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Cigar Thoughts, Game 16: Seahawks season ends on microcosm of 2017, team faces hard truths

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Blair Walsh missed a 48-yard field goal with 30 seconds left, ending Seattle’s season in heart-breaking fashion

NFL: Arizona Cardinals at Seattle Seahawks Steven Bisig-USA TODAY Sports

The Seahawks season ended today, two weeks earlier than it has in any of the previous five seasons. A half-decade stretch with the Seahawks perched in the NFL’s echelon of the elite ended when Blair Walsh’s 48-yard kick drifted wide right with half a minute left. Technically, Seattle’s playoff hopes had ended moments before when the Falcons beat the Panthers but maybe that’s a good thing because that kick would have been excruciating otherwise.

Look, I’m not gonna spend too much time talking about the game itself. It went as so many Seahawks games go and today’s result, devastating as it was to witness, isn’t nearly as important as the issues this team faces heading into its first full offseason since 2011.

Seattle played like garbage in the first half for at least the 11th time this season and Arizona took advantage. The Cardinals opened things up with an easy 10-play, 73 yard drive that saw Drew Stanton of all people go 6-6 with a TD. Meanwhile, Seattle managed a three and out on every first half drive save two: a four-play possession in the second quarter and a two play drive right before the half when they opted to down it out instead of face 2nd & a billion.

In contrast, Arizona’s offense just kept ticking off first downs. Kerwynn Williams was getting three yards before contact on seemingly every run and Larry Fitzgerald recorded an astounding 74 catches in the game’s first two quarters. The Seahawks gained 0 yards in the first quarter and 24 in the second. They had one first down to the Cards’ 14 and were out-gained by an 8:1 margin. Their only heartbeat was a gorgeous Tyler Lockett kick return touchdown, a nice reminder that despite a quiet season, he can still do that.

By the time the clock hit :00 in the second quarter, the Cardinals were leading 20-7 and the Seahawks were again getting booed off the field by their own crowd

The second half went as second halves go these days. The Seahawks offense came out in rhythm and strung together a half-dozen impressive plays that culminated with a pretty 18-yard touchdown pass from Russell Wilson to Doug Baldwin. The Seahawk defense started to dominate, battering Stanton and sticking to his receivers like tree sap. In fact, after Stanton started 7-7 for 56 yards and a TD, he finished 8-27 for 89 yards and an INT.

The running lanes disappeared and the Cardinals offense dried up as a result. They’d manage a late third quarter field goal to push the score to 23-14 but that’s about all they could manage. Then Seattle’s running game started to click. Mike Davis shook off an early injury to gash two big runs, much-needed big plays that were supplemented by a couple nice gains from Thomas Rawls’ jittery ass.

The third quarter ended with Seattle facing a 9-point deficit and 4QRW stepping out of the phone booth. After two nice completions, Wilson faked a handoff to his right, peeled off, and launched a ball across the field to Luke Willson, who was as open as a swinger’s marriage. Willson, so scared of dropping it that he willed it into existence, went to his knees to corral the easy pass only to watch it clang off his hesitant hands and to the turf. That travesty occurred inside Arizona’s 10 and turned a likely touchdown into a Walsh field goal.

On Seattle’s next drive, Wilson found Baldwin again, this time with SEattle’s leading receiver performing a diving, toe-tapping miracle inside the right pylon for his second touchdown of the day. Just like that, the Seahawks were up 24-23 and on the verge of another improbable comeback.

Sadly, three of Seattle’s ugliest chickens all came home to roost in the game’s final three minutes, and boy did they poop everywhere. First there were the penalties. Two third down stops were negated by roughing the passer calls- one by Frank Clark and a second by Bobby Wagner. Wagner’s flag let chicken #2 through the door- Seattle’s defense with the game on the line. For whatever reason, the Seahawks have been absolutely dreadful at protecting a lead when time is almost out. The Cardinals, who hadn’t done anything all half, drove into field goal range and were rewarded with the lead when Phil Dawson knocked the kick through the uprights.

Wilson and company retook the field, undeterred and determined to take the lead back. Almost instantly they scooted across midfield and inside Arizona’s 35. With the Cardinals on their heels and the offense humming, the Seahawks got inexplicably conservative and settled for a precarious 48-yard field goal attempt from Walsh. That’s when chicken #3 trotted out to the field, lined up his feet, took the allotted steps, and emptied its bowels all over the 2017 season. Walsh’s sailed lazily to the right of the goal posts and the Cardinals were a kneeldown away from their fourth victory in their last five games in Seattle. The football B;air kicked may as well have been my crotch.

SMOKE RINGS

-I’m not gonna break down the individual performances today because nobody cares about those right now. Instead, I’m gonna do a quick referendum on some things. Feel free to chop these up (and whatever I miss) in the comments section.

-First of all, with all our disappointments about this year, we’re still talking about a team with six consecutive winning records. It doesn’t feel like it, but the Seahawks won more games than they lost this season — an accomplishment we’ve come to take for granted. The Seahawks were a good team this year but for the first time in a long while, they were absolutely not a great team.

