As the Seahawks embrace their new vision under Pete Carroll and John Schneider, I confess to mixed feelings when putting year one into review. That's perhaps somewhat predictable given it's barely 18-month lifespan, yet I feel a desire to separate constituted success in the form of playoff wins and a need to be brutally honest about what was, in essence, a blessed losing season.
The team won the NFC West and defeated the defending Super Bowl champions. Does it mask a 7-9 record in a desperate division and a performance on offense and defense that was barely mediocre? Did we see enough improvement last year to invest faith beyond what is usually associated with any given NFL fan?
Carroll's vision is public knowledge, he's written a book to break it down. Therefore, it's fairly simple to pinpoint where you'd hope to see areas of improvement. He asked for players to buy into the regime and I think it's fair to say he achieved that in year one. Nobody could question the level of commitment on the field and while quality was sometimes lacking, there were fewer signs of sheer despondence to coincide with an early deficit like we saw often in 2009.
The fans needed something to grasp onto and provide light at the end of what was becoming a particularly dark, post-XL tunnel. Carroll has at the very least provided direction and in many cases, hope. Having said that, his sheer enthusiasm for the job is infectious. Does the performance on the field warrant such optimism after one year? Can we realistically say this team is moving in the right direction?
Maintaining that level of commitment, of course, will depend purely on success. That includes commitment both from the playing staff and the fans. The Seahawks, despite some desperate results in 2010, were always in contention for the NFC West and therefore the playoffs. Would there have been more questions asked if the post season was out of reach, as technically it should've been given the team's record?
Ignoring the eventual success in terms of result to end the year at Qwest, what do the regular season performances tell us?
From the outset Carroll made the running game a priority yet only Arizona had a worse rush attack in 2010. The fall-out that led to Alex Gibbs' departure didn't help matters, but then the running game looked poor in pre-season when Gibbs was heavily involved.
Numerous changes to the offensive line, not to mention a lack of quality, also hindered the team's progress. The coaching changes this off-season and the further investments in the draft (Carpenter, Moffitt) are again reaffirming Seattle's desire to improve their running game. This will be an integral year to see if they can get things moving in that regard to match the enthusiasm for such improvement.
The message appears to be, "We will get this right." You can probably add, "Because we have to".
Further focus will be placed on the running game when free agency beings. I understand the Seahawks are targeting one prominent veteran full back and further additions to the offensive line. They will leave no stone unturned in trying to get the running game going. There will be few excuses when football finally arrives in 2011.
Carroll, of course, is a defensive minded coach by trade and he's retained coordinator Gus Bradley for a third year in Seattle. The Seahawks ranked 27th on defense last year, a minor relegation from the 24th best defense in 2009 when Bradley and Jim Mora ran proceedings.
On one hand it's difficult to be too critical, considering the defense ranked 30th in 2008 and even a middling 15th during a playoff run in 2007 when the likes of Patrick Kerney, Marcus Trufant and Lofa Tatupu were playing to an extremely high level. Clearly this is a unit that has been on the decline for some time, is carrying some expensive players that haven't had the necessary impact or are simply getting old and lacks the kind of elite talent from which to build around. We have witnessed promising starts for younger players (see: Earl Thomas) which will breed optimism.
I believe this is why the Seahawks have looked to manufacture production, at least to a certain degree. Adding a bigger body to play an unorthodox five-technique in a four-man front takes up space in the middle potentially providing plenty of one-on-one opportunities for a lighter 'LEO' pass rusher off the edge.
Was it simply a way to get around an inability to create pressure in an orthodox front four, or is this a blue print for the future in Carroll's defense?
Chris Clemons was the very definition of a tweener at 6-3, 254lbs. His best season came during an 8-sack one-year jaunt with the Oakland Raiders and he'd bounced around Philadelphia and Washington before landing in Seattle in the Darryl Tapp trade. His 11 sack season will constitute a personal success, although closer evidence shows that a lot of his success came on blitz packages.
If the Seahawks can't generate a pass rush without committing to the blitz, can they seriously progress from the 27th ranked defense?
