What would it take for the Seattle Seahawks to make the 2020 Super Bowl? To answer this question I looked at two teams which made the Super Bowl and employed a similar offense to Brian Schottenheimer. I will look at similar defenses next week.
Joe Gibbs worked as offensive coordinator for Don Coryell but like Brian Schottenheimer retained some of Coryell’s ideas without retaining Coryell’s pass-centric approach. Washington won three Super Bowls in four appearances. The Skins ran more frequently than they passed in every one of those seasons, combining a grind-it-out approach to rushing with a deep passing attack.
Ted Marchibroda described Gibbs’ offense like this: “Joe did a great job focusing on the running game. He gave the ball to Riggins and let the Hogs do the dirty work. Then he’d set you up that way and get a big play on you through the air. It wasn’t anything fancy. They just played mistake-free football. They’d set you up with play action and crossing receivers. He’d give his quarterback maximum protection, and he always seemed to know when the offense was ready to hit one of those big plays downfield.”
This could double as the most favorable possible review of Schotty’s Seahawks offense.
How Seattle Could Emulate Gibbs’ Skins
The Hogs, Washington’s famed offensive line, were not populated by high draft picks. Russ Grimm was the highest drafted among Washington’s first iteration, having been drafted 69th overall. Three members had been cut by another team prior to signing with Washington, two members were undrafted, one member was drafted in the seventh round, and one in the 11th. Instead they were defined by a mentality of toughness, and since that’s a bit airy, we might say they were defined by great coaching and the ability to attack through running the ball.
Washington had a great offensive line coach throughout Gibbs’ tenure, Joe Bugel. Rather than throwing resources at the offensive line, for Seattle to duplicate the success of any one of Gibbs’ four Super Bowl contenders would likely require better coaching by Mike Solari. Solari is a very successful offensive line coach, but two things really differentiated Solari’s 2018 Seahawks from any of Bugel’s Washington teams: positional fit and penalties.
In all four seasons in which Washington made the Super Bowl, Gibbs’ Skins never finished outside the top ten in fewest penalties charged against his team. Seattle improved in 2018. Previously the most penalized team in the NFL, the Seahawks finished 15th in 2018. Another such leap would allow Seattle to better play so-called “mistake free football,” completing their already impressive abilities to control the clock and field position, and avoid turnovers.
Achieving that goal might require Seattle to move or replace Germain Ifedi. 63 of Seattle’s 115 penalties were charged against the offense, which was tied for fourth worst in the NFL. Ifedi (10), D.J. Fluker (9) and J.R. Sweezy (8) accounted for 27 of those penalties. Ifedi was assigned seven sacks allowed to Sweezy’s 3.5 and Fluker’s 0.5. That was a career worst for Ifedi, and pretty damning in light of how much Seattle worked to protect him.
Ernie Zampese’s 1995 Cowboys
Zampese is another coach who patterned his offense around the Air Coryell that coached in the Super Bowl, winning in 1995. He also served under Carroll in New England during Pete Carroll’s two seasons coaching the Patriots. Zampese took over something of a ready-made offense in Dallas, but that doesn’t stop us from looking at the nature of that offense and how it might provide a sort of blueprint for Seattle.
The Cowboys regularly fielded one of the greatest offensive lines in NFL history throughout their run. Line play is often a sort of chicken or egg affair, in which successful offenses tend to be known for their good offensive lines, but whether those lines are the cause of that greatness, or whether the line is simply recognized when the offense is on the whole playing well, is often impossible to know. But, either way, Zampese’s Cowboys like Bugel’s Skins were known for their excellence in the trenches, that excellence was perhaps best appreciated through a seemingly unstoppable rushing attack, and those lines were not made up of high draft picks or splashy free agent signings but a mix of mid-round picks and castoffs.
How Seattle Could Emulate Zampese’s Cowboys
The Cowboys also had excellent talent at the skill positions, and the Seahawks really have no in-house equivalent to Michael Irvin, Jay Novacek or Daryl Johnston. Johnston was a fullback and it doesn’t seem likely Seattle is looking to add or develop a top fullback, as Tre Madden only played in 8% of offensive snaps in 2018. Instead the Seahawks are likely to target a smaller move tight end like Schottenheimer had in New York and St. Louis. Someone like Lance Kendricks or Dustin Keller, or, prospectively, Geoff Swaim or Tyler Kroft in free agency, or Ricky Seals-Jones should Arizona not retain him, or one of a host of interesting prospects in the draft could fill the position.
Given the success of Tyler Lockett and the previous excellence of Doug Baldwin, finding a true number one like Irving may not be entirely necessary, but finding a tight end who is a major contributor as a receiver is almost imperative. Nick Vannett seems capped out as a yeoman do-everything tight end that will never be a major contributor as a receiver. Ed Dickson never really found his fit, and though he has or had the athletic profile to stretch the seam, turning 32 before the season starts, one shouldn’t expect him to contribute beyond his previous level. Will Dissly could possibly rise up to become a Novacek like player, but that’s probably wishcasting based on too little data.
Dissly was not much of a receiver in college, receiving for nearly a quarter of his college receiving yards in one game against the Montana Grizzlies, an FCS team. He had that one really fun 66 yard reception in Week 1, but that reception represents nearly half of his total yards receiving, and by Weeks 2 and 3, Dissly was back to contributing at a level typical of a blocking tight end.
Thinking abstractly, Seattle could achieve a similar kind of skill position excellence not by directly imitating Zampese’s Cowboys but by adding a receiving tight end. The winner among Vannett, Dickson and Dissly would then be Seattle’s Johnston, only a tight end. Which is to say: run blocker, pass blocker in max protect, and least importantly, receiver.
The Greatest Show on Turf Rams ran a version of the Air Coryell but one which bears little resemblance to the scheme of Schottenheimer. The Super Bowl winning Baltimore Ravens ran an Air Coryell in 2012, and Schottenheimer worked under Cam Cameron, the designer of that offense, with the Chargers in the mid-2000s. But Cameron was fired mid-season. His replacement, Jim Caldwell, also ran a version of the Air Coryell, but like Mike Martz in St. Louis, Caldwell’s scheme was much more pass-centric, much more of a direct offshoot of Don Coryell’s work, and not very similar to anything Schottenheimer is ever likely to run in Seattle. The same could be said about Bruce Arians and his work for the Steelers in 2008. Similar origins but very different interpretation and not very instructive for decoding how the Seahawks’ offense might be able to make the jump from good to great.
The Seahawks have some holes. Despite their excellence, Baldwin and Lockett are a shaky foundation for a reliable receiving corps. Finding a tight end who is neither Jimmy Graham nor Nick Vannett, but some combination of the better parts of both, is very possible and would represent a sizable improvement at a potentially vital position. But most likely the Seahawks make the Super Bowl in 2020 because of the quiet process of development. Those many months of study and practice which make serviceable players good and good player great. Which is to say, the Super Bowl bound Seahawks of 2020 would be the one and done Seahawks of 2019, only better. Not saved by some rookie or free agent acquisition, but made through a tireless commitment to improving.