I put this article together as a warm up to next week's "VS" article comparing Shaun Alexander and Curt Warner because, - what can I say? - If there is one name that is sure to polarize and generate conversation more quickly than Matt Hasselbeck here, that is Shaun Alexander. So in this piece we will compare the Seahawks' two most successful rushing attacks: are you ready?
The Chuck Knox Era had a lot of fanfare behind it. He's the first hot comodity this team ever picked up on the 'free agent' market. He brought with him the simple concept of running as your offensive foundation, with a hard hitting aggressive defense. Chuck Knox believed in the 10-7 win philosophy, keep it close and win in the end; grind it late and win. With those basics explained, lets look at five things that molded this rushing attack and defined an era in Seattle football.
Concept: Run First
Chuck Knox is as detailed as any offensive passing guru in contemporary terms. Running the same play twice was not often his style. He called so many different types of runs that I thought of Mike Martz in his Ram days when people would report that he had 200 plays in the book every week. Chuck Knox probably didn't have that many but when you never see the same play twice, it makes it frustrating for a defensive lineman that could never make a assumption. Meanwhile, the running game would open up the passing game featuring deep bombs to Daryl Turner or stabs in the middle with Steve Largent.
Offensive Line: Mobile
Lead by Blair Bush at center, the Knox O-line would move and attack in several ways. Pulling guards, cutting down edges, running power plays. spreading out on toss plays. Watching them work so I could write this piece has given me a new respect for just how hard these guys worked on Sundays under Knox.
Curt Warner was the centerpiece, but there were other Seahawks like Dan Doornink, David Hughes and John L. Williams that had their own positions in the offense, with tailored blocking schemes and specialty plays for each of them.
Hand offs: Deep tosses and deep hand offs.
I know what you're thinking, "This seems like a silly thing to look at." But there was a clear difference that will appear when we look at the Holmgren Era. When Curt Warner ran the ball in most cases he was receiving the ball 7-9 yards deep on simple hand offs and as deep as 10 yards on toss plays. For other guys it was the typical 4-5 yards deep. The different approach is probably due to the other players playing more short yardage situations. However, by having Curt get the ball that deep, the blocking has time to set up with it's movement and Warner could then utilize his superior speed and agility.
Top 3 plays:
Deep Toss Right:
Curt usually catches this toss 9-10 yards back as the guard and tackle on the strong side cut down and seal the edge of the play. This took advantage of Warner's speed and spread the defense out.
Split Backs draw:
Typically this play was run in short yardage with Dan Doornink and John L. Williams. Though in some cases Knox would use Curt on this play. The Quarterback has the half-back and fullback to either side of him and the draw would go behind center and guard gaps.
Spilt backs screen:
Once John L. Williams proved to be an offensive weapon this play became more common, when matched up with Warner defenses couldn't key on either one of them. This play could be run with up to three tight-ends in the redzone or as a simple one tight-end two wide receiver set between the twenties.
The Holmgren Era began with the same kind of interest and fanfare as Knox and it's kind or funny when looking at this history just how similar these two coaches were in their successful eras here. The Holmgren pedigree was the West Coast Offense. Carrying the success of the Green Bay Packers on his resume into Seattle his first major move was to sign Ricky Watters and lay the basic foundation of his offense around the veteran running back.
Though never gaining more than 1,200 yards in either of his two seasons, he added more as pass receiver and ran the offense to perfection.
Concept: Short Passing.
The West Coast offense was birthed in Cinncinatti by Bill Walsh under Paul Brown as a way to deal with the limitations the Bengals faced on the offensive line with the running game. Everything in the course of the offense is preformed down to the tying of shoelaces in exact detail. The Running game was simplified by Walsh to accent what the lineman could do well. The West Coast Offense can carry as many as fifteen running plays or as few as two. This includes audibles. Typically all the runs used in core of the running game are man to man power plays, simple and easy to run. In this scenerio, the running game is only used as a shorter yardage call, either to set up a second and six or seven, or gain a first down on a short yardage 3rd down call. You really can't get simpler than this offense for the running game.
Offensive Line: Power blocking, Man to man.
This is the area of most difference between the two eras. Though the playbook was slim and defenses had to know what was coming, the abilities of Walter Jones and Steve Hutchinson made it almost a certainty that a run would gain three yards at the least. Though at times they would change some of the subtlety of blocking assignments or call a toss play here or there, the Seahawks of this era were just going to line up and try to beat you straight up rather than use trickery.
Ricky Watters and Shaun Alexander were the core and really the only players utilized in true offensive fashion. Mack Strong's draws are legendary for 3rd and long calls, but they weren't really called with the idea of finding success. It's also worth mentioning that the roster didn't have any specialty backs, though Mack Strong did do some work, there wasn't another guy that had a clear use on this team.
Hand Offs: Short hand offs, quick tosses
Shaun was very different with hand offs than most backs and though we won't compare the players here. It is important to note that on hand offs Shaun was very aggressive, most backs wait for the ball to hit their chest as they run through the qb's arm. Shaun on the other hand, tried to pull the ball out of Matt's hand so he didn't have to take time to secure the ball from his chest Some of his more famous and infuriating fumbles came from this when he would attempt to run a different way than Matt was expecting, sometimes colliding in a comedy of errors. Most of the time this worked however, specifically in short yardage where every little step counts. On most plays Shaun was five yards deep in the famous I-formation, but he could be as few as three yards back in single back sets.
Top 3 plays:
The most common running play in Holmgren's running game, this is just a play between left tackle and left guard. According to Shaun, this was his favorite play to run when it was called.
This is a similar call to the 93 blast call, but to the right, behind Chris Gray. This play could be run in a jumbo 3 TE package or a single set package, but was most often used in 3 wide receiver sets from the I-formation.
Most all toss plays are run to the left even when Ricky Watters played for the Seahawks I never once saw a toss go to the right., there is not a more fun play to watch when you have Walter Jones sealing the edge and Steve leading Mack and Shaun through the defense.
Both running attacks work for different reasons (clearly), but when you look at them, both teams were well coached, with clear defined offensive personalities that help them face adversity. Chuck Knox stayed ahead of defenses by calling many different rushing plays never letting a defense settle in. In Holmgren's case, the simple rushing offense allowed for simple adjustment at halftime. Knox used his offense to open things up in the passing game while Holmgren expected the rushing game to keep the offense on time. It's hard to know which works best, but considering that it looks as though we could be heading to a Knoxian (I'm patenting that) running attack while we rebuild, it's worth taking a look at how successful rushing attacks work.
I had a couple of weeks to prepare this topic and hopefully you found it interesting. Now everything is set for next week's article, so look for that next Monday. I know this topic will be like hitting a bee hive, but I'm just hoping the conversation generated here might carry over to next week. Questions and comments please.
Additionally, you may feel that there are some specifics I missed. Please let me know in the comments if there is something you felt I should cover and didn't, but also know that some of that will be covered in the article next week.