Please Stop Saying the Seahawks Suck

deonSorry I’ve been away, folks. Life has been hectic, and blogging as a hobby requires more motivation and time than I was expecting. I don’t like to post stories without a clear, underlining angle built into it.

However, after watching the Seattle Seahawks stumble their way to a 2-5 record and bring out all the frustration and bile from internet fans claiming the Seahawks simply, unequivocally “suck”, I think I’ve gotten my motivation back. This needs to be addressed.

The Seattle Seahawks do not “suck”. They are not winning, and they are not good, but neither are they as simple a phenomenon as a bad team. They are not soft, they are not unmotivated, and they are not mailing it in. As happens all the time, frazzled fans and local journalists are claiming clairvoyance that they don’t have and making huge over-simplifications that don’t belong in the world of sports.

Football is a game of mistakes. Half the big plays you see on SportsCenter are generated less by one team being amazing and more by the other team screwing up. A defense plays an average of 63 snaps per game, with 11 players participating in each – 693 individual jobs per game that are all expected to succeed. Offenses are trained and drilled to look for (and create) blown plays and exploit them to inchworm down a 100-yard football field.

Now, take your 693 assignments that all have to go right, throw in a brand-new coaching staff and several new players, take our injury history and aging players into account, consider a brutal schedule, and factor in the time it takes to rebuild a team one age strata at a time, and, well…good luck, Mora. (And that’s just the defense).

To call Seattle a bad team, however, is making things way too black and white. If a team’s record is the sole judge of its quality, then the 2007 Seahawks were good. That’s questionable. They rode their way to a 4th division title on the backs of a weak division and a jobber’s row of awful backup and rookie quarterbacks smoothing out their schedule. Then they got so thoroughly blown out in the playoffs that people questioned whether they deserved to be there to begin with – and rightfully so.

The Seahawks are a potentially good team, loaded with talent, being held back by new and untested coaching. They’re also being held back by crucial weak links on both sides of the ball, and by the unavoidable growing pains of their rookies. “You’re only as strong as your weakest link” is a poignant truism in the world of sports, and nowhere more than the complex, interconnected sport of football.

A careful viewer who breaks down Seattle’s games will see a great deal more potential on this team than is being acknowledged publicly. While your typical Rams game is 60 minutes of unbroken futility, your typical 2009 Seahawks game intersperses smart play-calls and stellar performances with lapsed coverages and blown assignments. Seattle tackles for a loss on one play, then surrenders a 3rd and 10+ the next.

Seattle’s successes blend in with the failures because the final score doesn’t reflect them. This is just sloppy football, exactly the kind you expect when a team is adjusting to new players and new philosophies after years of the stubbornly consistent Mike Holmgren. It’s self-defeating, but it isn’t bad.

The biggest problem is Seattle’s weak links, which are present at the worst possible positions and in the worst possible scenarios. Of course, that’s like calling 2004 a bad year for a tsunami – there’s never a good year – but the damage is arguably holding Seattle back. Let’s recap a few.

* DT Colin Cole was brought in to bolster the defensive line by commanding double teams from offensive linemen. He isn’t doing that. Instead, the double teams are wisely focusing on the real talent, Brandon Mebane, showing little worry about leaving Cole single-blocked. Result: no pressure up the middle, the crucial ingredient needed to defeat elite pocket passers like Peyton Manning, Kurt Warner, and Tony Romo – hey wait, didn’t we just play all three of those guys?

* SS Jordan Babineaux is still showing flashes as a safety – “flashes”, that maddening piece of coachspeak, by definition the brief presence of something preceded and followed by a prolonged absence of that something. I’d much rather he show flashes at struggling, because right now, struggling is the rule for him. Seattle’s corners are being picked on mercilessly right now, partially because they lack sufficient safety support.

* I spent much of 2008 vociferously defending RB Julius Jones. He lacked an O-line to run behind, he lacked a passing game to draw attention from him, he lacked enough carries to make things happen, and he lacked the support of his coach. This year, Jones is making things happen, but the other factors are in place (or more so, anyway) and his label of “serviceable” is not cutting it. The ground game is not being established, and isn’t forcing defenses to take him into account. Call it a matter of needing an identity on offense, but Jones’ days in Seattle are numbered.

* Special teams gaffes have cost Seattle dearly in the last two games – make that seasons. I’m wearying of watching our rotating door of return men fair-catch the ball inside the ten or get dropped after a return of three yards, while opposing return men pinwheel joyfully all over the field.

* If I never see zone coverage from this team again, it will be too soon. General manager Tim Ruskell’s Buccaneers had the speed, reactions, and ball-hawking skills to successfully pull off zone coverage; Ruskell’s Seahawks, unfortunately, do not. They’re built to stop the run. Teams are used to being able to convert 3rd-and-21 against Seattle, and the result is that they don’t fear what Seattle can do on the first two downs. We’re seeing more 3-and-outs this year from our defense, but as you saw against Dallas, it’s not enough. News flash, front office – the modern NFL is a passing league, so quit sacrificing pass defense on the altar of stopping the run.

Seattle’s weaknesses are perfectly positioned to play into our opponents’ strengths. Half of the blame for that lies with incomplete hiring strategy from the front office, Ruskell’s inability to build an offense combined with his bizarrely humanitarian free-agent approach: combining demoted underdogs looking for a second chance (Nate Burleson, Julius Jones) with aging veterans hoping for a final blaze of glory on the way out (Patrick Kerney, Mike Wahle, Edgerrin James).

The other half is the curse of a respectable schedule, which Seattle has not faced in years. Soft schedule, especially division schedule, is often a component of a playoff run, and not just for the 2006-2007 Seahawks; nobody watching the 2007 Patriots ascending to the Super Bowl seemed to remember that they did so on the backs of the 1-15 Dolphins and 4-12 Ravens. Now Seattle is finding out how that other half lives.

It’s tempting and easy to call the team “soft” because they only play well with momentum, or when everyone else is doing a good job, or (most obviously) when they’re at home. To do so is to ignore the nature of football. How much of a win is purely individual performance and how much of it is the snowball effect of good teamwork is a tough question, but it’s probably not an uneven split.

It’s true that injuries are becoming less of an excuse. The ‘Hawks were healthier in Dallas, and it showed on the offensive line with G Rob Sims back in the lineup. It’s worth pointing out that CB Marcus Trufant’s return to full strength was bound to be slow; Romo knew just who to pick on, and the refereeing that day was almost as cringe-worthy as…well no, that’s going too far. No Seahawks game will ever approach that pinnacle of blasphemous refereeing that was Super Bowl XL. I’d better not go there.

If Seattle wants to squeeze itself through that almost-slammed window of contention, the work that needs to be done will be on the field and not in the recovery room. Nonetheless, this is a young team with a young core to build around. Our games have shown enough flashes to indicate that. 2009 does not necessarily have to signal the beginning of another 20 years of mediocrity.

So please, for goodness’ sake, quit saying the Seahawks suck. Football just isn’t as clearly and simply colored as a referee’s jersey.