Monday, February 21, 2011

Top Ten Great Mistakes of Tim Ruskell, Part 1

I've been fighting a tough flu over the past week, so the heavy-research articles are on hold for the moment (sorry!). But I did decide to put up a list of what I feel are the ten greatest failings of Tim Ruskell. These are the errors that I feel had the most impact in putting the team behind the curve of its own aging and attrition.

This article will cover #10 through #6 - and you might be surprised to find out that the loss of Steve Hutchinson isn't even in the top 5.

10. Drafting Kelly Jennings

When most of us think of Kelly Jennings, we think of the skinny cornerback in the pocket of some wide receiver as he makes a deep catch along the far sideline - and Jennings not even looking for the ball.

While that is Jennings' trademark - precocious cover skills, zero ballhawking instinct - a CB has far more responsibilities than just that. Like everyone on the defense, he has the nuts-and-bolts job of swarming to the ball carrier and stopping the play, regardless of where it starts.

And it's there that Jennings' struggles jump out. His weight betrays him and gets him dragged on tackles. He gets trampled on blocks. Receivers shake him easily on crossing routes. He gets fooled by simple inside moves. He has zero use as a blitzer. He doesn't have the weight to jam or redirect receivers at the line, forcing him to play off most receivers with distasteful results. Football Outsiders ranked Seattle 32nd in defending #2 receivers, which is generally (though not always) the job of Jennings. And it's well-known that he lost his confidence years ago.

Jennings had a reputation as a shutdown ballhawk coming out of college, but Tim Ruskell fell for the big-school pedigree and senior status and failed to recognize that the guy's size would kill him at the pro level. A few still defend him for his potential as a shutdown corner, but there's no point in being a top cover corner if you can't disrupt passes and routes - none at all.

9. Drafting Aaron Curry

Aaron Curry was the surest thing in the 2009 draft. It's still too soon to call him a bust in the NFL, but it's not too soon to call him a bust for the Gus Bradley Seahawks. Curry possesses crazy athleticism and a penchant for big hits, but underwhelms in the Department of What You Actually Need from a 4-3 Outside Linebacker in the Modern NFL: coverage and pass rush. A 3-4 prospect drafted for a 4-3 defense, Curry would be much better off playing inside where most of the work is funneled to him. He's not good at doing the actual funneling in space.

That doesn't even begin to address the circumstances of Curry's drafting. No linebacker had ever gone at #4, or deserved #4 money without being Ray Lewis. More excruciating was the fact that Seattle passed on both QB Mark Sanchez and WR Michael Crabtree - much greater needs for Seattle - to grab an expensive linebacker that they didn't even need in 2008. Ruskell created the hole himself by cutting Julian Peterson, a serviceable player who even in his career twilight with Detroit has proven more productive than Curry.

Mutter "hindsight" all you want, but a GM is defined by his first-round picks and neither Jennings nor Curry has delivered. I'm still holding out hope for both - in reduced roles.

8. Wide Receiver Situation

The entire football world is yelling "build through the draft" now that a Super Bowl has featured two teams who did, but there are plenty of teams who survive with good free agency signings. There's nothing wrong with that strategy.

...unless you aren't very good at it and you make the team dependent on it, which Tim Ruskell did. First he poison-pilled Nate Burleson away from Minnesota, in what he apparently thought was fitting revenge for the heist of Steve Hutchinson. Then he handed a first-round pick to the Patriots for Deion Branch, who promptly disappeared into the injury list and was rarely seen again until being traded back. His final shot at a free-agent solution was T.J. Houshmandzadeh, who was a distraction for his teammates and a neutronium anvil on the back of Seattle's budget. None of these guys have measured up to home-grown guys like Darrell Jackson or Bobby Engram - although to be fair, the sheer size of the contracts invested in them made it hard to justify their signing anyway.

I don't have a problem with free-agent signings per se. Patrick Kerney and Julian Peterson were quite valuable for Seattle during their time here, and good draft picks waiting to succeed them would have assured a good transition. It's not Kerney's fault that Lawrence Jackson didn't pan out.

But wide receiver was a position that Ruskell made almost completely dependent on free agent hirings, more so than other positions. Out of the four WR's that Ruskell did draft, two were late-round busts, one was the limited (but determined) Ben Obomanu, and the highest WR he drafted was Deon Butler, who is kinda like the Kelly Jennings of wide receivers.

7. Steve Hutchinson

Depending on your beliefs on quantum theory (or your appreciation of J.J. Abrams), there may exist alternate universes that are very similar to our own, except for small changes. If that's true, there are probably alternate realities where Ruskell managed to hold onto Pro Bowl guard Steve Hutchinson in 2006 and keep him from escaping to the Vikings.

And there are probably realities within that subset where Hutchinson suffered a freak injury in 2006 training camp and retired suddenly like the rest of the interior line, making the entire issue a wash despite Ruskell acting properly.

