Monday, January 31, 2011

Looking Back on 2010, Part 1: The First Three Months

This is the first in a series of posts re-capturing the moods, debates, and plot twists of Pete Carroll's first year in Seattle.

I can't speak for all Seahawks fans, but I know many who expected almost nothing from 2010.

At the time Pete Carroll appeared in Seattle, the 'Hawks were coming off one of the most embarrassing seasons in almost twenty years. The 2009 season read like a Greek tragedy, presenting the continued decline of Matt Hasselbeck, blowouts at the hands of 3-13 teams, and the players quitting on an ungracious head coach who had neither grace under fire nor answers for the team's struggles. The defense was exposed against the toughest lineup of QB's it had seen that decade. The high-profile signings of T.J. Houshmandzadeh and Colin Cole did little to change the core problems. The draft of 2009 had returned almost nil on investment.

Worst of all, the 2009 campaign was an indictment on previous years as well, a painful wake-up call for those of us who fervently believed that the injury-ravaged 2008 season was just a fluke and that the 2007 defense would soon return. The "tired" Mike Holmgren made his exit, and the necessary health finally arrived mid-season, but no improvements came with them. Instead, it gradually became clear that years of Tim Ruskell's drafting had left the team without playmakers. Big contracts attached to underperforming players were staggering the team. Perennial fan favorites were losing their impact. Reeling from blowout after blowout, Seattle staggered to a 5-11 record and posted the second worst points differential (-172) in franchise history. By neglecting key positions and relying on expensive free agents to plug holes, the team had failed to out-race its own aging and attrition, and the team's problems were now deep in its foundation.

I remember the fan base expecting, on average, a 6-10 season. Many of those who threw in a playoff win prediction were just trying to be funny about the sad-sack NFC West. There would be no one-year turnaround, no sudden renaissance for the Seahawks, and everyone knew it. This was a rebuild.

Enter Pete Carroll.

Fans were intrigued by some of the substance and vision behind Carroll's energy, but disappointment breeds suspicion. Not all of us were still inclined to view a head coach as an automatic savior. Carroll had been fired from his last NFL gig with New England, where he had inherited a team with proven talent. In Seattle, he was inheriting smoldering ashes. His wins afterward had come in a college arena whose keys to success (recruit well and beat bad PAC-10 competition) are entirely different than the keys in the pros. In the NFL, success leads to more success, failure to more failure, and money is far more of a factor.

Many fans were excited about the hire of accomplished Green Bay GM John Schneider, but that excitement was tempered by the fact that Carroll still seemed to be the sole driver of the franchise. I personally found comfort in the coaching staff that Carroll assembled - proven, experienced NFL assistant coaches like Jeremy Bates, Alex Gibbs, and Jerry Gray. Some of these hires worked out and some didn't, but Carroll's ability to attract such names (rather than the middling-to-poor names that Jim Mora brought in) spoke volumes about him. Guys like Alex Gibbs weren't likely to be fooled by empty rah-rah or to waste time with a coach who didn't understand the pros. Those hires meant something.

Then, Carroll started trading people.

It started with QB Seneca Wallace. This seemed reasonable, despite the seventh-round pick. There had been a day, a shining moment against the Patriots in 2008, where Wallace appeared ready to break out as a pro. But that mirage had faded pretty quickly. Then SS Deon Grant was released. This was a bit disconcerting, because Grant was one of those reliable veterans who had been played out of position and who was hardly to blame for the team's greatest deficiencies. But okay, he's getting long in the tooth. We can accept that.

Then DE Darryl Tapp was traded, and my confidence started to falter.

I was convinced that Tapp was another one of those guys who had been shoved down the depth chart by first-round picks and never put in a position to succeed. He was a versatile run defender, built along the lines of Elvis Dumervil, playing on an awful defensive line whose nose tackle never demanded double teams, against offenses that could usually afford to run or pass however they wished. Not a good formula. Sure, Tapp lacked the closing speed to cash in those QB hits, but he was oh-so-close so many times. He could tackle well, defend the run, and drop into coverage. Give the guy more starts and an offense that could force opposing QB's to pass (and thus make themselves targets of pass rushers), and all of a sudden he's in business. Just play the guy right, and he'll make you proud. Right?

Instead, Carroll seemed to be making lateral moves. Defensive end wasn't our greatest need; defensive tackle was much higher on that ladder. Now he'd been replaced by career-backup DE Chris Clemons and a fourth-round pick. Neither move held much promise to me. Clemons had only one season of more than four sacks to his name. A fourth-rounder could just as easily be the next Terreal Bierria as the next Rob Sims - a late bloomer who had become the team's best offensive lineman and run blocker, and one of 2009's precious few success stories.

