The Seahawks Blew All Of Our Minds; Traded Max Unger For Jimmy Graham*

* – plus gave up a 1st round draft pick for a 4th round draft pick

Not gonna lie to you, it was going to take a lot for me to be interested in these offseason moves the Seahawks were making.  Anthony McCoy re-signed?  Will Blackmon brought back?  Cary Williams as our Byron Maxwell replacement?  Marshawn Lynch extended?  Yeah, that’s all fine, but it’s not moving the needle of my own personal interest.

I thought FOR SURE there wouldn’t be any big splashes this offseason.  You know, aside from extending our own guys (Lynch, Wagner, Wilson, etc.).  I watched as Suh signed with Miami, Julius Thomas went to Jacksonville.  Hell, even the Jets managed to bring in Brandon Marshall for a song!  The Eagles were making their moves, the Colts look to be making their moves, the 49ers are falling apart, the Cardinals are making middling deals, the bottom-feeders with all the money will throw it around like it’s raining titties in their faces.  And meanwhile, the Seahawks would bide their time, collect as many compensatory draft picks as possible, and rummage through the scraps when all was said and done.  It wouldn’t be flashy, it wouldn’t even be all that pretty, but we’d cross our fingers, hold our breath, and hope for the best.

And then yesterday happened.  There was, like, a 1-2 hour window where everything on Twitter was a clusterfuck of adventure.  You know what everyone was talking about before noon yesterday?  How there’s going to be a Zoolander 2; DO YOU EVEN REMEMBER THAT NOW???  Then, look at what happened after noon:

  • Patrick Willis officially announces his retirement
  • The Bills & Browns going after Charles Clay
  • Various reports of the Saints shopping players, including Jimmy Graham
  • Speculation on where Reggie Bush might end up
  • Then, Jay Glazer brings the hammer down with Seahawks talking about Jimmy Graham with Saints
  • Then, almost immediately after, the deal is all but official
  • Then, almost immediately after that, Haloti Ngata goes to Detroit
  • Then, the Rams trade Bradford to Eagles for Foles (and picks traded also)
  • Then, the Pats let Browner walk
  • Then, Denver signs Owen Daniels
  • The Raiders sign Malcolm Smith
  • Frank Gore & Andre Johnson visit Colts

And, that doesn’t even get into Jake Locker RETIRING.  And everything else that happened afterward.  Just, absolutely, INsane.

My first coherent thought was:  there are no half measures with the Seahawks.  They’re not making blockbuster trades for scrubs.  It’s hard to ask for much more – talentwise – than Percy Harvin and Jimmy Graham (I know these aren’t the only trades we’ve made, but these are the trades that cost us the most).  On paper, there’s not much to dislike about Jimmy Graham.  He’s been in the league five years and in four of those years he’s caught over 80 balls, at least 9 touchdowns, and over 800 yards.  And that’s on a Saints team with some really talented pass catchers through the years.

But, you know, it’s not even really about ALL of that.  We didn’t trade for a guy who’s going to catch 100 balls or 1,000 yards per season.  Just like we didn’t trade for that guy when we brought in Harvin.  Bottom line:  what we did was secure a dominant force in the red zone.  And he doesn’t even need to necessarily be who he’s been!  Granted, if we line him out wide, and he’s guarded one-on-one by a cornerback, we’re probably going to exploit that matchup more often than not.  But, just having him out there is going to draw the lion’s share of the red zone coverage (and in ways it never would have been with Harvin in the fold).

Speed is nice and everything, but it doesn’t make up for size when you’re down inside the 20.

The flipside of all of this is:  we lose Max Unger and we lose our first round draft pick.  Again.  Did you know Bruce Irvin was our most recent first round draft pick?  That was in 2012 for Christ’s sake!

Now, to be fair, trading for Jimmy Graham – as opposed to signing Julius Thomas for a comparable amount of money – means we retain a likely 3rd round draft pick in 2016 (a compensatory pick for losing Byron Maxwell in free agency).  So, in fairness, yes we lose the #31 overall pick this year, but we gain an extra 4th rounder from the Saints, AND we preserve our 3rd rounder next year.  So, that mitigates things a bit.

But, I dunno, I guess it’s just annoying.  There’s value in drafting in the first round, even if it is in the low 30s.  Maybe we do like we did last year and trade it back to gain a 2nd & a 4th.  Maybe we flip it for a first rounder next year!  Or, shit, maybe we keep that pick and draft a guy who starts for us immediately!  Maybe it’s not an all-world tight end or wide receiver, but I bet that hypothetical player would’ve been someone good!

All I’m saying is – when this blows up in our faces – you’re going to be reading many a blog post about how the Seahawks could’ve drafted So-And-So if they kept their first rounder.  Happens ALL THE TIME.

I’m less upset about losing Unger, because let’s face it, that guy is breaking down like nobody’s business.  When he’s healthy, he’s as good as it gets – especially in the run game – but each year he’s getting more and more dinged up.  We blew through four centers last year!  And, I know it wasn’t always pretty, but we managed.  The reason we struggled for so long wasn’t just because Unger was out.

I’ve been saying all along that the Seahawks need to draft a Center Of The Future this year, and that was when I still factored Unger in as our starter!  You have to think that guy’s out of football within two years; better to unload him now and save a bit of money with all that we’re taking on with Graham’s contract.

My concern about Jimmy Graham – outside of everything that we gave up – is twofold.  The first reason is more abstract:  the Seahawks traded away a first round draft pick for a receiver (and make no mistake, Graham is more wide receiver than tight end); teams that trade away first rounders for receivers almost ALWAYS see that shit blow up in their faces.  The Seahawks don’t have to look any further than Deion Branch and Percy Harvin.  Shit, everyone creamed in their pants over Harvin, and look at how that ended!

