Art Thiel: Seahawks finding it’s hard to stay on top in NFL

As Columbus must have appeared when his ships came upon what Europeans called the new world (the first Club Med in the Caribbean), so do NFL observers stand agape at the foreign landscape:

Three teams at 7-0. One team at 8-0. Never been seen before.

In a sport endlessly pursuing a parity that would see perfection as 32 teams finishing a season 8-8, four unbeatens this deep into the calendar is not only unique in NFL history, it’s, well, inappropriate. It’s like Grandma covering her right arm in tattoos worshipping Satan.

A big part of the NFL’s success is the creation and perpetuation of the belief that every team is a draft or two, or a free-agent signing or two, from serious contention. It’s never quite true; the Buffalo Bills, for example, are the only team in big-time American pro sports that has been out of the playoffs (since 1999) longer than the Mariners (2001).

And the past 10 Super Bowls have seen just 12 teams participate. Three have appeared three times: The Seahawks, Steelers and Patriots. The Giants and Colts have appeared twice, and the Bears, Cardinals, Saints, Packers, Ravens, 49ers and Broncos once. That suggests that ultimate success is at least somewhat repeatable.

But the fact remains that top-shelf play in the NFL is harder to maintain than in any other sport because of the hard salary cap. While that fact is well understood by many fans, just as many can’t figure out why the Seahawks are not running with the Broncos, Panthers, Bengals and Patriots, or at least closer to the unbowed than 4-4, with so many of the top players still employed.

The biggest part of the answer is that coach Pete Carroll and general manager John Schneider figured, more or less, that this was how it would go in the first year of having to pay Russell Wilson his big money, as all successful teams are required to do for good quarterbacks. They’ll never admit it, but if they didn’t understand that, they are far dumber than their resumes suggest.

The one wrinkle they didn’t plan for was SS Kam Chancellor’s holdout.

If Chancellor had gone through training camp and played the first two games, the Seahawks likely would have been at least 5-3 or 6-2 by avoiding single, last-minute defensive screw-ups that permitted game-winning scores by the Rams and Panthers.

All Seahawks games this season would have looked much as the past two: A 20-3 win over the 49ers and a 13-12 over the Cowboys. The defense was designed to dominate until December, when an inexperienced offensive line would have had 12 games of experimentation to reach minimum safe competence.

One way to look at the Seahawks’ midseason results is to review the roster priorities by how position groups are funded.

In descending order of financial investment under the cap with the relevant stars:

—Secondary: Richard Sherman, Kam Chancellor, Earl Thomas

—Defensive line: Michael Bennett, Cliff Avril

—Quarterback: Russell Wilson

—Running back: Marshawn Lynch

—Linebackers: Bobby Wagner, K.J. Wright

—Specialists (kicker/punter/returners): Three draft picks to acquire returner Tyler Lockett

—Receivers including tight ends: Trade for Jimmy Graham

—Offensive line: Um…

Since Carroll’s prime directive is gaining the ball and controlling possessions (by creating turnovers and sustaining a running game), the 2015 idea was that superior talents on defense would keep every game winnable, while the individual deeds of Wilson and Lynch cover the offense until the season’s last quarter, when the offense could shed training wheels.

Because the cap limits a team’s ability to pay stars at every position, the plan rested on assistant coach Tom Cable’s ability to coach up offensive linemen who, by NFL standards, are mostly just guys.

That’s the same formula the Seahawks have always used: Build a great defense from the back to deny explosive plays, then grind until the offense matures toward the end of the season. Evidence is plain from the finish in 2014: The Seahawks won all four games in December (part of a 9-1 finish) by a combined score of 96-33.

The defense-first approach is the same plan being deployed this season by Denver, of all teams. The Seahawks have just 12 offensive touchdowns, fewer than only the 49ers. Guess who also has 12? Denver.

Two years ago the Broncos had the greatest offense in NFL history, only to have their helmets handed to them 43-8 by the Seahawks in the Super Bowl. This year, built to bail out vulnerable QB Peyton Manning and a weak O-line, the Broncos lead the NFL in defense at 261 yards per game, 23 fewer than the No. 2 Seahawks.

Apparently, Denver general manager John Elway is not entirely dim.

Which gets us to the Seahawks’ second half and a schedule less formidable than the first half. Barring major injuries, the Seahawks are likely to be favored the rest of the way, including the next game Nov. 15 against division-leading Arizona (6-2), the first of two against the Cardinals.

Some see the game as bordering on a must-win for Seattle. Perhaps. But if the 12s wish to work out their worry beads on the real deal, look to the Dec. 27 game against the St. Louis Rams. They come closest to replicating the formula espoused by the Seahawks and Broncos.

The 4-3 Rams have a defense ranked sixth (328 yards per game) and their own version of Lynch in Todd Gurley, the first rookie in NFL history to rush for 100 yards in his first four games.

He didn’t play against the Seahawks in the opener won in overtime by the Rams in St. Louis, 34-31. Even though Rams QB Nick Foles is still a bit shaky with a QB rating of 81.6, ranking 28th, he’s better than Carolina’s Cam Newton (78.1) and Manning (75.1).

The Rams are the most significant trial on the Seahawks’ schedule. They no longer need an elite QB to take them far.

Four unbeaten teams in November is not a trend but an NFL anomaly. Like the Cowboys hiring a player without a dubious past.

What is a trend is copying the traits of a champion. The Seahawks have set the standard. It is being met by some. All the Seahawks have to do in the final two months, saddled with four losses, is to be better than they’ve ever been.

Which, when you think about it, has always been the point of the exercise.

Art Thiel is co-founder of sportspressnw.com

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