The NFL ‘s top 100 player rankings, an annual vote by players compiled by NFL.com to help fill the offseason tedium, includes six Seahawks. That would be an impressive total, were it not for the facts that one is no longer a Seahawk (cornerback Richard Sherman), another may not be a Seahawk (free safety and holdout Earl Thomas), and a third, strong safety Kam Chancellor, may never play again (if the list went to 200, defensive end Cliff Avril would be there, but injury has ended his career).
While that history is well-known, seeing at once such a tattered list from the formerly formidable Seattle roster underscores the difference between the verbs was and is. (The rankings included linebacker Bobby Wagner at 21, Thomas at 42, Sherman at 64, Chancellor at 75 and wide receiver Doug Baldwin at 99.)
The irony is that Seattle’s highest-ranked player, quarterback Russell Wilson at No. 11, was sufficiently insufficient in 2017 that coach Pete Carroll made over his offensive coaching staff in large part to help make Wilson better.
Wilson is a six-year mainstay on the list, where his previous best ranking was 17th in 2016. Whether he should be ranked higher or lower for 2018 is far secondary to the fact that his mostly spectacular 2017 season, in which he led the NFL in touchdown passes and led his team in rushing, was so misshapen that it was a little counter-productive.
Despite the fact that the 9-7 record was a couple of missed field goals shy of 10-6 or 11-5, Wilson’s emergency skill of going playground in the fourth quarter was the nutritional equivalent of a sugar high, when a healthy diet requires carbs and protein. The converse of the record was actually more true — they were not as good as 9-7 indicated. Wilson had artificially sweetened it.
Wilson accounted for an all-time, NFL-record 86 percent of the offense, and 19 of his 34 TD passes came in the fourth quarter. Strictly by the numbers, Wilson was the NFL’s most valuable player by a wide margin, a veritable football Forrest Gump when it came to pivot points that became historic.
Nevertheless, the offense, thanks largely to an inept rushing game, started so poorly so often that rallies were almost mandatory. The Seahawks scored 56 points in the opening period, with three or fewer points 10 times, including eight shutouts.
The slow starts seemed to baffle Carroll. One theory that seemed plausible was that Wilson, fearing early turnovers, was too cautious regarding throwing into tight windows. Trailing in the fourth quarter led him to open up. Against tiring defenders, Wilson picked apart defenses with his arm and legs.
The final regular season game of 2017, a ghastly 26-24 loss at home to broken-down Arizona quarterbacked by a sore-kneed backup, Drew Stanton, typified the travail. In the first half, the Seahawks had seven points, 23 yards of offense and one first down, never reaching Cardinals territory. The score came on a kickoff return by Tyler Lockett.
Carroll’s post-game dismay foreshadowed the subsequent changes.
“This game today was almost a microcosm of the season,” he said. “The slow starts, the getting in our own way. Making it hard on us at times, when it wasn’t about the opponent, it was about us.
“It’s disappointing that we weren’t able to change the narrative of the way the games went. I’m so surprised that we played like we did today, because we were so ready. We practiced so well and prepared so well. It didn’t come out right until the end.”
Carroll also said he had at halftime what sounded like a confrontational meeting with Wilson, who subsequently led two near-flawless drives that resulted in TD passes to Baldwin.
In January, Carroll replaced offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell with Brian Schottenheimer and line coach Tom Cable with Mike Solari. The Seahawks drafted in the first round a running back, added two tight ends who are primarily blockers, and paid a high price for a good, veteran left tackle.
The prime directive: Major improvement in the running game, which finished 23rd in the NFL.
The corollary is that a balanced offense is likely to work earlier and longer to help avoid dependence on Wilson’s superpowers. That’s especially true after the rival Los Angeles Rams created pass-rush kryptonite with the hire of Ndamukong Suh to pair on the defensive line with Aaron Donald. The game plans against LA next season figure to include about 60 rushes and a maximum 10 passes.
Listening to the conversations in Renton during OTAs and minicamp, it’s clear that a significant strategic change, not just personnel, is underway. Absent blocking and tackling, it’s impossible to know its effectiveness. But it’s clear that the embryonic relationship between Schottenheimer and Wilson will be the primary agent of change for the Seahawks.
Carroll offered one tease.
“There’s some different scheme stuff that we’re doing,” he said. “Some different principles. In particular, I’ve seen Russell and Doug and Tyler really take off with some of the stuff that we’re doing. So it’s been good to see the process of this transition. We’re really only just getting started.”
Apparently, no resistance to change was visible in Wilson, who was close personally with Bevell.
“Russell has really responded to it,” Carroll said. “I think he enjoys the challenge. Schotty is challenging him to keep growing as a quarterback. You look at all the years that he’s been playing, but still there’s always been more growth.
“Schotty has really kind of opened the door. Hopefully, we’re going to see the best version that (Wilson) can put out there. He’s been challenged even more than ever. It’s an exciting relationship that we’re watching unfold.”
Wilson indeed may be the 11th-best player in the NFL. But the 2017 numbers that got him there came largely from soda pop and candy. Schottenheimer and the Seahawks need to get him steak and spuds.
Art Thiel is co-founder of sportspressnw.com.