Wrapping My Head Around This Year’s Seahawks Turnaround

In the Russell Wilson era, these teams have – for the most part – been known for their incredible second halves of seasons.  In 2012, the Seahawks started off 4-4, then won 7 of their final 8 (including the last five of the regular season) to finish 11-5 and slip into the Wild Card.  I wouldn’t necessarily attribute that turnaround to the schedule getting easier, as part of that 4-4 start included tough wins over good teams like Green Bay and New England, and losses to crappy teams like Arizona and St. Louis.  There would still be good teams left on the schedule in the second half, including San Francisco, Minnesota, and Chicago (all with at least 10 wins at season’s end).  No, the primary reason everyone points to as the reason why the Seahawks went on that late-season surge is our rookie quarterback taking a giant leap in the quality of his play (hold that thought, spoiler alert).

In 2013, the Seahawks actually started 11-1 before stumbling a bit at the finish and ending up 13-3, so that year doesn’t really qualify (but we won the Super Bowl that year anyway, so who cares?).  But, in 2014, again we struggled early, starting 6-4 before running the table to finish 12-4.  There were still some good teams left to play (division-leading Arizona twice, as well as a 10-win Eagles team on the road), but all of those games featured teams who were playing without their starting quarterbacks.  When you factor in the other three games were against the imploding Rams and the imploding 49ers, one might argue that was a pretty soft landing to end up with the #1 seed for a second straight year.  Nevertheless, with or without their quarterbacks, those were some pretty talented teams.  Explaining the Seahawks’ turnaround in 2014, a lot gets attributed to dumping Percy Harvin, and later getting Bobby Wagner back from injury for that stretch run.  Once we figured out how to play offense without our top weapon (around whom we’d focused so much of our early gameplans), and once we were able to settle down our run defense with our enforcer in the middle, everything clicked into place and we rolled on into the Super Bowl for a second straight year.

This year, the Seahawks started out 4-5 before ripping off five straight victories.  Can you even stand it?  We didn’t have a winning record this year until Week 11!  If that’s not a recipe for an 8-8 or 9-7 record, I don’t know what is!  But, this team has legitimately started to click.  Does the schedule have a big deal to do with it?  Of course.  When you go on a 5-game winning streak, and three of those games are against three of the worst teams in the league (Browns, Ravens, 49ers), you can’t say you weren’t helped a little bit by your schedule.  The victory over the Steelers was totally legit, and getting more impressive by the week (considering the Steelers’ run of football since Ben Roethlisberger returned from his second injury); the victory over the Vikings was impressive, but they did suffer a ton of injuries on defense.  Nevertheless, I think we’re better than them and would’ve beaten them at full strength regardless.

There are three very interesting developments that have happened over the course of this second half of the season.  #1 – Marshawn Lynch leaving the game early in Week 10 against Arizona.  #2 – Cary Williams playing his final game in a Seahawks uniform in Week 11 against San Francisco.  #3 – Jimmy Graham being lost for the season in Week 12 against Pittsburgh.

Getting rid of Cary Williams, I think we can all agree, is a huge plus.  Granted, it happened before that Steelers game, when Roethlisberger threw it all over the stadium on us, but even then you could tell things were bound to improve with Shead taking over and with Lane returning from the PUP list.  While I don’t see the defense totally getting back to its dominant ways, I’ve certainly seen enough sparks out of them to feel confident that they can at least get the job done and put us in a position on offense to win the game every week.

Losing Lynch for extended time, and then losing Graham for the year, is really a head-scratcher.  Why would this team – especially this offense – look so much better when you’ve lost two of your best weapons?

There are two schools of thought.  The prevailing argument out there in Seahawksland among the 12s is that the loss of Graham is actually a good thing, as it frees up the offensive coordinator to call whatever plays he wants, and it frees up Russell Wilson to not have to feel like he needs to force it to his star tight end all the time.  I’ll admit, I buy that to an extent.  There were a disturbing number of forced balls to Graham that either were or should have been intercepted.  There was also the MASSIVE media firestorm early in the season when the team was losing games and Graham’s numbers were subpar; all anyone could talk about is how the Seahawks don’t know how to properly use their new toy.  That kind of pressure – especially when you’re also losing ballgames – would cause any offensive coordinator to press a little bit, if for no other reason than to shut everyone up.  But, either way, you can’t deny these players are human, and as such, their expectations are to get the ball each and every play.

