The Struggle of Seattle
CHARLOTTE — The drive that saved the Seattle Seahawks’ season started with 4:37 left in the fourth quarter. Russell Wilson threw three times and connected with three different, virtually anonymous rookies: Helfet, Norwood, Richardson. Marshawn Lynch bulldozed for two first downs. Wilson scrambled for another. Then he threw a fourth pass, connecting with second-string tight end Luke Willson for the game-winning touchdown.
The drive produced a 13-9 victory over the Carolina Panthers, salvaging a season defined by turbulence. The drive was methodical, efficient, clinical, perfect—words that no one used to describe the Seahawks’ offense in recent weeks.
The drive also was misleading, makeup to cover the blemishes. It merely changed the story arc. The drive became the focus, not the three-and-a-half quarters of futility that preceded it, a continuation of a pattern that stretches back weeks.
That’s not to say the Seahawks seemed all that concerned afterward. “In the huddle, Russell told everybody to relax,” receiver Paul Richardson said. He sounded like he wanted the reporters who crowded around his locker to do the same.
Told that Wilson’s directive sounded like what quarterback Aaron Rodgers told Green Bay Packers fans a few weeks ago, Richardson laughed. “It sounds like Russell Wilson,” he said. Then, as he headed out the locker room toward the buses, he added, “We’re going to be fine.”
But are they? This is Seattle’s 2014 offense, in a nutshell: They opened the season with an explosive game against the Packers, with receiver Percy Harvin running the jet sweep and Lynch as Beast-Mode-ly as ever. It was followed by several games in which the scheme seemed too intent on forcing the ball to Harvin; offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell appeared to favor a horizontal approach to a vertical one. Then came the shocking trade of Harvin to the Jets before Week 7, a deal that left Seattle with steady but unspectacular Doug Baldwin as a No. 1 receiver. They’re working with a disgruntled running back in Lynch, a rookie speedster in Richardson, and a bunch of guys that had even Seahawks fans flipping through their game programs to identify.
It’s not that Seattle is incapable of offensive fireworks. The drive against the Panthers proved they can still move the ball. It’s that the performance so far this season, and the middling talent now in place, do not inspire confidence for a Super Bowl repeat. It’s that the Seahawks have been too reliant on Wilson’s scrambling—too reliant on Wilson, period. It’s that the offense must trust in another player, Lynch, who seems destined to join Harvin as an ex-Seahawk in a few months.
As Seattle clings to the fringe of the NFC playoff picture, at 4–3 and tied with San Francisco for second place in the NFC West, the offense is a great unknown, a constellation of mostly non-stars that must align.
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July seems like a year ago. Or five. I ran into Harvin back then at one of Wilson’s passing camps, at the University of Washington. We talked briefly about the season, about Wilson’s leadership, about how Wilson paced the offense through off-season practices, coach as much as quarterback. Harvin said his relatives asked him for Wilson autographs. Sometimes he even obliged.
Reports of Harvin’s fight with teammate Golden Tate before February’s Super Bowl had not yet surfaced. Instead, Wilson and the coaches seemed bullish on Harvin’s potential impact. He was healthy. And even though he had hardly played last season, he burned the Denver Broncos in the Super Bowl, returning the second half kickoff for a touchdown to all but cement the Seahawks’ triumph. It was his single greatest highlight in Seattle.
“Dynasty,” Harvin told me. “That’s what we’re talking about right now. That’s the whole thing, What’s next?”
Turns out, quite a bit. Harvin had another altercation, this time with Baldwin, that caused him to miss a preseason game. He also, according to various reports, came to dislike Wilson, although both players have publicly denied a rift existed. Either way, Wilson found out almost a month ago that the Seahawks planned to trade Harvin. He argued that they retain him. Ultimately, they did not.
Harvin was an odd contradiction in this offense anyway. Here was a player, 26 years old, in his prime, with a skill set—otherworldly speed—among the most coveted in the NFL. And yet, instead of opening up the Seahawks’ offense, Harvin appeared to limit it. Bevell insisted on getting him the ball in the left and right flats, on bubble screens and jet sweeps. Of Harvin’s 22 receptions with Seattle this season, 11 were caught behind the line of scrimmage. The Seahawks’ offense did what no offense wants to do: It went east-west more than north-south.
Before his first game with the Jets, Harvin had already thrown Bevell, who was also with him in Minnesota, under the proverbial bus. He told reporters his frustration stemmed from his role in the offense, not his well-documented issues with anger management that stretch back to his high school days in Virginia Beach, Va., and followed him to the University of Florida.
Bevell spoke to reporters at the Seahawks’ facility last week. The Super Bowl XLVIII banner hung on the opposite wall; he faced it as he spoke. Bevell said he had several conversations with Harvin about his role, but that Harvin never expressed frustration. Four public relations staffers stood within earshot. Someone asked Bevell if Harvin’s skill set restricted Seattle’s ability to utilize him in their offense. “No,” he said.
“They’re all culprits in this,” said one person in football familiar with the Seahawks’ thinking. “The whole group. They enabled Harvin for far too long. If you watched the games, you saw it, the way the offense changed. They went outside what worked last year. That’s the thing. No one is scared of that offense anymore.”
