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Exit the Seahawks: Exploring the yields of a lost season

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Flashes of hopes from young players and reason to expect recoveries from productive veterans lead Seattle into a transitional period

Super Bowl XLIX - New England Patriots v Seattle Seahawks Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Remember in the preseason when the offensive line appeared to jell as a unit with the elevation of Justin Britt and the insertion of first-round pick Germain Ifedi, driving new optimism around the group that was inarguably the Seattle Seahawks’ weakest headed into the season—only then Ifedi sprained his ankle just days before the season opener, throwing everything into mayhem as the Miami Dolphins and then Los Angeles Rams mostly wrecked Seattle’s front in the first two games?

The feeling then was if the Seahawks could restore Ifedi to J’Marcus Webb’s place in the lineup maybe that would rescue Seattle’s offensive line, resuming its renaissance into a timeline of continuity like the unit that ended 2015. Only instead of a savior, when he did play Ifedi turned out to be just a rookie guard—effective at times but as much a source of the blocking troubles as anyone including Webb, and surely not a singular difference-maker.

Likewise, throughout the 2016 season the Seahawks seemed like they were striving to catch up to themselves. From the beginning, whether it was physical inhibitions like Ifedi’s or Russell Wilson’s ankle sprains or apparent statistical anomalies like the early shortage of defensive takeaways, some genuine factor always explained the lag—and brought the assumption that due correction would shortly arrive. So even after Seattle started 4-1 and then 7-2-1 and remained every bit in position to make the championship charge expected of this group, certain visible defects and inconsistencies in their execution implied that they could eventually round into an even more impressive team. Past performance also supported this.

Yet by year’s end it seemed more and more likely this version of the Seahawks had already shown what they were going to be: A team of occasional but unreliable explosiveness, weakened by untimely injuries and apt to break against the best competition when merely bending was called for. A big rushing day and defense that held the Detroit Lions to no real shot at a touchdown in the first round of the playoffs offered a glimpse of hope that the ideal image of this Seattle team might arrive as required, but (much like the midseason form) lack of consistency turned the postseason path into a cul-de-sac Saturday in Atlanta.

When you run out of chips in a tournament, of course, you no longer get to use expected value to offset the yields of your data set.

That reality loads so much stakes into every playoffs stage that I joked in the summer how viewing the Arizona Cardinals as the Seahawks’ biggest rival then because they might be battling for the division crown implied “your biggest rival is always your next tournament opponent”—which kind of takes the history or mystique out of any rivalry. And yet I now wonder if Seattle might have done better in 2016 had the Cardinals provided more legitimate push. The Seahawks’ only Super Bowl win came after the highest pitch of their rivalry with the 49ers, after all, and it’s possible this bunch fused through Pete Carroll’s emphasis on competition needs that extra edge to press themselves beyond their limits.

Arizona did indeed meet that challenge in its games against the Seahawks, and the Blood Draw in October might have been the charge these teams needed to pull deeper than blood and bone and into marrow—only the Cardinals were too like the old Rams in the rest of their games to make it count.

The New England Patriots instead lifted the best out of Seattle in November (as they should)—but the Seahawks’ loss to the Falcons puts a damper on that chase for history I described in the same comparison of the feuds. It seems increasingly probable that even if Seattle manages to continue challenging for titles (as they should) they will do so like the Patriots, as a kind of “Duke basketball of the NFL” connected by coach and quarterback with the remaining pieces revolving.

Although most of the group will stay together next season, 2016 becomes yet another transition year as important for how it uncovers the new emerging talents as for anything the Seahawks accomplished. If Ifedi was exemplary of the challenges the team faced, he also represents the biggest cornerstone for development as Seattle needs to consolidate an effective combination of continuity and better raw pieces on the line. Depending on what happens with the tackles, next year at least ought to offer some of the former without new players at a majority of slots directly in front of Wilson.

But opposite that group the Seahawks have now an awesome gathering of weapons on the defensive line with Frank Clark joining Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril to occupy the laps of opposing quarterbacks and blockers. If that group can stay healthy, and Seattle also gets a full year from Quinton Jefferson rotating with Ahtyba Rubin and Jarran Reed, they can be as deep in 2017 as they were effective in ’16. The flashes we saw from the likes of Jefferson and Reed, and Paul Richardson and Tanner McEvoy, and even C.J. Prosise and Alex Collins—these movements all suggest the product of an odd regular season can’t be measured in banners but in repetitions. Thomas Rawls will at last get a full offseason to work with the number ones and get the run game coordinated. Same with Jimmy Graham, if he comes back.

