It's true. I bite off more than I can chew. And in a couple days, it will be imperative that I write about Charlie Whitehurst. So let's close this project a bit prematurely, but with some kind of conclusion attempted. For, when every series becomes one blogger's Tristram Shandy, time limits kind of cramp the process.
Away we go.
How the Seahawks offense fails
Russell Okung and the cost of an inferior line
Pete Carroll and the FO seem to be attempting a stars and scrubs model for building the Seahawks. The stars and scrubs model assumes that there is much more that separates truly great players from just good players than that separates good players from truly bad players. Resources should be dedicated towards finding great players, even if they are high risk, and merely good players can be attained relatively easily. If you can trade a good player for a pick that might grab you a great player, you pull the trigger.
Raheem Brock and Chris Clemons are two of the more noteworthy successes. Seattle traded away a promising young defensive end and replaced him with two castoffs, and, well, it's mostly worked. Both players are performing well. Darryl Tapp may in fact not be much more valuable than a replacement level end. Go figure.
The offensive line doesn't seem to have fared as well. Ben Hamilton was a system specific talent and when Alex Gibbs left and the Seahawks decided on a pseudo-zone blocking scheme, Hamilton turned into a problem. Stacy Andrews mostly sucks, Sean Locklear mostly sucks, and the depth wasn't great to begin with and is now overtaxed. Retaining Rob Sims would not have fixed everything, but man would I give back that fifth for Simsy and a seventh right now.
Of course, some of this could be remedied by a healthy Russell Okung. Okung's injury in particular overtaxes the line because left tackle is the premier position on the line, Tyler Polumbus is strained to fill it, and committing Polumbus to left tackle has locked in Locklear at right.
The result is that Seattle has the unhappy decision of committing six and seven blockers again and again, or risk calamity as the front five is torn through like a horse hymen. That brings us to what it really means to keep in blockers versus spread the field.
The passing game is about failure and fail safes. The defense attempts to force a blocking failure while preventing a coverage failure. The offense attempts to prevent a blocking failure while forcing a coverage failure. When a defense blitzes, it aggressively attempts to force a failure at the cost of fail safes in coverage. When an offense retains blockers, it adds fails safes at the cost of opportunities to force coverage failure.
So, the first expense of retaining blockers is a decreased likelihood of coverage failure.
Now, the process of coverage failure isn't binary. Nor is the process of blocking failure. And that gives us our second major cost of keeping in blockers: tighter windows. Window is the space a quarterback can throw through that will create a catchable pass for the receiver and that can not be defended. When a player is completely uncovered, their window is the entire space that they can reach or run to and catch the ball. In single man coverage, the space is essentially the receiver's separation plus whatever reach advantage they have. As the ratio of defender to receiver increases, the likelihood that two or more defenders are influencing the receiver's window also increases, and so does the difficulty of the throw.
Matt Hasselbeck is neither the most accurate nor the most strong armed quarterback in the NFL. His accuracy is decent and his arm strength is something well below that. Seattle's rotten offensive line has forced, or at least encouraged, offensive coordinator Jeremy Bates to run more plays that include six or seven blockers. And since a team can not perfectly anticipate if a defense will blitz or how many defenders will blitz if any, that means Hasselbeck has faced multiple three against seven scenarios. And he just can't swing it. He doesn't like the read and he can't negotiate the window, and so we get Hasselsacks, check downs galore, incomplete passes and interceptions.
If Seattle wants to or feels it needs to retain blockers on snap after snap, it needs a strong armed quarterback.
The cost of a station to station offense
Bend but don't break defenses attempt to force opposing offenses into a high volume attack that inches down the field. Tampa 2 derived defenses do this by keeping two safeties deep and taking away the deep passing attack. When an offense can not itself pick up yardage in chunks, and instead must survive on high percentage passes underneath, it creates the bend but don't break scenario without the benefit of forcing the safeties out of the box.
That's where Seattle's offense is. It's not that Hasselbeck physically can not throw the ball deep, or that he simply does not have time to throw the ball deep -- when you factor in the time elapsed while a ball is in flight, it takes two to three seconds for a receiver to get deep and be targeted -- it's that Hasselbeck has never, to my knowledge, possessed much of a deep pass. It's just one quality of a quarterback, but it's a valuable one. Rex Grossman led his team to the Super Bowl with a pretty deep pass and no other pro-level skill.
The cost of a station to station offense is a lower margin of error, a higher incidence of turnover through volume of plays, less ability to score touchdowns on "big plays" and thus more time spent in the red zone -- where every defense improves -- and a worse ability to overcome penalties and negative plays. When a team needs to pick up first downs in bite size chunks, a single holding penalty can destroy an entire drive.
