Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Looking Back on 2010, Part 3: The Long Hard Offseason

Continuing a series of posts re-capturing the moods, debates, and plot twists of Pete Carroll's first year in Seattle. You can find Part 2 here.

For fans of most teams, June marks the settling-in of the long NFL winter. The draft has come and gone, and offseason homerism is in full swing, but there's only so far the draft high can carry you. We're often grateful for minicamps or unexpected trades during this time, because otherwise, there isn't a lot to talk about until July's training camp.

But not for Seattle fans. Instead of a long, dry football winter, the 12th Man saw a regular La Nina of personnel transactions over the summer. One thing you can say about Pete Carroll: he keeps his fans invested in the team in all seasons.

The draft, hailed by most as a smashing affair, had Seahawks fans buzzing even as Carroll continued tweaking and Frankensteining the roster. Veteran SS Lawyer Milloy was kept on board. 2009 flier QB Mike Teel was released. RB Lendale White, the cheaply signed short-yardage back whose biggest fault with the Titans was being stuck behind Chris Johnson, caused a stir by getting cut for his attitude and his failure to devote himself fully to the team. The idea of "buying in" to Carroll's program, a phrase often lampooned by fans beforehand, now had a legitimate weight to it. Carroll was solidifying his presence. (Fans hoping for a reprieve from RB Julius Jones were sighing.)

Minicamps arrived, distilling the chaos into recognizable storylines:

Wide receivers

The WR scrum-competition took center stage as players started getting winnowed, most notably WR Reggie Williams, one of the first-round busts taken on by Carroll to provide competition.

The other Williams, Mike, was starting to make his presence felt. He's a great story, one we all know well. Despite being a first-round pick (or perhaps because of it), Mike Williams had busted out of the league in blazing fashion, eating his way to disgraceful weight (for a receiver) and failing to invest himself in whatever team he was with. For all intents and purposes, he was done with football. In Seattle, it would turn out later that BMW ("Big Mike Williams", as many call him now) was the one to ask for a second chance and that Pete Carroll didn't taken him seriously at first. Williams' work habits and renewed athleticism, however, immediately grabbed the coaches' notice, and he was on his way to what Sando was calling a "career revival" by training camp.

Golden Tate's route-running continued to draw concern, as did his subsequent break-in of a Top Pot donuts shop.

Fans continued to hope for a genuine second-year emergence from Deon Butler. We now know that Pete Carroll initially saw no place for Butler in the game book, but changed his mind after Butler's offseason, calling him one of the "most improved" players right next to Red Bryant.

Other bodies floating around included Isaiah Stanback, an intriguing Patriots castoffs who was injured before seeing the field; Mike Hass, former Biletnikoff winner and perennial camp fodder; Kole Heckendorf, who made a play or three in training camp; WR Brandon Jones, released from the 49ers; and WR Ruvell Martin. Not even Martin would survive the Week 1 cuts, even if he did eventually return.

Defensive line

Ongoing competition continued between a battery of defensive ends. They were mostly camp bodies - undrafted free agents, roster castoffs, conversion projects, and a CFL notable - but pass rush being the precious commodity it was (by the admission of John Schneider, who did not obtain much of it in the draft), few were complaining.

Carroll's "Leo" experiment only added to the intrigue - as did another name, one that many fans had written off and even forgotten: Red Bryant.

A glut of defensive tackles also trooped through Seattle in due course, interviewed as potential backups to Brandon Mebane and Colin Cole. Kevin Vickerson, a trade bonus from Tennessee, was the most obvious choice, and incumbent guitarist Craig Terrill remained. But it's funny how I saw quite a bit of promise from guys like Quinn Pitcock, Amon Gordon, DeMarcus Granger, and Jonathan Lewis. I was a little sorry to see each of them go. Perhaps it was just my belief in the importance in the position and thus my increased interest in this competition over any other. Or perhaps I was just desperate to see Colin Cole pushed down the roster.

Tight end

With Jeremy Bates came the installation of two-tight-end sets in the offense, a novel wrinkle that interested fans. TE John Carlson, we said to each other, had two 50+ catch seasons under his belt and could be relied upon as a target for Hasselbeck. Anthony McCoy was another potential target. Chris Baker was mostly a blocking option, and nobody knew what to make of Cameron Morrah. But the debate was rather quiet here, as most expected Seattle to equip itself for its game plan by running with four tight ends on the roster - as they eventually did.

Running game

By now, people were running out of patience with Julius Jones. I had defended him vociferously in 2008, pointing out his 4.0+ yards-per-carry average despite the lack of run-blocking. By 2009, however, I was starting to wonder just how valuable "complete" backs like JJ really were. It's a two-back league now, after all. Many still wanted Justin Forsett to get the start, as his returns per run were far better, but others were scared that his size would wear him down. The consensus was that Forsett had excellent value as a speedy, shifty sidekick to a powerhouse runner, but that powerhouse runner remained to be found. He was out there, though...somewhere.

Seattle kicked around various alternatives like Quinton Ganther and Louis Rankin, but no spark was forthcoming. Bates was a passing guy, but Carroll believed in the importance of the run. This was a crucial locus of Seattle's plans.


Nothing was as prominent as the ongoing "not-QB controversy" between Matt Hasselbeck and Charlie Whitehurst.

Are preseason stats completely meaningless? Can they possibly have any significance when being posted against the fringe players and future insurance agents of the league? Whitehurst's only stats were in preseason. Fans were operating in a vacuum of information. Carroll insisted that Whitehurst fit Bates' quarterback profile to a T, others saw in his actual tape a lack of poise and awareness, and others simply went agnostic: we can't know anything. Let the guy play.

Hasselbeck, on the other hand, was a known factor and a much more interesting topic. The 12-year-veteran was being asked to transition from the pure chip-away WCO he had flourished in, to a deep-ball version adorned with rollouts and bootlegs to lessen the need for protection. It was quite a demand for an aging QB who'd never been known for his physical attributes.

Despite the personnel and schematic chaos of 2009, Hasselbeck was seeing less and less goodwill from some. He had valiantly attempted to carry the team on his shoulders a la 2007, but his desperate attempts to make something happen were only resulting in turnovers. His vanishing arm strength made him prone to interceptions on even routine plays. He was jittery and imagining pressure. Could he rebound if given a fair measure of surrounding talent? Sure, but the question was, could he rebound enough? There would be no fixing the rest of the offense in one season. In the face of sure adversity, Hasselbeck had to settle down, trust his offense, and make the right decisions.

Some believed he could do it. Other corners adamantly insisted that he was finished and that Whitehurst needed to be given the call, if for no other reason than to find out what he was capable of and avoid wasting the third-round pick we'd traded for him. Nobody yet realized just how entrenched Hasselbeck was, both with the coaches and with the city, nor how many tricks he himself had up his sleeve.

Carroll's frenetic roster shuffling made Seattle the butt of some jokes for a while and brought no immediate answers to the team's personnel problems. It did, however, give the impression that Carroll was out of his chair trying to find those answers. Some were reassured. I remained skeptical, for my part, as none of these camp bodies appeared to be Arian Fosters or Leonard Weavers in waiting. I felt that if Carroll and Schneider wanted to succeed, they'd just have to do what everyone else did: build through the draft, with an occasional signing of a free agent with actual talent. That meant time, and money. It also meant taking the time to develop talent, rather than kicking improving players to the curb because they "didn't fit the new scheme".

Training camp was about to challenge quite a few of my assumptions.

To be continued Saturday. But don't think for a minute that we're going silent.

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