When the Seahawks lost to the Rams 42-7 last Sunday, it felt like the end of something.
It was not the end of Seattle's championship window, necessarily. If that closed, it closed a year ago, and with Russell Wilson in the fold for the near future, it likely is still open. It was not the end of Pete Carroll or Wilson, either. The Seahawks are 8-6 and not yet eliminated from the playoffs despite injuries to Richard Sherman, Kam Chancellor and Cliff Avril, among other key players. They aren't a bad team. They beat the Eagles a few weeks ago.
No, if anything, it was the end of the era in which Pete Carroll football means that they're always in the game. The Seahawks got blown out last year by the Packers, but it was in Green Bay and without Earl Thomas. Sunday's loss was at home, and Seattle was supposed to be more prepared this time around. The Seahawks had no excuses to be made, no bad calls, no missed field goals and absolutely no chance. The Seahawks had been to the second round of the playoffs in each of Wilson's first five seasons, and now they sit on the edge of elimination.
What went wrong is only an important question because it leads to the question that really matters: What do they need to do next to make it right?
Seattle isn't far off from being a championship contender again. It is likely to return several mid-career Hall of Famers to the roster next season, and it has the whole offseason to re-tool the weak points and re-think a few of Carroll's longstanding philosophies on talent acquisition. The work to get better starts at the top.
From 2010-12, the Seahawks drafted Thomas, Wilson, Sherman, Chancellor, Bobby Wagner, Russell Okung, Golden Tate, Byron Maxwell, K.J. Wright, Bruce Irvin, Malcolm Smith and several other starters, like James Carpenter, J.R. Sweezy, Jeremy Lane and Jaye Howard.
In the five drafts since then, the best players added by the Seahawks have been Justin Britt, Frank Clark, Tyler Lockett, Paul Richardson, Luke Willson, Jarran Reed, Christine Michael and Alex Collins. The 49 players drafted by Seattle in the past five years have combined for one Pro Bowl trip.
The Seahawks have sacrificed picks, and they have traded their first-rounder in six consecutive drafts. In 2012, they traded down three spots and chose Irvin; in 2013, they traded it for Percy Harvin, an obvious mistake in hindsight; in 2014, they traded out of the first round entirely; in 2015, they traded it for Jimmy Graham, a move that could be a less obvious mistake but has not provided them with the kind of value they expected; in 2016, they moved down and selected Germain Ifedi, the most penalized player in the league and someone who also struggles as a blocker; and in 2017, they moved down several times, eventually settling in the second round on Malik McDowell, a defensive tackle who has yet to play because of an offseason ATV accident.
What they most directly have to show for those picks today is Graham, Ifedi and Richardson, their top pick in 2014. The moves down helped them fill out the roster but have yet to produce a star on the level of their 2010-12 picks. Is that enough value for six years of first-round picks?
If anything, what the Seahawks have proved is the pure randomness of hitting on draft picks. Seattle looked like an unstoppable force for years to come based on the immediate success of Carroll and John Schneider through their first three drafts, but their lack of hits in recent years has evened out their overall grade as college talent evaluators. The Seahawks passed over some huge talents to either trade down and accumulate more picks -- because Seattle might also feel the success is random and it's better to just have more lottery tickets -- or to select lesser players at the same position.
Carroll had a lot of first-hand knowledge of the prospects when he left USC for the Seahawks in 2010, so maybe it's time to hire someone else on his staff who just came from a college recruiting position. Another name you could be hearing in 2018: Scot McCloughan. The former Washington GM was in Carroll's cabinet from 2010-13 and is considered one of the best personnel evaluators in the NFL.
The Seahawks have regularly made changes to the assistant coaching positions every offseason, either because they're fired or hired away by other teams for promotions, but they're never the two moves that fans constantly ask for: "Fire offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell" and "Fire offensive line coach Tom Cable." I'm still not so sure that they're going to do either of those things next year or that they need to.
Bevell is the second-longest tenured offensive coordinator in the NFL, having been hired in 2011 following Carroll's firing of Jeremy Bates. Bevell is criticized for his play-calling, his usage of Graham and, recently, Seattle's inability to run the football. However, it was only as recent as 2015 that the Seahawks ranked fourth in points and yards, with Wilson having an MVP-type campaign (34 touchdowns, eight interceptions) and running back Thomas Rawls leading the league in yards per carry.
Even now, Seattle's offense isn't bad; it's just average, in spite of the fact that the Seahawks have basically undergone offensive reconstruction surgery. They have gone from a team that was top-three in rush attempts every season from 2012-15 to ranking 20th in attempts in each of the past two years. Wilson has also gone from a "managing" position to ranking third in pass attempts and leading all Seattle players in rushing yards and carries.
As for Cable, he's the offensive line coach and assistant head coach. His left tackle, George Fant, tore his ACL. Fant's replacement, Rees Odhiambo, was a former third-round pick at guard who had no business at tackle. When the Seahawks traded for Duane Brown, they improved dramatically, up until their loss on Sunday. Pro Football Focus ranked them ninth in pass protection with Brown compared to 30th prior to the trade. Left guard Luke Joeckel missed five games after undergoing knee surgery. The right guard "plan" was Mark Glowinski, a former fourth-round pick, and Oday Aboushi, a readily available free agent. Currently, it is Ethan Pocic, a rookie who was a center at LSU a year ago.