Can they also continue to add these role players to generate a more successful defense? Without multiple high draft picks every year, it's going to be hard to acquire talent. I don't expect major investment via free agency, so finding the next batch of Clemons' or Bryant's may be a way of hiding deficiencies.
At the same time can we seriously critique a season where the defense lacked major improvement despite the appointment of a defensive minded coach? Rex Ryan was pro-active in adding pieces to his New York Jets defense, including some big expensive names along the way (that also, it has to be said, carried some risk). He turned a defense that finished 20th (2006), 18th (2007) and 16th (2008) into one that finished 1st in his first year on the job and 3rd in 2010.
While it would be unfair to expect such a leap in Seattle - and clearly the Jets had more pieces to the puzzle than the Seahawks do currently - would it be equally unfair to expect even a modest improvement? Especially given the two games against Alex Smith, two games against the Arizona quarterback circus and two games against a rookie?
One statistics that can be used as a retort could be the largely inept offensive performance. According to Football Outsiders, Seattle ranked 29th for yards per-drive (24.97), 27th for points per-drive (1.43) and 29th on drive success rate. The team ranked 29th in time of possession - a statistic which has become synonymous with mediocrity in Seattle since 2007.
A turnover percentage of -9 says more about the offense than the defense, considering the Seahawks did have some successful defensive performances in that area (see Arizona x2).
Jeremy Bates paid the price for the dysfunction in 2010, but make no mistake this is still Carroll's vision for the team. While many have assumed the impact Darrell Bevell will have, I see no reason to believe there will be major philosophical changes - such as a return to a more orthodox west coast offense - like some have suggested. Bevell alongside Tom Cable will be charged with trying to create the offense Carroll wants to operate. That offense will continue to include heavy emphasis on the run, improved run blocking and a vertical passing game.
In a way, Bevell and Cable will struggle to get the offense executing as poorly as last year.
Again using Football Outsiders as the reference point, no offense in the NFL was given better field position by the other team than Seattle in 2010. How many times were the Seahawks settling for field goals instead of touchdowns? Throwing tight games with multiple turnovers? Struggling to create even a bog-standard rush attack?
Of course the defining factor for 2011 is yet to be resolved - the issue of who will start at quarterback. No other decision could have as much impact on the team's success next year or help to organise Carroll's offensive vision. Crucially, the team has to get it right to make the necessary progress from last year while potentially paving the way to a smooth, long term transition at the position. It's the biggest move this team has made in many years, regardless who is making the decision. It has to be, and will be, priority #1 when the lockout ends.
The one area that did seem to get a significant boost last year was special teams. Given Carroll's emphasis on competition and the key addition of Leon Washington, it's maybe not a surprise that on the whole the unit showed strong improvement.
Ranked 15th in 2009, Seattle's special teams ended 2010 at #3 overall. Their kick return average was second only to the Jets.
Improving the special teams unit should be considered a bonus and clearly it won Seattle games last year - particularly the victory over San Diego and Leon Washington's impact certainly helped turn around what was a 'harder-than-it-needed-to-be' home game against the NFL's worst team - the Carolina Panthers.
It cannot be under estimated how big the task of rebuilding the Seahawks is. Carroll and Schneider inherited a team with no long term answer at quarterback, a porous offensive line, no great talent on defense and virtually no offensive playmakers. They've since been afforded very little opportunity to fill void's in certain areas (namely quarterback and defense) and have tried to add pieces without any headline grabbing moves.
They've flirted with the big names (Brandon Marshall, Vincent Jackson) and backed away when the price hasn't been right. Sell high, buy low appears to be the mantra - potentially a crucial one if honest competition is to be the key.
Yet almost certainly a time will come when the need to be pro-active rears its head. A time a move will have to be made much bolder than simply spending a third rounder on Charlie Whitehurst. It's inevitable and could even be forthcoming once the lockout ends.
The current vision failed to produce instant results statistically, but then two nights at Qwest (against St. Louis and New Orleans) belittle the numbers and convey year one as a success. The truth is probably somewhere in the middle.
In order to maintain that success, to keep the vision moving, year two will surely need to witness improvements both defensively and offensively. After all, there's only ever been one successful 7-9 'post' season in the history of the NFL, even in the 'NFC Worst'.