Now, the good thing about this one is that Graham doesn’t appear to be quite the hothead or mental case that Harvin was and is.  While there might be some hurt fee-fees after some of the jawing the Seahawks defense did with him a couple years ago, I doubt that’s going to single-handedly dismantle the locker room chemistry like Harvin managed.  That’s the kind of lightning you DON’T want to see strike twice!  That’s, like, actual lightning striking you twice.

My more concrete fear is the softness of Jimmy Graham.  He’s the same delicate little flower that would disappear for weeks at a time, while padding his stats against the bottom-feeders of the league.  Now, like I said before, I don’t necessarily need him to take over the entire offense between the 20’s.  But, I’m going to need a manly man in that endzone when we’re trying to convert drives into touchdowns!

Luckily, he only has to face the Seahawks’ defense in practice and not in games.  But, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again:  you put a body on Graham and he’s going to crumple!

Now, factor that in with the fact that he’s a bigger, taller gentleman.  6’7, 265.  These guys tend to break down on a football field.  He’s already not all that fast, but he’s going to slow down to Antonio Gates levels in a hurry.  That might not mean a whole lot on the goalline, but he also can’t be TOTALLY anonymous between the 20s either.  2015 will be his sixth year in the NFL.  I feel pretty safe to say that it’s going to be the last year of his “prime” and it’s all downhill starting in 2016.

Meaning?  We better not lose him for a season like we fucking did with Harvin.  Because, if he goes down with a hip or an ACL or some damn season-ending thing, I don’t think there’s any recovery.  And, not only that, but we blew yet another first round pick, while all of our core gets another year older.

A lot is riding on this deal working out.  MUCH more than with the Harvin trade.  At the time, you could argue that Harvin was the cherry on top of an already championship-level sundae.  This time, we’re talking about the difference between maintaining a championship level vs. falling back to the pack.

Cards on the table:  before the Graham trade, the Seahawks were well on their way to being just another playoff team.  You could’ve argued that the Packers, Lions, Cowboys, Eagles, Cardinals, and even the Giants were making waves in the NFC.  We were no longer the clear leaders of the pack; we were just part of that pack.

Now?  Now, I think this is a move you can safely say makes the rest of the NFC cringe a little bit.  The Seahawks WERE a team without much talent in the receiving game.  We were going to have to hit the draft hard and hope someone popped, but more likely, it would’ve meant a receiver popping in the next year or two.  Jimmy Graham is an influx of elite-level talent that makes us much more balanced on offense.  He bumps Baldwin, Kearse, and everyone else down a level, back down where they belong.

Sure, we’re stuck now replacing 40% of our offensive line, but I would argue that we needed to do that anyway.  Letting James Carpenter sign elsewhere is a boon.  He’s always getting dinged up, and now we get another compensatory pick for him.  Getting rid of Unger helps mitigate some of the cost we’re taking on, plus it throws a little more urgency in our search for his replacement.  A search – I’ve argued before – needed to happen regardless.

Overall, I feel much more at ease than I did before this all went down.  Yes, there’s risk.  Yes, there’s ALWAYS risk, in anything you do.  But, in the short term, it brings a lot of things into focus.  The Seahawks can be a little more choosy in their drafting and in their signing of low-level free agents.  One MAJOR hole has been filled.  Doesn’t mean you stop building, or thinking about the future.  But, at least this way, if the Seahawks run across a top-level player in the second round who isn’t necessarily our most-pressing need, we can still pick him up and bolster our roster.

Now, if we can just encase Jimmy Graham in carbonite until September, I’ll be much more at ease.

The Key To Roster Building In The NFL

I’ll preface this by saying:  you can’t do anything without a quarterback.  That’s obvious.  Everyone knows it, so there’s really not even much point in bringing it up, except if you don’t bring it up, then wise-asses will come on here and tell me I forgot about the quarterback position.

There are all kinds of different types of quarterbacks that can win you a championship, as evidenced by the last decade or so of NFL champions.  Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, Peyton Manning, and Tom Brady are going to go down as all-time greats.  Joe Flacco, Eli Manning, and Ben Roethlisberger likely won’t.  Doesn’t mean they’re BAD; just means that no one is going to put them in their Top 10 All Time Greatest Quarterbacks list.

For the record, my picks:

  1. Joe Montana
  2. Tom Brady
  3. John Elway
  4. Peyton Manning
  5. Dan Marino
  6. Steve Young
  7. Johnny Unitas
  8. Brett Favre
  9. Drew Brees
  10. Warren Moon

But, that’s neither here nor there.  The point is, the quarterback is crucial.  It’s too early to say where Russell Wilson will fall on that list, but I’d venture to say we’d still be ringless if he had to carry a team with an underperforming defense last season.

And that’s what the elite quarterback will afford you.  The elites – like Rodgers, Peyton Manning, Brees, etc. – can cover up for just a so-so defense.  Of course, the fact that all of those quarterbacks only have one championship apiece will tell you that a quarterback can’t do it by himself (and, truth be told, the years their respective teams won it all, their defenses weren’t that bad).

The more talent you have around your quarterback, the less perfect your quarterback has to be (hence why Eli Manning and Ben Roethlisberger both have two championships each).  But, the NFL has a salary cap, and teams have got to find a way to fit 53 players into that cap (plus a little extra to make up for injuries and such).  So, HOW you build around your quarterback is just about as important as the quarterback itself.

