Friday, February 11, 2011

Looking Back on 2010, Part 5: Surprising September

Continuing a series of posts re-capturing the moods, debates, and plot twists of Pete Carroll's first year in Seattle. Links to previous installments available at the end of the page.

The regular season was here at long last.

A bizarre, news-packed, up-and-down offseason had led to an almost unrecognizable Seattle Seahawks team. The Seahawks had been transformed - or more accurately, half-transformed and then left there - and was headed into the regular season with almost nothing in the way of continuity or familiarity with each other. Most did not interpret this as a positive sign.

The day came to finalize the team's 53-man roster and Pete Carroll, never satisfied, again whacked his delete button. Cut or injury-waived were Ruskell draft picks S Jamar Adams, FB Owen Schmitt (he of the eaten coasters and bleeding forehead) and DE Nick Reed, 2009 preseason hero; misfit linemen Mansfield Wrotto and Steve Vallos; S Kevin Ellison, a once-promising rebound project; DT Kevin Vickerson, trade prize from the draft; and virtually every significant camp body who had graced Seattle during Carroll's young tenure. For a surprising offseason, there were few surprises amongst this group.

Included amongst the cuts, also unsurprisingly to some, was WR T.J. Houshmandzadeh. After a year of garrulous complaints and distracting behavior, the receiver had killed his trade value with his antics and was now cut from the team despite an assured salary of $7 million for 2010, which Seattle paid as Housh played in Baltimore.

Also amongst the cuts were WR Ruvell Martin, DT Craig Terrill, and S Jordan Babineaux, who would be gone anywhere from two months to one day (in Babs' case) before returning to contribute.

LB Leroy Hill was placed on suspended reserve, and RT Ray Willis on IR. Neither would be terribly missed.

Perhaps most significant at this point were the players that Carroll was bringing in. Signed around the same time as the 53-man roster cuts were DE Raheem Brock, who would notch 9 sacks for Seattle; RB Michael Robinson, who would serve (admirably, in my opinion) as blocking fullback and trick-play option; and DT Junior Siavii, who provided the best depth of any defensive tackle Seattle tried on last year. All three were quality castoffs from other teams. Carroll was not only keeping his eyes open - he knew where to look.

Week 1: Seattle 31, San Francisco 6

The San Francisco 49ers, who had been quietly stocking talent for years, were already being written in as the division favorite, making the Week 1 division matchup a David-and-Goliath story.

Hasselbeck's first play from scrimmage was fittingly an interception, as the 49ers corners took to irreverently jumping routes and daring Hasselbeck to beat them with a battery of new receivers. The offense went right back to its pointless run-pass-pass three-and-outs. The defense folded. For the first half, Seattle actually looked very recognizable: they closely resembled the 2009 Seahawks.

Fortunately, the 49ers also reverted, giving away any possible momentum with bad play calling and a delay-of-game on the goal line. Finally, with the Qwest faithful wondering who wanted to win the game, preseason sensation WR Mike Williams caught the 49ers napping on a double move and got behind the defense for a 35-yard gain that was almost a touchdown. From there, Hasselbeck outran LB Travis Laboy on a 1-yard scramble for a TD, seizing a lead the 'Hawks would never relinquish.

Pete Carroll lauded the Hass touchdown by pointing to his groin area in celebration, and suddenly it looked as if the Seahawks had shaken off 2009 all at once. Two straight mistakes by 49ers WR Michael Crabtree (a drop and a missed route, respectively) on the next two drives resulted in two Seattle interceptions and two touchdowns, Butler scoring on a double move after the former, Trufant running his pick back for the latter. Toss in a circus TD catch by WR Deion Branch, and Seattle won in a 31-6 blowout.

A huge division upset (in Week 1?) had Pete Carroll riding high and the Seahawks turning heads. Lost in the ruckus was the fact that LT Russell Okung was out with an injury, that Golden Tate had been a healthy scratch for the game due to questions with his work ethic, and the 49ers were very much a run-first team with a bad quarterback. A team that was supposed to claim a division with years of accrued offensive playmakers had rolled over to a rebuilding bottom-dweller led by a college coach.

At that moment, surprised ruled. Was Seattle for real?

Following a toe injury against the 49ers, second-year G Max Unger was placed on injured reserve; Seattle would temporarily re-sign Mansfield Wrotto in relief. Leroy Hill was reinstated during the week, which also saw the beginning of a rather comical musical chairs game involving preseason favorites CB Kennard Cox, CB Cord Parks, and LB Joe Pawelek jumping back and forth between the active roster and the practice squad.

Week 2: Denver 31, Seattle 14

After every high, there seemed to come a low for the 2010 Seahawks. They'd prevailed at home against a supposedly strong opponent; for Week 2, the nation laid at their feet the task of winning on the road against an injury-depleted Broncos team with a middle-of-the-road quarterback.

Seattle responded by giving up 307 yards and two touchdowns to Kyle Orton, one a 21-yarder to rookie receiver Demaryius Thomas. Orton sliced Seattle's zone defense to pieces for 60 minutes, fitting the ball into tight windows as the Seahawks' pass rush sputtered, making irrelevant the 65 rushing yards that Seattle held them to.

Matt Hasselbeck provided a spark for the offense early on, only to throw two red-zone interceptions in the first half. Coupled with a muffed punt by rookie CB Walter Thurmond, Seattle had committed the cardinal sin of road football: early turnovers. They also committed the second: an unusually bad day for tackling.

