BY Doug Farrar 09:32AM 12/02/2010

Seahawks down the stretch: The offense

Who must step up for the Hawks to win the NFC West

Mike Williams goes long to catch his first NFL touchdown in years. (Rod Mar/Seattle Seahawks)

With five games left in their regular season, and an improbable shot at a division title at 5-6, the new-look 2010 Seattle Seahawks look a lot like any other startup – voids are often filled with frantic positioning (witness their hyperactive approach to roster construction), and there are times when you have to go live before the paint is dry. So it has been for the Seahawks in the first year of the Pete Carroll/John Schneider era.

The new football brain trust in Seattle had to begin their efforts by blowing out the failure of the past administration, which it did with a vengeance. And while that cut-cut-cut approach made sense in both the long and short term, it has also led to offensive lines in which you’d swear the players don’t know the names of the guys lining up next to them, and some very inconsistent results from individuals of varying talent levels.

But hey – we’re doing the startup drill here at Sports Press Northwest; we feel their pain. With that in mind, here’s a two-part by-position look at what must go right and coalesce from now through the end of December if the Seahawks are to extend their efforts far past the New Year.

Quarterbacks: Matt Hasselbeck, Charlie Whitehurst, J.P. Losman

Hasselbeck went into this season having suffered two straight subpar campaigns amidst shattered offensive lines, invisible running games, and average-at-best receiver corps. Fan malaise turned to popular interest in extending Hasselbeck’s contract when the starter missed the Giants game with a concussion, and backup Whitehurst proved unable – at least at this stage of his career – to move a team at a replacement level. When Hasselbeck returned and put up 699 total passing yards against the Cardinals and Saints, he presented the Seahawks with the first consistent and repeatable star quarterback since his own efforts in 2007.

The franchise has some big decisions to make with Hasselbeck and Whitehurst. A free agent after the 2010 season, Hasselbeck could probably be retained per equivalent market value for a multi-year deal with upfront money and escape clauses on the back end – Donovan McNabb’s recent option-laden contract with the Redskins might be an instructive example.

What we know at this exact point, based on the performance of both players, is that if Hasselbeck is not retained and another veteran quarterback is not acquired, the Seahawks will be entering Full Rebuild Mode – and that doesn’t jibe with Pete Carroll’s “Always Compete” and Win Forever” philosophies. Carroll and GM John Schneider will most likely spend an early draft pick on what they hope will be the next Seahawks franchise quarterback. The tricky part is balancing finances and expectations in the short term with the one they still have. Losman, a former first-round pick of the Buffalo Bills, is most likely destined for third quarterback duty unless a better opportunity opens up elsewhere.

Running Backs: Marshawn Lynch, Justin Forsett, Leon Washington, Michael Robinson

Speaking of former Bills first-rounders … Lynch was acquired for a fourth-round pick in 2011 and a conditional pick in 2012. He had worn out his welcome in Buffalo, but Lynch has paired with former Cal backfield buddy Forsett to form a duo that has worked more in tandem off the field and in the locker room than between the hashmarks. Offensive coordinator Jeremy Bates appears to view his rushing attack with a jaundiced eye at times, leading to few opportunities and even fewer yards for the two main men.

Being that the Seahawks are still in the playoff push and the short pass is what appears to be working in an overall perspective, this particular ground game may have to wait to get much done. Ostensibly, Lynch (the power back) and Forsett (the shifty, but surprisingly powerful option back) have the tools to make tracks.

Washington won’t see much time at running back because he’s the most dynamic kick returner in the NFL, and Robinson is another special teams star, as well as the team’s atypical fullback (the current coaching staff shies away from traditional fullback body types and skill sets). When Robinson can’t go for injury reasons, you’ll often see tight ends playing the fullback role, something that more NFL teams are doing these days.

Receivers: Mike Williams, Ben Obomanu, Deon Butler, Brandon Stokley, Golden Tate, Ruvell Martin

If Hasselbeck isn’t the Seahawks Offensive MVP this season, it’s quite possible that Williams would take the title. And who would have expected it? Out of the league for two seasons after ballooning up to the wrong end of 280 pounds, the former USC receiver has repaid Carroll’s faith in him several times over, blowing out any of his coach’s understandable skepticism along the way. When Williams was not available in last Sunday’s loss to the Chiefs, Seattle’s offense was lost in the “Carolina Panthers without Steve Smith” sense.

