The 2015 NFL Regular Season is in the books. The Seattle Seahawks finished 2nd in the NFC West, with a record of 10-6. They are (at the time of this writing) the #6 seed, a wildcard, in the 2015 NFL Playoffs. Here’s a look at their season from a fan’s perspective.
Super Bowl hangover. Nightmarish, ad nauseum replays of an interception that doomed Seattle from making a name for themselves in the history books. Continuous speculation about what could have been. Blockbuster trades. A mocked at draft. Contract drama. Holdouts. Injuries. Five blown 4th quarter leads. An offensive line that resembled a saloon style door. Ruminations about players getting ‘Paid’, and lazy. The ill effects of being a ‘Celebrity’ on a team, and in the league.
These were just a few of the stories that dominated the Seattle Seahawks throughout the first few months of the 2015 season. It would be hard to see any team you cheer for start the season 0-2, let alone a team that had made mince meat out of the NFC for two consecutive seasons, and gone to two consecutive Super Bowls. Though they would right the ship after taking on water early, it would come amongst some of the most immense criticism of the team to date. No one was safe from the crosshairs, not their offensive line and its coordinator, nor the offensive coordinator. In the middle to later parts of the season, the defensive and special teams coordinators would catch flack as well. The critiques would continue to come in waves much like a rainy Seattle day: constant, even if just at an annoying drizzle.
A last second play that no referee or commentator would correctly speculate live on gave Seattle a glimmer at home in a slim victory on Monday night versus the Lions (where Lions defensive end Ezekial Ansah seemed to have Wilsons every move choreographed), and a shutout at home against the Chicago Bears undoubtedly kept the team’s post season hopes alive. The next two games were split, one on the road versus the undefeated Cincinnati Bengals, and one at home versus the undefeated Carolina Panthers. Seattle held 4th quarter leads in both of those games, ultimately to lose the first in OT on a FG, and the second on a last minute touchdown drive authored off of the arm and hands of Cam Newton and Greg Olsen.
As the next two games (and victories) came on the road against a reeling San Francisco team, and a nail biting performance under the dome in Dallas against the Cowboys (where infamous Dallas defensive end Greg Hardy unleashed his fury at will on Wilson, and Seattle’s own Ricardo Lockette would leave on a stretcher), fans once again wondered aloud why a team with all of the talent on paper was unable to string a set of dominant performances together. As the team headed into their Week 9 bye at .500 though, the feeling was one of mixed optimism. Seattle’s next three games would come at home, where even with the losses early, was still voodoo for opposing teams.
The first game came in the form of a heartbreaking loss to the (eventual) NFC West Champions, the Arizona Cardinals. Led by Carson Palmer, the Cardinals passing attack decimated Seattle’s defense, even after three turnovers, an interception, a trio of sacks, and a fumble return for a TD culminated in a Seattle lead with eight minutes remaining. A 48-yard TD run by Arizona’s Andre Ellington right before the 2:00 warning felt like a haymaker to a season that Seattle’s offense was still bumbling at defending against. Marshawn Lynch, who scored in this game, would suffer an abdominal injury that would send ‘Beast Mode’ in for the first surgery of his career (At the time of this writing, he has yet to practice with the team).
Leaving Century Link Field that night, my head felt hazy, and I’m sure many of the fans and players felt the same. It appeared as if Seattle was lashing out wildly in some sort of attempt to make superstar plays reminiscent of their prior seasons, when all they would have needed was focus on the basics. The window for eking out a close, tough win by the skin of their teeth slammed shut.
Though the team was uncharacteristically split wide open in front of its fans, the next game versus San Francisco displayed the emergence of Thomas Rawls (Seattle’s backup running back to Marshawn Lynch), and Tyler Lockett (Seattle’s draft pick who was originally intended to fill the teams return duties). Rawls had torched Cincinnati on the road in his second NFL start, for 169 yards and a TD. The result in the San Francisco game was one of awe: Rawls recorded 209 all-purpose yards on the ground another 34 through the air, setting a franchise record in the process. He ran for TD, and caught another. Lockett wove in and out of the hapless San Francisco secondary for a pair of scores, and Seattle ended up with a season high 508 total yards of offense, yet allowed another 300+ yards to an opposing team. Lockett’s performances through this next set of games would earn him his first Pro Bowl berth as a kick and punt returner.
