The Seahawks, the Super Bowl, & the panic-free off-season

Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

There's no magic to this. To get to the big game you have to make the big plays.

So, the Super Bowl is set. It's Harbaugh vs. Harbaugh in battle to determine, once and for all, which brother becomes like the tortured-but-lovable Jeff Van Gundy versus the bitter, humorless Stan.

I cannot imagine that even Russell Wilson, much less any Field Gulls regular, sat through Championship weekend without wondering what might have been. Even if but for a wee moment. As many of the regular writers here have already pointed out, the Seahawks are every bit as good as any of the teams that played on Sunday.

This isn't meant to be a couldah-shouldah-wouldah post. Nor is it meant to be a 'look how bright the future is!" post. This is more of a look at the competition to plan the off-season post. I suspect that most reasonable observers would list the best teams in the NFL right now, and going forward, as (in alphabetical order): Atlanta, Baltimore, Denver, Green Bay, New England, Seattle, and San Francisco. This is throwing everything into the pot, including current performance, roster construction, cap space, draft position, coaching, management/ownership, divisional/conference competition, etc. I can see adding a team or two to this list, but I don't see who could get tossed off.

That's the competition. That's the list of teams against which progress should be judged, and around which off-season plans should be made.

So, what are Seattle's off-season needs? Rather than think about needs by position I want to think about them by function.

1. Internal improvement/maturation. By far, the most important "need" to be filled this off-season is for current contributors to get better. One great thing about this team is that it's young enough to expect substantial improvement (especially in terms of consistency) from many if not most key contributors in 2013. But, that won't happen just because. "Building through the draft" requires much more than scouting for hidden gems. It requires that off-season player development be at the heart of the program. Remember how many of us were calling for Brandon Browner's head because he was a walking pass interference flag in 2011? Of course you don't. Neither do I. Now let us never speak of it again, except to say that he came into 2012 a much better CB than he left 2011.

Think about that this off-season when you are reading mock drafts that have Seattle committing high picks in consecutive drafts to a single position. Think about it when you read complaints that Seattle doubled down on Bevell without seriously considering more accomplished (and available) football minds from "outside the program" (e.g., Lovie Smith, Rod Marinelli, Norv Turner) to replace the coordinators. Developing players is more effectively done by a relatively stable coaching staff with intimate knowledge of the roster. New defensive coordinator Dan Quinn provides more stability and greater familiarity than any other external candidate could. That is a shrewd (if obvious) hire by Carroll, as few things stunt young players' improvement/maturation like coaching instability and/or injury. Seattle has been relatively fortunate on both counts.

2. Addressing the pass rush without overreacting. Since Pete Carroll has declared the pass rush an off-season priority there is little arguing the point. Seattle will look to improve it. However, a little context is key.

Table 1: NFL Pass Defense Rankings (by Real Yards Per Attempt)

CHFF Rank

Team

Defensive Pass Attempts

Pass Yards

QB Sacks

Sack Yards Lost

Defensive Real Yards Per Attempt

1

Denver*

559

3558

52

364

5.23

2

Pittsburgh

523

3159

37

196

5.29

3

San Francisco

567

3473

38

270

5.29

4

Seattle

564

3497

37

254

5.40

5

Chicago

592

3712

41

289

5.41

6

Cincinnati*

560

3763

50

361

5.58

7

Green Bay*

568

3801

47

309

5.68

8

Houston*

581

3881

44

269

5.78

9

N.Y. Jets

494

3206

30

170

5.79

10

Minnesota

612

4192

44

284

5.96

Table 1 lists NFL pass defenses by Cold Hard Football Facts' "Real" yards per attempt allowed. The "Real" adjustment uses net passing yards (i.e., gross passing yards minus sack yards), which rewards defenses for sack yardage. The four defenses with asterisks ALSO rank in the top ten for sack rate (per Football Outsiders). You might expect the sack rate leaders to also be the Real YPA leaders. Not so. Overlap, yes. But, I see a wide array of approaches to pass defense (and overall defense) on this list, both in terms of schema and personnel. Some emphasize sacks while other emphasize preventing explosive plays in coverage. The table strongly suggests--to me anyway--that there are many roads that lead to the mountain.

Seattle's defense needs an improved pass rush to fully deliver on its promise, but it doesn't need league-leading sack rates to be effective in any fundamental way. There's a difference. Put another way, for all the talk of pass rush woes, just four additional sacks would've given Seattle a top ten sack rate. So, I don't expect PC/JS to panic. Given what we know of them, they'll likely address the pass rush by: (a) prepping Irvin, Scruggs, and Howard to (partially) offset inevitable decline from the veterans, and (b) making a shrewd but low-key move on the interior. A big-name edge rusher seems unlikely for PC/JS UNLESS they can find one at substantially below market rates to play a reduced role (e.g., Osi Umenyiora). But don't be surprised if they target more big interior bodies to effectively push the pocket to create space for Messrs. Irvin, Clemons, Scruggs, et al. while bolstering the run defense.

3. Settling the offensive interior. This is likely the X factor in whether the offense fulfills its potential, as the interior is probably the most underperforming sub-unit. The interior had challenges in pass protection, with communication and assignment integrity emerging as major problems against St. Louis and in both playoff games. I wonder if long-term Carroll sees both J.R. Sweezy and John Moffit as quality backups. Hence his inability to settle on one player for a lion's share of reps.

Carroll and Cable clearly like Carpenter at LG and would like someone between McQuistan, Moffitt, and Sweezy to step up and claim RG. Having said that, I doubt the team brings in starter competition on the interior. At some point you have to settle on five and let them grow together. But, it also wouldn't surprise me to see the position thinned out a bit this off-season.

4. Settling on a long-term plan at WLB. The two positions I'll address directly are WLB and WR/TE. As positions go, WLB might be the biggest donut hole on the roster. It's the one position where virtually any move from PC/JS is plausible. You could see them search for a starter or for depth in the draft or in the market. Or, they could do both; drafting a player like Missouri's Zavier Gooden in the middle rounds to compete and adding a free agent like DeAndre Levy at the right price.

5. Finding a "playmaker" at WR/TE. Contrary to some, I am more than fine with Sidney Rice and Golden Tate as the top two WRs. In my estimation the team has far greater need of depth than a top-end player. Still, I can definitely see Seattle committing to finding a receiver that wins battles at the line of scrimmage and is dynamic with the ball. I still believe in Doug Baldwin, but this was a bit of a lost season for him based on health.

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