Earl Thomas won’t have that chance, nor will DeShawn Shead. But perhaps these layoffs, for guys who have spent years embedded within the system already, will be productive opportunities for their eventual replacements—even if it seems doubtful those players are on the roster already (I hope somehow the team can retrieve Tyvis Powell from the discard pile). Tyler Lockett is making advances with his own recovery already, according to Carroll—and the coach is even using that injury as a “competing” opportunity as the team’s medical department studies the differences in rehabilitation after surgery (Lockett) compared with natural healing (Thomas).

Since leg injuries were such a somber counterpoint to the season, we might as well talk about Wilson, who in probably his most disappointing season statistically still managed to show us superhuman qualities in his performance. Now we know not only is Russell Wilson a supreme improviser on the run and, at his best, a proficient distributor of the football—now we know how tough the son of a gun is, how borderline indestructible.

I remember laughing at Kenneth Arthur’s brilliant monologue on Wilson’s injury in the San Francisco 49ers game. Kenny is a funny guy to begin with but I marveled for the way he sold the bit for what seemed like 10 minutes strong about why the team didn’t just open the seams in Wilson’s machine leg and replace the sprockets and broken bits. What made the segment so exceptional is that the old yarn about how Wilson is a robot is traditionally applied to his demeanor, his personality—his interface, the controlled, predictable approach to speaking. Not his body. And yet Ken perfectly intuited that the latest revelations about Wilson’s physical toughness completed the, ahem, circuit of Wilson’s bionic nature.

If it was impossible to say after 2015 that Wilson couldn’t be a pocket thrower, now it is also impossible to say Wilson can’t win without a running game. That he can’t win without his own mobility. Wilson was an ordinary athlete in 2016, got no run support and inadequate pass blocking and still led a team with a 13th-ranked pass defense to twice as many wins as losses. His efficiency ratings are down without as many touchdowns, but he threw for 7.7 yards per attempt—virtually tied for his worst-ever year but also separated by just .01 yard from tied with Drew Brees for sixth in the league.

He’s done it while married and he’s done it while single. Pretty soon he’s going to do it as a father. There are no holes in Wilson’s character, and no shortcomings in his game. Wilson will maybe not enter 2017 with the hype he did after the record pace to close the previous year, but if he can play fully healthy again and get reasonable improvement in the other offensive elements he can continue his track to the top of professional football. This information, too, is something to mine from a “lost” year.

Wilson also in 2016 passed Richard Sherman for career approximate value. Since his rookie year Wilson in fact leads all players in the NFL in that category, which is Pro-football-reference.com’s rubric for measuring players in total contribution across position and era (though the formula probably underrates players at certain positions like, say, Earl Thomas). But Wilson and Sherman are ranked first and seventh, respectively, in the whole league in that period—easily the only teammates ranked so high (Bobby Wagner is 11th, one point behind Luke Kuechly; Thomas is 33rd).

Still the fact that Sherman had until now been the most “productive” player for the Seahawks during the Carroll era is significant of his footprint on this team. Sherman’s value to Seattle in the past five years is exactly even with Tom Brady’s in New England, according to AV. For Sherman it was also a down year, his lowest by AV since his rookie season. But now we know that Sherman like Wilson was playing with a damaged MCL for much of 2016.

That surely helps explain why Sherman was missing a weekly day of practice later in the year, although this new disclosure opens up the possibility the Seahawks face some kind of penalty from the league for reporting these absences as “non-injury related” on the official injury list. And although it’s just as speculative and psychological to assume this injury was related to Sherman’s strange behavior over the last part of the season as it is to suggest those outbursts were some calculated ploy to direct pressure away from the struggling team and onto his veteran shoulders—or the foolish interpretation that they were explosions from an internal war between Sherman’s upbringing and polishing he got at college—a possibility that he was irritated by the pain or by the limitation of his performance definitely seems like a more proximate cause.

Either way, the dynamic between Sherman and his teammates and coaches rates with Wilson’s various injuries as the top surface storylines in the organization—which is suiting considering their leverage on the team’s fortunes during this most fortunate of all passages in franchise history. Sherman’s provocation and Wilson’s steadiness are the twin foci around which the Seattle Seahawks orbit, and whatever else changes in the offseason and the seasons to follow I don’t expect those poles to shift dramatically.

As Seattle showed with characteristic late fireworks in Saturday’s loss to the Falcons—yet another long Devin Hester return, the overruled Richardson deep catch and the fumble-interception that was not—the Seahawks remain entertaining even when they’re out of it. It was a joy getting to share this season with all of you at Field Gulls, our fellow writers and readers, and thanks to Kenneth Arthur for the opportunity. We can take deep breaths for now, but don’t sleep. I already mentioned their unusual place together among the leaders of NFL value since 2012, but another thing making Sherman and Wilson so exceptional in the top 20 on that chart is they are the lowest players drafted, beside Brady and Antonio Brown.

In Seattle, even offseasons can be magical.