The win set the stage (and pressure) for a showdown with resurging Pittsburgh Steelers, and that final game in November saw 900+ yards of total offense by both teams (dubbed Super Bowl XL revenge), with Pittsburgh putting 538 yards down Seattle’s throat. It did not matter, as the offensive line, bolstered by huge running performances and time in the pocket for Russell Wilson- made for a five TD outing by number 3. Thomas Rawls rushed for 80 yards and a score, where Pittsburgh had not allowed a team to rush for over 100 yards against them. Jermaine Kearse found a pair of scores against Pittsburgh as well, but arguably the capstone of the evening was an 80 yard catch and go TD for Doug Baldwin, who game into the game with 60 receiving yards against San Francisco, and 134 yards (and a TD) against Arizona the weeks before.
He would finish this game with three TDs, and 145 receiving yards. By season’s end, Baldwin would become Seattle’s first 1,000 yard receiver since Bobby Engram in 2007, and the holder of the single season TD record by a Seahawks wide receiver with 14. The game spelled disaster in many areas, with tight end Jimmy Graham’s season coming to an end with a ruptured Patella Tendon in the end zone. In light of Graham’s loss, the offensive line and Russell Wilson charged into December with a playoff berth in mind, and what followed next was the renaissance of Baldwin’s and Wilson’s careers.
Over the next four games, Seattle’s offense tore into each of their opponents in decisive fashion, throwing at will against Minnesota, Baltimore, and Cleveland, scoring 30+ points in each contest. Their defense held Minnesota and Baltimore to no offensive TDs, but did allow a 103 yd. kick return score by Minnesota’s Cordarelle Patterson. Adrian Peterson (the eventual league rushing champion, his third time) was held to 18 yards from scrimmage in Minnesota, a sign that against the run, teams would find little success against Seattle’s line backing corps chaired by team captain Bobby Wagner. Seattle had contained Arizona’s Chris Johnson and Chicago’s Matt Forte each to less than 100 yards in their respective games earlier in the season.
As with each element of Seattle’s success though, came another blindside, with Thomas Rawls leaving the game at Baltimore with a broken ankle. His season would end a mere two games after the loss of Graham, and continue the already downward spiral of health in the ranks of Seattle’s key offensive weapons. His efforts were noticeably missed, as in relief of Lynch, he amassed 800 yards on the ground and four scores. When Rawls stepped into the backfield, teams treated the undrafted rookie as if he was Beast Mode incarnate. The irony was not lost on Rawls, he simply preferred to run through tacklers than run out of bounds. The road became steeper, tougher to ascend, even if the opponents Seattle faced in the coming weeks were easier, per se.
Losing in what could only be described as a fluky performance at home against the St. Louis Rams (who swept Seattle in the regular season for the 1st time since the 2004 season), the O-line regressed, and a number of key players did not start. Those who did subjected themselves to what can only be described as a blitzkrieg by St. Louis’s defensive front. Four or five total concussions abounded from the two teams collectively, and Seattle’s run game faltered, failing to reach 100 yards for the first time this season. Wilson would end up getting hit 13 times, with 4 of them being sacks. A series of unfortunate events led to two fumble recoveries by Rams center Tim Barnes, one such within the 5 yard line. Even with those mistakes, Wilson found Baldwin and Kearse for TDs to bring the game within one score as time ran out.
As of today, Wilson led the NFL in sacks with 44. How he has managed to play every game and practice without missing a single snap is a true testament to his preparation and medical attentiveness, as in this year alone, multiple starting QBs found themselves on the sidelines thanks to a variety of ailments: broken thumbs, concussions, torn ACLs, lacerated kidneys, etc. Some will point to his statement on his favorite recovery water in Rolling Stone, but he said earlier this week that his time in the pool (30 laps per session) is what keeps his muscles fresh. Take notes, kids, hit the pool. Wear your nose plug and swimming cap if you’re worried about the chlorine levels.
