In Week 1, Seattle Seahawks looked like the heavy favorites to defend the Super Bowl title. But five games in, they look nothing like that team from Week 1.
Throughout the Super Bowl era, every team with multiple consecutive Super Bowl wins has developed a clear, successful identity. The Packers of the 1960s were smart and efficient, and brutally effective on offense and defense. The Dolphins of the early '70s were nearly mistake-proof, with an amazing running game and a near-perfect defense. The Steelers of the late '70s had perhaps the best set of defenses in league history, and an ever-expanding passing game wrapped around an old-school ground game. The 49ers of the Bill Walsh era took the West Coast offense to a veritable domination of the '80s, and they were usurped by a Cowboys team led by a focus on home-grown and ridiculous talent on both sides of the ball. And the Patriots of the early 2000s were defined by Bill Belichick's adaptability, as well as Tom Brady's rare ascendance to the all-time quarterback Pantheon.
It's been a decade since a team has won two Super Bowls in a row -- the Patriots were the last team to do it, at the end of the 2004 campaign -- and many believed that the Seattle Seahawks had the best shot to end that streak after their 43-8 dismantling of the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XLVIII in February. They were the youngest team to ever win the NFL's biggest game, and they had a great group of young talent just growing into potential.
Moreover, the 2013 Seahawks had an overriding philosophy that worked, an identity that was clear and effective. They were going to run the ball as much as any team, use the passing game in an efficient fashion, play lockdown defense and dictate the action whenever possible. With all the loudmouthery going on in the Emerald City, the real story with this Seahawks team was the ability, for the most part, to bend opponents to their will.
But things have looked quite different since Seattle's opening win against Green Bay, when they looked as if they'd roll over the rest of the NFL this season. The Seahawks sport a 3-2 record, and they've given up exactly as many points (97) as they've scored.
Mediocrity wasn't in the plan this year, but it's starting to make its presence known around Seattle.
In their two losses this season, to San Diego and Dallas, Seattle looked like a very different team on both sides of the ball -- unsure with their offensive gameplan, and reactive on defense when they used to be dominant in mind and result. Seattle ranks fourth in Football Outsiders' opponent-adjusted metrics in overall defense, but they're 17th against the pass, which is beyond unusual for this team -- they ranked first last season, and third in 2012.
A running game that's supposed to be led by liberal doses of Marshawn Lynch has been stilted and inconsistent. Lynch's carries are down this season from 18.8 to 15.8 per game, and though he's actually gaining more yards (4.6 yards per carry to last year's 4.2), he carried the ball just 16 combined times in the Seahawks' losses to the Chargers and Cowboys.
And the deep passing game that came off that rushing attack, via play-action passes? It's a non-factor this season. In 2013, Russell Wilson attempted 60 passes of 20 yards or more, completing 27 for 922 yards, nine touchdowns and five picks. This season, Wilson is tied for the fewest deep passing attempts among quarterbacks with at least 25 percent of their team's total attempts -- just 13, right down there with Charlie Whitehurst and Blake Bortles. Percy Harvin, in his first healthy season with the Seahawks, has been targeted downfield exactly zero times. Instead, Harvin's oevure appears to be a series of bubble screens that opponents are easily sniffing out and stopping.
The most disturbing indicator of this new issue in Seattle was the team's 30-23 loss to the Cowboys at CenturyLink Field on Sunday. The two teams seemed to swap positions; while Seattle played very much like Dallas did in 2013 -- iffy, inconsistently and unspectacularly -- the Cowboys played the old Seattle way, with a highly effective series of over- and under-front defensive concepts, stifling press coverage and a thrashing run game that the Seahawks couldn't stop consistently.
"If you go back and look, we had calls going downfield and some got thrown and contested and some didn’t," head coach Pete Carroll said Monday, when asked if the shorter passing game was an intentional factor. "We didn’t hit them like we’d like to; we got [Jermaine] Kearse on the first drive [of the Cowboys game]. We had Jermaine up the sideline; he makes a great play to make the catch -- [Dallas defender] knocks the ball out. We had the play to [tight end] Luke [Willson]; there are a number of other times. The seam routes that we throw, those are downfield throws for us. ... We’re doing just like we always do; it hasn’t changed at all."
But it has changed, and Wilson is one of the reasons why. While his runaround style creates big plays, he's also frequently rolling out of the pocket before seeing the entire field, and missing open receivers for potentially big plays as a result.
Is this yet another example of the Super Bowl bully being exposed? Carroll said Monday that things are still close to on track, but yes -- there are issues.
"Well, we’ve had two games where we weren’t there. That’s a big factor of what’s going on here. We’ve got to do a whole lot better here than we have. Sometimes it takes quite a while before you find it, and I don’t think we’re quite there yet because we haven’t found the consistency. We know what we’re trying to do, we know where it is and where it needs to be, but we’re just not quite there yet."
After the Cowboys loss, receiver Doug Baldwin went off, implying that, perhaps, this year's Seahawks team hadn't quite escaped their glorious recent past.
"We have to quit BS-ing ourselves," he said. "We've got to be real with ourselves. When we get in the meeting room, we've got to actually pay attention to things and not blow smoke up our tails that everything's going to be all right. Things aren't going right. Pay attention to things that we're not doing right and correct them.
"We had plenty of time to make plays. We've got too much talent not to be moving the [expletive] ball."
Carroll took that to heart, and said that the fingers should be pointed at him, and understood what Baldwin was saying.
"Well if I didn’t know who he was, how Doug is, and the kind of competitor he is, then I might wonder what the heck is going on. He was just frustrated, and he was fired up and he wanted to do something to help, and he wanted to get it going and it didn’t happen. He just vented some. He was talking to Russell on the sideline about stuff and trying to get everybody fired up, so there’s a fine line there. He’s just frustrated about it, as we all were, and that’s the way he expressed it."
The Seahawks can express their frustrations, but can they express their identity? Five games in, the results are inconclusive at best.