There’s a general belief that Pete Carroll’s Seattle Seahawks were backsliding a year ago as they missed out on the postseason after being a surprise qualifier for the playoffs in 2010.
Upon further inspection, however, the Hawks posted the same 7-9 regular-season record last season as they did in 2010. The difference? NFC West rival San Francisco improved to 13-3, leaving Carroll’s team in the dust and setting a new benchmark in the formerly-weak division.
With the bar raised in the West, Carroll knew what he had to do in the offseason to close the gap on the 49ers after mistakenly going thin at QB last summer, when Carroll believed he could stay afloat with holdover Charlie Whitehurst and ex-Viking Tarvaris Jackson leading the charge.
Oh, well, what is it they say about the best-laid plans of mice and men?
Whitehurst, Carroll’s first big trade acquisition in 2010, proved a bust and is now back with the San Diego Changers, from whence he came to Seattle. As for Jackson, he gave it a shot last season and had a few highlight moments, but the inconsistencies that marked his previous days in Minnesota too often resurfaced in Seattle.
Carroll thus entered this offseason knowing that upgrades were needed under center if the Seahawks were going to have a chance to reel in the 49ers. After briefly trying to convince Peyton Manning to give Seattle a look, Carroll opted for the next-best alternative in the free-agent marketplace, ex-Packer Matt Flynn, who like some other past Green Bay backups – such as Mark Brunell and the Seahawks’ former QB Matt Hasselbeck – only seems to need a chance, which probably wasn’t going to happen at Lambeau Field with Aaron Rodgers in the way.
Flynn thus enters preseason on top of the new Seahawk depth chart at QB that also features third-round draft choice Russell Wilson, the former NC State and Wisconsin QB who polarized many NFL teams that couldn’t make up their minds if his prodigious college numbers and leadership skills would be negated by his lack of size. Carroll, however, sees Wilson as a potential Drew Brees-like performer, and was wowed by how quickly the rookie picked up the Seattle playbook in the OTAs. Still, Wilson appears unlikely to be featured for a while, especially with Flynn and holdover Jackson still in the Seahawks QB queue.
Assuming the 'Hawks get better QB play this fall, perhaps they can make an advance on the 49ers in the NFC West. The offense hopes to have better balance in 2012, with Flynn orchestrating offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell’s West Coast attack and vet RB Marshawn Lynch remaining in the fold after re-signing in the offseason. Still productive (1,204 YR and 12 TDs in 2011), Carroll and Bevell nonetheless remain sensitive to the many poundings Lynch and his physical style have absorbed and will likely be spotting Utah State rookie Robert Turbin (perhaps a steal of the draft in the 4th round) in order to better pace Lynch this fall.
It will help Flynn (or Jackson) to have big-play WR Sidney Rice in a healthy state after he missed seven games last fall due to injury. Ex-Stanford charge Doug Baldwin emerged as a nice possession-type receiver in Rice’s absence, but the Seahawks could use the downfield threat Rice can provide. An X-factor could be TE Kellen Winslow, who arrived in a trade with the Bucs and competes with holdover Zach Miller for snaps.
Meanwhile, Carroll did some more gambling in the draft when tabbing West Virginia’s enigmatic DE Bruce Irvin with the 15th pick in the first round. When right, Irvin was considered the best pass rusher in the college ranks a year ago, but maturity issues scared some teams away at Radio City Music Hall in late April. Carroll and defensive coordinator Gus Bradley, however, envision Irvin as a center-piece of the stop unit, although at the outset he might be on the field only as a situational sub (likely on passing downs).
Irvin is only part of a defensive line upgrade that also included adding free agent DT Jason Jones from the Titans. Along with re-signing DE Red Bryant, Seattle’s front four should have a robust look, also featuring holdovers DT Brandon Mebane and DE Chris Clemons.
There are concerns in the LB crew, however, after last year’s platoon leader, MLB David Hawthorne, left in free agency to the Saints. Carroll hoped to fill the gap by signing another ex-Titan, Barrett Ruud, in his place, although Rudd endured an injury-plagued campaign a year ago in Nashville. Another Utah State rookie (like RB Turbin), second-round pick MLB Bobby Wagner, could begin the preseason with the first unit while Ruud continues to rehab knee and shoulder injuries.
The secondary, rebuilt last season, retains much the same look as a year ago, when Stanford rookie Richard Sherman emerged as an unlikely force late in the season and enters 2012 as the projected starter at the LCB spot.
Summary: Many NFC West observers suspect that the Seahawks appear the most-likely division entry to rise and challenge the 49ers this fall, but a quick peek at the Seahawks’ schedule suggests that a breakthrough won’t be easy, with non-division foes Green Bay, Dallas, Cam Newton and improving Carolina plus New England all on the schedule within the first six weeks. If Flynn provides the upgrade for the offense that many expect, however, the Seahawks will have a puncher’s chance against anyone, especially at Century Link Field, which Carroll’s team has made a nice fortress and where it has covered the number in nine of its last 11 home games.
Expect Seattle to at least be on the periphery of the wild card mix with a chance to return to the postseason if Flynn can deliver as hoped.
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