Well, then Sims went too, for only a fifth-round pick. Some folks started getting worried in earnest at this point. Sure, he was no Pro Bowler, but did he have to be in order to deserve a spot on the team? He was the best lineman on this line (an admittedly dubious honor), and now Carroll had created yet another hole to fill, gaining only a depth-level draft pick. Some people were starting to think that Carroll wasn't aware of where the holes on this team actually were. The Seahawks were rebuilding, but why take two steps backward before the first step forward? Sims wasn't the problem. How crazy did Alex Gibbs' ZBS scheme have to be to justify jettisoning the team's best lineman? The signing of Ben Hamilton was somewhat reassuring, but he looked like Mike Wahle 2.0: aging and worn down.

The wild card was QB Charlie Whitehurst. It seemed obvious right away that the Seahawks had overpaid San Diego for the guy, but that didn't trouble many. It was a gamble. If he turned out to be a starter at football's most important position, then no price was too high. And it was reassuring to see that Carroll did see where the team was hurting the most. But Whitehurst was a third-stringer who struggled to read defenses and react to pressure. Some argued that being stuck behind Philip Rivers and Billy Volek was bound to hide a guy's talents, but just because he might be a diamond in the rough doesn't mean he was. He fit a profile, sure, but which is more crucial, scheme or talent? (That, by the way, still stands one of the greatest questions posed by the wild ride of the 2010 Seattle Seahawks.)

But fans were getting excited. It was reassuring for them that Carroll wasn't going to tie himself to the previous regime's players. He was willing to start afresh. And it wasn't as if any true gems had been released; the fact was that Tapp had failed to produce and Sims was still better remembered for his subpar 2007 than his improved 2009. Unless the player was going to "win games for us", he were expendable as far as the fans were concerned. It was hard to argue.

April arrived with unremarkable free-agent signings like Ruvell Martin, Quinton Ganther, and Chris Baker. Camp fodder like Ricky Foley, James Brindley, and Robert Henderson. Busts like Mike Williams. I was still skeptical. How likely was T.J. Houshmandzadeh to be spurred on to "compete" by the likes of Patrick Carter breathing down his neck?

By this time, I was starting to suspect that Carroll was merely trying to ape the Belichick Patriots. Not the worst idea on the surface, but without the talent evaluation to go with it, there's not much point. He seemed determined to re-create his college philosophy of using competition to find the best player for each spot. If you'd asked me at the time, I would have called the tactic bound to fail; since when have the Colts or the Steelers ever needed such an outlandish strategy? If "competition" were a good strategy, someone else would have tried it by now. Instead, I believed in the NFL's system of guessing on players' ability and sticking with your guesses, where if you want to succeed, you'd just better make educated guesses. I don't buy into easy conspiracy theories where everybody is stupid and mindlessly trying the same thing for no reason. Sometimes, when there's a way of doing things, it's for a reason.

As the 2010 draft approached, Carroll was weekly throwing stuff at the wall in the hopes that some of it would stick at training camp. The jokes were flying about how any new signing was likely to be gone again within the week. Carroll seemed just as relaxed. But I wasn't amused by his draft hints on Twitter. The trades of February and March had served no apparent purpose, brought no apparent benefit, except to amass low draft picks and send an empty message about how "nobody's job was safe" - a risky and irresponsible way to use already-sparse talent. And as the draft approached, I and other pessimists got criticized for this stance, being accused of dismissing Carroll and his moves before they even saw the field. The moves looked a certain way on paper to me, but give him a chance for crying out loud, is what they said.

They were right.

To be continued Tuesday...


  1. Havent got to the Lendale White part yet.

  2. Well, I don't know if I'd say they were right in an across the board sense. The Tapp trade was a great move in retrospect, but the Sims trade has really hurt us, and I'd argue that we'd be in a better position today if we still had Wallace. Wallace is a career backup, but so is Whitehurst (only worse).

    This coaching staff and front office certainly has its strong points. But like Ruskell, there have been moments, with more on the horizon I'm sure, where it will certainly appear that they will look clueless.

    Seattle reached the divisional round of the playoffs, but statistically they were even worse than 2009. Other than the Clemons trade, no other "questionable" move went on to look brilliant later.

    I think the real story of the 2010 season was just how bad the NFC West is. Hasselbeck wasn't very good, but he was just behind Sam Bradford in most advanced stats. That really says a lot about how winnable the division was this year. That coupled with more than a few "win now" moves, it was enough to put us over the top.