BY Art Thiel 06:30AM 11/05/2015

Thiel: Seahawks in 2nd half: Beware the Rams

The Seahawks knew that in order to pay Wilson, the offensive line would pay the consequences. But at 4-4, the Seahawks are set up for a second-half run — at least until the Rams game.

The defense, as applied by Richard Sherman, is back to carrying the Seahawks’ load. / Drew Sellers, Sportspress Northwest

As Columbus must have appeared when his ships came upon what Europeans called the new world (the first Club Med in the Caribbean), so do NFL observers stand agape at the foreign landscape:

Four teams at 7-0. Never been seen before.

In a sport endlessly pursuing a parity that would see perfection as 32 teams finishing a season 8-8, four unbeatens this deep into the calendar is not only unique in NFL history, it’s, well, inappropriate. It’s like Grandma covering her right arm in tattoos worshipping Satan.

A big part of the NFL’s success is the creation and perpetuation of the belief that every team is a draft or two, or a free-agent signing or two, from serious contention. It’s never quite true; the Buffalo Bills, for example, are the only team in big-time American pro sports that has been out of the playoffs (since 1999) longer than the Mariners (2001).

And the past 10 Super Bowls have seen just 12 teams participate. Three have appeared three times: The Seahawks, Steelers and Patriots. The Giants and Colts have appeared twice, and the Bears, Cardinals, Saints, Packers, Ravens, 49ers and Broncos once. That suggests that ultimate success is at least somewhat repeatable.

But the fact remains that top-shelf play in the NFL is harder to maintain than in any other sport because of the hard salary cap. While that fact is well understood by many fans, just as many can’t figure out why the Seahawks are not running with the Broncos, Panthers, Bengals and Patriots, or at least closer to the unbowed than 4-4, with so many of the top players still employed.

The biggest part of the answer is that coach Pete Carroll and general manager John Schneider figured, more or less, that this was how it would go in the first year of having to pay Russell Wilson his big money, as all successful teams are required to do for good quarterbacks. They’ll never admit it, but if they didn’t understand that, they are far dumber than their resumes suggest.

The one wrinkle they didn’t plan for was SS Kam Chancellor’s holdout.

If Chancellor had gone through training camp and played the first two games, the Seahawks likely would have been at least 5-3 or 6-2 by avoiding single, last-minute defensive screw-ups that permitted game-winning scores by the Rams and Panthers.

All Seahawks games this season would have looked much as the past two: A 20-3 win over the 49ers and a 13-12 over the Cowboys. The defense was designed to dominate until December, when an inexperienced offensive line would have had 12 games of experimentation to reach minimum safe competence.

One way to look at the Seahawks’ midseason results is to review the roster priorities by how position groups are funded.

In descending order of financial investment under the cap with the relevant stars:

  • Secondary: Richard Sherman, Kam Chancellor, Earl Thomas
  • Defensive line: Michael Bennett, Cliff Avril
  • Quarterback: Russell Wilson
  • Running back: Marshawn Lynch
  • Linebackers: Bobby Wagner, K.J. Wright
  • Specialists (kicker/punter/returners):  Three draft picks to acquire returner Tyler Lockett
  • Receivers including tight ends: Trade for Jimmy Graham
  • Offensive line: Um . . .

Since Carroll’s prime directive is gaining the ball and controlling possessions (by creating turnovers and sustaining a running game), the 2015 idea was that superior talents on defense would keep every game winnable, while the individual deeds of Wilson and Lynch cover the offense until the season’s last quarter, when the offense could shed training wheels.

Because the cap limits a team’s ability to pay stars at every position, the plan rested on assistant coach Tom Cable’s ability to coach up offensive linemen who, by NFL standards, are mostly just guys.

That’s the same formula the Seahawks have always used: Build a great defense from the back to deny explosive plays, then grind until the offense matures toward the end of the season. Evidence is plain from the finish in 2014: The Seahawks won all four games in December (part of a 9-1 finish) by a combined score of 96-33.

The defense-first approach is the same plan being deployed this season by Denver, of all teams. I wrote earlier this week that the Seahawks have only 12 offensive touchdowns, fewer than only the 49ers. Guess who also has 12? Denver.

Two years ago the Broncos had the greatest offense in NFL history, only to have their helmets handed to them 43-8 by the Seahawks in the Super Bowl. This year, built to bail out vulnerable QB Peyton Manning and a weak O-line, the Broncos lead the NFL in defense at 261 yards a game, 23 fewer than the No. 2 Seahawks.

Apparently, Denver general manager John Elway is not entirely dim.

Which gets us to the Seahawks’ second half and a schedule less formidable than the first half. Barring major injuries, the Seahawks are likely to be favored the rest of the way, including the next game Nov. 15 against division-leading Arizona (6-2), the first of two against the Cardinals.

Some see the game as bordering on a must-win for Seattle. Perhaps. But if the 12s wish to work out their worry beads on the real deal, look to the Dec. 27 game against the St. Louis Rams. They come closest to replicating the formula espoused by the Seahawks and Broncos.

The 4-3 Rams have a defense ranked sixth (328 ypg) and their own version of Lynch in Todd Gurley, the first rookie in NFL history to rush for 100 yards in his first four games.

He didn’t play against the Seahawks in the opener won in overtime by the Rams in St. Louis, 34-31. Even though Rams QB Nick Foles is still a bit shaky with a QB rating of 81.6, ranking 28th, he’s better than Carolina’s Cam Newton (78.1) and Manning (75.1).

The Rams are the most significant trial on the Seahawks’ schedule. They no longer need an elite QB to take them far.

Four unbeaten teams in November is not a trend but an NFL anomaly. Like the Cowboys hiring a player without a dubious past.

