In major remake, Hawks give up proven producers for unknowns; too much too soon?
RENTON — When Seattle Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll was hired in January of 2010, he brought an “Always Compete” mantra back to the NFL after a decade at USC. The weekend leading up to Seattle’s final preseason roster cuts was as drastic as had been seen in several seasons, bringing that competitive spirit to the surface. New general manager John Schneider bought into the concept, and the new Seahawks started out with no scholarships, no contract-related keepers, and very little dead weight. Now that the purging of the faulty roster constructed by former team president Tim Ruskell from 2005 through 2009 is complete, a newer, younger, faster, and more physically talented team is the goal — in the short and long term.
The question is, will there be enough of that talent to run this new roster through the NFC West? Or did Carroll and Schneider cut too much? Several of the moves, such as the trade of cornerback Josh Wilson to the Baltimore Ravens, the trade for ex-Philadelphia Eagles offensive lineman Stacy Andrews, and the release of receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh — 41 transactions in all over the last three days — seemed to leave the team in the debit department when it came to proven producers.
But that was exactly the point. The Seahawks released Houshmandzadeh despite the fact that they still owe him over $6 million for 2010 after he signed with the Ravens, because they wanted to give their younger players more of a chance. For a team that has won nine games in the last two seasons, it has to be about retooling instead of contending.
At a Monday pre-practice press conference — his first public comments since the blizzard of transactions — Schneider tried to catch everybody up.
“It was really just playing the young guys,” he said of the Houshmandzadeh move. “Much like with Josh, we felt like there was a group of guys behind him that were ready to take a step forward. T.J. is a good football player, he just happens to be a little bit older than the other guys, and we had some guys — Mike Williams and Deon Butler and Ben Obomanu — we had some guys step forward.”
“This is always the toughest time of the year, when you’re releasing players and going from 75 to 53,” he continued. “There are three major ways to improve your team – the draft, free agency, and trades. And it’s just so hard at the 53-man cut, because you have so many guys who have busted their tails, put blood, sweat, and tears into it, players and coaches putting in long hours.
“It’s also the most exciting part — it’s all wrapped up in one weekend. It’s amazing, because you go back and forth … it’s literally like draft weekend for us, because we’re very excited about some of the acquisitions that have been going on. And on the other end of it, you’re talking about having to sit down with grown men who have the talent to play in the National Football League that you have to let go.
“If you have a coaching staff that is willing to move forward and teach and put in the extra time to get new players ready, it can be an extremely exciting time to add players. This is not a patch. We’re trying to build.”
And why wait so long to make so many changes? “You’re talking about proven veterans, and this is a full evaluation. You’ve got to take it all the way to the end to find out if you’re making the right decisions. Do we have a philosophy? Absolutely, but you can’t just go cutting down the forest like you have all the answers. We need to see the whole movie.”
Of course, there are times when such speed can lead to misfires – it wasn’t the team’s fault that running back Julius Jones was reported to be released, but somebody jumped the gun and reported it, which got back to the veteran running back.
“I apologized to Julius yesterday,” Schneider said. “I had no idea how that got out there, or if that was some angle or whatever’s happened. I apologized to him for it and he’s here.”
Jones, asked after Monday’s practice, didn’t seem to mind. “We’re back to business today, and everything I heard was false,” he said. “I got a lot of phone calls and text messages, but I’m still here. There are a lot of new faces — a lot of new guys especially on the offensive line. A couple of new running backs, but we’re going to work it out. The core guys have been here since the spring, and we have everything pretty much down pat, and this is our opportunity to get these new guys ready to play.
“Nothing can really frustrate me or get under my skin,” Jones said of the reports. “I’ve seen everything, and my brother [running back Thomas Jones, currently with the Kansas City Chiefs] has been through everything — nothing surprises me. We talked, and [Schneider] apologized for everything that happened. It’s water under the bridge. My main focus is on football; the off-the-field things I can’t control. My job is to do what I’m asked to do on the field.”
Of course, roster blowups often lead to Cinderella stories. The surprise retirement of offensive line coach Alex Gibbs had Carroll calling Pat Ruel, who he’s known for decades. Ruel was Carroll’s last line coach at USC, but with Gibbs in Seattle and a new SC staff in place, Ruel was cooling his heels with the Omaha Nighthawks of the UFL.
[Carroll] picked me up on waivers from another team,” Ruel joked. “It is a well-run organization — the GM is Ted Sundquist, who used to be the GM in Denver. We had Jeff Garcia as our quarterback, Ahman Green — we had some good people. But I’ve known Coach Carroll for a long time, and I believe in his whole philosophy and the way he does things. He gave me a call, and that was about it; it didn’t take much. I was committed to the Nighthawks, and it was very hard leaving that situation, but at this stage, I wanted to get back in the NFL, and Coach gave me that opportunity.”
Ruel said that when he first got the call from Carroll, he thought the Seahawks were looking at his offensive linemen.
Perhaps the best story of this year’s Seahawks team has been receiver Mike Williams, whose ascent made the Houshmandzadeh release palatable. Williams was selected tenth overall in the 2005 NFL draft by the Matt Millen-led Detroit Lions, eventually washed out of the NFL, and spent the last two seasons overweight and out of the game. But he turned his life around, and he’s been a point of pride for his new organization. Still, as Carroll said today of his old USC receiver, caution is the buzzword.
“Mike Williams to me is really like a rookie,” Carroll said. “And I know he has a couple years of kind of bouncing around, but this is really his official start as far as I’m concerned. And he has done everything we’ve asked of him. He’s had a great offseason, a fantastic camp, he’s performed wall in the games, he’s as fit as he’s ever been as a pro, and he’s ready to do this.”
Williams was happy to be part of that new start, but he also understands the cruel underbelly of those roster cuts. He’s seen them before, and that specter has tempered his own enthusiasm to a degree. “I don’t really think about that,” he said of his rebound being the reason the team felt comfortable moving forward without Houshmandzadeh. “I didn’t know what was going to happen – as much as everyone said that I was going to be around here, I didn’t know. I’m human, just like everybody else. I heard trade talks and everything else, but I just tried to take care of my business and now that the season’s here, I just have to move forward and make the most of it.”
The Seahawks will welcome the San Francisco 49ers to their home turf on Sunday. You may need a program to identify the players, but the Seahawks are okay with that. They sell programs at Qwest Field, too.