The Seahawks pride themselves in preparing backups to become starters, but after paying the stars under the salary cap, the reality is the “next men up” aren’t as good as those in 2014 and 2013.
As the hyperventilation among the 12s nears a blue swoon, here’s another way to look at the Seahawks’ 2-4 record: If SS Kam Chancellor had come to his senses two games earlier, the Seahawks likely would have beaten the St. Louis Rams in the opener. His replacement, Dion Bailey, wouldn’t have had the chance to fall down in coverage on the game-tying touchdown.
That would have made the Seahawks a non-crisis 3-3 heading into Thursday’s suddenly important game in Santa Clara against the 49ers (2-4). A fully engaged Chancellor through six games likely would have improved chances at being better than 3-3.
It’s true that the if-then game could be played with multiple situations, and the Seahawks attempted to treat Chancellor’s holdout merely as an injury, deploying their next-man-up credo.
Here’s the problem with those two assertions: The next men up with the Seahawks in 2015 aren’t as good as the next men up were in 2013 and 2014, because the biggest dawgs in the kennel are now paid under the NFL’s hard salary cap. There’s little money for quality backups to mitigate the inevitable roster attrition that affects successful NFL teams.
And since the Seahawks have been in every contest with fourth-quarter leads, and lost by three, ten, three and four points, the if-then game is plausible, because outcomes can be re-imagined by reversals of single plays many times across the four defeats.
The conclusion: The Seahawks are still a good team, but the margins in the NFL are so thin that playing a lesser player here and there will compromise the day, if not the year.
Under the cap, star players — Sonics guard Rickey Pierce’s nickname was the best description: Big Paper Daddy — have to deliver all the time to keep good teams good. This season, Chancellor wasn’t around for the first two losses, and MLB Bobby Wagner was injured Sunday.
Lo and behold, the Seahawks had a breakdown in communication on Carolina’s game-winning touchdown pass when their defensive QB, Wagner, was out. I’m sure K.J. Wright was doing his best, but he’s not Wagner. Nor is second-year LB Kevin Pierre-Louis quite ready to fill in for Wright on the weakside.
In fact, Pierre-Louis was joined on the field for that fateful play by CB DeShawn Shead, DE Cassius Marsh and DT Will Tukuafu — the latter for his first and only defensive play of the game after subbing all game for missing FB Derrick Coleman — when Panthers QB Cam Newton dropped back undisturbed to launch the 26-yard TD pass to TE Greg Olsen.
Those Seahawks on the play are solid but perhaps not even average NFL players.
When injuries, holdouts and car accidents take away some veterans after free-agency losses and cap casualties, mess can ensue.
And this is a mess that is unique in Carroll’s college and pro coaching experience.
“I haven’t really been in this kind of situation with a really good team,” he said Monday, “where it felt so much different, and the results are flipping in terms of some of the factors (like turnover margin), this is new in that regard.’’
The biggest factor that he’s never dealt with before is the change wrought by money. It does weird things to people — even seemingly level-headed types like Chancellor who abruptly wanted more money even though he was getting top dollar for his position.
When the story of 2015 is written honestly, the Chancellor holdout will loom large as the wrinkle for which Carroll had no iron.
I asked him Monday about whether success and money causes changes in player behavior, especially among those who have always played with the chip-on-shoulder mantra.
“It could be; it could be,” he said, then referenced UCLA coaching legend John Wooden. “He told me one time: ‘Every year the players change; you don’t change your philosophy, you don’t change your approach. Because the players adapt as they go through their years and things fit together.’
“But in that, times change. Guys grow up, they mature, they get paid, they’re heading into their contract year. There are a lot of things that factor into guys’ makeup. We have to be adaptable, and communicate and counsel all the way through that. It’s really one of the exciting challenges in coaching.”
But it’s one challenge that Carroll hasn’t experienced. He wasn’t around long enough in his previous NFL jobs in New York and New England, and there was no big money at USC for kids.
Try as he must have, with every tactic of persuasion in his considerable arsenal, he could not convince Chancellor to end his holdout in time to avert behavior that was self- and team-destructive. The unplanned absence forced a new defensive coordinator, Kris Richard, to force-feed an undrafted free agent, Bailey, into a starting assignment.
It nearly worked, but for one play.
For different reasons, the same thing is in play on the offense, where the Seahawks risked trading leader and veteran C Max Unger in the hope that assistant coach Tom Cable could take C Drew Nowak, LG Justin Britt and RT Garry Gilliam and make them into close to average NFL linemen.
It hasn’t worked.
QB Russell Wilson has been sacked an NFL-high 26 times, plus many more hits and hurries. The offense is unable to sustain drives in the fourth quarter, which forces the short-handed defense to save the game. And it makes Wilson prone to the yips when it comes to the critical decision to throw or go.
Carroll knows he can’t hide the fact that, despite a 69 percent completion rate and a 98.7 rating, Wilson is making fewer good decisions in the crucible.
“(The sacks do) impact him, just naturally,” he said. “He’s got the results of what just happened in the first or second quarter, where the pressure’s coming from, so it will move him some, naturally.
“There’s only a couple plays a game – I think I say this every week — where we say, ‘Well, you could have hung in there this time, if you would have slipped to the left’ or something. Sometimes he sees the flash happen and his first instinct is to move to find space.
“We’re trying to quiet the whole thing down so that we can limit those plays.”
In the losses to Cincinnati and Carolina, the Seahawks had the ball and the lead late, needing only a first down to drain the clock and go home winners. Couldn’t get it done.
A play or two on offense, a play or two on defense, and the Seahawks are 5-1. But unless all the big-money players are accounted for and going full throttle, the chance to succeed is greatly reduced in the NFL because in Seattle, the “next man up” isn’t ready.