Heading Into 2021, Seahawks Need to Review Their Injury Policy

Looking back on the 2020 season, the Seahawks have a problem and it revolves around their injury policy. On multiple occasions, hurt players started games for Seattle and, consequently, wound up possibly doing more harm than good in the end. Will they learn from their mistakes in 2021?
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Crashing out of the playoffs with a 30-20 loss to the Los Angeles Rams was painful for the Seahawks and their fans. The defeat exposed multiple season-wide issues. 

Every time Pete Carroll’s team lost during the 2020 season, recurring problems were present. The Wild Card round matchup with the Rams was a surprisingly close game, with Darious Williams' pick-six of Russell Wilson lingering as a seven-point margin for most of the competition.

On the other hand, what if roles were reversed and the Seahawks found the end zone on defense? 

Reviewing sports with the benefit of hindsight inevitably leads to the ifs, buts, maybes, could-haves, should-haves, etc. Additionally, excuses to explain the pain of a loss readily present themselves for both fans and players. An immediately obvious get-out clause is injuries (even though, like most excuses, every team has to deal with this challenge).

Jamal Adams’ first year in Seattle was a thoroughly banged-up experience. He must have been legitimately hurt. Here’s what we know about Adams’ ailments. He strained his groin versus the Cowboys in Week 3 and then missed four games, injured his right shoulder at the Rams in Week 10, broke two fingers on his left hand, and then tore the labrum in his left shoulder versus the 49ers in Week 17. Adams was open about his laundry list of injuries towards the end of the season and said he will undergo surgery during the offseason.

Adams was the Seahawks' best hope of turning the tables on the Rams and nabbing a defensive touchdown of their own. Early in the game, Los Angeles quarterback John Wolford weakly tossed a pass to the sideline. If Adams wasn’t playing through so much pain, the strong safety may very well have intercepted the ball and ran it back for a momentum-changing score. The seven-point swing that the Rams eventually got on the disastrous screen attempt by Seattle would have gone the other way in this scenario.

Instead, Cooper Kupp was able to catch the ball on the out route for a 13-yard reception and a new set of downs on 2nd and 10. The Seahawks sent K.J. Wright as an additional rusher from their bear (“Falcon”) front. Behind it, they played three-deep, three-under fire zone coverage that saw Adams play a Hot 2 technique.

ADAMS IMAGE 1

Hot 2 players are out-leveraged by alignment and assignment to the sideline. Yet Adams made an excellent break on Kupp after first protecting the seam. When it came to playing the ball, however, his jump lacked hops, reach, and a working left shoulder and his potential game-changing moment fell flat. There’s no way a healthy Adams misses this ball.

Adams gave up an even bigger play in coverage - a dreaded "explosive" - later in the game. Once more, this felt like a play he would have made if he wasn't dealing with so many injuries and if he had a working left shoulder.

To the empty formation on 2nd and 7, the Seahawks played Cover 3 Sky. Adams’ soft sky assignment to the two receiver side tasked him with taking the seam route of the No. 2 receiver - Kupp in this instance - up. To empty especially, this allows Shaquill Griffin to play with aggression against the Weak No. 1 comeback.

ADAMS IMAGE 2

Adams was slow to transition with Kupp's seam route, almost looking to re-route it in a way that isn’t typical with “soft sky." Adams recovered well and had Quandre Diggs in good position from deep safety covering up deep. Jared Goff underthrew the ball to Kupp and Adams was unable to contort his body to play the ball, allowing Kupp to make the catch for 44 yards. Health, again, feels relevant to the outcome of the play.

Jamal Adams

The final play of Adams that was noticeably impacted by his injuries was Rams running back Cam Akers’ five-yard touchdown run at the end of the second quarter. Adams was in man coverage in the Cover 0 blitz run fit, but it was disappointing to see him attack the tight end well before tamely attempting a swipe at the ball rather than truly attacking the play by throwing his body at the ball carrier. His shoulder was likely unable to take that level of contact; hence, he pulled up short.

