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I'm Back and Ready to Make New Enemies

This ends Field Gull's long dormancy, thanks everyone for still checking in even when there was very little content. I promise that will change dramatically in the coming weeks. I do what I can to make this a site that emphasizes intelligent Seahawks analysis, but before I delve back into all that, I'm going to get bloggy for a second.

Since she now knows, I think I can let the cat out of the bag. I've been working 2 jobs recently to save up money to buy my girlfriend an engagement ring. Yep, this rambler is trading in his spurs for a branding iron. With that out of the way, I'm excited to once again commit myself to the site, so stay tuned, I have a few exciting things planned for the new season that I hope to be able to debut in the coming week. First, let's cover the big story out of training camp, free agent addition Brian Russell.

Brian Russell Lacks Pigment

A week into training camp, Brian Russell certainly seems like the toast of local journalists. Now, by all means, I want Russell to be good, but you'll have to excuse me if I'm a little suspicious of a 29 y/o, coach's son, journeyman DB who gives good quote receiving a lot of attention from the local media--especially when the trait most commonly lauded in Russell is his leadership. Leadership is a nebulous quality that is nearly impossible to measure and therefore nearly impossible to refute. For instance, when Kelly Jennings said in Clare Farnsworth's PI piece:

Just how dialed in is Russell? Ask second-year cornerback Kelly Jennings how much Russell knows and his quick response is, "Everything."

Is he saying that Brian is knowledgeable or just that he runs his mouth off a lot? Most times in my life when I've heard someone knows "everything" it's meant disparagingly. Farnsworth's fluff piece masquerading as analysis might make it sound like Russell is the bees knees, a "heady" player who will improve those around him, but it hardly supports that claim. So, let's try and figure out who Russell is and how he's affected the previous teams he's played for.

In 1998 Russell transferred from Penn State to San Diego State because he was buried on the Nittany Lions' quarterback depth chart. In the considerably less competitive Mountain West Conference, Russell transitioned to free safety after starting at quarterback for a season. Russell wasn't invited to the NFL combine, barely made it onto the Minnesota Vikings practice squad in 2001, but now, six years later, is a five year starter and NFL veteran. All feel good, Ruskell approved minutia, for sure.

Russell, like but to an even greater degree, other free safeties records very few stats. Even scouring my Football Outsiders annuals I can't find much conclusive about Russell. He's not a run stopper, but his performance in coverage is a bit harder to pinpoint.  First let's look at how the two teams he's played with have performed pre and post him joining them. All the following numbers are taken from Football Outsiders.

His first season in the NFL was with Minnesota in 2002, but he only started 2 games. They sported the 31st ranked pass defense. Their adjusted sack rate was bad, 26th, but their pass defense was worse. The following season Russell started all 16 games, his 9 interception season, the Vikings pass defense jumped up to 19th overall, but their pass rush zoomed to 8th. In other words, the secondary was once again a disappointment, albeit small, despite a much improved pass rush. In 2004 the Vikings pass defense cratered, 30th, despite the 14th ranked pass rush. Russell recorded one interception.

In 2004, Cleveland had the 20th ranked pass defense and the 23rd ranked pass rush, a pretty equal, below average performance by both the secondary and the front seven. Russell joined the Browns in 2005, playing mentor to a young secondary. That season the pass rush deteriorated, falling to 28th overall, and the Brown's overall pass defense fell to 23rd. The next season, 2006, Cleveland once again featured an anemic pass rush, 27th, but their overall pass defense improved quite a bit to 15th. Unfortunately for Hawk fans, that likely has a lot more to do with Leigh Bodden's emergence as a top corner than anything Russell did.  

That's a tangled mass of numbers that few clear conclusions can be drawn from, but we can be pretty sure that none of Russell's "quarterbacking" is having much effect on his teammates. Minnesota's pass defense actually improved markedly in 2005 after Russell's departure, in no small part because of the addition of Fred Smoot. Smoot, a quality corner, is a player that can change a secondary. Russell doesn't seem to be doing much.


Here's the two things that make me think that not only are Russell's play-calling hijinks ineffective, but that his play, itself, is a detriment to the Hawks. Free safeties are frequently asked to line up against the opponents' slot receiver, Football Outsiders has tracked the opponents DVOA for slot, or other (3-5) receivers the past two seasons. Cleveland's performance: 32nd and 21st. Further, Russell provides nothing in run support. Last season his average tackle against a rush was 10.7 yards past the line of scrimmage. 73% of those runs were successful. In 2005, 9.5 and 77%.

Michael Boulware is only 26, has oodles of talent and is better complimented by Deon Grant's conservative style than former backfield mate, Ken Hamlin, who liked to play close to the line of scrimmage and freelance. Boulware is a strong run defender, in 2006 his average tackle against a rusher was just 5.5 yards past the line of scrimmage, and though not sensational, only 59% of rushes he ended were successful. Naturally, safeties have a lot of successful rushes against them, because they regularly play in a deep zone and function as a safety valve against the rush. To put it into perspective, uber-run stopper Roy Williams still allowed 5.4 yards per rush he tackled and a 53% success rate.

When Russell was signed I thought he was being brought in to play situational deep coverage, as depth and to "coach up" youngsters in the secondary. Instead, he's quickly assuming a stranglehold on the starting free safety spot. He might give good quote and stay back far enough to rarely be embarrassed on long passing plays, but he's not much of a DB. He doesn't cover well, he's a zero in run support and despite all his chatter teams haven't improved their secondary play with him in the lineup. Boulware may be sloppy sometimes, something that can be expected given his inexperience in the secondary, but he has more potential and would contribute more to this team, right now, than Russell. Russel embodies that Bloomquistian scrappiness the local media adores, but Boulware is the better athlete, the better player and the better starting safety for the 2007 Seattle Seahawks. Don't buy the hype/free Michael Boulware.