Overview: Chris Spencer started 11 games before being put on injured reserve for a herniated disc in his lower back. He avoided surgery to remove a piece of loose cartilage and was healthy enough to participate in May minicamp. According to Stats Inc., Spencer allowed 2.5 sacks and was charged with one false start and no holding penalties.
What went right: Spencer again proved reliable at the point of attack and able to match against the most athletic and most powerful defensive tackles. In 2008, he did so consistently. He improved his ability to react to free rushers and protect the quarterback within the pocket. Spencer overcame his greatest deficit, his feet, and began to turn his athleticism and raw power into blocks in the second level. He improved his ability to sustain those blocks as the season progressed.
Let's finish out the half. Memory tends to latch onto the vivid or painful, and Chris Spencer's premature snap was certainly painful. Another drive aborted. Cris Collinsworth took the opportunity to knock the young, largely unknown lineman, noting Mike Holmgren's displeasure. Last season, Spencer was bad. He tripped over his feet pulling and could hardly engage a block must less sustain it. This season, he's likely Seattle's second best offensive lineman on a pretty good unit. He's not the run blocker Mike Wahle is, but he's a better pass blocker and less mistake prone (who saw that coming?) He's probably not actually better than Sean Locklear, but sure as hell better than Locklear is right now. Listening to Collinsworth I couldn't help but think "Late."That's the developing nature of truth. What was isn't. I see TV analyst once a week. Their takes are so dated, they'd tell you Weezer hit its stride with Hash Pipe. I think fans want to know who's next, not the faded name that was. So hear this: Chris Spencer, still not a value for a first round center, has played well. He's an athletic pull blocker who no longer slips over his shoelaces. He's not Bisquick and you don't see bodies in his wake, but he gets a block on his man and sustains reasonably well, even clobbers occasionally.
What went wrong: Patrick Willis threw him around in week two and that contributed to Willis' game-high eight tackles. Spencer could reach Willis, but Willis could easily shed Spencer. Seattle had no problem rushing against San Francisco, but Willis stopped three good runs from breaking into the third level. That game was a good example of how Spencer has still yet to live up to the potential that made him a first round talent.
His premature-snap false start is exactly the kind of gaffe that causes some to question Spencer's football intelligence. It was his only penalty of the season.
What really went wrong was Spencer's back injury, the latest in a line of serious injuries, including injuries to both shoulders. A line of injuries that may have already chipped away at his athletic potential and that haven't abated, but grown more serious as Spencer has aged.
Outlook: Spencer was playing the best football of his career before he was placed on IR. It's possible the move was some mix of precautionary, pragmatic and proof Seattle was throwing in the towel. Spencer could lose power and still be one of the most powerful centers in football. He could lose athleticism and still be one of the most athletic centers in football. But he hasn't yet learned the technique to one of the best centers in football, and right now he's not that close. Great potential is capable of great advancement in minimal time. It can seem almost miraculous to the casual observer, but in Spencer's case, the groundwork is laid and the path to stardom almost too obvious.
His play last season was the best of his young career. He is out from under a boss that humiliated and underappreciated him. His new boss has a different standard of excellence and has spoken kindly of him. He is no longer being asked to be something he's not, and may now develop more freely into who he is. Spencer will never be Robbie Tobeck or Frank Winters, but he could be Kevin Mawae. This is a make or break season for him in Seattle, but like Mawae, he could struggle as a Seahawk but still develop into a great player.