Seahawks’ problems run deeper than just oft-cited injuries

RENTON — Unwavering, Seattle Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren has told reporters all season that his team’s problems are only ligament deep.

A few injuries at key positions, he has continually said, have kept the Seahawks from challenging for a fifth consecutive NFC West title.

Now at 2-7 and a series of miracles away from playoff contention, Holmgren continues to think about what might have been.

“I would hope we’d be better,” he said Wednesday when asked where his team might stand right now had Seattle been at full strength. “This is the same team that was a game away from the (conference) championship game for the last two years, the Super Bowl the year before that. It’s the same group of guys, basically.”

But the Seahawks’ problems during the disappointing first 10 weeks of 2008 go deeper than that. This could have been avoided, perhaps, had it not been for a few missteps in shaping the roster.

In hindsight, which is the easiest way to build a roster, the Seahawks might have made a few bad decisions that led to the mess in which they currently sit. When the injuries started to pile up, Seattle did not have enough depth, or the strength at other positions, to fill the void.

Thirty-six of the 53 players from Super Bowl XL have been replaced, and not all the moves have worked out for the better.

The most notable roster mistake happened more than two years ago, when team president Tim Ruskell opted to place the transition tag on Pro Bowl guard Steve Hutchinson rather than franchise him in the spring of 2006. The transition tag, which was meant to save the team a few dollars, provided an unforeseen loophole that the Minnesota Vikings used to lure Hutchinson away from Seattle.

That, many outsiders believe, was the first step in the Seahawks’ slow fall from a Super Bowl team to the group that has struggled for most of 2008.

While Holmgren is right that injuries have been a major reason for the decline, a lack of depth has illuminated that problem.

Several decisions over the past two years have affected the team’s depth.

The first came in August 2007, when the Seahawks re-signed backup quarterback Seneca Wallace to a four-year, $6.2 million deal. It looked like a bargain at the time, and the presumption was that Wallace might develop into a legitimate starter over time.

But when pressed into action this season, the fifth-year player has generally struggled. Due in part to calf and groin injuries, as well as an unexceptional receiving corps that had plenty of its own health concerns, Wallace has won just one of four starts while helping lead the Seahawks out of playoff contention.

“I thought he got better each game,” Holmgren said this week, “and it was a shame he was hurt.”

Had Wallace had a better receiving corps, his results might have been more favorable. But the Seahawks’ evaluations of their young receivers turned out to be off the mark, leading them to ignore the position in the April NFL draft.

Receiver was seen by some as a draft-day need, with D.J. Hackett gone to free agency, Deion Branch coming off major knee surgery and Bobby Engram miffed about his contract. But the Seahawks opted to stand pat, hoping that someone from a group that included Courtney Taylor, Logan Payne, Ben Obomanu and Jordan Kent would emerge.

Rather than have a DeSean Jackson or Donnie Avery to help overcome injuries to Engram, Branch, Nate Burleson, Payne and Obomanu, the Seahawks were left with Taylor and Kent. The second-year players quickly fell out of favor, ending up on the practice squad in the first month of the season before eventually being brought back to the active roster.

Taylor fell the furthest, going from the Seahawks’ opening-game starter to the practice squad in a matter of four games.

“We pushed him into something that he wasn’t quite ready to accept the responsibility for,” Holmgren said this week, when Taylor was re-signed off the practice squad.

The receiver position also was hampered by a high-profile trade that has been a bust thus far.

Branch, who was acquired in exchange for a first-round pick in the 2007 draft, has been injured for most of his three-year tenure in Seattle. His 105 receptions are not worthy of what the Seahawks gave up for him, and he’s been especially absent this year — playing one game and being unable to finish it because of a bruised heel.

Even when healthy, Branch never showed the consistency of some recent Seahawks receivers like Engram and Darrell Jackson. His base salary is scheduled to jump from $3.5 million to $4.94 million next season, so the Seahawks might have to make a decision on his future.

“I think he’ll be fine once he heals up from his injuries,” Holmgren said this week. “He’s still a young man in this business.”

Of course, not all of Seattle’s problems have been on offense. A defense that was expected to be among the league’s top 10 in yards allowed currently ranks 27th in that category. Rather than address the 2007 defense’s inconsistency by adding another veteran or two, Seattle brought back all 11 starters and added a sprinkling of rookies and backups.

The unit has been just as inconsistent as last year’s defense.

Ruskell was not made available to comment on the team’s personnel issues, but it’s safe to assume that his stance would be similar to that of Holmgren: had the Seahawks not been besieged by injuries, they probably wouldn’t be in this situation.

Then again, some moves could have been made to avoid it.

As they say, hindsight is 20-20. The bottom line is that the Seahawks’ vision of competing for another division title is in serious need of an optometrist right about now.

Notes: Quarterback Matt Hasselbeck ran practice again on Thursday and looks like he’ll play on Sunday. He said on Wednesday afternoon that he was expecting to get cleared to play in the Arizona game later that night, so the fact that he practiced Thursday was a good sign. … Wide receiver Deion Branch also practiced again, clearing the way for a possible return this Sunday against the Cardinals. … Running back Julius Jones returned to practice Thursday after missing the previous day with a virus. He said he’s feeling fine, and all indications are that Jones will play Sunday.

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