Only a few short weeks ago, after being eliminated from the playoffs with an embarrassing 25-24 loss to the Bears, major changes seemed inevitable for the Seahawks.
Dropping to a 5-10 record at the time, the chances of coach Pete Carroll, general manager John Schneider, and star quarterback Russell Wilson all returning for another season together seemed slim to none. Silent in the shadows to this point, to help usher in a rebuild, Jody Allen would surely make her first groundbreaking move as an owner either parting ways with Carroll and/or Schneider or making the once unthinkable move jettisoning an unhappy Wilson to greener pastures.
But after closing out the season with back-to-back victories, including an impressive 38-30 road win over the Cardinals on Sunday, a far more optimistic narrative has emerged in the Pacific Northwest. Carroll and Schneider both look to be safe after avoiding pink slips on "Black Monday," while the Seahawks don't seem interested in moving Wilson either. Instead, it appears Allen will opt to keep the band together for at least one more season believing this year was an aberration.
Is that the right call? Time will tell if Allen made the correct decision, but there are several reasons to believe running it back with Carroll, Schneider, and Wilson could work out favorably for the Seahawks to bounce back in 2022.
1. A healthier Russell Wilson started playing like his vintage self down the stretch.
At the end of the day, Seattle's season ultimately crashed and burned because of Wilson's right middle finger injury suffered in Week 5, which cost him three games on injured reserve following surgery and prevented him from playing at his typical Pro Bowl level upon his return. In his first three games back from injury, while he denied the finger was the reason for his lackluster performance, he completed just 55 percent of his passes and threw two touchdowns as his team went winless and dropped to a dismal 3-8 record. Continuing a season-long trend, he also struggled on third down in those games, moving the chains just eight times on 30 drop backs while posting a 40 percent completion rate.
But while Wilson wasn't perfect in the final month of the season - he did commit two ugly turnovers that gifted Arizona 14 points on Sunday - the veteran gunslinger played much more like his former self. In Seattle's last six games, he posted a 64 percent completion rate and threw 13 touchdowns compared to just three interceptions with a 103.7 passer rating. He also proved he still could do damage with his legs, extending plays outside of the pocket and bulldozing through a tackle attempt by Budda Baker to score a touchdown in the finale. Most importantly, he performed much better on third downs, completing 62 percent of his passes and helping the Seahawks convert 45.2 percent of their third down opportunities, which ranked ninth in the league during that span.
There's been plenty of speculation about Wilson's future and given how poorly he played for several weeks after coming back from injury, a potential move seemed increasingly likely for a team on the cusp of a rebuild. But after seeing him bounce back with several big performances in the final month of the season and playing his heart out in the finale, he showed he could return to the upper echelon of the NFL's quarterback hierarchy and trading him would be foolish.
2. The emergence of Rashaad Penny and a bullying offensive line brought back Seattle's "winning formula."
For the vast majority of the 2021 season, the Seahawks struggled to sustain drives, finishing with a league-worst 25:15 time of possession average per game. Much of this had to do with poor third down efficiency, as the team finished dead-last in third down conversions and 23rd overall in third down conversion rate. But as Carroll reiterated numerous times during the season, the inability to establish their running game didn't help with the problem either. Through Week 13, they ranked 24th in rushing yards and 29th in attempts, which irked Carroll to no end.
But once Penny broke into the starting lineup in Week 14 against the Texans, everything changed. Spearheaded by Penny's four games with 135 or more yards, the Seahawks lapped the rest of the NFL with 910 rushing yards as a team in the final six weeks, 101 yards more than the Bills in second place. The former first round pick's explosive home run-hitting ability brought a new element to the offense, but credit needs to be given to the offensive line as well. Despite dealing with injuries and COVID-19 infections down the stretch, the group dominated in the trenches with unsung heroes such as undrafted rookie tackle Jake Curhan and guard Phil Haynes stepping up and mauling opponents at the point of attack.
It's been a sight to behold for Carroll, who told reporters after Sunday's win over the Cardinals, "You don’t have to throw for 400 yards to win football games. You’ve got to be able to mix it and control the ball and be dominant at the line of scrimmage. Our guys were able to find that. I don’t know how many games it is, but we’ve been averaging 160 yards a game rushing, or something like that, for five or six weeks. That’s just a winning formula.”
Even given his lengthy injury history, Penny should be prioritized as an impending free agent the Seahawks must re-sign. In front of him, with veterans Duane Brown, Brandon Shell, and Ethan Pocic scheduled to hit free agency themselves, the front office should be aiming for continuity after seeing how well the group gelled up front in the final six weeks. If they can bring back Brown and Pocic to go with Damien Lewis, Gabe Jackson, and Curhan with Haynes as a super sub, there's no reason the ground game can't be an area of strength next season and the franchise can get back to the balanced offense Carroll has long coveted.