Seattle would finish the regular season in a showdown on the road against the Arizona Cardinals. Arizona needed a win, and Carolina Loss to grab the #1 seed in the NFC Playoffs. Neither would happen, as Seattle played perfect football in all three phases in the first half, making Week 17 a literal living hell for Carson Palmer. He would not replicate his Week 10 numbers, and the Cards would split the series with Seattle at one apiece. Seattle did all of their damage in the first half, and Arizona head coach Bruce Arians benched Palmer in the second half on the err of caution. All the while the Seahawks won in resounding fashion, 36-6, finishing with a 10-6 record. Wilson would also pass Matt Hassleback for single season passing yards record, with over 4,000 (4,024), also passing Dave Kreig for most passing TDs in a Season (34). His passer rating of 109.3 was a career high, and the best in the NFL this season. Not a bad day at all, as far as record setting goes.
With Green Bay’s loss against Minnesota tonight, the Seahawks travel to Minnesota for the first game of the 2015 playoffs. A lot more is on the line than a playoff berth against the NFC North champions this time around, and a great game should be found.
For the first time in recent memory, the Seahawks struggled to contain the PR monster that is the NFL media. Analysts, tabloids, and rumor mills alike all took potshots at Seattle as the team was enveloped in contract drama with Russell Wilson and Kam Chancellor. A number of players’ cryptic tweets and ‘insider’ speculation about their contract hopes and future landing spots made for a distracted team. When the ‘Hawks landed in Hawaii for their offseason team bonding, the touchdown that wasn’t was still the lone cloud in the Instagram photos and videos of the players Swimming, hitting the sunny beach and sipping Mai Tais.
No sooner had training camp started, Chancellor had dug his feet in and forced Seattle’s hand at building their next man up, Deion Bailey. A 2-2 preseason outing showed that this undrafted kid, Thomas Rawls, had something to prove. The departure of Christine Michael, Robert Turbin, and Rod Smith came quickly. Tyler Lockett demonstrated he had some incredible speed (and a pair of return TDs in the preseason immediately backed up Seattle’s choice), and slowly displayed utility in the passing game. A perfect (ish) storm was brewing. Though Earl Thomas III did not practice for a great span of training camp, he was present and building his skills. Players were supportive of Chancellor, but all of them knew at the end of the day, his absence would hurt. Bobby Wagner was named defensive captain in his stead.
Chancellor would miss all of pre-season, and the first three games. Deon Bailey, who started in place of Chancellor, would catch a nasty case of turf toe in the last quarter of game one, allowing a game tying score by the Rams. The dissenting voices hissed louder in the second game, and though no one really missed Chancellor’s presence in Week Three versus the Chicago Bears, Chancellors return (without a re-worked contract) and Bailey’s departure was widely heralded as something that should have happened much sooner. In his first game back, Chancellor became internet lore with a leaping Superman punch of a ball held by a sprinting Calvin Johnson on the 1 yard line.
As K.J. Wright batted it away, fans dropped their ire of Chancellor, but rest assured; it came back the following week when Cincinnati Bengals tight end Tyler Eifert grabbed two touchdowns in the redzone, after bumping into Chancellor in zone coverage both times (Those miscues would later be attributed on cornerback Carey Williams). As the commentators miscalled the errors on Chancellor, fans’ ire was sparked yet again.
There is no telling what would have been if Chancellor had played those first three games. What is non negotiable is that his absence felt like a concussion to the feared and revered Seattle defense. There was a legion, yes, but the ‘boom’ had a lowercase B this time around. Because honestly, when it wasn’t Chancellor getting the fan hatred, it was the offensive line, which was attempting to make Patrick Lewis and Drew Nowak court for their turn at center. Both would stumble in the beginning of the season, and offensive line coach Tom Cable was the first of many Seahawk coaches to have their jersey burned online. Of course, Cable’s style of converting defensive players into offensive line studs caught fire at the perfect time, when it mattered the most. Without his hybrid, high risk, high reward style, Wilson would likely not achieved the ratings or records he did.