There isn’t exactly one specific way to run your team, but I’ll tell you this much:  you’re not going to get very far without a good defense.  That means one of two things:  elite pass rush, or elite secondary (or, ideally both).  Without really delving deep into things, I think it’s pretty safe to say that at least half of NFL teams are pretty happy with their quarterbacks.  I don’t think it’s out of the question to say that at least half of the teams have a guy under center capable of winning it all (assuming everything breaks right and they have a good team around them).  So, you figure that at least half the time, your defense is going to face a pretty good quarterback.

Now, if you’re going to build a defense to combat all those pretty good-to-great quarterbacks, you’ve got to have one of the two aforementioned qualities:  an elite pass rush or an elite secondary.  It’s all about disrupting the quarterback’s timing and forcing him to do things he doesn’t want to do.  If you’ve got the pass rush, then odds are you’ll be able to force him to throw early; if you’ve got the secondary, then odds are you’ll be able to force him to throw late (and hopefully give your adequate pass rush enough time to get home).  So, it would stand to reason that if you’re building your roster to win a championship, you’re going to focus the bulk of your defensive salary cap on edge rushers and/or the secondary.

What you DON’T want to do is start pumping a bunch of money down into your linebackers and interior linemen.  Unless that interior lineman is in the Cortez Kennedy/Warren Sapp mold, you’re probably overpaying.  You can find wide-bodies just about anywhere, on the cheap, no problem.  Ditto linebackers.  People will point to some of the quality guys like Patrick Willis and Luke Kuechly, and I will admit that those dudes are pretty awesome at what they do.  But, you know who else is pretty awesome?  Bobby Wagner.  He’s a second round pick making a fraction of what those guys are making and will make.  Bobby Wagner isn’t heralded in the least, but he’s still awesome.  And, I would venture that you can find a TON of Bobby Wagners in the draft, which will save you money in the long run over massive extensions for the Kuechlys of the world.

Take a look at the Seahawks.  We’ve pumped some serious money into Earl Thomas, Michael Bennett, Kam Chancellor, and soon we’ll devote a whole bunch more into Richard Sherman.  Pass rush & secondary.  Where are we finding savings?  How about three linebackers (Wagner, Wright, Smith) all drafted in the 2nd round or later, all still on rookie deals.  Now, the Seahawks MIGHT extend one or more of those guys when the time comes, but I bet they’ll be mid-range contracts that don’t kill our cap for years to come.

We’re also saving money on our interior line.  Brandon Mebane has a $5 million APY, and that leads the team on interior line spending.  Tony McDaniel is on a short-term, on-the-cheap deal, and the rest of our interior guys are on rookie contracts.

Of course, the Seahawks could always use a little more pass rush security.  Maybe Cliff Avril gets extended beyond this year.  Maybe we hit on someone in the draft.  Maybe we pick up another team’s cast-off.  Or, maybe we just try to hold the fort and steal another team’s outgoing free agent next year.

The point is:  pass rush & secondary = big money players.  Linebackers & interior linemen = savings.

On offense, the Seahawks have proven that a run-first model isn’t entirely out-dated.  Nevertheless, their spending in this area kinda sorta is.

Marshawn Lynch has the fourth-highest average per-year salary on the team (behind Harvin, Thomas, and Okung).  His contact runs out after the 2015 season.  Nobody really expects Lynch to see the final year of that deal as it’s currently configured, because nobody really expects Lynch to continue playing at the high level he’s been at the last three or four years.  Plus, there’s the whole issue with Russell Wilson getting his money after the 2014 season (when the team can negotiate an extension and finally pay him what he’s really worth).

As you can see from all the free agent deals for running backs this off-season, they’re not getting the kind of money they used to get even 10 years ago.  It sounds crazy when you think of someone like Chris Johnson, who can only get a 2-year deal; he was once the best runner in football and he’s NOT THAT OLD.  Same goes for these other guys.  What kind of a deal would Ben Tate have gotten even five years ago?  Now, he’s playing for peanuts, as is MJD, Darren McFadden, and every other running back who hits free agency.

Why is that?  Because teams are reluctant to go with the one-back system and instead opt for a By-Committee approach.  Because injuries are a son of a bitch.  And because all too often, a no-name guy from the back-end of the draft will enter the mix in the NFL and be just as good, if not better, than these over-paid mama’s boys (Trent Richardson) who somehow still get drafted high.

All of this tells me one thing:  you’re foolish if you’re pumping too much money into the running back position.

The Seahawks have the luxury of paying Marshawn Lynch a high salary because they’re paying next-to-nothing for Russell Wilson (and the quarterback position at large).  But, when Wilson’s commanding around $20 million per season, you’ve got to find ways to cut corners somewhere.  I would wager the Seahawks will pull some of that money out of the running back position (which is a shame, because everyone loves Marshawn Lynch with a passion).

It’ll be difficult, for the Seahawks more than others, because we DO rely on the run so much to make our offense go.  The run sets up the play-action pass.  The run keeps defenses honest.  The run also reduces the risk of turnovers, because if we’re successfully running the ball, then we’re not throwing as much.  If we’re not throwing as much, then we’re not throwing as many interceptions.  Bing, bang, boom.  So, the Seahawks can’t throw just any ol’ scrub in the backfield and expect to succeed.

To do what I advocate, you have to draft wisely and you have to draft often.  Finding value in a guy like Christine Michael (if he does, indeed, turn out to be the elite runner we all expect) will set us up for a good long while.  Yet, even if we were saddled with only Robert Turbin and whoever else via draft, I’d be content.

Because as long as you put value and talent into your offensive line, it really shouldn’t matter who you have at running back.

