Hawks must heal, rebuild to return to the Super Bowl

With just a small reminder, some of you might recall that Super Bowl XL featured the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Seattle Seahawks.

Three years later and the Steelers are back in the Super Bowl after a 12-4 regular season. On the other end, the Seahawks are coming off an ugly 4-12 season looking at major offseason rehabbing and retooling.

Living through a four-win season is tough enough for fans, but having to see Pittsburgh back in the Super Bowl seems a cruel twist of the dagger.

How did this happen? What can explain the divergent fortunes?

First, you have to decide if you’re willing to buy the Seahawks’ assertion that 2008 was a one-year aberration, a season stunted by early injuries that never really got turned around.

There’s little question that the Seahawks seemed at least on par with the Steelers in the two seasons following Pittsburgh’s 21-10 win in the Super Bowl. In those two seasons, the Seahawks won their division (admittedly a moderate achievement), advanced to the second round of the playoffs (going 2-2 in the postseason), and compiled a 19-13 regular-season record.

The Steelers, meanwhile, went 8-8 (missing the playoffs in 2006) and 10-6 in 2007 with a first-round playoff loss.

While the Seahawks maintained a degree of staff consistency under head coach Mike Holmgren, Bill Cowher of the Steelers decided to take a break and was replaced by Mike Tomlin.

That would seem to add up to an advantage for the Seahawks on most accounts.

Until 2008. In 16 games, they lost more than 160 man/games to injuries and ended up playing with replacements at every position on the offensive line.

Of the 22 starters in their first game of 2008, the Steelers are expected to start 20 in the Super Bowl. By the end of the season, the Seahawks were down to nine of their original 22.

So, the injury “defense” stands up as a valid mitigation for the Seahawks’ 2008 performance.

But is there more beyond that? Surely there was a matter of underachievement, as well. How far has the talent level eroded since 2005?

The Steelers still have six defensive starters off the Super Bowl XL team. The Seahawks have four: Rocky Bernard, Leroy Hill, Lofa Tatupu and Marcus Trufant.

Of the Seahawks’ seven Pro Bowl players after the 2005 season, four are gone – Shaun Alexander, Steven Hutchinson, Mack Strong and Robbie Tobeck. The remaining three – Matt Hasselbeck, Walter Jones and Tatupu – had 2008 seasons that were far from their best.

The Steelers have had crucial losses too, particularly in Jerome Bettis, Joey Porter, Antwaan Randle El, Alan Faneca and others, but they’ve added key players such as LaMarr Woodley (10.5 sacks) on the defense and Santonio Holmes (55 catches, five touchdowns) on offense.

And, in contrast to the Seahawks, some of their best players are having their best or near-best seasons. Linebacker James Harrison had 16 sacks (the Seahawks’ three starting linebackers had a total of six this season), and Polamalu had a career-high seven interceptions (the Seahawks had nine as a team).

In 2005, the Seahawks led the league with 50 sacks. They finished 2008 with 35.

The Steelers, meanwhile, are comparable and even improved in many statistical categories compared to 2005, edging up from No. 4 in total defense to No. 1 in 2008. The Seahawks have plummeted from No. 16 to 30th in total defense, and from No. 2 to 28th in total offense.

And in scoring, they’ve fallen from No. 1 (28.3 points a game) to No. 25 (18.4).

From the players of the 2006 draft, the Seahawks received five sacks from defensive end Darryl Tapp, but that’s about it. Of the early returns on the 2007-08 classes, tight end John Carlson and defensive tackle Brandon Mebane look like future stars, with cornerback Josh Wilson showing considerable improvement this season.

Is there enough there to get back among the elite? The Seahawks’ key free-agent and trade additions, defensive end Patrick Kerney, guard Mike Wahle and receiver Deion Branch, all have dealt with injury issues.

For 2009, much will depend on the health issues of Pro Bowl talents such as Hasselbeck, Jones, Kerney and others.

So, it’s fair to say that injuries were largely responsible for the 2008 dip.

But there’s a lot of healing and rebuilding to be done before the Seahawks have any hope of seeing Pittsburgh – or anybody else – in another Super Bowl for a while.