Again, over the last two years, Seattle has been impervious to all of the riff raff comments that other team’s fans would throw their way. Sure, the ‘bandwagon’ jokes were always present. Seattle had leapt out of its slump after its playoff collapse against the Atlanta Falcons in 2012. Percy Harvin’s return TD in Super Bowl XVIII did him no favors in the locker room only a season later. There was more rummaging and rumors in this case as well. When Seattle started out the 2013 season at 4-1, hardly anyone had any complains. When Seattle started out the 2014 Season at 3-3 though, a number of critics began to write them off. The rest is history. 9-1 run down the stretch, first round bye, home field advantage (for the second year), and a four interception NFC Championship game that saw a monumental comeback from Russell Wilson. That season gave figurative birth to internet drama occtuplets after the decision to pass on 1st and goal failed against the New England Patriots.
Wilson, long viewed as a messiah in the Emerald City (religious puns not withstanding) found himself a pariah, as his relationship with R&B singer Ciara crept into the media spotlight in a way his perfect press conference responses could not protect him from. The story was cut and paste: Wilson was distracted and playing it safe after singing a multimillion dollar contract. For the majority of Seattle’s star players on contract extension, every misstep was used as a bullet point as to why they were overpaid. For a team whose errors had never been egregious to begin with until this season, turf toe was a releasable event.
When this season started off under .500, returned to .500, and back underneath .500, anyone and everyone had something to say about the NFC Champs. The constant to and fro motion of the wins and losses was hard enough to watch, but must have been even harder for the players. They were getting heat from everywhere they turned, including their fans.
Constant siege on the deep side of the passing game against the Legion of Boom ultimately led to the dismissal of Cary Williams, who had come to Seattle from Philladelphia, in a bizzare cornerback swap. Byron Maxwell, fresh off his new contract, struggled to find a measurable level of success in Philly. Williams, on a 1 year deal, struggled equally in Seattle. The team decided, after a series of healthy scratches, to part ways with Williams, and eat his salary cap hit (William’s contract was guaranteed). Williams had been responsible for a strip sack, fumble recovery of the Ram’s Nick Foles in Week 1 for a defensive TD. It mattered little, as the media wasted no time in nit picking Seattle’s weaknesses as an all you can eat buffet on the 24 hour sports news networks.
Seattle was never really able to contain the media shitstorm that occurred in the absence of many unanswered questions, namely: Why was Jimmy Graham, a player Seattle traded a first round pick and their center for as a Red Zone threat, utilized primarily as a run blocker? His totals (2 TDs, 605 receiving yds.) were some of the lowest of his career. I did a comparison of Grahams statistics in an earlier blog post (linked below), and found that on less targets, Graham was actually more effective in terms of completed passes. Then again, so were the rest of the ‘Hawks receiving corps. For a player intended to silence the pondering of why you would throw to Ricardo Lockette on the 1 yd. line, it appeared as though Graham, after a rough start, would assume only the 3rd down role in the passing game.
Graham’s biggest outing of the season came at home versus Carolina in Week 6, where he totaled 140 receiving yards off of 8 receptions (12 Targets), with a long catch of 45. Graham’s injury against the Steelers opened the door for Baldwin, Kearse, and Lockett to fill the ensuing void. Once Baldwin went streaking with three or four games of multi TD outings, defenses started covering him more. Kearse benefited from more looks, and (wouldn’t you know it) made more crucial 1st down conversions and caught TDs. He tacked on an extra 120 receiving yards and three extra TDs in the regular season alone.
Looking forward, Graham will look to get healthy and return in the offseason ready and amped to make an impact. With a season (most of a season, at least) versed in Seattle’s pass blocking scheme and familiarity with Russell Wilson’s pocket prowess, Graham could be a huge impact player in the 2016 NFL Season.
Beyond that, everyone with a keyboard and a penance for scanning You Tube for game highlights became a critic of Seattle’s offensive scheme. Darrell Bevel became the next digital jersey to be set ablaze as many on Social Media and in sports writing called for Bevell’s immediate removal, as they seemingly forgot his ability to dial up plays that were ‘aggressive’ enough for the masses. After a 12-4 and 13-3 pair of seasons, many people predicted them as the shoe-in for NFC dominance again (I predicted 13-3, in a post I abandoned after making early season edits). Simply put, neither the fans, nor the media personnel, were prepared by any sense for a 10-6 season by Seattle. But once it appeared that the West was not going to be won by our heroes in Blue and Green, the dissenting whispers became louder than the 12th Man had been.