What is a trend is copying the traits of a champion. The Seahawks have set the standard. It is being met by some. All the Seahawks have to do in the final two months, saddled with four losses, is to be better than they’ve ever been.

Which, when you think about it, has always been the point of the exercise.


YourThoughts

  • Lodowick

    Good summation, Art. But I don’t know about the Rams at the Clink being the biggest test. I would say Arizona in the Valley of the Sun at year’s end would be the big test because of the Cardinals ability to shred the Hawks O-line, proven last year. Should Arizona triumph in Seattle the local crows had better pray they lose in St. Louis. If the Cardinals win those two games they will win the division. Assuming Palmer stays healthy.

    • Sonics79

      Last season, the Seahawks beat Arizona by scores of 19-3 here, and 35-6 there. Yes, their QB was hurt, but we set a franchise record for offense in the game in Glendale. So I’m unsure about the Cardinals’ ability to shred anything, except Seattle team records.
      Arizona has Green Bay, Cincinnati, at St. Louis, and us, twice, left on their schedule. Their cute little 6-2 record could very much end up 9-7.

      • art thiel

        For those points and more, I think AZ fades in the stretch, despite Arians being a wonderful coach.

        • Bruce McDermott

          Arians runs his yap too much for my tastes. The “new sheriff in town” declaration after a narrow win at the Clink two seasons ago being an example. That didn’t work out so well for him. And the crowing last year, until they collapsed, was also premature. We’ll see.

          • art thiel

            From a fan standpoint, I can see that. From a journalist’s standpoint, he’s great, especially in the bleak landscape of NFL coaches. He doesn’t care much what people think. And I think tactically, he’s good. Couldn’t do much about last year’s fade when he was down to 3rd string QBs.

    • quiller51

      Cardinals haven’t been shredding o-lines this year like they did last. Sherman will minimize the damage Carson Palmer/Larry Fitzgerald can do. Avril and Bennett will cause Palmer problems too. Under pressure Palmer is less accurate. Nobody Arizona has faced yet this year has been able to pressure him the way the Seahawks will. I see the Seahawks winning twice against Arizona. The Rams game could go either way and no matter who wins I see it going to overtime.

      • 1coolguy

        Palmer has no wheels so if Sherm shuts down Fitzgerald it would change the offense for Phoenix to a lower scoring team.

    • ll9956


      I tend to agree.

    • art thiel

      Because the St. Louis game comes first, a loss there could end any drama in the desert.

  • Will Ganschow

    Who writes about these teams and how also influences the teams outcomes. Witness the intelligence of the other commenting person following this article. It is so satisfying to read about my favorite sports team in the overall context of their humaness and contributions (or lack thereof) to the greater good. May you be hours in heaven before you finish your last collumn

    • art thiel

      Wow. Heaven? Can’t tell you how many times I’ve been ordered in the other direction.

      Thanks.

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  • 1coolguy

    Given the immense amount being paid to a part-time RB – Lynch – and the awful Oline, I would think the Hawks would dump Lynch after this year, pick up some O linemen and
    go with Rawls and or another back. They can do a lot with $12 million and as good as Lynch is when healthy, he is aging and frankly, may bring value in a trade.
    I can see for the $12M a much improved O line that could make a $2-4M RB look very good. I am sure this is in the cards, having watched JS, so it will be very interesting to watch what happens this off season.

    • art thiel

      Lynch’s fate is a matter of high intrigue. Much depends on the strength of his finish.

      • 1coolguy

        Much too much to tie up into one RB, when there $$$ can be spread out to others. Will not be popular to cut or trade him but it will be best for the success of the team.

  • jafabian

    I don’t think the Hawks can afford to lose Okung based on the O-Line play this season. Bet they end up franchising him.

    • art thiel

      Decision will rest on his health; he’s had a lot of toe/ankle problems.

    • 1coolguy

      He’s expendable. Money can will spent better elsewhere, as he is simply not dependable, given the number of game she has missed due to injury.

      • jafabian

        There’s something to be said about a rotation remaining consistency. Especially one that protects the franchise’s highest paid employee. The WR’s and RB’s have been relatively consistent in the past 3 years but the O-Line have gone thru a lot of turnover since the Super Bowl. As long as Okung doesn’t make some outrageous contract demands I’m sure Schneider will bring him back. Art brings up a point about his general health.

  • WestCoastBias79

    Jeff Fisher always pilots the toughest 8-8 team in the league.

    • art thiel

      The Rams also tend to commit self-sabotage against the Seahawks.

  • ll9956

    As a confirmed nervous nellie, I’m bracing for a bunch of nail-biters.

    • art thiel

      Stop when you’ve reached an elbow.

  • John M

    Some good commentary, but none as good as your article, Art. Very telling. I agree about the Rams. Say what you will about Fisher, he did take a team to the SB and he has a LB mentality. Also, contrary to what some have said, if Palmer stays vertical I expect AZ to be tough down the stretch. As for our O-line, the one I’ve maligned since Kap had all his senses, they were better against the Cowboys and madman Hardy. They did usually have two tightends in, but only one can block. The personnel plan you laid out is right in line with what they’ve been doing. Looks like we’re in for more nail biters right to the finish . . .

    • art thiel

      Thanks. The O-line has become incrementally better, but a lot of the success in Dallas was due to quick pass plays that kept Wilson upright.

  • PokeyPuffy

    Nice to look at the next few months and get excited but i am concerned with next week. It would be in character for the Hawks to come out very slow in the first half against the Cards next week, which could be lethal if they are not careful. Hope i am wrong and we see the breakout game we’ve been waiting for