A dreary glimpse at the rest of the season, the Denver game woke Seattle fans up to the fact that the defense had not improved, Hasselbeck could not be relied upon, and the play-calling might have serious issues. Seattle would manage a couple of garbage-time touchdowns, and Golden Tate marked his NFL debut with an exciting 52-yard catch-and-run, but there was little to cheer about other than that.

Week 3: Seattle 27, San Diego 20

With fans holding a level of cautious pessimism and curiosity at how Pete Carroll would handle loss, Seattle returned to Qwest Field to face the playoff-caliber San Diego Chargers and their high-powered offense. This game had been an "L" on most fans' season predictions since the schedule came out.

Seattle proved them wrong. Not by traditional means, but they proved them wrong. The offense struggled all afternoon, with Hasselbeck throwing to a well-covered Mike Williams and getting picked off in the first half. Once he did get a break, on a deep pass to Deion Branch behind coverage, Branch fumbled the ball at the 1 and handed San Diego a touchback.

But the defense - not stifling so much as they were opportunistic - stepped up with perfectly timed sacks and turnovers, keeping QB Philip Rivers buried despite his precision against Seattle's coverage schemes. Two fumbles were forced by linebackers and recovered by Red Bryant, who recorded four tackles in a strong game. Rookies Kam Chancellor and Dexter Davis combined to force a special-teams turnover as the first half drew to a close. Just beforehand, Seattle had finally scored on a touchdown to TE John Carlson after benefiting from a weak Chargers punt and accompanying safety.

Now Seattle got aggressive with only 47 seconds to halftime, driving 22 yards in five plays...only to bungle it with a QB keeper on 3rd-and-1 with only 19 seconds remaining and no timeouts. Hasselbeck fell short of the end zone, and Seattle had no time to kick a field goal. Just before, WR Golden Tate had helped waste precious seconds by failing to return the ball to the refs for the next play. Pete Carroll was quick to claim responsibility for the play call, as he was with every struggle Seattle had in 2010 - a refreshing change from the excuse-making of the last regime.

It was in the second half that two of Pete Carroll's biggest acquisitions came through to justify him. FS Earl Thomas, the #14 pick in the draft, picked off his first two passes of the season, one on the Chargers' final desperate drive. And RB Leon Washington, traded from the Jets after a possibly career-ending injury, broke two kickoff returns for touchdowns to help the Seahawks keep pace with San Diego on the scoreboard.

Those return touchdowns would be needed. Twice San Diego got throws to the end zone called back by penalties on a fourth-quarter drive, and twice Seattle allowed scores on the re-attempts by Philip Rivers. The bewildering whiffs in coverage would continue all season. Rivers accumulated 455 passing yards on Seattle, a figure inflated by the extra time on the field Washington's returns gave him, but worrisome nonetheless.

Also contributing were DE Chris Clemons, who used his quick first step to notch two sacks on a pair of 3rd-and-15's; and CB Roy Lewis, who stepped up after the injury of CB Marcus Trufant and knocked away a goal-line pass attempt on 4th down. Injuries to Trufant, Aaron Curry, and Brandon Mebane were no doubt responsible for Seattle's defensive struggles in the second half.

Following Week 3, the Seahawks cut Ganther, Wrotto (again), and 2009 backup G Mike Gibson. Gibson would later return two days later and serve as a borderline starter/reliable depth throughout the season.

Once again, the more significant story was an acquisition rather than a release. In yet another bet against injury, Seattle signed WR Brandon Stokley, whom Denver had waived due to an injury. The Jeremy Bates playbook contained plays designed specifically for Stokley from Bates' time in Denver, so the acquisition of the actual guy seemed a natural move in retrospect. At the time, Stokley's age and health called his value into question. Many fans started theorizing that Stokley was intended to replace a receiver on the roster who would soon be released; some feared Mike Williams, who was disappointing at this stage, but Williams was not a slot receiver like Stokley.

What Seahawks fans took away from September depended, as usual, on how they saw the world. Optimists saw over-achievers, motivation, spirit, and flashes of talent from a hastily assembled team that was largely unfamiliar with each other. Pessimists saw 329 passing yards per game being surrendered by the defense, a QB who still couldn't be relied upon, and an exciting win over San Diego enabled by a terrible showing from their kickoff unit.

But it was a playoff team that Seattle beat nonetheless. At some point, theory and questions of repeatability give way to the fact that a win is a win. At the very least, it was clear that Pete Carroll had filled the team with guys who would play to the whistle and not quit - a step forward from 2009.

And so we entered October, a win or two ahead of where most of us had predicted we'd be. No matter how much talent Seattle had at its disposal, at least we knew that all of it would be brought to bear on our future opponents. All we had asked for was a little improvement from Carroll and some promise for the future, and we'd received it.

To be continued...

Part 4
Part 3
Part 2
Part 1


  1. Good stuff. The only point i'm not sure i agree on was that neither Hill nor Willis were missed.

    Locklear was so bad during the preseason and start of the regular season that were Willis healthy I think there's a very good chance he would have been our right tackle.

    Leroy Hill, its hard to remember since its been so long, but is a pretty good linebacker when healthy and right. Might actually be our most consistent and best.

    I dont know how much of a difference either would have made in the win/loss column, but both would have added an extra, nice option to struggling units.

  2. Well, I guess I'm of the opinion that both guys were as ill-fitting -- not bad, but ill-fitting -- as their 2010 replacements were. Hill was a good nuts-and-bolts guy, but offers nothing in the way of pass rush or coverage; Hawthorne offers everything Hill does for a fraction of the price. Willis wasn't silencing any of the calls for a new RT when he played most of 2009; his skill set was a bad match for zone.