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The offense’s issues seemed to reach a nadir on Oct. 12, when the Dallas Cowboys came into CenturyLink Field and wrested control of the NFC away from the defending champions with a 30-23 victory. It wasn’t just Harvin, although he disappeared in that game both when he was on the field (3 catches, 0 yards) and when, according to Hall of Fame quarterback and Seahawks analyst Warren Moon, he took himself off it.
Compounding matters, the Seahawks stopped feeding the ball to Lynch, the bruiser who was the offense’s embodiment of the team’s physical style in recent seasons. Lynch gained 6.1 yards per carry against the Cowboys. But he only carried 10 times. At one point, Lynch’s agent, Doug Hendrickson, posted on Twitter, “Bevell know he has a running back?”
Of course he does. But even after the Seahawks jettisoned Harvin, Lynch carried 18 times for 53 yards against St. Louis, and 14 times for 62 yards against the Panthers. Those aren’t Pro Bowl numbers. They’re average ones.
It’s not all Bevell, not all Harvin, not all Lynch. It’s all three, and more. Their offensive line isn’t as good as it was a year ago. They have started a rookie, Justin Britt, at right tackle, and Pro Bowl center Max Unger has been out since suffering a foot injury against Washington in Week 5. His backup, Stephen Schilling, botched an exchange with Wilson against Carolina that the Panthers recovered. The Seahawks also lost Zach Miller, their starting tight end, to ankle surgery.
For Baldwin, the frustration bubbled over during the Dallas loss. Television cameras captured a heated exchange between him and Wilson on the sideline. Then, afterward, he told reporters, “The offense can’t f---ing move the ball. We’ve got too much f----ing talent over here not to be moving the ball.”
Then it got worse. Before the Carolina game, ESPN and other outlets reported the Seahawks’ dissatisfaction with Lynch, who briefly held out during training camp. That’s been the sense around Lynch this season, that his act has worn thin with the front office. He declined, as always, to speak with reporters following the victory over the Panthers. What matters more than how often he communicates with coaches (reportedly not much) or with the media (even less, though who can blame him) are these numbers: 28 (his age) and 1,988 (his combined career regular- and postseason rushing attempts). That is a lot of mileage.
The Seahawks need to rely on Lynch the way they used to rely on Lynch, but they haven’t. He may be gone after the season, anyway, and if he’s back, he’ll be 29 and barreling towards the edge of the running back production cliff.
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Rather than Lynch, the Seahawks have relied heavily on Wilson. Perhaps too much. Week 5 in Washington, he set a Monday Night Football record for QB rushing yards with 122. Two weeks later in St. Louis, he became the first player in NFL history to pass for more than 300 yards and rush for more than 100 in a game. It sometimes felt like the Seahawks were waiting for him to make something happen, scramble and turn offensive ineptitude into magic.
His line hasn’t helped. According to Pro Football Focus, Wilson has been under pressure 39.7% of the time, the fourth-highest mark among QBs with at least 200 dropbacks. His big rushing totals point to something else: Wilson has been forced to scramble because receivers aren’t getting open, or he doesn’t have enough time to wait for them to get open.
Wilson carries on the way that Wilson does. He projects calm. He beat the Redskins pretty much by himself and nearly pulled off a comeback against the Rams. He laughed off the Bleacher Report story that quoted anonymous teammates as saying they don’t find him black enough. Then, in Carolina, he led the drive that saved the season.
“I talked to him extensively on the plane the other day,” Moon said before the Carolina game. “We talked about things he could do better. We talked about the Percy thing. He’s never going to bad-mouth anybody. But I think he’s relieved that that situation is over.”
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The only folks who don’t appear to be panicking about the Seahawks’ locker room are the players and coaches who inhabit that locker room. Either that, or they’ve done a great job of masking the ongoing turmoil.
The fact is, despite some clunkers, the Seahawks remain right in the NFC mix. They’re two games behind the Cardinals, with both Arizona games yet to be played, and only one behind Dallas and Detroit in the loss column. They’ll be heavy favorites each of the next two weeks, hosting Oakland and the Giants. Should they win both, they’ll be 6–3 entering a brutal stretch, but with all their regular-season goals—a division title and homefield advantage—within their grasp.
Professional football is a repetitive business, the same routines practiced over and over for months at a time. Fans who panic over the Harvin trade, or a report about Lynch’s state of mind, forget that players hardly ever react in such extremes. Their jobs demand it. They fall back on their routines, on repetition, on clichés, one week and a time and all that jazz. The best teams trust in those routines. They never deviate.
The Seahawks have not panicked, or have not appeared to, anyway. What they need to do is return to what got them to the Super Bowl in the first place. Run the football. Stop the run. Cut out of the costly turnovers and penalties and mistakes. It’s limiting their offense, not opening it up, that will lead to the greatest improvements. It’s like with the Harvin trade, addition by subtraction. At least that’s the plan.
“Sometimes the negative stuff, it’s not so much trying to prove everybody else wrong,” Baldwin said. “It’s just proving ourselves right. It’s important for us to have the right perspective.”
The drive that saved the season and the drive to save the season. We’ll find out if the Seahawks have both.
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