By John Boyle Herald Columnist
Seeing as this is just the second Seahawks team to reach the Super Bowl, the comparisons are inevitable.
Throw in the fact that both this year’s squad and the 2005 team finished with 13-3 regular-season records and were the NFC’s No. 1 seeds, and it’s all but impossible to avoid the question.
Which team is better?
Of course, if the current team wins Super Bowl XLVIII, the debate is over. Become the first team in franchise history to win a title and you are indisputably the best. But until the final whistle blows Sunday, we’re left to speculate about which team is better, and just for fun, how the 2005 and 2013 teams would match up.
Unfortunately, the man perhaps best qualified to settle the debate has little interest in doing so. Mike Holmgren was the coach of the 2005 team, and has seen plenty of this season’s team serving as an analyst for Sports Radio 950 KJR. He even occasionally attends practice and chats with coach Pete Carroll. So if anyone knows which team is better, it’s Holmgren, right?
“I don’t like to make that comparison, honestly,” he said. “I’m emotionally attached to those guys and I love those players and I love those coaches and I think they accomplished a great deal that year.”
Even if he won’t pick a side, Holmgren concedes it’s a fun debate, particularly when it comes to wondering how his offense would match up with this team’s defense.
“That’s a good bar discussion isn’t it, over a couple of beers?” he said. “I always thought we could compete against anybody. We had a good line, we had a good runner, we had a good quarterback, but this defense presents challenges really for any team.”
Indeed a fictitious ‘05 vs. ‘13 matchup seemingly would have a lot in common with this year’s Super Bowl. While Holmgren’s team didn’t put up crazy passing numbers like this year’s Denver Broncos, those Seahawks did lead the NFL in scoring at 28.2 points per game, and had an incredibly efficient, balanced offense that featured a Pro Bowl quarterback in Matt Hasselbeck, an MVP running back in Shaun Alexander, and the best offensive line in franchise history.
By comparison, this year’s Seahawks led the NFL in fewest yards and fewest points allowed, as well as takeaways.
“I would hope we could function offensively against this defense, but I’m sure the defense on this team would say, ‘No way,’” Holmgren said.
While there are no players left from the 2005 team on Seattle’s roster, defensive assistant coach Marquand Manuel is perhaps the best person to assess both groups, having served as a starting safety on the 2005 team, and a defensive assistant coach on the current one.
“I joke about that a lot,” Manuel said. “I can say from top to bottom this team is probably more talented than we were. We were good in the secondary, but we weren’t Kam and Earl and Sherm. Trufant in his prime was pretty good. But we played as a cohesive unit, and that’s one thing I tell these guys that they do a great job of, ‘Even though you have more talent than we did, continuing to play like a cohesive unit is going to be key.’”
One more reason to think this year’s team might be better comes from former Seahawks linebacker Leroy Hill, who was a rookie on the ‘05 squad and who thought last year’s 11-5 team, by the end of the year, was better than the ‘05 squad.
“It’s so tough, but I would go with this team,” Hill said before Seattle opened its playoff run last year. “I’d definitely go with this team. I think we’ve got the defense to match up with that offense that year. Early in the season, I’d have said the 13-3 team, but the way the offense has come along and progressed, and Russell (Wilson)’s progression, it’d be a hell of matchup, but I’d say 21-20 this team.”
Considering this year’s team has taken a step forward from last year’s, it’s safe to assume Hill would lean toward the 2013 squad in a similar debate.
As Holmgren noted, this is a better bar debate than serious question, so in the spirit of that, crack open a drink and let’s get to a position-by-position breakdown.
You could give the advantage to Russell Wilson for a lot of reasons, and to Matt Hasselbeck for plenty more. Wilson and Hasselbeck’s regular-season numbers were strikingly similar, though you could argue Wilson’s are held back by cautious play calling. Also, his mobility gives him an added element Hasselbeck didn’t have. Yet, while Wilson has hit a few bumps in the road late in the season, Hasselbeck went into the Super Bowl playing the best football of his career, throwing 12 touchdown passes and one interception in six games leading up to the Super Bowl, with passer ratings over 100 in each of those six games.