If Seattle were flooding the underneath, maybe Hasselbeck is skilled and smart enough to combine high-percentage short throws and run after catch into an adequate passing offense, but since Seattle is not, then Seattle's short passing game is being attempted through a dearth of open receivers. It's a double whammy and why the Seahawks have one of the worst offenses in football. Hasselbeck's skill set and the offense Jeremy Bates wishes to run are incompatible.
The deep pass has fringe benefits
Not only is Seattle's offense committed station-to-station, but it doesn't even have a deep pass in its arsenal. It's not like the station-to-station offense is completely unorthodox or incapable of success. Bill Walsh begs to differ. But even an offense that does station-to-station right, like Mike Holmgren's Seahawks in their prime, needs the deep pass to counter defenses stuffing the box and blitzing.
Oakland punished Seattle underneath with numbers and press coverage. It saturated the first ten yards past the line of scrimmage and effectively smothered the run game and contained the short passing game. The Raiders shortened the field, denied any attack that could occur sideline to sideline and shallow, and wagered that Seattle could not beat them deep. It didn't just work, it dominated.
When it wasn't pressing and smothering and flooding the underneath, Oakland was blitzing. John Marshall play duration and left Hasselbeck hurried, harried and battered. It's a wonder the Raiders did not intercept more passes. How often does a quarterback complete 40.6% of his passes and only throw one pick? Shoot, I don't know. Oh. It's a rhetorical question. Very clever.
Seattle needed to complete passes deep to force the Raiders into a more conservative front. There's nothing magic about that, but stopping schemes like Marshall invented to squash the Seahawks offense without the deep ball is like stopping the simple flu without an immune system. What commonly seems almost pedestrian in its potency becomes an unstoppable monster. Receivers are swarmed and bullied and never get open or begin dropping passes in traffic. The running game is smothered and eventually abandoned.
Each individual weakness cascades. Poor protection forces blockers to stay in and that undermines the station to station offense. The offense can not run effectively or complete short patterns and that forces passing downs. The inability to pass the ball deep makes passing downs difficult to convert and easy to exploit, and that one yard loss on first and ten becomes that two yard reception into double coverage on second and 11. Then it's third and long and the defense is hiring Hessians to pick the bones.
And all a sudden you're rooting for the defense to retake the field because how else are you gonna score?
Solutions to the Seahawks failing offense
This doesn't have to be a treatise. The solution is more often than not an inverse of the cause.
Invest in the offensive line and invest in quality receivers
If you must be station to station than you must make sure that the numbers are in your favor. That means more receivers, and that means players at every position that can receive. Dedicated blocking fullbacks are out. Dedicated blocking tight ends are out. I'm looking at you, Chris Baker. Dedicated rushing running backs are out, and remember how Seattle's offense took off in 2007 after Shaun Alexander's run of phantom injuries. The line itself must be good--at pass blocking. No Alan Fanecas. More Rob Sims. No Ben Hamiltons of any stripe.
Start a strong armed quarterback
If you must keep in blockers, then you must counter by starting a quarterback that can fit the ball into tighter windows. It's a fact: the more players that block, the fewer that receive and the greater number of defenders per each individual receiver. Sending three and four receivers out on routes isn't innately bad. Rather, it's a trade off. It means routes can be longer or more complex, as in the case of double moves, but that whatever the constitution and length of the route, you still have to assume that there will be fewer throwing lanes, a greater incidence of double coverage, fewer wide open receivers and smaller windows of "openness."
Start a quarterback that can stretch the field
Throwing deep isn't all about arm strength. That said, Hasselbeck is both rather weak-armed and incapable of nailing a deep target, and so, Seattle can not negotiate tight windows and it can not open space underneath by attacking deep. It's double screwed, and how. Kurt Warner didn't have a cannon, but boy could he punish the blitz. Maybe that deep pattern was no more than 25 yards long and 15 yards wide, but it was enough to add explosive plays and keep checkdowns and screens valid.
If you're going to keep in blockers, and the Seahawks really must, then you need to improve the likelihood of successful plays, and that means having a quarterback that can fit it in against unfriendly coverage. And if you're going to keep in blockers, you're probably never going to lead the world in completion percentage, and so higher yards per attempt is a must. Further, if you're never going to achieve a particularly grand completion percentage, you will eventually fall into third and long, and so you better be able to punish or prevent the blitz.
When you can't complete a high percentage of passes, and you can't complete deep passes, and you can't counter aggressive schemes and blitzes, you get what the Seahawks got last Sunday: a complete offensive failure. It permeated every aspect of the offense. And though Seattle is not going to be able to dramatically improve its line without the return to health of Russell Okung, it can at least put a quarterback under center with a chance of overcoming problems created by retaining six and seven blockers.
Now, I said Charlie Whitehurst doesn't have to be great to outperform Matt Hasselbeck, but what I didn't say was that Whitehurst is just better matched for the needs and requirements of this offense as built. But that's true. Whitehurst can gun it into tighter windows, create big plays down field and punish the blitz.
Will he? Guess we'll just have to crowd around and find out.