Under my system – which incidentally is the one the Seahawks have been using – you’ve got to have a great left tackle.  Russell Okung fits that mold.  He’s not quite Walter Jones, but then again, who is?  You SHOULD be able to cut corners a little bit on the guard spots, as long as you’ve got a great center.  The Seahawks have Max Unger, who is pretty terrific.  I’d like to see a breakdown of the best centers and how often they’re involved in lengthy playoff runs, because I think they’re WAY more important than most people give them credit for.

Under almost no circumstances should you be paying elite money to a guard.  Unless you know you’re getting someone like Hutch in his prime.  At which point, you should probably find a value center and make due with a so-so right tackle.  Obviously, you can’t pay everyone, but you should probably have at least two guys who are worthy of high-paying contracts.

If you’re a bad team, get that left tackle with a high draft pick.  There is ALWAYS an elite left tackle coming out in the draft.  So, if you have a high draft pick, make that guy your first priority.  Of course, it doesn’t hurt to have a wonderful coach like Tom Cable, so try to get yourselves one of those.

The model isn’t perfect, obviously.  The Seahawks had two great linemen and a bunch of injuries last year and really struggled to protect the quarterback.  That’s where your QB comes into play.  You can put a crappy QB behind an elite O-Line and make some hay.  You probably won’t win many championships, but you can consistently make the playoffs.  The worse your O-Line is, though, the better your quarterback must be.  Russell Wilson probably isn’t an elite QB just yet, but he was good enough to make up for all the injuries and inconsistencies we suffered last year.

And, of course, that leads us to the passing game.  You can run the football all you want, but unless you can throw the ball when it counts, you’re not going to go all the way.  Ask Adrian Peterson about that, I’m sure he’s got some stories to tell.

Like I said at the top, you need the quarterback, but it helps if he has talent to throw to.

Some quarterbacks – like Brees, Peyton Manning, etc. – will turn any receiver into a 1,000 yard threat.  Others – I’m looking at you Andy Dalton, Colin Kaepernick, Jay Cutler, etc. – need their receivers to elevate their games.

Andy Dalton would be a poor man’s Kyle Orton if he didn’t have A.J. Green.  Kaepernick was God-awful last year without Crabtree!  And Jay Cutler’s a fucking mess WITH guys like Brandon Marshall, but just imagine how terrible he’d be without him.

Now, say what you will about our receivers, but I think they’ve been pretty great.  And, until Percy Harvin came along, they’ve been relatively cheap as well.

Again, a great quarterback will make up for a lot of deficiencies.  I have no doubt that someone like Russell Wilson makes someone like Jermaine Kearse a better football player.  It’s tough to say what Kearse’s ceiling would be in an offense that passes as much as New Orleans or Green Bay, but I bet it would be higher than you’d think if you had someone like Aaron Rodgers or Drew Brees throwing the ball around 35 times a game.

Our offense doesn’t need to over-spend at the wide receiver position, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t.  If you can get someone like Percy Harvin, you probably should do it.  If you draft someone and he turns out to be the next Calvin Johnson, then you should probably do whatever it takes to keep him.

This can be a little tricky, because if your #1 receiver is making top quarterback money, AND if you happen to have one of those top quarterbacks, then you can get into a situation like they’ve got down in Detroit.  The Lions should probably worry about pumping their resources into an offensive line, or a secondary, to round out their team (and not, for instance, over-pay for someone like Golden Tate, but you didn’t hear that from me).

There are talented receivers out there in the draft and among the undrafted free agents, but you gotta be smart about it.  I would more than be in favor of an A-B-C salary structure for your top three receivers.  Your A-player gets the lion’s share, your B-player gets a healthy mid-level contract, and your C-player is probably a rookie or a young guy on a cheap deal.

In short, on offense, you’re going to want to pump a lot of money into the quarterback and the offensive line.  Stay away from overpaying running backs and tight ends (unless you’ve got one like Jimmy Graham that plays more like a wide receiver anyway).  And, just be smart about paying your receivers.  If you’re only going to throw 20-25 times per game, maybe don’t throw all your eggs into the receiver basket.  But, don’t leave the cupboard completely barren either.

The point of all of this is to say that the Seahawks are doing it the right way.  If you root for another team, and they happen to be struggling, then follow the money.  Where are their big-money contracts going?  Would they be better off putting that money elsewhere?  Are they making the same mistakes over and over?  Then, you might be a redneck Mariners fan, and get out of my brain.

Concerning The Saints Game This Weekend

The Seahawks play the Saints on Saturday.  For starters, don’t you just hate being the first game of the weekend?  I guess, in one sense, it’s nice to get it out of the way.  You also don’t really want to be the last game of the weekend either; the mounting pressure becomes too much to handle.  But, that first game?  Doesn’t it always seem like something weird happens in that first playoff game of the weekend?  It would’ve been nice to have been that overlooked second game of the Saturday slate.  Get in, get out, and you’re already forgotten by the time Sunday rolls around.

I don’t want anything weird to happen.  I want a regular, boring ol’ game with the expected outcome and no aggravation at the end.  The Seahawks are expected to win this game.  They’re favored by a good 8 points.  But, more than that, they’re a 1-seed playing a 6-seed.  They’re at home, with probably the best Home Field Advantage in the game.  They’re playing a team whose defense can be scored upon.  They’ve got the best secondary in the game (to combat New Orleans and their awesome passing attack).  This is, in short, the perfect playoff matchup.  We couldn’t have expected anything better.  There’s no reason why we should lose this game.

Then again, there’s no reason why we should have lost ANY of the games we’ve played this year!  We’re the best team in football!  Yet, the best teams don’t always end up winning it all.  And that’s what we’ve got left to worry about.

