2018 NFL Preview: What are the Seahawks doing?

Shutdown Corner

Yahoo Sports is previewing all 32 teams as we get ready for the NFL season, counting down the teams one per weekday in reverse order of our initial 2018 power rankings. No. 1 will be revealed on Aug. 1, the day before the Hall of Fame Game kicks off the preseason.

(Yahoo Sports graphics by Amber Matsumoto)
(Yahoo Sports graphics by Amber Matsumoto)

When the Seattle Seahawks’ brass wakes up, the first thing it should do is thank the football gods for Russell Wilson.

NFL teams dream of landing someone like Wilson. The New York Jets have been searching for a quarterback like Wilson since Joe Namath, and he hasn’t played for them in more than 40 years. The Chicago Bears have been searching longer than that, since well before the Super Bowl was even dreamed up. Many teams have undergone long searches to find an elite quarterback. The Seahawks have one, and he’s just 29 years old.

Wilson is undeniably great. He had a fantastic 2017 and if we didn’t shut our minds to a player on a non-playoff team being MVP, Wilson could have won the award. The Seahawks are slipping, but the clearest path back to the top is through their amazing quarterback.

Yet, the Seahawks seem to see it differently. I like Seahawks coach Pete Carroll, and general manager John Schneider too. They built a great championship team in Seattle. But as some of their stars have gotten older and left, they seem to be grasping at how to remain a contender. Their main focus this offseason seemed to be minimizing Wilson, the one advantage they still have, in favor of running the ball more. It’s confusing.

“We have a real formula of how we win and we have been unable the last two years to incorporate a major aspect of that and it’s running the football the way we want to run it,” Carroll said, according to the team’s transcripts. “I think you see tremendous examples around the league of teams who have turned their fortunes around and they have turned it around in a formula that I think should sound familiar to you. [By] teams running the football. Teams playing good defense and doing the kicking game thing. That is the formula that has proven historically the best in this game. We have been committed to that from the start but unfortunately we have not been able to recapture it the way that we have in years past.”

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He was serious. The Seahawks hired offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer, who is a staunch believer in a run-first offense. They drafted running back Rashaad Penny in the first round, a move that surprised everyone and didn’t make much sense given Seattle’s many other needs. Pass catchers Jimmy Graham and Paul Richardson left in free agency, and nothing substantial was done to replace them.

And if that wasn’t enough, Schottenheimer made sure everyone knew what this offense’s focus would be.

“You’ve got to have the ability to run the football when people know you are going to run the football,” Schottenheimer said, according to the Seattle Times.

You have to run the ball when people know you’re going to run the ball? When you have one of the best quarterbacks in football? Yep, that sums up the Seahawks’ mantra this offseason. I don’t get it.

I understand there’s nuance involved. The Seahawks aren’t going to become the 1973 Buffalo Bills and run 75 percent of the time. Some balance isn’t a bad thing. But it’s a fallacy to believe the best path back to greatness is through more run plays.

First of all, NFL teams pass to run, not the other way around. Most teams pass to get a lead, then use the running game to finish. Teams that rely heavily on the run usually do so out of necessity — they would change course immediately if they had a potential Hall of Famer at quarterback.

Many Seattle fans will argue the Seahawks’ championship formula was Marshawn Lynch and defense. But the 2013 Seahawks defense doesn’t work here anymore. That unit was incredible, and in Super Bowl XLVIII it had one of the best single-game performances by any defense in NFL history. The 2018 Seahawks defense isn’t in the same conversation as that group. Wilson was also a young quarterback in 2013; he hadn’t yet blossomed into one of the NFL’s best. Running the ball and playing defense was a great formula for that team five years ago. For this Seattle team, with a defense that isn’t bad but certainly slipping, and without a Hall-of-Fame-level running back like Lynch, running “when people know you are going to run the football” doesn’t make any sense.

It’s understandable why the Seahawks are searching for ways to hang onto the past. This era has been amazing. But there were signs of erosion last season. While the Seahawks weren’t a bad team last season, they went 9-7 and missed the playoffs. Depending on what happens with Earl Thomas’ contract situation, the Seahawks could be without Thomas, practically retired safety Kam Chancellor, defensive linemen Sheldon Richardson, Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett, and cornerback Richard Sherman from last year’s defense. The offense took some hits too. A declining NFL power had a brutal offseason.

Perhaps because some key mainstays will still be around – Wilson, receiver Doug Baldwin, linebackers Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright, Carroll and Schneider – it has gone a bit unnoticed that these Seahawks have undergone a massive change.

“With those guys leaving, or some guys leaving and some guys not being here, it’s sad,” Baldwin said. “It changes the dynamic of the team in some ways. Obviously, like I said, the energy is different.

