Friday, February 25, 2011

Top Ten Great Mistakes of Tim Ruskell, Part 2

5. The Hiring of Jim Mora

Jim L. Mora, Seattle's head coach for one brief year that wasn't brief enough, was a loose-lipped PR embarrassment before his Seattle tenure, a vacant, reactionary excuse-maker during his tenure, and a facepalm-inducing fop after he's left. He had never created anything but a mediocre defense before Ruskell tapped him to succeed Mike Holmgren as Seahawks head coach. You could rank his hiring anywhere on this list of Ruskell's greatest failures.

I don't know which is worse - that the players quit on Mora before the season was half over, or that he was trying to make grandiose, larger-than-life big-shot gestures before the season even began. T.J. Houshmandzadeh and the watch, really? Did you think we'd completely forgotten about the Huskies comments? Before he'd had any chance to (re)build credibility and trust with the Seahawks or their fans, he was already flexing for the Super Bowl pregame shows. Ugh.

From his thousand-yard-stare to his reflex of publicly hanging struggling players out to dry, Mora did one thing right: he taught us how much of the dignified, responsible, patient Mike Holmgren we'd taken for granted all those years. He also gave us a frame for new coach Pete Carroll, who defends his players as a coach should. It's pretty bad when your biggest accomplishment as an NFL head coach is to make both your predecessor and your successor look better than you.

4. The Left Tackle Situation

Tim Ruskell's idea of a franchise left tackle was Sean Locklear, with Kyle Williams as backup. Pete Carroll's idea of a franchise left tackle is Russell Okung, with Tyler Polumbus as backup.

'Nuff said.

Perhaps Ruskell could be forgiven for holding out hope that the great Walter Jones could return to duty, but get past the rationalizing: Jones had just gone through microfracture surgery, was unable to take most painkillers, and was entering his ninth year as an NFL left tackle. Not a formula for a miraculous comeback.

Left tackle is a premiere position in the NFL and Ruskell did not take adequate steps to find the next starter. There weren't a lot of high options in 2009, true, but 2009 was already pretty late to be starting the search. Besides, with the much-ballyhooed zone blocking concepts being put into place, Ruskell could have at least gone with one of the middle-round options who were ranked lower because of size. Instead, he picked the long-regressing, constantly injured Sean Locklear?

'Nuff said.

3. Building the Run D at the Expense of the Pass D

Whether this is intentional or not, I don't know. But it sure looks like Tim Ruskell has bought into the common idea that a successful NFL team needs to focus on stopping the run.

You're gonna hear this a lot if you read 17 Power - this idea is bogus. The modern NFL is a passing league and everyone knows it. The elite pocket-passing quarterback has dominated for a decade. The rule changes concerning hitting the QB and pass interference have made passing harder to defend. The era of "pound the running back" came to an end twenty years ago. The lone exception, the 2003-2005 Seattle Seahawks, was created by an offensive line for the ages that's unlikely ever to be seen again, yet they keep some Seattle fans believing that we'll instantly return to stardom if we can only find that elusive successor to Hutch. I love you, 12th Man, but c'mon - it's a passing league now.

And if passing is more important than running, then pass defense is more important than run defense. Have you noticed just how many of Seattle's starting defenders have skill sets or dispositioned that are much more suited toward defending the run? Completely more, in some cases. Even if you do believe in the importance of the run, this D is lopsided.

* Colin Cole - run stuffer, zero pass rush.

* Darryl Tapp and Lawrence Jackson - steadily improving edge-setters, not a lot of sacks.

* Aaron Curry, Leroy Hill, and David Hawthorne - hard hitters and gap-fillers, but can't rush the quarterback and can barely handle zone coverage to save their life.

* Lawyer Milloy, and Deon Grant before him - in-the-box thumpers, but too slow for deep middle coverage.

The results in Ruskell's final year was a statistically decent run defense that did precisely squat to stop the Seahawks from getting blown out over and over again by opposing offenses. That failure was repeated and confirmed in 2010 by a defense that did basically the same thing, even with a couple solid edge rushers. That's how deep the hole is. With the core of the defense (Cole, Brandon Mebane, and the Red Bryant position) devoted to stopping the run, there's been nobody to consistently pressure the QB where it matters - up the middle and down the field.

This is a failure that impacts the entire team. Sometimes a GM gets criticized for "not having a vision", but Ruskell had a vision. It just didn't work. The numbers prove it.

2. His Draft Philosophy

Tim Ruskell also had a very specific vision for the players he drafted: stick to polished, ready-to-play, four-year players coming off out of big schools after having shown solid, consistent production. Emphasize leadership, football IQ, character, and other intangibles over tools like size and strength. Go for speed on defense. And hold off until the mid-to-late rounds for offensive skill players.

Sounds good, right? You don't want anyone who hasn't proven their worth at the college level. Limiting yourself to big schools should help bring in players who have proven their mettle against the best of opponents. And everyone loves a rookie sensation who doesn't need to be waited on two or three seasons to bring his best, right?

Unfortunately, hindsight is giving us a much different picture of this profile of player. I'm not just talking about disadvantaged guys like Max Unger and Deon Butler. I mean "Tim's Second Round Gang" - those starters that we regard as Ruskell's draft strength, the second- and third-rounders that Seattle enjoyed solid years from: Lofa Tatupu, Leroy Hill, and John Carlson.

Has anyone noticed that these guys are starting to look more and more like one-year wonders? Early peakers? Flashes in the pan? They started out bright but have faded quickly. Look at how we're still holding out hope for Tatupu and Carlson, and would be for Hill if he hadn't so thoroughly screwed up with the law. We've seen success from them before, so we think it must be there again if we can just get them into the right situation.