Injuries have been another key cog in the story of Seattle’s overrated demise. For teams like the Colts, Cowboys and Texans, injuries to key playmakers like QB Andrew Luck and Tony Romo or RB Arian Foster made their seasons a downhill spiral quicker than you can read this sentence. No one team was safe from the injury bug, not the Patriots (losing both Rob Gronkowsi and Juilian Edelman), not the Cardinals (Chris Johnson, Tyrann Mathieu), not the Steelers (Leveon Bell), nor the Packers (Jordy Nelson), nor the Panthers (Kelvin Benjamin), the Falcons (Davonta Freeman, Roddy White), the Cheifs (Jamaal Charles), or the Seahawks (Marshawn Lynch, Jimmy Graham, Thomas Rawls).
The team with the highest number of players on IR before the end of the season was a tie between the Cleveland Browns and the Baltimore Ravens. A difference maker in how those teams got by was their grooming of the second and third string players. No team has managed this process the best, but the Steelers, Cardinals, Seahawks, Patriots and Panthers all rose up from the injury monsters jaws to come away with winning records in spite of losing star players. It should come as no surprise that everyone of these listed teams is locked into the postseason, due to their diligence in this process (The Texans are in the AFC Playoffs as well).
‘Next man up’ is the hot catch phrase for the commentators this season in describing how teams deal with injuries. “Business as usual” is what it meant for the Seahawks, Patriots, Panthers, and teams listed. All of those teams, Seattle especially, made the term ‘resilience’ look like a required reading assignment in order to translate their season’s narrative. If you didn’t understand it, you couldn’t comprehend what you were seeing. Not only were the ‘Hawks continuing to push forward, they were mere inches away from the top of the wall that its critics claimed couldn’t be scaled weeks prior. The Seahawks in December looked like the neighborhood victor at king of the hill, even if St. Louis threw some wrenches at them. Yes, Arizona didn’t play their starters beyond the first half, but there were some key takeaways:
- Regardless of Palmer’s benching in the second half, the Cardinals (with their starters) did nothing to march down the field or bring the pressure against Wilson, who found two free agent, practice team bounce arounds for scores, in addition to Jermaine Kearse.
- The O-line (with Mark Glowinski and Alvin Bailey in for J.R. Sweezy and Russell Okung) played the entire game. They gelled early on in the game, and put in overtime to maintain their synergy for the second half. This provided leaps and bounds for the running game. We all chide Dallas for their offensive woes, but their offensive line made Darren McFadden look like a pro bowl RB. Now Christine Michael and Bryce Brown are able to get it going behind Seattle’s O-Line after two injuries (which would have derailed any other team) threatened to prevent that facet of their offense being sustained.
- DeShawn Shead should have started in place of Cary Williams the entire season. Between him, Kelcie McCray, and Jeremy Lane, it’s clear that Richard Sherman and Earl Thomas III have plenty of inside and outside help.
- Two weeks ago, Seattle and Pittsburgh were the wild card teams no one wanted to face in the postseason. Last week, both teams lost in quizzical fashion. This week, both teams won. Both teams remain the two most dangerous, refined, and (mostly) healthy teams in the wild card conversation, outside of Kansas City. ‘Any given Sunday‘ really does fit the mold for the league this season.
Heading into the postseason, does Seattle still have chinks in its armor?
Since the beginning of the season one area Seattle has struggled with consistently is defending against opposing tight ends. Plenty of players, both the ‘Who’s who’ in the league at the position (Tyler Eifert, Greg Olsen, and Gary Barnidge), and relative unknowns (Vance McDonald and Jermaine Gresham), tight ends have found plenty of gaps in man, cover, or zone coverage schemes employed by the Legion of Boom. The majority of the time, these were in red zone situations. The LOB has improved greatly since then, but their post season performances will likely show us how much improvement has occurred. This, coupled with Seattle’s untimely early season knack for blowing 4th quarter leads, could lead any team they face in the playoffs to believe that if they follow the rope-a-dope style of defense, that the ‘Hawks will allow the door to stay open for prospective teams to tie the game up and take it to OT. This season, the ‘Hawks were 0-2 in OT games. In the last years post season, they were (you guessed it) 1-0.