Were there major injuries to major players? Absolutely, and those can’t be overlooked, but I don’t think those were the reason Seattle lost at Tennessee, at home against Washington, or their dismembering at the hands of the Rams. Despite all their struggles, and there were many, this team was still just a few plays — three kicks among them — from finishing 12-4 with another division crown. Of course, that sword cuts both ways. Seattle could easily have finished 7-9, or worse, and ultimately you are what your record says you are.

-Listen, I’ve never been in an NFL locker room, nor have I sat in on a team meeting. I’m not qualified to speak on how influential certain coaches’ voices are but this team’s overall performance in 2017 bears some re-evaluation at the coordinator level. The Seahawks were among the league’s best on offense, defense, and special teams from 2012 through 2014 and, despite losing some of that luster in 2015 and 2016, were still good enough to finish among the league’s final eight. 2017 saw that performance dip in every measurable way, with Russell Wilson’s improbable brilliance often the only difference between this team’s relevance and irrelevance. So it’s time we take a look at those with the biggest influence under Pete Carroll*.

*If you believe Pete Carroll is the problem and needs to go, you’ll need to forgive me for not recognizing the grounds of your argument. Carroll has built something in Seattle that has surpassed the performance of any stretch of Seattle sports we’ve ever seen. They’ve had as many 10-win seasons since he’s arrived as they’ve had in all their other years combined. They won playoff games in five straight years, something that most NFL fans never get to witness.

He’s not a perfect coach by an stretch. His clock management is questionable at best but so is nearly every coach’s at this level. The fact that Seattle led the league in penalties again is concerning. It’s not a huge deal (see 2012-2014) when you’re faster than everyone else but it’s a massive issue when you’re not. This is a byproduct of Pete’s approach and I will agree that the margin for error no longer accommodates this many flags. Other than that, this team has some big issues to address but I don’t see how axing Carroll now fixes them, unless you’re really got damn certain that the next guy in here can build and sustain a culture more impressive than this.

-Anyone who’s read this article over the last six years knows that I’ve been a staunch defender of Darrell Bevell and frankly the numbers have backed it up. For half a decade, Seattle routinely put out offenses that finished in the top 10 of just about every meaningful metric. Seahawks offenses have routinely oscillated between stagnant and spectacular, but this year there was too much of the former and too little of the latter.

Bevell’s offense has never been flashy, but it has always served the dual purpose of A) producing above-average points per drive and B) helping the team control the clock. This year, that just never really happened. Seattle’s offense has devolved from something direct and intentional into something stale and often predictable. They went all 16 games without scoring a touchdown on the opening drive, the only team in the NFL to do so, and scored just 7.9 points per first half, ranking 29th.

Now, any discussion about how bad the Seahawks offense has been early in games needs to include the fact that they’ve scored a league-best 15.2 points in the second half. Even so, this offense has been far too accommodating to defenses who simply want to drop seven players into zone coverage and wait. This is no longer a team that can afford to punt away entire halves only to be rescued by late-game heroics. It’s amazing that they ever were, honestly.

I’ve backed the team’s decision to employ Darrell Bevell for as long as their offensive production has supported it, but reality dictates that it’s time for a new dynamic. Yes, a lot of these struggles are the result of really poor O-line play, and we’ll get to that in a moment, but an OC’s job is to produce points and ball control. Seattle’s shown the ability to do that, but those stretches of production have been too sparse and too concentrated to engender any belief on my part that Bevell will be part of the solution.

-Which brings us to yet another end-of-season missive regarding Seattle’s dreadful offensive line. Maybe Tom Cable is a good OL coach but even so, the Seahawks OL was just so bad. Again. This is a team in desperate need of a new approach to their blocking because it’s been trending from awful to worse for a long time now. And the narrative that Cable’s working magic with no resources is so old there’s two generations of mold sporing all over it. The Seahawks have invested more draft picks on the offensive line in the last five years than any team in the league. Granted, some of them have eventually turned into decent offensive lineman, but Justin Britt’s the only one that’s done it in Seattle and it took him three different positions to get there.

Tom Cable earned a reputation as a great offensive line coach fifteen years ago and has managed to keep it for a long time despite consistently poor performances from the units he’s assembled in the Emerald City. For a while you could blame how little money the team spent on the position group, but even that excuse doesn’t justify just how often Seahawk lineman get absolutely dominated.

In the past, Cable OLs have been terrific run blockers but they’ve never been good at pass protection. The only reason they don’t hold the five largest sacks-allowed totals in NFL history is Wilson’s inexplicable escapability. This year, they couldn’t even run block. Not even close. It was so bad I lack the words to adequately describe its fecal ineptitude. This team is too good to be this bad and after eight years, I can’t see how keeping Cable as OL Coach and Run-Game Coordinator is justifiable.

-I’m a little more willing to give Kris Richard the benefit of the doubt. While this has definitely been the worst overall performance by the Seahawks defense in the last six seasons, it’s important to remember the standard by which it’s judged. As you all know, Richard took over a defense that had dominated the NFL, a new simplified back-to-front type of D that took the league nearly four years to adjust to.

