BY Art Thiel 07:06PM 01/17/2011

Hawks forecast: Cloudy, chance of no season

Roster churn, false positive of NFC title, labor unrest make future a mystery

Earl Thomas

Rookie safety Earl Thomas was among the new difference-makers that will be kept around in the Seahawks' search for legitimate contention. (Rod Mar/Seattle Seahawks)

In a fit of pique after blowing a 20-point lead to the Chicago Bears and losing on Monday Night Football in 2006, Arizona coach Dennis Green etched himself a teensy bit of pro football immortality when his answer to a post-game question began with:

“The Bears are what we thought they were.”

The rest of his answer quickly went profane and semi-delirious. But in the wake of a playoff rout of the Seahawks Sunday in Chicago, his original point rings true again:

The Bears are what we thought they were: A quality, tough football team.

What about the Seahawks?

No idea.

So much has happened toward so little obvious direction that anyone who says they have a handle on the Seahawks’ near-term future isn’t going to pass a drug test.

After nearly 300 player personnel moves, the Seahawks improved to 7-9 in the regular season, 1-1 in the playoffs and have 21 players without contracts on their 53-man roster (29, counting players on injured reserve and the practice squad).

That’s a lot, especially when one of them is the decade-long starter at quarterback, but not all that unusual.

What’s unusual is that a long-simmering fight between NFL owners and the players’ union will come to a head in March, and could result in a work stoppage that threatens to eliminate, or at least shorten, the 2011 season.

While in theory a stoppage affects all teams equally, it’s hard to say whether it’s better or worse to have fewer players under contract when there is no collective bargaining agreement.

Especially when it’s hard to know if many of the retained guys are playoff-caliber football players.

The fact that the Seahawks made the playoffs was a false positive, owing to the flaccid nature of the NFC West. Four of their seven wins came against their divisional brothers of the lame. The best team they beat in the regular season, the Bears, improved a whole lot faster than the Seahawks did, even though coach Pete Carroll took great pride in the Seahawks’ uptick in the season’s final two weeks.

After the division title fell to them, the Seahawks drew to Qwest Field a New Orleans team in a year-after-Super-Bowl-win hangover. Turns out the Saints weren’t what we thought they were.

None of this is to say the Seahawks didn’t make personnel progress. In Mike Williams, Russell Okung, Earl Thomas, Marshawn Lynch and Leon Washington, the Seahawks added difference makers in the first year of Carroll and GM John Schneider. But nearly all the rest of the new players fall into the giant middle of the NFL personnel pile known as “just guys.”

What seems to have happened is that Seahawks management looked at the roster built by former GM Tim Ruskell and privately concluded that 2010 was something of a throwaway season. What they didn’t plan on was being unable to throw it away farther than the Cardinals, Rams and 49ers threw away their seasons.

But getting rid of expensive, proven NFL vets such as T.J. Houshmandzadeh, Deion Branch and Josh Wilson suggests that the bigger contracts no longer became worth carrying in a season unlikely to be competitive.

In their first year, Carroll and Schneider were given the freedom to experiment relatively free of expectations.

Roiling the roster wasn’t change for change’s sake, but there were minimal penalties for failing to hit on every deal. And it isn’t as if tumult in the pressurized world of the NFL is necessarily odd, or bad.

Matt Hasselbeck recalled the last time he was a free agent, after the 2003 season. The Seahawks had gone through a colossal clash of egos between then-coach Mike Holmgren and then-president Bob Whitsitt, with Bob Ferguson hired to separate the two. Finally, Tod Leiweke was hired as CEO to give some direction.

“Tod really wasn’t like a football guy, but he was calling me and saying, ‘Hey, I know it seems like we don’t know what we’re doing right now, but trust me – there’s a good plan. Just hang in there,’ ” Hasselbeck said Monday after the team began its off-season with exit interviews. “Now, it’s clear who’s in charge. It’s clear the direction that’s been set. It’s clear what the goals are.

“The only hard part now is that we’re trying to improve as a team, we’re trying to improve in a lot of areas . . . You got to keep somebody, you got to get rid of somebody, (and) that’s at all positions. So you just never know how it’s going to shake out.”

By 2005, it shook out well enough for the Seahawks to get to their first Super Bowl.

Teammate Lawyer Milloy went through a similar disruption when he was in New England in 2000 after Bill Belichick took over for Carroll. Belichick made wholesale changes, and the Pats a year later won the Super Bowl.

“When you build a team that will be good for years, it’s a team that’s built through stability first and foremost, but it’s a process to get to that,” Milloy said. “I think Pete and Schneider understand that, and everything they did with the roster moves started to make sense (toward the end of the season). It started to feel normal. The collective group left here understanding what it takes to get to where we got.

“For us to have that many transactions, more than I’ve ever been a part of, and to end up being a (division) champion, it’s an outstanding head start to the foundation you’re trying to build. Hopefully, most of the guys who ended this season will be here, and you don’t have as much movement.”

It’s not surprising that Milloy, 37, would cheer the outcome, just as Hasselbeck, 35, cheered the vision now in place. But as two of the team’s oldest players, they may not be around to celebrate when the outcome is not a false positive.

It’s hard to know who will be around next season, or even if there will be a season. Just as it is wise for most pro athletes to rent and not buy, fans would do well to save forecasting skills for the weather.

Until we know whether the Seahawks are what they think they are, it’s more stable.


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