahawks declined to enter discussions, citing a reluctance to set precedents. Stalemate.
The impasse was lengthy and resulted in Kam missing all of preseason. This was the Seahawks though. They’d work it out. Right?
Not really. Well, sort of…
Given the issues with their offensive line, having to travel to divisional rivals St. Louis and their impressive defensive front wasn’t the ideal start to the regular season for Pete Carroll’s men. Having to also travel to Green Bay and Cincinnati, as well as host the Carolina Panthers all before Week 7 rolled around and Seattle found themselves in something of an early hole at 2-4 in the NFC West, already 2 games behind the Arizona Cardinals.
Kam Chancellor’s holdout had extended in to Week 2 of the season before he admitted defeat and returned to training, the displeasure of the somewhat bemused Seattle “12” no-doubt ringing in his ears. Whilst the impact of his return was instantly recognisable (Seattle went 2-0 in his first two games back), the Seahawks defense continued to struggle as a whole under the guidance of new Defensive Co-ordinator Kris Richard, giving up almost 28 points on average in their 4 losses through Week 6.
Whilst the front 7 were still effective in spells, it was clear the secondary were struggling to get to grips with changes to coverage in Richard’s new scheme, particularly with Tight Ends and receivers out of the slot; something teams were using to their advantage in the first half of the season until adjustments were made and players got to grips with their assignments.
Offensively it was a struggle, too. Opposing teams were keen to take full advantage of the weaknesses up front and repeatedly came at Russell Wilson with blitz packages and outside pressure. The Rams and Lions in particular showed how Wilson could be contained by closing the back door escape routes from the pocket and, by the time their bye week arrived in Week 9, Russell Wilson had already been sacked 31 times and thrown 6 interceptions as he scrambled for his life time and time again.
The “plug and play” option of Jimmy Graham was looking to be something of a bust as well. Rumours were circulating that Graham was unhappy at the lack of passes in his direction and, with those weaknesses on the offensive line, was being asked to block more and more, something which Graham has never really excelled at. It was as though OC Darrell Bevell was adjusting the entire offensive plan to get Graham involved and they looked largely dysfunctional as a result. Through the first 5 weeks, Graham had just 204 yards in receptions and 2 TDs. He wouldn’t add another score before his season was ended prematurely by a knee injury in Week 12.
His absence for the remainder of the season however actually aided the Seattle offense in my opinion as they reverted to their more familiar offensive prowess, scoring 30 points or more in all but one of their remaining games. A feat all the more impressive when you consider they had also lost Marshawn Lynch the week before Jimmy Graham. Lynch would ultimately also miss the remainder of the regular season.
Lynch being sidelined opened the door for undrafted free agent Thomas Rawls who single-handedly tore apart the 49ers in Week 12 with 254 all-purpose yards and 2 TDs. He’d had games of note earlier in the season against the Bears and Bengals too, but his display against a lacklustre San Francisco outfit cemented his claim for the starting job. Having posted that career game, he would go on to finish the season on IR following a fractured ankle in the game against Baltimore the following week.
The emergence of a new threat in the run game for Seattle did little to alleviate the pressure on Russell Wilson however. Despite improvements in the offensive line as the season progressed as they moved men around to find a suitable combination, he would still finish the season with a career high 45 sacks. Ironically, he also recorded career highs for completion percentage, passing yards, touchdown percentage, and QB rating. Stats that speak to the quality of Wilson’s play last year, despite almost relentless pressure for large swathes of the season. Some had doubted the validity of his new deal ahead of the season. Wilson was showing them he was worth every dollar and then some.
The improvements on both offense and the aforementioned defense as the season progressed meant the Seahawks were able to claw their way back in to Play-off contention via a Wild Card spot and, thanks to a little help from Vikings kicker Blair Walsh, through to the Divisional round.
It was a game that was to encapsulate the entire Seahawks season however as their opponents, Carolina, raced out to a 31-point half time lead before Seattle got rolling and came back with 24 unanswered points before ultimately falling just short.
Rinse and repeat for 2016?
It will be another year of a very different looking roster in 2016.
Offensively, the retirements of Marshawn Lynch and Ricardo Lockette, coupled with departures of Russell Okung to Denver and J.R. Sweezy to Tampa Bay, as well as the loss of Alvin Bailey to Cleveland (a versatile depth player along the line), mean there will still be work to be done for Darrell Bevell.
You would have to think he will have worked hard at finding a way to incorporate Jimmy Graham in to the offensive scheme by the time Week 1 rolls around and go some way to assuage the doubters who view the trade as nothing more than a failed experiment so far. I wouldn’t have been surprised to have seen Seattle cut their losses and offer up Graham as trade bait ahead of this year’s Draft in an effort to move up the board and address some of their issues in the trenches. The fact they didn’t would suggest they genuinely believe him to be a viable asset to their offense moving forwards.
The offensive line is somewhat depleted yet again coming in to camp and the Seahawks used their 1st pick in this year’s draft to add Germain Ifedi who will almost certainly become an immediate starter at right Guard with J’Marcus Webb likely returning to his favoured tackle position following his move from Oakland.
The defense hasn’t escaped this time around either.
Brandon Mebane and Bruce Irvin both headed down the West Coast during free agency (to San Diego and Oakland respectively) and will each leave significant holes to fill. Sealver Siliga’s return will go some way to offset the departure of the former.
Another Brandon (Browner) returns to the Seahawks after two seasons away and will reprise his role as a starting corner across from Richard Sherman. With Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas in the middle, the secondary at least should be ready to go from the off with a year of Kris Richard’s scheme under their belts.
Chancellor still wants new deal however and, having demonstrated his importance to the Seahawks secondary last year, albeit via unorthodox means, I wouldn’t be surprised for that stand-off to become a talking point once again this year. With two years now left on his current deal and the Seahawks only too aware of what a slow start can do to your season, there may be a little more willingness from the front office to sit at the table this time around.
With Arizona looking as strong as ever again in 2016, Seattle will know that anything less than firing out of the gate will see them playing catch up again next season.
With many of the issues from 2015 potentially manifesting once more in 2016, I think we could see the Seahawks repeat this year, but not in a way they would like.