BY Doug Farrar 08:04PM 12/19/2010

Hasselbeck at cross purposes in new offense

Any disconnect between QB and play-caller is a death sentence for an offense, and that might be why Charlie Whitehurst will be given a chance near season’s end.

Seahawks offensive coordinator Jeremy Bates holds the team's progress in the palm of his hand. (Drew Sellers/Sportspress Northwest)

In just a little over a quarter of football, Seahawks backup Charlie Whitehurst threw eight completions in 16 attempts for 83 yards. Not exactly impressive until you put his numbers in line with the man he replaced. Starter Matt Hasselbeck, who has thrown 10 interceptions in his past four games, ended up with a total of 10 completions in 17 attempts for 71 yards and two interceptions. He also fumbled on a sack in his own end zone, which led directly to an Atlanta touchdown, as the Falcons beat the Seahawks rather handily, 34-18, on Sunday afternoon at Qwest Field.

If the Whitehurst move is a more permanent one (and head coach Pete Carroll gave no early indications as to his thought process), the reason may lie as much in a new offense that Hasselbeck can’t sustain as much as it does Whitehurst’s ability to lead the team. New Seahawks offensive coordinator Jeremy Bates sees an ideal system that requires his quarterback to be everything from the football cards – all the measurables, all lined up. He had that as the quarterbacks coach for the Denver Broncos in 2008, when he called the plays for an offense that featured strong-armed quarterback Jay Cutler, and ranked second in the NFL in yards, but 16th in points. Peyton Hillis led that team in rushing with just 343 yards, and the team’s 1.63 run/pass ratio (620 passing attempts to 387 rushes) was the highest in franchise history.

Matt Hasselbeck may find his skill set to be lost in the team's current plans. (Drew Sellers/Sportspress Northwest)

The West Coast offense that Hasselbeck “grew up” in under Mike Holmgren in Green Bay and Seattle is not always the short-pass festival it’s sometimes deemed to be, but there has always been something to the notion that a short pass was as good as a run in the system that Bill Walsh perfected. For any offensive system to work in the NFL, there must be a clear balance between production and protection – between risk and reward.

Bates spoke to these balances last Thursday, as the Seahawks put the finishing touches on an offensive game plan that began with great promise and morphed into more of the same in a 34-18 loss to the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday afternoon. When asked about the team’s relative inability to convert key short-yardage situations, the normally reserved Bates outlined his offensive philosophy with more detail than he may ever have before. To Bates, it’s more about matchups, and less about drive-extending plays. Rhythm is replaced by momentum, though not always to the best effect.

“It’s one-on-one football,” Bates said. “You either beat the guy in front of you, or we find someone who can. It’s tough in the NFL to have 15-play drives, and nickel-and-dime. There are so many different defensive fronts and coverages; if you have the opportunity to take the shot, you take the shot.”

Such a philosophy, born as it was from the Air Coryell lineage, is very much at odds with, though no less effective than, the Walsh/Holmgren ideology that preached sustainment above all. Walsh famously had two 40-yard practice fields for his quarterbacks in the mid-1980s, and when John Madden asked the man why his fields weren’t longer, Walsh simply pointed out that in his offense, quarterbacks weren’t required to throw any further. For such a system, Hasselbeck has been a feasible option, even in his later NFL years.

But for an offense in which the object is to drive down the field with more immediacy and set a defense on its heels, Hasselbeck’s weaknesses, and the weaknesses of those around him, become magnified. Receivers run deeper routes, increasing sack opportunities. And Hasselbeck’s deep ball, which has never been among the league’s best, is exposed as the undersuppported force it has become. Conversely, if there’s one thing Whitehurst has, it’s a throwing arm that can make a football zing and sing over longer distances.

The schism finally took over after an opening drive that saw the Seahawks travel from their own 20-yard line – a 90-yard journey when you include the 10 penalty yards they had to make up – in a 12-play sequence that took the opening 7:32 off the clock. It was exactly what Bates deemed unrepeatable, and yet, there it was. On that drive, every pass was short left or short right, and the team ran seven times for 47 yards. It was a sojourn that the 2005 Super Bowl Seahawks, the most consistently efficient drive-based offense in the game that season, would have been proud to add to its gamebooks.

But the next four Seattle drives totaled 14 yards on 10 plays, including two three-and-outs, and a third drive that consisted of three deep incompletions and a punt. The Seahawks pulled back from their workable strategy just as soon as it was established and never went back, despite the fact that the game wasn’t out of hand until the middle part of the third quarter.

They had everything they wanted from a drive perspective – and they threw it away.

“I think it was a good lesson there; that’s how we wanted to play the game today,” Hasselbeck said of the first drive. “We wanted to keep their offense off the field, have a lot of completions, run the ball, that kind of thing. Convert a lot of manageable third downs – that was our recipe for success today. That’s how we could have won the game. In the first quarter, we had one drive for a touchdown and they had one drive – I don’t know that I’ve been part of a game like that. They’re a good example of what we’re trying to become as a team.

“I think that’s just probably just the lesson; just take what they give you and keep plugging away – keep chipping away instead of getting greedy and taking unnecessary shots down the field when you have things. It’s okay to dink and dunk it all the way down.”

Does that seem at odds with the “If you have the shot, you take the shot” philosophy espoused by Bates? If you saw the disconnect, you weren’t alone.

Charlie Whitehurst has proven little more than an ability to throw the ball deep, but that may be enough for now. (Drew Sellers/Sportspress Northwest)

Tight end John Carlson, who actually outgained himself in his last five active games with a 31-yard catch after Whitehurst replaced Hasselbeck, seemed to wonder where the more ideal strategy went. “I’ll say this – as players, it’s our job to play. It’s our job to run the plays that are called. We got behind the sticks a little bit, and we didn’t stay on track. If we ran the ball on first down, we weren’t getting enough yards to stay on pace. We had to throw it; we fell behind. But in a perfect world, yeah, we would like to be more balanced.”

But that didn’t explain why, especially when the game was still close, the Seahawks went back to taking shots instead of dictating defensive processes. Running back Justin Forsett, who ended his day with two rushing attempts for 9 yards, was a bit more succinct behind the same concept.

“All we can do as players is to do what we’re told, and what we’re coached to do,” he said after the game. “We’ve got to make the best out of the plays we’re given. Sometimes, it’s going to be unbalanced, but we’re not a selfish bunch.”

Receiver Mike Williams was perhaps the most obviously frustrated individual in the locker room – not in a diva-eqsue “Give me the $%^%$# ball!” sense, but in a way that reflected the team’s missed opportunities and inexplicable straying away from offensive success.

“We’ve got to do better,” he said. “I’m sick of saying it, I’m sick of hearing it, I’m sick of hearing other people say it. I’m sick of losing. We’ve got to play harder. We’ve got to eliminate mistakes. That first drive of the game was a preview of what we wanted, and what this game was supposed to look like for us. (The Falcons) had given up almost 400 yards rushing in the past two weeks, so we know we’d give our backs – Marshawn Lynch and those guys – and chance to run and we were on pace. We just found a way to take ourselves out of the game.”

True. But from a coaching point of view, it might be said that on this day, the Seahawks were taken as much as they took.