Overview: Matt Hasselbeck started week one of the preseason, completed seven of eight passes for 70 yards and a touchdown and then was held out the rest of the season with lingering back pain. On the eve of week one, Chris Mortensen reports that Hasselbeck has a bulging a disc in his back. He starts in week one, but starts only seven games all season. It is his worse season of his career. Hasselbeck completes 52.2% of his passes for 1,216 yards, throws five touchdowns and 10 interceptions, and is sacked 19 times for a loss of 119 yards.
What went right: Matt Hasselbeck is a smart man -- and not just football smart. Mike Holmgren opened the playbook when Hasselbeck started and trusted him to call audibles. He did a better job protecting the ball under pressure and only fumbled once. Unexpectedly, he also rushed for a higher yards per attempt than at any other time in his career.
What went wrong: Hasselbeck was skittish in the pocket and shied from pressure to a fault. He took bad sacks. He couldn't consistently make his bread and butter mid-range throws and that, along with game situation, inflated his interception rate to a career high. Hasselbeck's short pass that served him well in 2007, vanished. His already vanishing deep pass was written out of the playbook. Hasselbeck's long completion in 2009 was just 34 yards. He was below average, significantly below average, across the board in Pro Football Reference's index stats. Stats that compare basic stats like interception percentage and yards per attempt against the league average. He became a liability executing late game drives, ending final possession drives in weeks 11 and 12 with first pass, game-losing interceptions. Seattle was trailing by less than a touchdown in both games.
Outlook: Coming to terms with how bad Hasselbeck was in 2008 is essential to deciding how good he can be in 2009. He was season-altering bad. If we could imagine the Hasselbeck that took the field for seven weeks could have somehow taken the field for 16 weeks, then we can make an educated guess about how many wins his decline cost Seattle. Brian Burke estimated every adjusted yard per attempt above average equals about 1.8 wins in the standings. In 2007, the NFL averaged about 6.5 A/YA. Hasselbeck averaged 7.1. Hasselbeck, working within Seattle's system and without great receiving talent, was worth about 1.1 wins over average. In 2008, the NFL averaged about 7 A/YA. Hasselbeck averaged 4.1. Hasselbeck, working within Seattle's system and without great receiving talent, was worth about 5.2 wins below average. That's a 6.3 win swing.
Hasselbeck didn't play all season, but you can't just average Hasselbeck and Seneca Wallace. It's too messy. Wallace played in a different system and his limitations affected the play of Seattle's rushing attack. Nevertheless, we can say with some confidence, had the injured Hasselbeck of 2008 been replaced with the healthy Hasselbeck of 2007, Seattle would have been in the thick of the playoff hunt.
So what's left for the man that bears northwest professional football on his shoulder pads?
If he's healthy, 2007 is not just possible, it's surmountable. Hasselbeck has his best collection of receiving talent, top to bottom, of his career. T.J. Houshmandzadeh is the single best, from terms of productivity, talent and health, wide receiver Hasselbeck has ever thrown to. Deion Branch is the most talented and should prove it if he stumbles into fourteen healthy weeks. Nate Burleson has long longed for the slot and can do more doing less. Deon Butler might not light up the box score, but he will disrupt coverages. John Carlson is the single best tight end Hasselbeck has ever thrown to and one of the best young tight ends in football. And Julius Jones can catch the ball.
The line has strong potential for solid pass blocking. A healthy Walter Jones gives Seattle three plus pass-blockers at the three essential pass-blocking positions: both tackles and center. Rob Sims is a brick in the middle and whoever mans the left guard position shouldn't undermine the line. Jones is strong at engaging the blitz and Carlson isn't good, but is developing.
Greg Knapp's system is less demanding and less pass-centric.
Matt Hasselbeck said he was 100% entering week one of 2008. Maybe that was a lie. Maybe he was. Hasselbeck took five sacks against Buffalo. Sims dangling pectoral apologizes. Whatever he was after that, he wasn't 100%. If Hasselbeck started last season at full strength but his back was just to far gone to retain it, or if Hasselbeck's current 100% resembles the tenuous, fragile and perhaps false health he had to start 2008, we might see glimpses of the great Matt Hasselbeck, but they will be between extended viewings of frustration and failure. And when April of 2010 breeds lilacs out of dead land, mixing memory and desire, Seahawks fans will crowd their TVs and PCs late Thursday afternoon and watch Seattle begin anew.