As far as Lynch is concerned, some look at the success of Rawls (and even the play of Christine Michael last week) and say Lynch is a product of a system that churns out top-notch runners (maybe not locally, I think the fans know what they’ve got in Lynch and appreciate him as much; but certainly in the national media, with these talking head idiots on ESPN and Fox Sports).

Together, the loss of Lynch and Graham, it could be – and has been – argued that with their outsize personalities out of the way, it’s freeing up Russell Wilson to grow into the leader and elite quarterback he’s become these last five weeks.  That, I think, is stretching it a little bit.

For starters, I think Russell Wilson has always been a great leader for this team.  And, with the way he goes about his life, how hard he works, how much he studies the game, and his overall will to be great, I think Russell Wilson was always going to take another leap into being one of the top five quarterbacks in the game.

There are two benchmarks for any great quarterback:  the first is when you finally know this guy belongs in the league.  For Russell Wilson, that happened in his rookie year.  The Fail Mary was fun, and the You Mad Bro game against the Patriots was a huge win for this team; but I think most of us would agree the win on the road against a tough Chicago team was the moment where Russell Wilson announced to the world that he’s here to stay.  293 passing yards, another 71 rushing, leading the Seahawks to a come-from-behind victory, only for the Bears to send it to overtime in the final seconds, and THEN just completely taking over the game in overtime to secure the win.  That’s the kind of game where legends are made.

The second benchmark for any great quarterback is when he makes the jump into hyperspace.  There are solid, steady, everyday quarterbacks, and then there are the elite.  The tops of the top.  And, from the looks of this run he’s on, we’re witnessing his ascension into greatness.  If you want to narrow it down to a single game, then I think you have to look at that victory over the Steelers.  The same Steelers team that just dismantled the best defense in the league (the Broncos) have been humming along since that very Seahawks game, when Roethlisberger threw for 456 yards and likely would’ve gone for 500 if he didn’t self-report himself with a concussion.  Those Steelers blasted us for 30 points and, again, would’ve gone for more had Ben not gone down; we needed every bit of the 39 points we scored in that game.  With Lynch gone, with Graham going down in that game, and with the Steelers flying at a furious pace, this was the game where Russell Wilson made it known that he’s not here to screw around.  345 yards on 21/30, 5 TDs, 0 INTs, and maybe more impressively, only 14 rushing yards.  He did it with his arm, he did it from the comfort of the pocket, and his performance was the football equivalent of a thousand fireball emojis.

I’m less inclined to attribute this team’s turnaround to the loss of its stars.  I don’t think you necessarily get better when you dilute your talent pool.  I do see a team that was foundering, and with the loss of Lynch and Graham, was really on the ropes.  I see an opportunity for a quarterback to pick up his team, put them on his back, and carry them through the burning building out to freedom.  And I see a quarterback who took advantage of that opportunity, rose to the occasion, and has his team in a position to do some pretty magical things.

The question remains:  WOULD he have taken that next step in his development if Graham and Lynch were still around?  We’ll never totally know.  19 touchdowns against 0 interceptions these last five games?  It’s possible.  There were signs that his rapport with Graham was starting to materialize in the few games before Graham got hurt.  I think it’s just as possible that Graham has simply missed out on the windfall of touchdowns that have been coming in his absence, as it is possible that Graham was the problem to begin with.  For what it’s worth, I agree with most Seahawks fans that it’s time to stop making huge splashy trades for star receivers, and instead continue to develop our homegrown guys and build around them instead.

If anything, Doug Baldwin has had the most to gain from the loss of Lynch and Graham, not necessarily Russell Wilson.  Baldwin’s just taking advantage because he’s far and away this team’s best and most complete receiver.

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