Cable's greatest failure may be the inability to get much from Ifedi at right tackle, but he has also overseen the career of Britt from a terrible guard to a brilliant center. It seems to even out for Cable, given his resources. And, if you think that Cable and Bevell should be fired, you should really be looking toward Carroll instead. He's stood by these two coaches for seven seasons, and for the most part you'd have to believe that they are doing his bidding.
Last year, the team let go of running backs coach Sherman Smith and linebackers assistant Lofa Tatupu, and it parted ways with longtime Carroll assistant Rocky Seto. Special teams coach Brian Schneider may be in danger based on that unit's failings this season, both in field goal tries and kick/punt coverage. Carroll may want to evaluate what's happening at tight end, where coach Pat McPherson hasn't gotten much from Luke Willson or Nick Vannett, while Graham posts career-lows in yards per catch and catch percentage.
Seattle also has a number of high-profile players hitting free agency or hitting a crossroads of their careers: tight ends Graham and Willson, guard Joeckel, receiver Paul Richardson, defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson and kicker Blair Walsh are all free agents, while Chancellor and Avril know they have career decisions to be made. Plus, Sherman will be trying to return from a torn Achilles after a 2017 offseason of trade talks.
The Seahawks addressed their biggest need for next year a few months early when they traded picks to the Texans for Brown at left tackle. Assuming he doesn't hold out again, that leaves the Seahawks with one less position to overhaul, but they have a few other major question marks looming, perhaps none bigger than figuring out how to improve a surprisingly weak pass rush.
Despite having Michael Bennett, Sheldon Richardson and Clark, the Seahawks pressure the quarterback about 31 percent of the time, per Football Outsiders, which is roughly league-average. The team lost Avril to a stinger after four games, and it is unknown if he will play again. If Avril is able to return, they're getting back a player who had 11 1/2 sacks in 2016 with five forced fumbles. If not, they may want to make their priority a premium pass rusher. And because of cap space issues, it'll likely be one who they think is undervalued.
Look at how Julius Peppers has generated 10 sacks for the Panthers this year at $3.5 million. Unlikely to afford DeMarcus Lawrence or Ezekiel Ansah, Seattle could target Alex Okafor from the Saints or Kony Ealy as a reclamation project from the Jets. The Seahawks will also try to bring back their current projects, like Dion Jordan and Marcus Smith. That's after they decide what to do with Sheldon Richardson, who has been relatively quiet for the fifth-highest paid player on the team. They may then be back on the market for a defensive tackle, not knowing what to expect from McDowell, if he ever plays for them.
Because of the prohibitive cost of a pass rusher in free agency, it's the position that the Seahawks are most likely to address on Day 1 of the draft, knowing that they've already traded all of their Day 2 picks, compensation picks not included.
The next most obvious position overhaul comes at running back, where Rawls and Eddie Lacy have combined for 119 carries, 308 yards, 2.6 yards per carry, zero touchdowns and several healthy scratches. In fact, Wilson has rushed for more yards than Rawls, Lacy and Chris Carson combined. The team could bring back Lacy and Rawls for cheap. Mike Davis and J.D. McKissic are restricted free agents, while Carson and the oft-injured C.J. Prosise remain under contract on low rookie deals. Headlining free agency are Le'Veon Bell and Dion Lewis, but Isaiah Crowell, Carlos Hyde and Jeremy Hill could spark Seattle's interest. The Seahawks would likely also target a running back who can create his own yards by breaking tackles, so a one-year deal for someone like LeGarrette Blount could make sense.
Per overthecap.com, the Seahawks have roughly $18 million in cap space before they re-sign anyone, and they aren't going to get any cap space back from Chancellor unless he retires, which he has no incentive to do. They could save $7.5 million by releasing Avril, but they'd still have to find a pass rusher to take his place. Seattle will probably release Jeremy Lane, since it already tried and failed to trade him to Houston, a savings of just over $4 million.
On the team now, Graham has just 25 yards over the past three games and his yards per route run in that time ranks 76th out of 78 tight ends, per Pro Football Focus. Graham will be looking for $9-12 million per season, so is it wise for the Seahawks to spend that kind of money on a tight end when they don't really know how to get the most value out of him? Joeckel gave up two sacks, two hurries and three QB hits in the loss to the Rams, so should they be spending $7 million again on a guard like that who also missed another five games this year due to injury?
Instead, look for the Seahawks to focus on safety Bradley McDougald, who has filled in for Kam Chancellor like a true "Legion of Boom" type starter, Richardson at wideout and finding a suitable kicker to replace Blair Walsh.
In general, the cap is not their friend, and the Seahawks have already traded their second- and third-round picks. That means that they have to improve from within, which likely means retaining Sherman and potentially even extending him beyond 2018 for long-term security. We also know that Seattle is one of the most active teams in the NFL on the trade market, so look for the Seahawks to continue to try to make changes by adding players who are under contract and under-utilized by other franchises.
All told, the Seahawks are not that far off from being the same team they were two years ago, and they were 8-4 just two weeks ago. They do require changes, but you may find that their 2018 moves are not as drastic as you'd expect and won't always reflect the same changes that many would want: a few new people in the personnel department, a couple new coaches and retaining most of their own players, perhaps adding only one high-profile name at either running back or pass rusher.
They're trying to go back to being the same old Seahawks.