Again, too close to call. Shaun Alexander put up MVP numbers in 2005, but it’s difficult to imagine Marshawn Lynch, who’s rugged style defines this year’s team, wouldn’t have been able to put up similar numbers behind that line. Both were/are among the league’s best in their primes, yet are such different runners, style wise, it’s almost impossible to compare. This is a too-close-to-call battle even if you extend it to fullback, with both teams employing Pro-Bowl caliber players in Mack Strong and Michael Robinson.
The biggest gap on offense between the two teams, the ‘05 squad featured an all-time great left side in Walter Jones and Steve Hutchinson, who were both All-Pro and Pro-Bowl selections that year, as well as Pro-Bowl center Robbie Tobeck. That team also had the benefit of continuity, starting the same five for every game minus a meaningless Week 17 contest after Seattle had clinched the NFC’s top seed. This year’s team, meanwhile, has a lot of talent, but has not been able to play consistently while battling through injuries at tackle and center, and season-long uncertainty at left guard.
Zach Miller is one of Seattle’s more underrated players, doing so much more as a blocker than his modest pass-catching numbers would indicate. Even so, Jerramy Stevens was incredibly productive in 2005, catching 45 passes for 554 yards while being one of Matt Hasselbeck’s most reliable targets (until the Super Bowl, anyway). One notable advantage for this year’s team, however, is the productive No. 2 option provided by rookie Luke Willson.
If only to add fuel to Doug Baldwin’s fire, we’ll give the nod to the ‘05 team, which had the kind of depth (after Darrell Jackson returned from injury) and size in the form of Joe Jurevicius that this year’s group just doesn’t have. At full strength, this year’s receiving group, which is underrated as is, probably would get the nod, but the lack of Sidney Rice and Percy Harvin makes a difference.
Like the offensive line on the other side of the ball, this is a lopsided comparison. The ‘05 team had talent on the backend, most notably Marcus Trufant at corner and Michael Boulware at safety, but this year’s secondary is putting up historically good numbers, and deservedly had three players named All-Pros: Earl Thomas, Richard Sherman and Kam Chancellor. Add to the mix the injuries the ‘05 team faced at the end of the year and this year’s team wins in a landslide.
The ‘05 team had a solid group, led by Pro Bowler Lofa Tatupu and fellow rookie Leroy Hill, but this year’s squad has more athletic playmakers across the board, and gets an added bump thanks to its depth. Heading into the Super Bowl, the Seahawks have a conundrum because with K.J. Wright healthy and Malcolm Smith playing so well, they essentially have four starters with three spots to play them.
Another close call. The 2005 squad featured 9.0-sack defensive end Bryce Fischer, a beast inside in Rocky Bernard, and more strong play from Grant Wistrom and Marcus Tubbs. But this year’s team has insane depth, which is more important late in the year than ever. Michael Bennett might be the team’s most valuable defensive player outside of the secondary, yet he’s not even a starter. He, Cliff Avril and Chris Clemons give the Seahawks an abundance of pass rushers, while nose tackle Brandon Mebane has quietly had a Pro-Bowl caliber season, even if he wasn’t recognized for it.
It’s hard to quantify the overall impact of special teams, but if you believe in the advanced statistics of websites like Footballoutsiders.com, this year’s team is considerably better than the 2005 squad. You can also single out the play of individuals on this year’s team such as kicker Steven Hauschka, punter Jon Ryan, and special-teams ace Jeremy Lane, each of whom have made big impacts this season.
Obviously we’ll never know how a game between these teams would play out — unless somebody out there has a DeLorean with a flux capacitor or a hot tub time machine — but on paper it seems like the differences between the two defenses, as well as the 2013 team’s edge on special teams, outweigh the close-calls on offense. That being said, the value of a great O-line is hard to overstate, so that could be enough to push the ‘05 Hawks to victory. The one thing we know for sure is that it would be fun to see an offensive guru like Mike Holmgren match wits with a defensive mastermind like Pete Carroll.