It’s that time of year.  You’ve got to play every single game like it’s your last, because a single loss will MAKE it your last.  This is what we’ve been looking forward to all this time.  When the season started, we expected the Seahawks to be great.  Through the regular season, the Seahawks HAVE been great.  Now, it’s up to these last three games.  But, really, it’s up to this game on Saturday.  All that stuff we’ve been hearing all season long, about how the Seahawks just want to go 1-0 every week, and about how every game is a “championship opportunity” … well, those chickens are coming home to roost.  That shit’s just a lot of filler.  It’s things athletes say to make it sound like they’re saying the right things.  It’s also something athletes say to stay focused.  These guys read all the press just like we do.  But, they need mantras to see past all that.  To keep their eyes on the prize, as it were.

There’s no reason for the Seahawks to EVER lose, but some losses are easier to understand than others.  Losing to the 49ers makes some sense, because their defense is great and their offense can do just enough to get the job done.  They’re like the evil, bizarro Seahawks.  But, to lose to the Saints?  That just sounds too absurd to compute.

I don’t necessarily expect it to be as easy as it was in Week 13 when we played the Saints last.  Then again, I have no reasoning behind that statement.  Why WOULDN’T we beat them by four touchdowns again?  Everyone points to the elite quarterback, as if that’s just the great equalizer.  In a sense, yeah, it is.  You’re not going to go anywhere in this league without an elite quarterback.  Just look at the remaining teams in this year’s playoffs:  Wilson, Newton, Kaepernick, and Brees in the NFC; Manning, Brady, Luck, and Rivers in the AFC.  More or less, these are 8 of the best quarterbacks in football!  But, how many times have you seen great quarterbacks get shut down in the playoffs?  Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, and Peyton Manning all have one Super Bowl win apiece.  Brady has three, but none since the 2004 season.  All of these quarterbacks have been shut down by solid defensive play.  Why, just last week, Aaron Rodgers was shut down by the 49ers!  Brady was taken down twice by the Giants in the Super Bowl; Manning was taken down countless times by the Patriots back in the day.  Is Drew Brees any different?  I would argue not.  He’s no more special than any of these other elite quarterbacks.

Are the Seahawks on defense any different?  I would argue so; I would argue that they’re BETTER than the Giants, Patriots, and 49ers of recent years.

When people compare the Seahawks and the 49ers on defense, it’s common to give the secondary to Seattle and the front seven to San Francisco.  The Seahawks have three All Pro-calibre players in their secondary, and a couple others in Maxwell and Thurmond who fall just short (but would likely be Pro Bowlers elsewhere if given a chance to start); so I don’t think there’s any question that the Seahawks have the better secondary.  It’s not even close, and you’re a fool to say otherwise.  But, I don’t think the front seven is as open-and-shut as many others like to make it out to be.  The 49ers certainly have the name recognition, with guys like NaVorro Bowman, Patrick Willis, Ahmad Brooks, Justin Smith, and Aldon Smith (just to name a few), but the Seahawks compare very favorably when you look at the numbers.

The Seahawks have 44 sacks this year, and another 39 tackles for loss.  The 49ers have 38 sacks and 41 tackles for loss.  The 49ers have their Pro Bowlers and their All Pros along the front seven, but the Seahawks have guys like Bobby Wagner (who led the team in tackles again with 120, and also added 5 sacks and 2 INTs), Michael Bennett (who led the team in sacks with 8.5, while being an all-around force both inside and on the end), Cliff Avril (who tacked on 8 more sacks), Chris Clemons (who came all the way back from an ACL tear to net 4.5 sacks and play very solid run defense), Clinton McDonald (who added 5.5 sacks on the inside after being cut and missing the first game of the season).  Not to mention guys like K.J. Wright and Malcolm Smith getting it done at outside linebacker (combining for 134 tackles, 2.5 sacks, 2 interceptions, and a forced fumble).  And Bruce Irvin was quietly effective in transitioning from a pass rushing specialist in his rookie season last year to a strong-side linebacker this year.  He ended up with 40 tackles, 2 sacks, and a pick.

What you’ll notice from the Seahawks is that no one guy really stands out from a national perspective.  But, when you put them all together, and you factor in glue guys like Red Bryant and Brandon Mebane (who arguably had the most dominant season of his career), this front seven as a unit did just as good, if not better than the 49ers.

So, getting back to my original point:  even WITH Drew Brees, why would anyone even remotely consider the Saints a threat?  If elite defenses shut down elite quarterbacks with regularity, and the Seahawks have the best defense in football, are you really telling me that I should fear the Saints because they have one of the five best quarterbacks in football?

And yet, to harken back to my other main point:  anything can happen in the National Football League.

If the Seahawks are going to blow this game, it’s not going to be because we couldn’t force the Saints into a punt.  It’s going to be because our offense shit the bed.  In our two recent losses – to the 49ers and Cardinals (because I still feel like that Colts loss was an anomaly) – the Seahawks struggled to move the ball; and when they did move the ball, they struggled to get it into the endzone.

The Saints’ defense isn’t on par with that of the 49ers or Cardinals, but they do enough things well to be of concern.  They actually gave up the 4th fewest yards and points in football.  Their secondary gave up the second-fewest yards per game, which is pretty impressive when you consider that they were an 11-win team and often held leads that required their opponents to pass to get back into the game.  Of course, the Seahawks gave up the fewest passing yards, and 22.1 yards fewer per game to boot.  The Saints were 19th in rushing yards per game allowed, so that’s something we can hang our hats on (though, they did just hold the best rushing attack in football – the Eagles – to only 80 yards on the ground, in a game that was never really TOO out-of-hand).