A team is not one man. Seattle's historical offensive line collapsed because it lost four components and the health of its running back, not just Hutch. I have long wondered why everyone assumes that the line would have been exactly the same if Hutch stayed. Better, maybe, but Robbie Tobeck was gone in 2006, and if Chris Spencer's line calls really are to blame for all Seattle's problems and the depletion of the ozone layer as well, then might not the line have suffered anyway? Maybe Shaun Alexander would still have limped to the line and sat down over and over. Maybe Sean Locklear would still have regressed, since the guys playing next to him were gone in any case. Maybe Hutch would have just rolled over Walter Jones' ankle.

Ruskell got played by Hutch's agent, Tom Condon, and let an incredibly valuable player walk for nothing. Seattle fans are righteously angry to hold this as one of his greatest errors. But I think it's myopic to put it in the top slot as most do. Guard is a position of only middling importance, its significance inflated for Seahawks fans who spent years watching an offense enabled almost entirely by its O-line. But that scheme was an outlier. Most of the league isn't like that. There were plenty of Ruskell mis-philosophies that deflated the entire team on a level far above just its left guard. All I'm suggesting is a little perspective.

6. The Signing of Colin Cole

Yes, I really think the signing of defensive tackle Colin Cole was a worse mistake than Hutch. It occurred at a more important position and represents Ruskell's failure to grasp what actually matters on the defensive side of the ball.

Cole is very good at what he does: he's a decent run stuffer. Problem with that is, run defense isn't on the list of things that elevate your team to elite status. Pass rush is, and Cole provides none. The only thing he provides is nice, airbrushed pockets for QB's to step into, opening their playbooks wide and exposing Seattle's back seven. The job of an over tackle is not simply to stuff the run, as some of you have been told; it's to 1) collapse the pocket by driving linemen back into their own QB's faces, and 2) to demand double teams and open up blitzing lanes and pass-rush chances for guys like Brandon Mebane.

Cole doesn't do any of this - and the frustrating thing is, it doesn't look like Ruskell intended him to. Which makes Cole another example of Ruskell's under-valuing pass defense. It's not Cole's fault that he does what he's good at; it's Ruskell's for piling resources onto the run defense at the expense of the pass defense. People greeted Cole with a lot of goodwill when he arrived in Seattle, accompanied by a sentiment of "Yay, we finally have a big guy on the line!" Lot of good it's doing us - Seattle's interior pass rush has been almost nonexistent since Cole's arrival. I'd rather have Rocky Bernard back.

To be continued..


  1. I am quite interested to see the top 5. I can't imagine a world in which losting Hutch is only his 7th worst move. (this from somebody who at the time didnt think it would be a very big thing to lose him)

  2. Well, as a resident of, you should find yourself quite familiar with the Top 5.

  3. Small point: Bobby Engram was not home-grown. He is my second-favorite Seahawks receiver all time--ahead of Joey, ahead of Blades, ahead of DJack. But he was a Bear first.

    Large point: Because the line was so essential to Seattle's success, shouldn't Hutch be higher on the list? Just because line and guard are not important in overall metrics, does not mean they aren't in this case. At the least, you could argue that they should pass Colin Cole: because Cole has performed marginally well in Carroll's scheme, you could argue that Cole's poor performance was a Holmgren/Marshall problem, not Ruskell. Then again, that should be up in the top 5: the failure of a GM to coordinate his decisions with his head coach.

  4. Thanks for the Engram chunk, I forgot he came from Chicago.

    The whole Holmgren-Ruskell thing definitely belongs up there, but it's murky and hard to tell what affected what. For that reason I'm staying away from it.

    I guess it's just that I see the presence of Cole as continuing to hold back this entire defense, whereas the loss of Hutch honestly did not have that big an effect. I also feel that Ruskell made a decent attempt to replace Hutch by drafting Rob Sims.

    I'm getting the next five points up soon; then I hope you'll see where I'm standing more clearly.

  5. Kyle,

    Colin Cole was signed in March 2009, Jim Mora's year as HC. MH and Marshall were gone. It was Bradley's first year as DC (after Mora cleaned out MH's coaches). So his poor performance was on Ruskell/Mora/Bradley/Quinn.

    Or maybe I am missing your point?

    On the top 5 and not having Hutch, I am looking forward to Brandon's article.

  6. Jennings was actually good as a rookie and better as a 2nd year guy. It was in 2008 he was exposed. I guess having him at #10 is ok, but in the big scheme of thing Jennings started far more games than the average #31 pick and played two, maybe 2.5 good seasons out of 5. If it was my list, I'd probably leave Jennings off.

    Curry would probably be in the top 5 for me. As would Hutch. I'd probable have Branch up there too. That's probably 1-2-3 for me, actually.

    The Housh signing was ok- he performed up to reasonable expectations given the QB that was throwing to him and the offense he played in.

    Colin Cole would make my list too, even though he's played exactly like we thought he would. Cole isn't a bad guy or even a bad player, he just shouldn't be starting.

    Given that you've already mentioned most of my top 5 already, I'm curious what you would have in part 2. Look forward to it. :)