Instead, their profile resembles someone who simply reached their ceiling early and had nothing left to develop into. They made their impact felt for a little while, and then the league adjusted. Sustained success in the NFL comes from the possession of tools and the constant improvement of your game - from having upside. That's a defining feature of Ruskell's draft picks - no upside. They're already at their ceiling when drafted; they've already given their best and have nothing to grow into.

There's a fine line between "ready to play" and "is already peaking", and some of Seattle's highest-profile players and fan favorites demonstrate that. So do some of its louder disappointments. Lawrence Jackson and Darryl Tapp. The college success of Kelly Jennings and David Greene didn't translate because its source wasn't examined hard enough. I may be a fan of Josh Wilson, but his tools undermined his second-round worth.

All products of Ruskell's limited draft philosophy. Small-school players and underclassmen may be harder to predict a career path for, but trying to draft "safe" is something we've already seen. It's put Seattle in a hole. There is only one more crucial shortcoming of Ruskell's approach to general managing.

1. The Quarterback Situation

Remember when I said a team is not one man? I kinda lied. A quarterback defines the players around him more than they define him. Therefore, the quarterback is the most important, most influential player on a football team. Accordingly, a general manager succeeds or fails based on his handling of the QB position more than any other factors. This will be true of Pete Carroll and John Schneider, and it was true of Tim Ruskell.

Matt Hasselbeck was a weak-armed system quarterback after 2007. After that season, he started losing both his remaining arm strength and his scheme, not to mention his health and the head coach who had kept him steady. The writing was on the wall back then, and Ruskell's idea of a fix was to pass on Mark Sanchez and numerous free-agent possibilities, force Matt to transition into a new scheme with a new stable of receivers and a still-porous O-line, and hope that Seneca Wallace and/or Mike Teel could pick up any slack.

Despite all of the other failures, I actually think Ruskell could have salvaged (or delayed the loss of) his job by at least finding a QB with some promise for the future. Instead, we're still chugging away with Hasselbeck, who is valiantly trying to keep his career alive but has limited tools to do so (and always did).

Perhaps Ruskell's problem was being sentimental. He tried to squeeze as much life as possible out of 2005's offense. He held onto the 2007 defense he helped build, even though it was clearly created more by bad opposition than by its own talent. But Tim Ruskell had a number of strategies that affected the overall team above the level of just one position. Even his successes are rapidly losing their luster. His draft philosophy, his defensive philosophy, his huge contracts to underachieving players, his first-round all combined to leave Seattle lagging several years as its own aging and attrition caught up to and then lapped it. It's going to take a long time for Carroll and Co. to get back into the race.

And don't even get me started on Brian Russell.


  1. I think you answered my question with your summation, by saying the team is 2 years behind the competition due to Ruskell's misses but given a average GM with average skills, how long does it take to turnaround the team?

    I figured 3 yrs before a strong core could be set. Do you think 2 yrs total may be enough or will there be a need for 1-? more years of average FO moves to get the team's talent level into good shape?

  2. I just re-read your final paragraph. I misread several for 2, so that is how I got that optimistic time frame.

  3. It'll probably take at least another two years for our QB play and pass rush to fully flesh out.

  4. Jones was entering his 13th NFL season when hoping to make that miraculous recovery. All the more reason it was insane to bank on him.

  5. I have to disagree on point #3. There is only one real example of a move TR made that helped the run defense and the expense of the pass defense: Colin Cole. By contrast, JS/PC not only kept starting Cole, but they put a 330 lbs man at LDE and effectively only had one pass rusher.

    Pass defense is composed of pass rush and coverage. In no other area did Tim Ruskell invest more resources. He signed Kerney to a big contract. He signed JP to a big contract. He signed Deon Grant to a big contract. He signed Trufant to an extension. He spent two firsts and two second round picks on CB/DE.

    And it was a moderately successful approach, until 2008 came along and all hell broke loose on both sides of the ball.

    Seattle's defense eventually collapsed because of reason #2. A draft philosophy that settled for Honda Civics on draft day instead of Ferrari's, and a core of good young players who unfortunately had "peak early" career types.

  6. Those are very good points, Kip. Of course, Deon Grant wasn't really a coverage guy and JP was shipped out for Curry, but then Tatupu was solid in coverage and TR did go for pass rushers in the draft - they just turned out to be ineffective. Perhaps I need to revise my opinion.

    JS/PC have seemed to continue the trend of run D at the cost of pass D, but they still found a way to get their sacks. Schneider admitted right after the draft that they didn't get the pass rush they wanted, but he made it sound like a result of following the board, which I can't fault him for. The ongoing competition at DE over the offseason also suggests that they do value pass rush.

  7. This list highlights how crazily competitive the NFL is, and how thin the line between success and failure. If Ruskell had gone with a left tackle or Mark Sanchez instead of Curry, it might have kept him around. I'd further submit that Ruskell's draft strategy was not bad if it had been a guideline rather than a hard-and-fast filter, at least for later rounds: there's nothing wrong with going for track record and safety in a prospect, IF all other aspects are equal and not ignored.

    As an analyst or statistician, Ruskell was clearly a failure. As a fan, I can't be that harsh. Ruskell helped give us the only Seahawks teams to win a playoff game three seasons in a row. He helped temper some of Holmgren's questionable personnel decisions. It is easy to assume anyone could have built from the base Holmgren started, but that's the same kind of hindsight that has people putting the Hutch disaster at #1. Nothing is easy in the NFL.