Russell Okung Injury is the Biggest Loss of This Season

Like most of my stories, this one was written about 24 hours prior to publishing. It's not a game analysis, but John Morgan has since provided one for Okung vs Cole here. Read it first.

So, I finally got to watch the game a few times. I missed it live because I was in Berlin and really couldn't think of a valid excuse to stay up until 2:30 on a Thursday night to watch an NFL game. It's been a while since I missed a live Seahawks game but so it goes. Thankfully, Gamepass/Rewind comes with a wonderful "condensed" version to rewatch games, in which they show nothing except the relevant bits, and games can be rewatched in an hour. Joy, even if the pacing is breakneck.

I think I'm not saying anything controversial when I state this season has gone a lot better than many of us would've hoped for prior. We have a (fairly theoretical) shot at the playoffs, and while we've had some awful, awful games we've had a lot of good ones too, and our team is reminiscent of the 2010 Buccaneers in the surprising quality of young depth and rookie players. Games against the Steelers, Browns and Redskins in particular were aggravating and embarrassing, but like I mentioned a while back I look at this season not for results but for growth, the win-loss doesn't matter as much to me as long as I see season-on-season and game-on-game growth. Of course, NFL fans live in the moment in a way that would make Cesar Millan proud, which means that right now we're all gleeful and Washington already seems like a distant memory. That's just what it is.

But I digress. We've suffered a few injuries, yet for the most part they have been acceptable if painful. Sidney Rice has a veneer of a bad signing due to injuries and that's terrible, but at least it's giving our outstanding young talent more time on the field. Marcus Trufant is not long for this team and it's awesome to see that Sherman should be able to step up in his place, though it's a shame Walter Thurmond can't play opposite him right now. James Carpenter and John Moffitt stung not because of the drop in quality of play - because they were around replacement-level - but because they have a much higher ceiling to grow to and this will delay that growth.

Russell Okung being injured is just a confluence of "oh no". Last year, Okung was already playing as a borderline pro bowl left tackle, despite injuries. His progress into this year wasn't quite what I had hoped it would be, perhaps due to the lockout, perhaps due to lingering injuries or injury concerns. That's not to say he's not playing at a high level, but there's something tentative about how he's used. He doesn't drive block or release a lot, and there are certain gaps in his play (particularly an inability to handle spin moves and a tendency to hold badly when beat outside). Perhaps my expectations were too high, because this statement is also true: Russell Okung has been the best player on the Seahawks offense all year.

I've never been particularly good at analyzing offensive lines, and have spent a lot of time this year polishing up my understanding of hand usage and leverage, among other things. A massive help has been Word of Muth analyzing our offensive line, must-read material for any Seahawks fan. In particular, one thing he helped me understand is that you can never isolate one-on-one play on the offensive line (which is ironic since that's how Football Outsiders charts offensive linemen), because it's all about assignments. Specifically, it's wonderful to see how much the Seahawks trust Okung in isolation. It's not just about whether or not there's a tight end on his side, it's about whether or not that TE and/or the LG help him, and they almost never do. Gallery has been much improved since his hobbled play earlier this year, but he's freed up because he almost never has to look Okung's way. Which in turn helps alleviate the pressure on Max Unger, and in turn on our right guard. A big factor in our improved offensive line play.

Going back over the Eagles game, Okung is isolated on Darryl Tapp or Trent Cole almost the entire game. There's a few (three, by my count) instances of holding that could have been called, but anyone who has gone back over game footage minutely will know that's almost always the case for offensive tackles. That said, Okung did a great job the entire game. While he looked tentative the first half, to the point where I almost noted down "Okung looks limited" and wanted to speculate on his injury status, the second half showed me I was wrong, as he did much more drive-blocking and releasing to block downfield. Perhaps he is kept out of driving too much as the front office is careful with him, perhaps because his upper body strength is more of an asset than his lower body strength, I don't know.

One thing I'm always glad to see is a measure of frustration from the opposing defensive end - John Morgan mentioned this as well, in the form of domination. I think the example Seahawks fans should most familiarize themselves with is Walter Jones versus Simeon Rice in this game. Tampa Bay was not as good as years prior but still really good, ranked 8th by DVOA, and Simeon Rice had a 12-sack season. Yet he could do absolutely nothing against Walter Jones, and logged all of no tackles or sacks, a performance that Bucs Nation head writer Sander described to me as "the only time I've ever seen Simeon Rice be eliminated as a factor in the game". Rice's response to being locked up was to kind of stop trying as the game progressed, but it shows up in any defensive end being dominated, especially the best ones, and it showed on Trent Cole.

I like Trent Cole as a player, I think he's one of the best all-around defensive ends against the pass and run in the NFL. But I think he has a problem with what happens after the whistle, with an earlier fine for a fistfight and one here for an unnecessary play. I don't think most people here will agree with me on this, but that's how I would characterize this play. I didn't see any intent to cause injury, and Okung was indeed holding/blocking him on his back. Cole is not a martial artist and he doesn't know what kind of throw would injure or not injure a man. He lost his cool, but it was not a malicious move, it was a throw to the ground made unfortunate by the positioning of the two players and just plain bad luck. In that context, the size of the fine ($7500) can be understood, I wasn't even sure it would result in a fine, despite the result. You can't really fine based on unfortunate results, that's a slippery slope. The fine does look ridiculous compared with uniform violations (10K) and is equal to such all-important violations like a foreign object on the uniform (sharpie in the sock, basically) or going to the ground in celebration. Way to have your priorities straight, NFL.

But back to what it means for us, which is much more than is immediately apparent. I've heard some people compare it to losing James Carpenter and John Moffitt, but that's not a comparison that makes sense. Their replacements were not that far behind them in quality of play, and no enormous adjustments needed to be made to how this line plays. Our current line is made up ofLT Paul McQuistan, LG Robert Gallery, C Max Unger, RG Lemuel Jeanpierre and RT Breno Giacomini. Gallery and Unger have proven themselves reliable above a level that I was expecting, but I can't trust either of those tackles in isolation. That is a huge loss to what you can do with blocking concepts, the way we slide the line, the usage of a tight end. You think we had it bad with our tight ends before, I don't think this line can offer much protection against better pass rushing teams except by going max protect every snap. And that's not feasible. This consideration is on top of Okung being one of our biggest investments in young talent, and a cornerstone we need in place for this franchise to get back to serious contention.

Over the entire season, I think Tom Cable has proven himself to us as much as he needed to, so I have some "faith" (for want of a better word) in him, but there's only so much you can do. Losing Okung is the biggest gamechanger we've seen since Charlie Whitehurst's play had to replace Tarvaris Jackson's against the Browns, and it could realistically have a similar impact on our offense's level of play. I hope it doesn't, but I would not be surprised if it does.

So that's why I'd call this the biggest loss. We've suffered through some ugly games, and lost some of our young talent to injuries along the way, but I don't think any single injury or loss has as negative an impact on both this season and the coming one as losing Okung does.

If you want a bright spot, well, it's a serious injury, one that might even keep him out of the start of next season, but at least it's not his ankle again. Recurrence is my biggest fear for Okung, since it's a very real thing for ankles, especially for large men playing on turf a large part of the year. So, at least there's that?

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