Three monumental plays: a pick-six turning into a third down pick up, a huge explosive that set up a field goal, and a touchdown. It’s exciting to imagine what a healthier Adams will look like on the Seahawks as the potential feels limitless. Similarly tantalizing was his dropped interception, no doubt made hard due to his broken fingers, in Week 16 versus the Rams following perfect Soft Sky coverage.

"I’m not sitting up here and making excuses for anything, but it’s part of the game," Adams said after the playoff defeat. "There was never no doubt in my mind that I wasn’t going to go out there and attempt to play. I did what I could."

"I wish I could have done more to help the team win, but obviously things didn’t roll our way. I think we shot ourselves in the foot a lot of times, on both sides of ball, and versus a good team like that you just can’t do it."

Certain questions need to be raised of Seattle’s handling of their injured stars. First, recognize two things: 1) We have nothing close to the information that the Seahawks medical staff uses to assess players and make decisions. 2) Football is violence bound to the hurt-or-injured question. Every player on a roster picks up pains throughout a season that they nurse and play through.

This acknowledged, it’s still fair to say that the Seahawks require a rethink in how they handle an injured player starting or not. This statement is based off Seattle’s 2020 season and clear evidence. Two extra instances stick in the mind and the Seahawks got these calls badly wrong.

The case of Quinton Dunbar versus the Bills is most obvious. After starting the season well, Dunbar lacked his trademark quickness and lean speed. Something was obviously going on. At Orchard Park, Josh Allen targeted Dunbar eight times for six completions, 92 yards – 11.5 yards per completion—and a touchdown, per Sports Info Solutions.

Here’s what I wrote on Dunbar after the Seahawks’ Week 9 embarrassment:

“Dunbar is in a contract year. The corner is looking to earn his money and no one can doubt his toughness. At a certain point, a coaching staff must intervene and protect their players. There is a duty of care. In the NFL, the Seahawks had veteran options to fill in for Dunbar, suffering from a chronic knee injury that he manages week-by-week.

Seattle would not have been worse without this version of Dunbar. The corner struggled to run throughout the game, gave up a big cushion, and got absolutely toasted. He was the clearly hurt mismatch and yet still the Seattle coaching staff kept him on the field.”

Dunbar didn’t play again for the Seahawks, landing on injured reserve. Like Adams, he needed offseason surgery.

Brandon Shell's arrival at the right tackle spot was one of the keys to the early #LetRussCook success. In Week 11 at the Cardinals, Shell took a late shot to the back of his leg and was carted off to the locker room. The right tackle wound up being listed on future injury reports with a sprained ankle injury from that point forward.

Shell rushed back for Week 14 versus the Jets, understandably keen to face his old team. Seattle started him, though Shell played in just 40 percent of the offensive snaps before having to leave the game early. Personal battles aside, Shell clearly wasn’t ready.

After that, Shell was only able to return to action for the Wild Card contest with the Rams. Upon his return, however, the chemistry of the Seahawks offensive line looked patchy. Let's take a look at the following numbers, provided by Pro Football Focus:

  • In Week 10 at LAR, Russell Wilson was pressured on 32 of 53 pass plays - 60 percent - and sacked six times
  • In Week 16 versus LAR, Wilson was pressured 20 times on 40 pass plays - 50 percent - and sacked five times 
  • In the Wild Card game, Wilson was pressured on 26 of 39 pass plays - 67 percent - and sacked five times 

How different would these figures have been if Shell was held out of the Jets game and recuperated to better health?

NFL players are some of the most resilient people on the planet, with pain thresholds that border into an extreme territory. Starters in Seattle appear to be given the opportunity to choose whether they play or not based on certain injuries. This may well be the NFL convention, where paid professionals want to earn their game check and the coaches have less of a duty of care when managing grown adults. 

These three examples lead to an obvious conclusion: recalculating Seattle’s trainer-player decision-making balance and taking the call away from the player feels necessary. Consider pitch counts or the taboo of load management (they did this with Mike Iupati). Give trainers more power to pull players from games. Get better at assessing the impact on the hurt player and the team. It will be interesting to see if they learn from their mistakes in 2021.