Disappointing is as apt a word as any to describe the 2015-16 Seattle Seahawks season. This team's "A" game was better than anyone else's. But, it also seemed less able to access and maintain that level of play than any other team in the Pete Carroll/Russell Wilson era. If you care to, you are welcome to consider that a moral failing and character flaw. Perhaps it is.
If you care to, you are welcome to pin a disappointing Divisional Round loss on Tom Cable's near-pathological inattention to pass protection, in both in talent acquisition and play design. You could also pin it on Pete Carroll's increasingly untenable Cable-enabling, and you might be onto something, honestly.
If you care to, you are welcome to chasten other 12s who are upset about the loss and the season. You could chide them for not counting their blessings. After all, Seattle has been what Houston is now; a team with a formidable defense (with J.J. Watt in his Cortez Kennedy-like prime) with no clear route to contention because their offense is a dumpster fire.
I'm not here to tell you what's right. Instead, I'm here to offer a few thoughts on loving this season, warts and all. I'm also here to speculate on what that could mean for the offseason and seasons to come.
So, What's to Love about 2015-16?
I love 2015-16 because I see it as the second act of a three act play (or part two of a trilogy if you prefer), which is typically the least satisfying but most informative installment. Although second acts do not provide resolution, they tell us some very important things if we let them.
Second acts reveal the main characters to the audience. They show us who these people "really" are; how their strengths and flaws shine (or prove fatal) under the right (or wrong) circumstances. Second acts also reveal the (moral) dilemma that needs to be resolved in the third act. If we think about the Seahawks under Pete Carroll I'd say the Divisional round loss at Carolina to end the 2015-16 season completed the second act.
Act one consisted of Pete Carroll taking on the rebuild, putting a system in place with John Schneider, and carrying it through to a resounding Super Bowl victory. Act two began with the defense of the Super Bowl trophy, but it included a transition from a team of plucky young upstarts to a team that others see as the standard. Of course, as we know, that team fell infamously short of its goal in its second Super Bowl. The second act has now concluded with a disappointing loss in the divisional round. So, what has been revealed about the main characters? What is the dilemma to be resolved in the next act?
-- Main character: Russell Wilson. I suspect that we already knew that Wilson was ready to be the centerpiece of the offense. We learned (following an interesting off-season filled with a new contract and a hot celebrity girlfriend) that he could recognize that he must improve at the so-called "little things" to make the leap into the category of QBs that can keep a championship window open even as their physical skills diminish.
Wilson, to his credit, did in fact improve at overall field vision and at getting the ball out quickly to make his offensive line and receivers better. He also improved at staying with the offensive design. Of course he still needs more work to master those things, as well as not taking unnecessary sacks outside the pocket and setting protections. The funny thing about playoffs is that they seem to always involve a re-set on your in-season improvements. Thus, we saw a return of the old hero-balling-yet-indecisive Russell Wilson in both playoff games. That is how learning goes, of course. You struggle to get it. You get it. You get knocked down and lose it when times get tough. But, if you really got it the first time you find it again. Russell Wilson's improvement this year was evolutionary. He'll be a different quarterback going forward.
-- Main characters: Doug Baldwin/Tyler Lockett. I think we learned that this duo can be at the heart of a very good passing offense. Both bring elite ability to get open and catch the ball. (I understand those are pretty important traits for wide receivers.) In fact, because both catch the ball exceptionally well, they can "get theirs" with low volume. As Seattle looks to add to the receiving corps, getting open/getting leverage and a low drop rate should be prized over eye-popping physical talent.
-- Main characters: Cliff Avril/Michael Bennett. I think we learned to live with offsides penalties, frustrating though they may be. In a league where QBs have the ball less than 2.5 seconds on average, the only way to affect them consistently is to time the snap. Seattle is consistently disruptive. You'll be mad at the next free first down on 3rd and short. I will too. We'll have to deal. Maybe we need a support group. (Oh, and let's hope Bennett stays in Seattle.)
-- Main character: Kam Chancellor. I think we learned some lessons about how pride fuels something/someone great and also gets in the way when things change, as things inevitably do. Kam Chancellor is transitioning, and as we saw this season, it's tough to transition from a 1% athlete that strikes fear into other 1% athletes into something else. In 2013 or 2014 Kam at least deflects Bridgewater's throw to Kyle Rudolph at the end of the wild card game. At worst, Rudolph catches it and is forced out by the violence of the collision.
Well, in 2015 Kam began the transition to a safety that must rely on being in position more than on his body. Kam has the IQ and the will to do it. I recognize that many fans (and possibly even the team) want him gone based on his holdout. That's fair. I won't begrudge anyone's feelings or opinions. I will simply offer my own speculation that Kam understood that 2014-15 was the end of his prime as a particular kind of safety. He could not possibly have felt certain of even a short-term future in Seattle, with the handwriting so clearly on the wall for him. It's a tough business.
It's also understandable (even if disagreeable) that he felt he owed it to himself to use whatever leverage he had to max out his current value. It didn't work and his transition to the next phase was rocky in 2015-16. We had the Calvin Johnson/Adrian Peterson strips and the Andre Ellington/Kyle Rudolph whiffs. I'd like to see Kam remain because I think he's still a heck of a player who will smooth out the rough edges with an off-season to come to grips with the player he is now. I have no intuition about what he or the team will do.
-- Main characters: The coaching staff. We learned that Pete Carroll trusts his staff to develop talent, possibly to a fault. Remember, Kris Richard, Lofa Tatupu, and Michael Barrow are new to their roles on the staff. That is a LOT of staff change, absent a new head coach. Yet it's worth noting that every unit improved over the course of the season. Yes, even the offensive line improved. Still, questions remain. The biggest is whether Pete Carroll sees the offensive line as in the dire straits that many of the rest of us do.
Dilemmas for Act Three: Transitioning to a Wilson-centric Offense, Keeping the Defense Replenished & Exit Carroll
Seattle's offense in Act three will be centered around Russell Wilson, but how? Pete Carroll has said that having a "point guard" quarterback is a philosophical tenet for him. He does not want an offense like Green Bay's, Pittsburgh's, or New England's, which are reliant on the singular talents of their respective quarterbacks. I suspect what he has in mind for Wilson is the 49ers of the peak Steve Young years. Those were strong running teams and explosive passing teams too. The interesting question is what are the implications for Tom Cable? Does Carroll move on from Cable? Do they ask him to pay greater attention to pass protection?
Seattle's defense just completed one of the most impressive four-year runs in NFL history as scoring champion. Defense, as we know, must be replenished more frequently than offense. Although Richard Sherman has looked ageless, Seattle must give serious consideration to acquiring (eventual) replacements for various members of the defensive core based on age and/or contract status. Players who have played prominent roles in taking Seattle from a laughingstock to a Super Bowl champ and perennial playoff team will begin to depart. Roster turnover, an undeniable fact of life in the NFL, yet it guarantees nothing. Nor does standing pat.
The great thing about third acts is that they can be of varying duration, but they always end. Irrespective of how well Seattle plays going forward, at some point Pete Carroll will not care to coach football any longer. We should all probably prepare ourselves for the fact that the odds are his decision move to the next phase (whatever that is) will likely be sooner rather than later. Coaches rarely get to choose the manner of their departure, and it is hardly guaranteed that Carroll will have the privilege. Although I think that is often unfortunate (e.g., Tom Coughlin), it is no great tragedy. Nor is it unjust. But, it is a great reminder to love the Pete Carroll era while it lasts, warts and all.