For at least the next three weeks, the Seattle Seahawks will have to play without Russell Wilson. This is uncharted territory for a team that has barely even had to use its backup quarterbacks for garbage time purposes over the past nine seasons and five games.
You can certainly argue that these upcoming games are a major test for Pete Carroll and his current worth as a head coach. The last time he had to start a backup quarterback was 10 years ago, when Charlie Whitehurst was so abysmal through his two starts that they pulled him in the 2nd quarter of his second start for a barely healthy Tarvaris Jackson. Seattle’s emerging defense held the Cleveland Browns to 6 points and the Cincinnati Bengals to 20 points (subtracting D/ST touchdowns). The defense played well enough to win both games but the offense absolutely stunk the place out.
But the 2021 Seahawks have one of the NFL’s worst defenses, and that is going to be a problem regardless of who’s at quarterback. Carroll’s challenge is to fix this defense and frankly I don’t think he’s capable anymore. For as much as I’ve gotten on Ken Norton’s case for the entirety of his tenure here, Carroll hired him. And while I don’t think this is a defense bereft of talent, Carroll’s role in the front office should be heavily scrutinized for the absolutely shambolic approach to the cornerback position this year and the pass rush over the past couple of seasons.
So instead I’m going to focus on offensive coordinator Shane Waldron. If there’s anyone who is getting seriously tested here, it’s Waldron. While the Seahawks may be 5th in offensive DVOA through five weeks, they are a middling unit in points per drive, have one of the highest punt rates in the NFL, and ditto three-and-outs per game. I don’t think this has been a particularly smooth-looking offense outside of opening day, which at this point means very little given how poor the Indianapolis Colts defense has been.
The excitement surrounding Waldron was that he was part of Sean McVay’s coaching staff in Los Angeles. Pretty much being near McVay has netted “genius by association” status whether it’s warranted or not. In effect the optimism was that we’d get a taste of what it would be like to have Russell Wilson in an offense that features many of the same concepts that the Rams have killed Seattle’s defense with.
We’re going to have to shelve that for a little while, and instead Waldron has to come up with Plan A for the Plan B quarterback.
I’ve looked through the film, I’ve studied the stats, and used the eye test to determine that Geno Smith is an inferior quarterback to Russell Wilson. The legendarily accurate, big-armed deep shots to Tyler Lockett and DK Metcalf are just not going to be a feature of this offense with Geno at QB, and if they try to do the same thing it’s far more likely those end up not being successful. It all but forces the Seahawks offense to try and effectively move the ball without living and dying off of explosive plays.
Our small sample size of Smith actually getting first-team offense reps — this is something he never did in the preseason and frankly not in garbage time against the New York Jets last season — was encouraging. Smith did admittedly face a Rams defense that played it more conservatively and was protecting a two-score lead, but he looked like a reasonably competent quarterback who has been around the league for eight years.
If nothing else, that Geno Smith kept it on a read-option is something that Wilson has pretty much stopped doing. Wilson may still be a dangerous scrambler who can extend plays but defenses may finally be forced to honor that keeper again, which I think has otherwise limited the Seahawks’ offensive creativity to a degree.
The goal for the Seahawks and for Waldron is not to have a better offense with a worse quarterback. It is categorically not going to happen, and I fully expect even low-blitzing teams like Pittsburgh to send pressure like there’s no tomorrow to rattle Geno. The question for Waldron is whether he can create an offensive gameplan and a scheme that a relatively competent backup can succeed in. We’ve seen this with Kyle Shanahan and getting any productivity out of Nick Mullens, Bill Belichick/Josh McDaniels for Matt Cassel, Jimmy Garoppolo, and Jacoby Brissett, Andy Reid with Matt Moore (who plays nothing like Patrick Mahomes), etc.
I’m not expecting wins really against anyone Seattle plays other than Jacksonville for as long as Russell Wilson is out. So in the interest of looking at other developments within the season, now we get to see how Waldron can handle this curveball thrown his way. I find it weirdly intriguing.