What we really need to watch out for is the pass rush.  The Saints were fourth in sacks, which sounds about right when you think about a Rob Ryan defense.  They probably blitz a lot, which means there are big plays to be had.  If we struggle like we did against the Cardinals in hitting on the big plays, then we might be doomed.  We’ll need to watch out for the likes of Cameron Jordan and Junior Galette, who each had at least 12 sacks this past season.  I fear those two guys WAY more than I fear someone like Drew Brees.

So, yeah, we’ll lose if our offense lets us down.  That’s if all things are equal.  I don’t even want to think of how this game will turn if we have to deal with the kind of injuries the Chiefs had to deal with last week.  Or the kind of botched refereeing we’ve come to expect out of this league on its biggest stage.  It’s not quite Pac-12 Refs-bad, but it’s getting there.

Mostly, I’m just concerned because I’m a worrier.  That’s why my friends call me Whiskers.  I’ve been here too many times over the last 15 years.  I’ve endured pretty much everything you can possibly endure in the playoffs with this team.  The Trace Armstrong Game in 1999 against the Dolphins.  The “We Want The Ball & We’re Gonna Score” Overtime Game against Green Bay in 2003.  The Bobby Engram Dropped Pass Game against the Rams in 2004.  The officiating fiasco that was Super Bowl XL in 2005.  The Rex Grossman long bomb in overtime against the Bears in 2006.  The six consecutive touchdowns by the Packers in 2007 (after notching a 14-0 lead thanks to two fumbles on their side of midfield).  The 28-0 lead by the Bears in 2010 (before the Seahawks made it a marginally interesting 35-24 defeat, with 21 points in the fourth quarter).  And of course, who could forget the 20-point halftime deficit to the Falcons last year, which we made into a 28-27 lead with 31 seconds left, only to lose thanks to a field goal with 13 seconds left in the game?

This is our 9th time in the playoffs in the last 15 years.  The previous eight have ended in defeat, in spectacularly embarrassing fashion.  This is the team we need to end a couple generations’ worth of losing.  It all starts on Saturday.  Take care of business and move on to the NFC Championship game.  Fail and … well, that’s something I’d rather not think about right now.

It’s The Final Countdown: San Francisco Plays Seattle On Sunday Night

It’s the Game Of The Year until the next Game Of The Year.  It’s the Most Important Game The Seahawks Will Play All Season until the next Most Important Game The Seahawks Will Play All Season.  It’s the Event To End All Events!  ONE GAME, TO RULE THEM ALL!

As you can see, I’m trying to temper my anticipation of this game, but it’s not easy.  This game is like Christmas Morning combined with your first sexual encounter combined with hearing the Ice Cream Man on your block combined with a Disneyland vacation combined with like a million Red Bull & Mandrin’s.  I haven’t been this excited for a non-playoff game, probably in my entire life.

Which kind of makes it a bummer that it’s coming in the second week of the season.

What does this mean, it’s all downhill from here?  Well, yeah!  Sorta!  It’s a long slow decline until we get to the playoffs, and then it immediately ramps right back up again.  We’ve got 14 more games of this shit after this weekend!  And none of those games are going to live up to the hype of this heavyweight bout!

Now, I know what you’re going to say:  we have another game against the 49ers in Week 14 down in San Francisco.  Well, you kinda answered your own question, didn’t you?  There won’t be 70,000 rowdy fans at that game trying to break the world’s record for loudest stadium.  And that game won’t be a nationally-televised night game on NBC (mostly because, in Week 14, NBC already has Atlanta at Green Bay, and there’s no way in hell they’re going to flex that game out).  And sure, that Week 14 matchup with the 49ers might very well decide who wins the division, but I dunno.  I guess we’ll see.

For now, we have this.  And you can’t under-sell the importance of this game.

For starters, you have to hold serve at home.  I think the Seahawks have just as good of a chance to win down in San Francisco as we do up here, but certainly that road game won’t come with the advantage of the 12th Man.  The Seahawks HAVE to go 8-0 at home if they want to get a #1 seed in the NFC.

This game also gives us an early edge in both the divisional tie-breaker and the conference tie-breaker.  You don’t want to be two weeks into the season and already behind by a game and a half in the standings.  You don’t want to approach Week 14 and know that you absolutely HAVE to win that game.  You want to muster all your strength right now, steal the early win at home, and then spend the next four weeks getting healthy against AFC teams.  The Seahawks don’t play another divisional game until Weeks 7 & 8 when they go to Arizona and St. Louis.  It would be a lot nicer going into those games knowing we’re perfect in our conference, to take some of the pressure off.

That all having been said, it would be shocking to me if the Seahawks lost this weekend.  Let’s take a look at the positional battles.

Our wide receivers are better than their secondary

That’s going to be another key attribute to this game.  The 49ers aren’t as bad as the Panthers in that regard, but it’s still a clear matchup win for the good guys.

Their front seven is better than our front seven

Our offensive line is REALLY going to have to step it up this week if we expect to move the ball consistently.  Which, I think they will.  I think they were embarrassed by how they were manhandled by the Panthers last week and I think Tom Cable will get the best out of his group this Sunday.

In this section, you have to include our tight ends and running backs.  While the Seahawks have been able to run on this team in the recent past, I don’t know if you can come into this game and expect to just run all over them.  The 49ers still have some of the most talented linebackers in all of football.  They still have one of the better defensive lines as well.  If you think the Seahawks will be extra-motivated to improve along the O-Line, you have to expect that the 49ers are extra-motivated to improve along the D-Line when compared to the thrashing in CenturyLink last season.  Plus, they’re healthy.  I think it’s going to be a tough road for Beastmode.