A big, flexible target with vice grips for hands and dynamic after-catch skills, Williams is looking a bit like the version of Brandon Marshall the Miami Dolphins thought they were spending draft picks and millions of dollars to acquire. Williams’ own contract question will come up at season’s end, but it’s not a stretch to say in the short term that Seattle’s hope of an NFC West win could rest on his ability to recover from his current foot injury.

Possession receiver Stokley aside, Seattle’s receiver corps is an interesting mix of not entirely developed talent. Obomanu may be the closest thing to an ace receiver in the old West Coast Offense style – the guy who can shake loose in short spaces and motor downfield away from defenders. Butler is the pure speed guy whose value will increase as he continues to learns the intricacies of route-running.

Tate is a rookie with great overall skill who must also learn the finer points of the route tree. He was developed in a pro-style offense at Notre Dame, but after playing tailback in high school, he’s still working to graduate from hybrid status. One thing you can probably expect to see from Tate as he gets more reps is his skill at leaping for catches, and how quick he is at rolling off first contact. Martin is a big-bodied receiver without much speed who may see more time if Williams’ foot is an ongoing concern.

Tight Ends: John Carlson, Chris Baker, Cameron Morrah

Given Jeremy Bates’ historical predilection for two-tight end sets and incorporating tight ends as big receivers during his time in Denver, it was thought that the new offense would turn Carlson into a top-tier fantasy football threat in his third season. So far, it hasn’t happened. Hasselbeck and Carlson have been inexplicably off-target in many games this season, and Carlson has brought in just 52 percent of the passes thrown to him, tied with Houston’s Owen Daniels for the NFL’s lowest catch rate among starting tight ends.

Part of the problem with the Seahawks’ offense is that Hasselbeck hasn’t had that reliable tight end target. Especially if the run game is going to be a secondary factor through the rest of the season, Hasselbeck will have to find a connection with someone on this list. Baker and Morrah have had their moments, but Carlson is the one from whom much is expected.

Offensive Line

Tackles: Russell Okung, Chester Pitts, Tyler Polumbus, Sean Locklear
Guards: Stacy Andrews, Mike Gibson
Centers: Chris Spencer
, Chris White

When he can transcend his ankle injuries and play the left tackle position, Okung is very clearly the team’s best offensive lineman. The sixth overall pick is a big, physical blocker in short spaces, but he’s shown more agility in certain zone looks than expected, and he’s improved his kickstep and dropback in pass protection. Playing primarily out of a two-point stance, Okung has the potential to be the team’s next franchise left tackle. Pitts is a versatile veteran who is on the comeback trail after a gruesome knee injury; he’d ideally suit up at left guard the rest of the season.

Polumbus is an excellent swing tackle who has provided surprisingly good pass protection when standing in for Okung. The right tackle position is a bigger question mark. According to STATS, Inc, Locklear has amassed five penalties and 2.5 sacks allowed, and Football Outsiders has the Seahawks averaging just 1.99 Adjusted Line yards per play around right end. Andrews, who has looked out of place at times at right guard, may be the better right tackle option down the road, and Gibson is the swing guard.

Spencer is the only Seahawks offensive lineman to start every game at the same position this year, which gives you an idea of just how durable he’s been. When he was hurt late in the loss to the Chiefs, the Seahawks finished the game with consecutive kneeldowns, which gives you an idea of how lost the coaching staff might be without him in the lineup for any period of time.

It’s hard to know what to think of this line; position coach Alex Gibbs cut ties with the team before anyone expected, which left the Seahawks in a bit of a lurch. Gibbs prefers more traditional zone-blocking schemes with smaller linemen, while the personnel the front office was putting together was a better fit for a power zone system much like the team is now running. There are several aspects of this team that will require fixes taking longer than one season, and the offensive line is a good place to start.