“At times it’s sad because I’ve grown up with [Sherman] in this system, in this organization and we built something special here together, in terms of the culture and the championship atmosphere. But going into the unknown, there’s a level of excitement because we have an opportunity to continue that and bridge the gap between what has happened in the past and what’s new and hopefully continue that championship legacy.”

It’s a new era in Seattle. When you have a quarterback like Wilson, you shouldn’t slip too far. Do the Seahawks understand Wilson is the one asset that gives them the best shot at returning to glory?

Last season, Pete Carroll’s Seahawks missed the playoffs for the first time since the 2011 season. (AP)
Last season, Pete Carroll’s Seahawks missed the playoffs for the first time since the 2011 season. (AP)

I hated the Seahawks’ draft. With all their needs – pass rusher, interior defensive line, safety, cornerback, receiver, offensive line and tight end are all legitimate needs now – taking running back Rashaad Penny in the first round was a weird choice, especially since Seattle has been very good at finding quality running backs in the bargain bin. The offseason buzz about running back Chris Carson reinforced that the Seahawks could have used their draft assets in a better way. The Seahawks also drafted a punter before an offensive lineman. The biggest deal the Seahawks handed out in free agency was to 30-year-old tight end Ed Dickson, who has averaged 248 receiving yards in his eight NFL seasons. Receiver Brandon Marshall was signed, but he looks like he’s near the end. They needed to find a new kicker after Blair Walsh cost them dearly last season, but the main move there was signing Sebastian Janikowski, who is 40 and missed all of last season with a back injury. The Seahawks had a lot of talent leave the building, not much came in, and very little was done to help Russell Wilson.

GRADE: F

I would say it’s having one of the NFL’s elite quarterbacks, but I’m not sure the Seahawks agree. It is possible the defense doesn’t slip too far, despite some great players leaving. Frank Clark is a good pass rusher. Bobby Wagner is a great middle linebacker, and running mate K.J. Wright is underrated. I assume Earl Thomas will be on the field at some point, and he is one of the best safeties in the game. They still have some talented defensive backs; even with Thomas, Kam Chancellor and Richard Sherman missing time last season, the Seahawks still allowed a quarterback rating of just 79.1, the eighth best mark in the league. Nobody will confuse this group with the 2013 or 2014 defense. But it shouldn’t be bad.

Part of the Seahawks’ focus on the run game meant they ignored the pass game in the offseason. Doug Baldwin is an exceptional receiver. And he might get half of the team’s targets. Tyler Lockett could be a good No. 2 but he’s no sure thing. Lockett did not rebound well from a horrible leg injury suffered in 2016. Nick Vannett is the best pass-catching tight end on the roster, and he has 156 yards in two seasons. Brandon Marshall has 942 yards and three touchdowns over his past 20 games spanning two seasons, and he’s 34 years old. There’s not much to like further down the depth chart either. The Seahawks should have been trying to sign Allen Robinson or Sammy Watkins, or at least re-sign Jimmy Graham or Paul Richardson. Instead, they decided they wanted to be a ground-and-pound offense.

In Week 4 against the Indianapolis Colts last season, J.D. McKissic ran 30 yards for a touchdown to give Seattle a third-quarter lead. Why does that matter? That is the only offensive touchdown the Seahawks scored all last season that didn’t involve Russell Wilson. The Seahawks scored 38 offensive touchdowns last season and Wilson ran or threw 37 of them. We might never see something like that again. I don’t care what the Seahawks’ record was, Wilson should have gotten serious MVP consideration (Minnesota Vikings linebacker Anthony Barr agrees with me).

It’s unclear how the Earl Thomas situation will shake out. It’s surprising the Seahawks haven’t paid him yet, or traded him if they don’t plan to give him a deal. Thomas might be the most important player the Seahawks have had over their great run, even more valuable than Russell Wilson, Richard Sherman or Marshawn Lynch. His ability to dominate deep in the secondary has allowed the Seahawks to be extremely aggressive on defense. They know Thomas can erase mistakes in front of him. However, Thomas’ name was floated in trade rumors this offseason and then he announced he will hold out of “any team activities until my contract situation is resolved.” It’s hard to predict what will happen in contract standoffs, but don’t doubt that the proud Thomas would stay away indefinitely. Don’t forget he has also had retirement thoughts in recent years. The Seahawks, who have lost a tremendous amount of talent, can’t afford to play hardball here.