Russell Wilson, of course, is the wild card

I don’t say that to mean that he’s unpredictable and wild.  I just mean that he has to be on his game.  The 49ers are going to try to do what the Panthers mostly did:  keep him in the pocket.  We could be looking at another 300-yard game out of Wilson.  Which is fine, whatever it takes to win.  He needs to maintain his composure and limit turnovers.  While our receivers are better than their secondary, if Wilson is being harassed all day, you might see him throw into coverages he wouldn’t normally throw into.  That will KILL us if he leads the game in interceptions thrown.

On the flipside, I would expect the Seahawks’ defense to really shut things down.

I don’t think the pre-season was misleading a single bit when you consider how few points we gave up.  I think this team is destined to lead the league in fewest points allowed and I think they’re going to shatter last season’s total.  That has everything to do with our secondary.

The Legion Of Boom is better than their receivers

This is no contest, and an even bigger lopsided victory compared to the Seahawks’ receivers vs. their secondary.  I fully expect Kaepernick to have a terrible time throwing the ball.  Boldin is an easy cover.  Vernon Davis isn’t anything special, especially when we throw a safety on him.  I can’t even name their other receivers, that’s how bad they are.

Our front seven is equal to their front seven

Bet you thought I was going to give the advantage to their humongous offensive line.  Well, you’d be mistaken.  Here’s the deal:  yeah, our D-Line is a bit of a soft spot on this team.  If we were straight-up comparing line vs. line, then the 49ers would have a clear edge.  But, when you factor in our linebackers vs. their tight ends and running backs, I think that shores things up quite a bit.  The 49ers might be the most talented team in the league at linebacker, but the Seahawks aren’t far behind.  Bobby Wagner is a little Patrick Willis.  The guys flanking him on either side are super fast and super disciplined.  On the flipside, Frank Gore is slow.  If he’s still gashing us like he has in the past, then we’ve got more problems than just this one game.  But, I don’t think that’ll happen.  What our line lacks in pure ability to get to the quarterback, it makes up for it in contain.  We can play the Keep The Quarterback In The Pocket game just like they can.  We can prevent Kaepernick from running just like we prevented Cam Newton from running.  We might not sack him, but we’ll keep his legs quiet and force him to beat us with his arm.  Yes, he just did that against Green Bay, but that’s Green Bay.  Their secondary – and their defense overall – is a joke.  Ours is dominant, and will easily keep them under 20 points.

Plus, there’s one more wild card I have yet to really get into:  the 12th Man

Our D-Line has been pretty weak at getting to the quarterback in the last few years.  But, it has been exceptional when playing at home!  Getting back to the Line vs. Line debate, I don’t think the Seahawks’ D-Line is necessarily that far behind San Francisco’s O-Line … when they play in Seattle.  I doubt we will force them into many false starts, because they’re a veteran group and they’re terrific.  But, they will always have to hike the ball on a silent count, which gives the Seahawks an every-play advantage on the snap.  It might just be a half second, but our line is going to look that much more disruptive than it normally would in a subdued road stadium.  On top of that, you’ve got the possibilities for botched snaps, missed blocking assignments because they can’t hear what is being called out pre-snap, and procedure penalties with guys lining up improperly.  A loud crowd is more than just false start penalties.  It’s a game-long breaking down of the opponent’s will.  And considering the opponent, this time it’s going to be extra-loud.

We’ve spent the whole off-season gearing up for this game.  Because they know as well as we know that it should have been the Seahawks playing the 49ers in the NFC Championship Game.  And they know as well as we know that it should have been the Seahawks playing the Ravens in the Super Bowl.

The 49ers probably aren’t running scared, because they know they’re good, and they know they’re mostly-healthy unlike the last time we crushed them.  Which is great.  I want them to be up for this.  I want them thinking they have every reason to come in here and shock the world.  I WANT THAT!  Because it’s going to make it all the sweeter when we turn around and ram it down their throats.  They’ll have to go home knowing they lost their last two games against us, in embarrassing fashion.  And they’ll wonder, all the while, “Do the Seahawks have our number?”

Yes.  We do.  We have your number, 49ers.  And we’re coming for you.  We’re coming for you.

A Chance To Help Our Cause: The ‘Frisco Edition

The Seahawks are 2 games up and the 49ers suck dick.  Open and shut case, right?

Then why do I get the feeling that this is where it all goes horribly wrong?

This just has the feel of a week where we not only lay a big steaming turd, but the Rams also find a way to go into New Orleans and shock the world.  Call me crazy!  I could easily see the Rams pulling away to the point where that Week 17 game in Seattle is meaningless (which would be fitting, since I plan on GOING to that game, my only game of the year).

What are we looking at?  Why am I so nervous when a week earlier I was so sure about what’s essentially the same crappy team (just playing their home games on opposite coasts)?  I mean, Frank Gore is out for the year.  Mike Singletary’s head is taking permanent residence up his own ass.  Alex Smith is back because having a winning record isn’t enough for Troy Smith to keep his job apparently.  So, what up?

Look, if I could quantify it, I would.  We’re likely without Mike Williams, so that sucks.  We could also be short Obomanu, which equally sucks.  Colin Cole is practicing this week, but who knows if he’ll play/be effective?

And, unless I’m mistaken, Patrick Willis still plays on the other team’s defense.  Yes, THAT Patrick Willis.  The one who killed Hasselbeck’s season last year.  The one who’s a thorn in our running game as well as our ability to throw to tight ends.

