At 4-12, the Seattle Seahawks finished their worst season since the franchise-worst 2-14 season in 1992. On Monday, Seattle players cleared their lockers without reaching the postseason for the first time since 2002. And many changes appear to be in store now that coach Mike Holmgren’s 10-year reign is over.
Now comes the hard part for team president Tim Ruskell and new head coach Jim Mora. They must decide if an aging roster still has enough talent for another postseason run in the next year or two, or if it’s time to start with a clean slate and begin rebuilding with an emphasis on a younger group of core players with a priority on future, not immediate, success.
The Seahawks can use their No. 4 overall pick to infuse the team with a high-impact player. But they also will have to make some key decisions in free agency in order to improve the team for next season.
Injuries were partly to blame for Seattle’s demise. The Seahawks used 46 different starters this season, according to an ESPN report, the most in the league. They finished with 14 players on the injured reserve list, one of the highest totals in the league.
For that reason, safety Deon Grant said he thinks there’s still enough talent on the roster for another playoff run in 2009.
“What you saw happen to this team probably will never happen again in NFL history and probably never happened before,” Grant said. “They’ve had talent here over the years. I definitely believe (we) will be right back on point next year.”
With the season over, Seattle has several players eligible for free agency. Among them, linebacker Leroy Hill probably will be the most sought-after player. The fourth-year pro is considered one of the better linebackers in the league, but, playing next to talented linebackers Lofa Tatupu and Julian Peterson, he has never been selected for a Pro Bowl. Both Tatupu and Peterson have long-term contracts, which may affect whether Ruskell wants to tie up big money in three linebackers, particularly when the Seahawks have many other holes to fill.
Seattle could also give Hill the franchise tag, which would obligate the Seahawks to pay him for one season the average of the top five salaries league-wide at his position – a steep price the team may want to avoid and use the money elsewhere to bring in an impact player through free agency.
Hill said he wants to return to Seattle and thinks the Seahawks have enough talent on the roster to quickly rebound.
But Hill also understands the business side of football might mean he won’t return.
Seattle’s brass has a few weeks to evaluate the roster, with the free agency period beginning Feb. 27.
“I do realize there’s a chance I might be here,” Hill said. “And like I said, I’ll miss it if I’m not. But if I am, I’m going to come back as strong as ever next year and try to help this team reach our potential.”
Hill played in 12 games this season, missing four after he suffered a stinger injury in his neck in the Dallas game Nov. 27. Hill was leading the team in tackles at the time, and he doesn’t expect the injury to affect his marketability.
Hill is at the top of Seattle’s list of potential free agent losses, including fullback Leonard Weaver, wide receivers Bobby Engram and Koren Robinson, defensive tackle Rocky Bernard, running back Maurice Morris and offensive linemen Ray Willis and Floyd “Pork Chop” Womack.
Like Hill, Weaver would like to return to Seattle. He had his most productive season heading into his contract year. Weaver finished with 130 yards rushing in spot duty, averaging 4.3 yards per carry. He’s a Pro Bowl alternate for the first time in his four-year career, and he also had a monster game at San Francisco, taking two short dump routes and turning them into long touchdown runs. Weaver has filled in nicely for two-time Pro Bowler Mack Strong, who retired during the 2007 season.
Morris benefited from Holmgren’s loyalty to his players by starting five of the final six games over Julius Jones, rushing for over 100 yards in two of those games. But with Jones just one year into a four-year, $12 million deal, Morris might be on the way out.
Offensive linemen Willis and Womack benefited from the avalanche of injuries along the line, earning playing time while all five projected starters from September finished the season on the injured reserve list.
Holmgren singled out Willis as one of the players he was most proud of this season. The veteran tackle showed a mean streak in run blocking and played through pain. And Womack, in his eighth season with Seattle, had perhaps his most productive year as a pro, staying healthy and starting 14 games at both guard spots. With his ability to play both guard and tackle, Womack likely will return.
“There are always options out there in case things don’t work out here,” Womack said. “But overall I’d like to be here.”
Meanwhile, receivers Engram and Robinson, along with defensive tackle Bernard, could have played their last game for Seattle. Engram and Robinson were players Holmgren persuaded Ruskell to bring back to the fold, and Ruskell might prefer to get younger at the position. Bernard said he would like to return to Seattle, the team that drafted him in 2002, but does not know if he’s wanted.
“The last time I was a free agent I knew I would be here,” Bernard said. “I just had that feeling. I felt like I was one of the key pieces of the defense. But with all the changes going on you never know. It’s kind of weird this time.”
FREE TO BE
The Seahawks face the possible loss of several players during the offseason as free agents. The most prominent include:
Leroy Hill, Linebacker