3. Shane Waldron found his play-calling groove at the tail end of his inaugural season as offensive coordinator.
In his first year as a coordinator at the NFL or college level, Waldron went through expected growing pains and wasn't helped by the fact Wilson got hurt early in the season while everyone was still trying to get in sync with a new scheme. Still, with his quarterback continuing to struggle after returning to the lineup and the ground game unable to get untracked, the former Rams assistant became an easy target as a scapegoat for the team's disappointing season and some speculated he might be one-and-done with the Seahawks.
Coinciding with Wilson's improved play and Penny's breakout, however, Waldron seemed to make major strides towards the end of the season and did a far better job of utilizing his skill players as a whole. The diversified ground game promised upon his hiring finally materialized with Seattle gashing opponents with a variety of zone concepts, traps, counters, and other gap schemes. Wilson seemed to find his comfort zone in the intermediate passing game as well, which proved integral to the team scoring at least 30 points in four of the final six games.
Armed with an offense featuring Wilson, DK Metcalf, Tyler Lockett, Dee Eskridge, and hopefully Penny and tight end Gerald Everett, the Seahawks should enter next season far more comfortable with Waldron's system. Finally past the extensive learning curve that seemed to hold both the coach and his players back for most of the season, the group could hit the ground running next year and live up to the lofty expectations they fell well short of in 2021.
4. An underachieving pass rush finished strong and could be one piece away from being a force to reckon with.
Entering training camp in July, the Seahawks expected to have one of the NFC's best pass rushing units. After all, the team that finished first in sacks during the final nine weeks of the 2020 season had re-signed Carlos Dunlap and Benson Mayowa, added reliable veteran Kerry Hyder in free agency, and welcomed back former second-round pick Darrell Taylor after a leg injury cost him his entire rookie season. In addition, Rasheem Green and Alton Robinson returned as well, rounding out a deep, versatile group of defensive ends.
Unfortunately, for most of the season, the lack of a pass rush held back an otherwise solid Seahawks defense. Quarterbacks had far too much time to throw and scan the field in the pocket, leaving linebackers and the secondary exposed in coverage. Through Seattle's first 11 games, only two players on the roster - Taylor and Green - had more than a single sack. Dunlap, Mayowa, Robinson, and Hyder had a combined 3.0 sacks during that span, failing to come close to meeting preseason expectations.
Much like Seattle's run game, though consistency remained an issue, the pass rush found some traction in the final six games. Leading the charge winning with power off the edge and dishing out plenty of somersaults, Dunlap closed out the season on a tear, racking up 8.0 sacks and 15 quarterback pressures. Green also closed out the final year of his rookie contract playing the best football of his career, amassing 3.5 sacks and 11 pressures in the final six games.
Looking at the depth chart, the Seahawks should have Dunlap, Taylor, Robinson, and Hyder back, while retaining Green should be a priority due to his youth and versatility. As Carroll indicated in his final Monday post-game press conference, continuing to add to the pass rush will be at the top of the team's to-do list this spring and with an estimated $55 million in cap space, they should make a run at signing Cardinals star Chandler Jones or Rams rushing specialist Von Miller in free agency to put this group over the top in 2022.
Maintaining status quo, the Seahawks should have one of the best linebacker corps and secondaries in the NFL next year.
While the Seahawks would be wise to pursue upgrades for their pass rush up front, the team appears to be in very good shape at linebacker as well as cornerback and safety if they can retain their own free agents. That's the big if in the equation, as cornerbacks D.J. Reed and Sidney Jones as well as Pro Bowl safety Quandre Diggs will all be scheduled to hit the market in March and could draw ample interest from other teams.
Out of all of their impending free agents, even after suffering a fractured fibula in Seattle's final game on Sunday, Diggs should be general manager John Schneider's top priority to re-sign. Since coming over from Detroit in a midseason trade in 2019, he's intercepted 13 passes, produced 20 pass breakups, and registered 179 tackles, earning his keep as one of the NFL's most underrated playmaking safeties. Losing a talented leader of his caliber would be a major setback for Carroll's defense, particularly considering the importance of a ball-hawking center fielder in their scheme.
At cornerback, strong arguments can be made for retaining Reed and Jones, though price point will matter in both cases. After moving back to right cornerback in Week 4, Reed played at a Pro Bowl level, allowing just 13 receptions on 28 targets for 139 yards and no touchdowns while picking off a pair of passes in his final 11 games. After returning to the starting lineup in Week 11, Jones was equally impressive, holding opposing receivers to 7.9 yards per reception and racking up six pass breakups in eight games.
If the Seahawks can bring back Diggs, Reed, and/or Jones to couple with a healthy Jamal Adams coming back from shoulder surgery, the team should boast a top-five secondary in terms of talent and scheme fit next season. From there, the team could re-sign restricted free agent Ryan Neal and veteran Josh Jones to give them one of the deepest secondaries in the league.
Meanwhile at linebacker, Seattle could have a tough decision to make regarding the future of Bobby Wagner, who has a cap hit north of $20 million in 2022 and will turn 32 years old in July. Regardless of what happens with Wagner - Carroll has said he expects him to be back next season - the team has a budding star in Jordyn Brooks and another starter-caliber player in Cody Barton waiting in the wings, rounding out a back seven that stacks up against any team in the NFL.