From Yahoo’s Scott Pianowski: “Although Doug Baldwin has ranked quite well over the last three years (WR8, WR10, WR13), he’s done it through efficiency and not volume. He’s been targeted a modest 344 times in that period, with a high of 125. This could be the year Baldwin finally is forced the ball like a true elite receiver; the Seahawks lost Jimmy Graham (their red-zone guy) and Paul Richardson in the offseason. Throw in a shaky, declining Seattle defense and a Baldwin pick looks appealing, especially if you can snag him in the third round. Every NFL player is an injury concern on some level, but Baldwin answers the bell — he’s missed just two games over seven seasons. Riding shotgun with elite quarterback Russell Wilson is an obvious plus.

“Even some of the softer factors line up — Baldwin has always been a film-study guy and a maximum-effort player; he desperately wants to be the best player he can be. Seattle needs Baldwin more than ever before, and you want to be in on this ride.”

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While the NFL is trying to find the next brilliant, progressive offensive mind, the Seahawks hired Brian Schottenheimer as their offensive coordinator. His record shouldn’t excite anyone, and nor should his run-first approach in a pass-first NFL world. Schottenheimer has been the coordinator of nine offenses, and only one (2010 Jets) finished higher than 16th in yards gained. Seven of his nine offenses finished 20th or lower. Since his first offense (2006 Jets), every Schottenheimer offense has finished 21st or worst in net yards per passing attempt. Even his results in the run game aren’t great: Six of his nine offenses finished 19th or worse in total rushing yards and six finished 15th or worse in yards per attempt. In fairness, Schottenheimer never had a quarterback as talented as Russell Wilson. But when people complain about the recycling of coaches in the NFL, this is one instance they can point to.

IS THE SEAHAWKS’ OFFENSIVE LINE ANY BETTER?

For years, everyone has known the Seahawks’ offensive line was a problem. Yet, it made strides last season.

The in-season trade with the Texans for tackle Duane Brown helped a lot, and Brown should be much better this year. Brown held out deep into last season and then had to switch teams shortly afterward. Still, he calmed down a terrible left tackle situation. It’s a clear upgrade.

Free-agent addition D.J. Fluker has never lived up to his promise as a former first-round pick, but he cost just $1.5 million over one year. With Fluker probably slotting in at right guard, the Seahawks are projected to start three former first-round picks and two former second-round picks on the line. Draft pedigree isn’t everything, but it’s better than some of the other plans the Seahawks have tried the past couple years.

A promise to run more of a power scheme and less of a zone-blocking scheme might help, particularly with former first-round pick Germain Ifedi, who has been a bust to this point. Oft-criticized line coach Tom Cable is gone as well.

While the line isn’t great, it has gotten a little bit better, mostly thanks to Brown.

Part of me assumes that when push comes to shove, the plan to “run the football when people know you are going to run the football” is going to take a back seat and Russell Wilson will be asked to carry the team again. He can do it. What Wilson did last season was amazing. This is a team with a championship pedigree, and it had five losses in games decided by seven points or less last season (three of those losses were by a field goal or less). They were an unlucky 9-7. Any team with a quarterback like Wilson should at least be in contention for a division title, and that’s on the table for Seattle.

Again, having Russell Wilson means the floor can’t be too low. The Seahawks are in major trouble if Wilson gets hurt, but that’s true for many teams. I can see the Seahawks finishing below .500, however. Brian Schottenheimer was an uninspiring offensive coordinator hire, new defensive coordinator Ken Norton’s three Oakland Raiders defenses never finished better than 20th in yards or points allowed, and I believe I’ve mentioned how confusing Seattle’s offseason was. A six- or seven-win season wouldn’t be a disaster for some teams, but it would be horrible for a Seahawks team that put together a mini-dynasty this decade.

The Seahawks seem to be stuck on the idea they’ll be better off with more Rashaad Penny and less Russell Wilson. We’ll see if words turn into action, but I’m not encouraged. The Seahawks’ moves this offseason spoke loudly. The amount of talent the Seahawks lost this offseason has not gotten enough attention, for some reason. They lost multiple players who should be in the Seahawks’ Ring of Honor, and some could end up in the Pro Football Hall of Fame (especially if Thomas never returns). I’ve enjoyed this Seahawks run. They’ve been compelling and dominant. I’m not biased against Seattle, Pete Carroll, Starbucks coffee, the Space Needle or anything else I’m sure Seahawks fans will scream about. I simply don’t like or understand the direction they went this offseason. The over/under win total for the Seahawks in Las Vegas is either 7.5 or 8, and the under seems like the right play.

32. Cleveland Browns
31. Indianapolis Colts
30. New York Jets
29. Arizona Cardinals
28. Buffalo Bills
27. Cincinnati Bengals
26. Chicago Bears
25. New York Giants
24. Miami Dolphins
23. Washington Redskins
22. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
21. Houston Texans

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Frank Schwab is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at shutdown.corner@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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