But those defenses also stayed incredibly healthy. The defenses Richard has coached have been plagues by lengthy losses to its best players. Cliff Avril, Michael Bennett, Bobby Wagner, Earl Thomas, Richard Sherman, and Kam Chancellor have all missed significant time in the last three years and I don’t care how good your scheme is, no team can adequately replace that many missed games by Pro Bowlers.

Richard is also battling the fact that he’s running a defense with years of tape out on it — film that’s been dissected, manipulated, and emulated by an army of coordinators and assistants over the last five years. Is it ultimately Richard’s job to adapt to that and evolve the defense? Definitely, although any changes will have to be done in confluence with a scheme that Pete Carroll has spent 40 years developing and perfecting. I’m not calling for Richard’s head, not yet at least, but next season will be the fulcrum upon which my opinion of him will be decided.

-Any review of the coaching requires the companionship of a management review as well. The Seahawks front office rose to stardom on the back of a three-year stretch of drafting that will go down in the annals of league history. Headed by John Schneider, the scouting of Scot McCloughan and the cap wizardry of John Idzik helped Seattle acquire and retain an impossible amount of talent from the 2010-2012 drafts.

Since then, McCloughan and Idzik have taken and failed at their own GMs and Seattle’s drafts since then have ranged from serviceable to barren. I can’t pretend to truly understand the dynamic of Seattle’s FO but if the Seahawks want to re-invigorate this run of success, they’re gonna need to start really hitting on some picks.

Of course, drafting great players means you need to decide whether or not to pay them to stay. Guys like Wilson, Thomas, Wagner, Chancellor, Avril, Bennett, Sherman, Baldwin, and KJ Wright are worth a lot of money and if you want to keep them on your side of the battle plans, you gotta pay them what they’re worth. Doing so keeps continuity but strains the checkbook in the most restrictive salary cap structure in professional sport. I don’t fault them for any of their re-signings because I respect and buy into the process behind them, but injuries make everything look worse and almost all of those players have suffered physically since signing their extensions.

The last five years have also emboldened Schneider and Co to push their chips in on established stars in an effort to maximize their chances of winning in the immediate future. On principle, I don’t hate it. I’d rather have someone that’s already proven they can produce at the highest level than hope for a draft pick to become that, especially the way the last few drafts have gone. Plus, it’s fun to know that your management is championship oriented.

That said, those acquisitions have cost a lot of money and, perhaps more importantly, a lot of picks. The gambles haven’t paid off and Seattle finds themselves needing to retool without the benefit of many picks or any salary cap room.

-The next few months will give us plenty of opportunity to haggle over which players Seattle should keep or not. I won’t attempt to parse the particulars of each but I will say a couple of things. One, the keep-him-don’t-keep-him discussion is almost impossible to have in a vacuum. There is a price at which I’d keep all of these guys, with the exception of Eddie Lacy, but it remains to be seen what their worth in free agency or the trade market will be. Two, I hope that Seattle is able to use whatever money and supplemental picks they receive from departures towards rebuilding the offensive line in a new image — something that suits a fully formed Russell Wilson and doesn’t imperil him 25 times a game. Easier said than done, to be sure, but I do believe that Seattle has two very good OL in Duane Brown and Justin Britt and I’d like to see someone other than Cable fill in those gaps.

-Mostly though, I want to see this team’s best players stay healthy. I firmly believe that going into any given season, there are roughly 12 teams with a legit shot at the title, and that the four who make it to the conference ‘ships are largely those who have stayed the healthiest. When the ‘Hawks were whooping teams from 2012-2014, they stayed remarkably pain-free, whereas 2015-2017 has seen a torrent of injuries to Seattle’s top guys. I don’t know what the answer to this is, I just want it to stop.

There is so much more that can be said about this team, this game, and this season. I am confident all of it and more will be said on this site. For now, let me say that it’s given me an incredible amount of pleasure to write this post for you all each week and that I’m legitimately and truly excited about the future of the Seattle Seahawks.

I suspect that next year’s team will look quite different than the ones we’ve been rooting for, but I also think it’s time for that. This won’t be a rebuild; this team will still feature a minimum of a half-dozen recent Pro Bowlers and are still led by the most valuable asset in all of a sport: a mid-prime franchise QB. But we are in for a retooling and frankly, I’m pretty stoked about it.

I highly doubt it will be long before the Seahawks again find themselves among the league’s best and this is not a team that needs to crumble before it re-emerges. Win Forever forbids it. It is, however, a team in need of a good scrubbing and an offseason at home may force some necessary decisions that would’ve been masked by another ill-fated postseason run.

It’s been a hell of a season and once more we were treated to more thrills than any NFL fan should reasonably expect. I can’t wait to see what comes next. Onward, upward, and cheers.

Jacson on Twitter | Cigar Thoughts Hub | Cigar Thoughts Facebook

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The 2017 season of Cigar Thoughts is proud to be sponsored by Fairhaven Floors and Brandon Nelson Partners.

Stuck with the Gispert stogie this week, only today I paired it with some delicious Lagavullin 12 to warm me up from the inside.