Today was a go/no-go for the Seahawks. Fork in the road, with a left turn leading straight to <.500.
Today the Seahawks picked the road less traveled by, sneaking past the underrated Carolina Panthers with a gorgeous TD throw by Russell Wilson down the seam to tight end Luke Willson. I likes.
With all the injuries hampering our play on both sides of the ball (and if you ask me, the injuries haven't gotten nearly enough credit for the team's struggles), it was good to see the Seahawks get back to winning ugly instead of losing pretty. That they did it on the road was reassuring. That they quietly cut down on the penalties was even more promising. That they gave their young bucks an opportunity to contribute and benefited from it - despite an infuriating stream of simple mistakes and missed opportunities from top to bottom - the young play may have been the most important feather in Pete Carroll's cap today.
The Seahawks' struggles lately are very simple: they're a victim of their own success. They've reminded the league how to play football. Other teams are adopting physical play, reliance on the run, and tools like the zone read. They're also taking the same strategy to Seattle's defense that one would Peyton Manning: keep 'em off the field. A steady dose of patient playcalling from the last few opponents has left Seattle's defense worn down by the end, prone to last-minute heroics. Teams have found ways to hurt Seattle right in its philosophy.
Today, Carolina ignored that strategy and paid for it in the final minute against Seattle's refreshed defense. Kudos to Russell Wilson for that final drive, but honestly, greater kudos to him for maintaining longer drives earlier in the field. It left the defense ready to close the deal.
It was good to see Seattle's youth step up, because it's time the coaching staff started closely examining what they've got on the bench. Keeping a Super Bowl team together is financially impossible, but it's starting to feel like the Seahawks hit reloading mode a little sooner and a little harder than even the most realistic of us expected. Left tackle is a question mark again. Our front seven is starting to show some holes. In general, the defensive line isn't getting the push they used to, and today's improved performance came against an injury-ravaged offensive line.
So when our rookies and sophomores started filling in the gaps, it was welcome. But...that's all they did.
We've got some backup linebackers that can flash and make some nifty plays in Kevin Pierre-Louis and Brock Coyle (go Griz!), but that's starting to feel like a good description for starter Malcolm Smith as well. Luke Willson and Cooper Helfet - look, it needs to be said, they're not Pro Bowl material. They're simply coming through on a weapon-starved team. They're raw on their fundamentals. But they stepped up when they were needed and never gave up. (Schools, corporations, and armies win on the backs of such people.) It still remains to be seen whether Bruce Irvin can become a consistent force at DE, and he's had quite a while to prove himself. Robert Turbin and Christine Michael are not the future. They're spot players, with due credit to Turbin for the hardy catch-and-runs he's showing lately. The staff needs to make more use of him there.
Then there's receiver. Until the Seahawks find themselves a Kelvin Benjamin, they'll probably be scrambling to win ugly more often than not. Don't get me wrong, we've had extraordinary luck with the receivers we have; scrappy, hard-hitting, full of fire, including what's looking vaguely like a possession receiver in Paul Richardson. These guys make the most of their opportunities, and I stand by that despite the numerous drops this month. But there's just no substitute for a catch-soaking #1 who can drag defenders deep and outleap even the tightest of coverage. You saw those benefits for Carolina today. It would just open up so much for the offense, which up until this point has looked like it's playing in the redzone all the time because of the limited ground our receivers cover. They just don't use space like they could.
Between all these shades of grey, it's not insane to think that Seattle could still benefit from another trip to the draft. Perhaps they have the bullets already waiting in the wings. Injuries have a silver lining: they afford a showcase for unknown talent on the bench. Countless NFL talents have gotten their chances that way. But there are some pieces that remain elusive for Seattle (and indeed for most teams, like that epic #1 receiver) that will not be found on the bench.
Whatever. We won. My criticisms aside, all our guys showed up and played hard when it counted. Sixty minutes.
And that's the most encouraging component of today's victory. The Seahawks showed character and resilience against the Panthers. With rumors of locker room divisions and departing stars swirling around the team like so much fog the last couple weeks, and with so many starters on the bench...most teams would not have been in a position to steal a win from a physical, promising conference rival like Carolina, especially in their house. But Seattle pulled it off. And they did it with their usual formula - run, physical, turnovers, Wilson's legs. It was a relief to see that the formula is not defunct.
Execution needs a shot in the arm. Max Unger and Zach Miller (underrated cogs in the run game, both of them) are sorely missed. Bobby Wagner is missed. Byron Maxwell was admirably covered for today, and you'd hope so given Seattle's emphasis on DB depth. And what is with the 12-men-on-the-field penalties lately?
But this team still has a lot of fight in it. The flaccid 2009 team was marked not so much by lack of talent as lack of hope. This team is not that team, nowhere close. And as long as that fight is there, the Seahawks can do what they did last year: hunker down and wait for their starters to return from injury.
Next week, the intrepid and unexpected Raiders QB Derek Carr has to demonstrate the patience and decision-making of Rivers and Romo if he expects to keep Seattle's offense off its own field. The Carolina game was a good matchup for Seattle, as Cam Newton is not the type of QB to avoid feeding the Legion. Carr is efficient and minimalist, closer to the necessary mold, but his running game is off track despite its talented backs. Their defense is pitiful.
Just what the doctor ordered.
Quick rant: another day, another game where careful study shows how overrated the importance of the offensive line is. Seattle's pass protection bounced back from last week's undeniably bad showing, but once again, far too much is being assumed. On the go-ahead touchdown throw to Luke Willson, the announcers immediately and instinctively credited good pass protection. Watch the TD again. It's a three-step drop from shotgun. Step, plant, throw. A quick timing play. The role of the offensive line is minimal in that kind of play - delay your man for a split second and you've got it. Yet instead of such nuances, the announcers just tossed up the idea that pass protection must have been amazing since Russell didn't run and the pass was complete. That's ignoring a lot. Broadcasters trade in cliches, and many of them are valid, but this is an instance of how excessively and reflexively chalking up good throws to the performance of the offensive line is a longstanding roadblock to fans' understanding of the game.