Look, I’m not gonna lie to you, this is a must-win!  That pressure is hanging over everything about this team.  The players can look ahead in the schedule just like I can.  Next week:  vs. Atlanta (a.k.a. the best team in the NFC).  The week after:  @ Tampa (a.k.a. a 10am game on the east coast).  If we lose this week, we’re pretty much a shoo-in to be 6-9 heading into that Rams game.

On the flipside, even if the Rams lose this week (which, seriously, I’m not putting past them winning it), they host the Chiefs and 49ers, which are two winnable games for them.  That would mean they’d be 8-7 and playing for nothing in Week 17.  Something to think about as the Seahawks drag ass in the Bay Area this Sunday.

Player Preview: Matt Hasselbeck

{{In an ongoing series throughout the preseason, I’ll be going over specific players looking to make some impact on the Seahawks this year.}}

So, where better to start than with quarterback Matt Hasselbeck?

The Sexy Beast On The Left

The Sexy Beast On The Left

First and foremost, it should probably be mentioned that our starting quarterback has officially had his name changed for him to, “Matt Hasselbeck, if he stays healthy …”  Which I think is unfair, because you could make that claim about pretty much every team.  Let’s look at it logically, it’s HARD to stay healthy in the NFL for a full 16.  Luck plays a factor for sure, just look at all the fluke injuries out there.  Linemen roll into the legs of quarterbacks all the time; why is it that only certain times they end up costing players their seasons while others are able to limp it off?  Who’s to say the next time you plant your foot in the turf won’t be the time you tear a tendon?  Or, you know, who’s to say the next time you dive towards the endzone and get seriously thumped by Patrick Willis will mean a broken rib or two?  Patrick Willis isn’t out there breaking EVERYONE’S ribs!  Yet, I’m sure he still hits people with the same ferocity.

I’m probably biased though.  I generally like Matt Hasselbeck, and not just because he’s charming as a motherfucker in radio interviews.  He’s also been a quality player for us when they’ve been pretty few and far between (even in a brief history as is ours).  Certainly, he’s the best quarterback in team history; without question he’ll be in the Ring of Honor as soon as he hangs ’em up.  The man just might pass 30,000 yards if he plays his cards right this year.  He’s got a 60% career completion percentage.  He’s led us to our only Super Bowl appearance!

And he’s only 34.  Now, I know that sounds like a lot, but a good quarterback who keeps himself in shape can and generally does play until he’s 40.  In fact, you could say Matt Hasselbeck is in his prime.  I mean, shit, look at all the crapshoots out there getting drafted by all these teams!  What percentage will go on to do even what Hasselbeck has done?  I’m not even calling Matt a hall of famer; I think he’s in that range just below the HOF.  To do what Hasselbeck has done in his career takes a kind of talent and focus and intelligence that most quarterbacks just don’t have.  He might play 6 more seasons; in the NFL 6 years is pretty much forever.

All that having been said, he can’t do it alone.  I don’t know if I see Hasselbeck as the kind of guy who makes a team particularly better.  He’s not a simple game manager; he’s definitely more than that.  But, he’s not exactly one of the elites who takes no-name wide receivers and turns them into multi-millionaire stars.  I think a lot of the wideouts we’ve had over the years (Jackson, Engram, Burleson, etc.) have been totally underrated and have fit the Holmgren scheme perfectly.  I’d say, more than anything, the mounting evidence that a lot of people are touting – that Hasselbeck is a product of the West Coast Offense and can’t necessarily be plugged into any ol’ offensive scheme – is more accurate than most Seahawks fans wish to believe.  I hope that’s not the case.

We can’t necessarily take 2009’s season into account though.  After all, we were playing behind one of the worst offensive line units the team has ever seen.  It was a miracle that Hasselbeck played in as many games as he did!  When you’re harassed as much as he was, as quickly as he was (generally well under 5 seconds), you’ve got no choice but to rush your passes because the last thing you want to do is take a sack.  And, maybe there were too many turnovers due to that fact, and maybe not all of those turnovers were a result of a particularly quick rush, but the fear will ultimately take over.  As the season went on, he probably just assumed that there’d be a rush, because so very often a rush was there anyway.

One knock I’ve had against Hasselbeck that may or may not be fair is that it takes him more time than it should to get used to new receivers.  He seems to develop a trust with people, slowly.  And it doesn’t help when guys get hurt all the time Deion Branch.  Well, this is his second season with T.J. Houshmandzadeh.  And he’s had some time with Deon Butler and Ben Obomanu as well.  John Carlson appears to be a healthy target that Matt likes throwing to.  I expect better in this department in 2010.

Ultimately, his success will depend on the new offensive line (with a rookie and a veteran manning his blind side) and how well they gel and hold up.  If the rookie is as good as is hoped, if the veteran can gut it out, I think we’ll be okay.  But, if that left side goes to pieces, we certainly don’t have the depth for that side to be anywhere near effective.

The line will dictate how the running game does as well.  Matt has almost always enjoyed a supurb running game in his time as a starter.  With Big Walt’s departure, so has that safety net.  In recent seasons, we’ve asked for more of a load to be carried by the quarterback as a byproduct of an ineffective running game.  I’m not saying Matt isn’t game for this challenge; I’m saying that any quarterback would prefer having his load lightened by a workhorse behind him.

So, how will he do in 2010?  Well, Matt Hasselbeck, If He Stays Healthy … should do just fine.  Actually, he’s kinda the least of my worries.  If he gets hurt, then we get to see what this Whitehurst guy is made of.  Of course, no quarterback is a champion overnight (unless your name is Tom Brady).  But, I’m not willing to give up on Hasselbeck just yet.