That would be foolish, as the Seattle team losing then in OT is twice removed from the Seattle team of now. The Seahawks visited the Vikings back in Week 13 and won handedly, negating Adrian Peterson and forcing Minnesota QB Teddy Bridgewater into uncomfortable situations. He would not finish that game on a high note, but there is now plenty of tape on how to scheme against the ‘Hawks. The Rams’ Jeff Fisher seems to be the only coach who successfully knows how to do that, unless Panthers head coach Ron Rivera has a Bat-phone with Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer on direct dial. I’m cautiously optimistic, but this season has proven that on any given Sunday, you can lose to a contender, beat a subpar opponent, or the opposite.
With 6 losses on the season (and everyone of them heartbreaking or gut wrenching in one form or another) and 10 wins (some closer than we as fans would feel comfortable about), Seattle has to do something it has not done since the Pete Carroll era started: go on the road and win throughout the postseason. There is no 1st round bye for the players to rest up. There will be no shortage of business trips over the next month. No more sleeping in their beds the night before an opponent travels to their backyard. This team may be the most well rounded team as a whole, due to the fact that the just about the entire active roster has been in the trenches in both wins AND losses, bodes well for them.The roster is well versed in what works, and what not to do.
You may wonder how home field advantage would have helped the ‘Hawks on their quest for a third consecutive Super Bowl berth. The 12s– the term for Seattle’s fans (so thunderously loud that visiting teams can’t hear audibles or play calling in Century Link), how good are they still? Of the 8 games played at home, Seattle won 5, and lost 3. All three of those losses came to NFC opponents, two of them being divisional foes. Seattle won as many games on the road as it won at home, and lost the same amount away, as it did in front of their fans. No decibel records were broken this season, though I tried to do my part both times I attended games at Century Link. It is obvious that this Seahawks team is just as good away from home, as it is inside its save haven.
The ‘championship mindset’, that is- to approach each game as if it is a playoff game or conference championship, has been poked at, reviled, and laughed off. That same mindset led a streak of wins when it mattered most, clinching a playoff berth. Had they won another game, at 11-5 they would have held a chance at a tiebreaker versus both the Vikings or Packers for better seeding (it’s also likely the duo of teams that they’ll end up facing in the first two rounds). While it isn’t the 12-4 season we’ve come to accept as the floor for this team, or the 13-3 outing that’s all too often referenced as the swan song of Carroll’s years (this would have changed if Seattle won against New England in SB XLIX).
This is part of the issue. If the NFC West were as bad as the NFC East, for example, the ‘Hawks could have gone 9-7 and won the division. For years, the NFC has been a laughingstock. The tide has turned tremendously in the last three years, with strong showings from the NFC (Carolina, Arizona and Seattle, for starters), and in Denver’s case, an outright embarrassment for the AFC. That completed 4th and 1 TD pass against the Patriots would have re-written how AFC teams play their NFC counterparts. The ‘Hawks would have been validated, they could have slumped through this season, and come away with the same criticism and not cared.
As that has changed virtually overnight, key draft choices (Frank Clark, Tyler Lockett), stud undrafted free agents (Doug Baldwin, Jermaine Kearse, Thomas Rawls), trades (Jimmy Graham for Max Unger, Christine Michael, Robert Turbin to Cowboys/Browns), and complete ceded control to Carroll and his posse to run the team as they see fit (defensive minded, protect the ball, emphasize the run game, bleed the clock) has made it hard to look back on this 10-6 season and see it as anything but what it’s been: a head scratcher, a heart pounder, a conversation starter, and, a true test in Seattle’s limit of advance.
By all means seen here, the only thing that seems to be ringing true is Seattle, led by a ‘non’ elite QB who was too small, aided by a pair of ‘pedestrian’ receivers, and doomed by all of the off field distractions and Ph.D level dissection of the offense, is reacting like a supped-up car on the highway with a slow spray of nitrous oxide. It remains to be seen if the pace can continue (as Seattle fans, we agree without hesitation). All of the pieces are in place. The stage is set, the players know their lines, and the dress rehearsal (regular season) is in the books. A full charged tilt is underway, I hope you’ve bought your tickets.
-Go Hawks, obviously.