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Larry Stone: Seahawks need some tweaks, not overhaul

Russell Wilson, left, still gives the Seahawks a franchise quarterback as the team seeks to make improvements elsewhere. (Elaine Thompson / AP)
Russell Wilson, left, still gives the Seahawks a franchise quarterback as the team seeks to make improvements elsewhere. (Elaine Thompson / AP)

SEATTLE – As the Seahawks players cleaned out their lockers Monday – a somber annual ritual for all but one team, but even gloomier than normal in this truncated Seattle season – Russell Wilson was predictably upbeat.

His assessment of the year began with the observation that the team was “super-close” to being where they want to be. Rather than this playoff-free season marking the end of an era, as many foresee, “It’s just the beginning,’’ Wilson declared.

No one, of course, would expect anything less from Wilson, who has excised negativity from his playbook. Even Pollyanna seems like a Debbie Downer next to Wilson. But that doesn’t mean there’s not truth in his sentiment, hard as that may be to accept amid the frustration over Sunday’s turn of events.

The Seahawks will almost certainly line up next season without some players who have become iconic, either via trade, release or forced retirement from injury. That list could include some combination of Michael Bennett, Earl Thomas, Richard Sherman, Kam Chancellor and Cliff Avril, not to mention the almost certain departure of Jimmy Graham. And it would surprise no one if there is a necessary shake-up in the coaching staff.

Yet that doesn’t have to be tantamount to the end of an era in which it came to be expected that the Seahawks would be a playoff team and a Super Bowl contender every year.

That’s not to minimize the issues facing the Seahawks, which are substantial and serious. They must shore up the offensive line (for real this time), revive their moribund running game, fix the sagging special teams and regain their dominance on defense, just for starters. And do so in a division that once was regarded as easy pickings for Seattle, but now contains a power on the rise in the Los Angeles Rams.

That seems like a huge undertaking, and in many ways it is. But let’s flip this around and remember the base they still have to build around: A franchise quarterback in Wilson as well as one of the league’s most reliable receivers in Doug Baldwin; a linebacker, Bobby Wagner, who was a top candidate for NFL defensive player of the year until hampered late by a hamstring injury, alongside steady K.J. Wright; and, until we hear otherwise, two elite defensive backs in Thomas and Sherman.

The huge question facing coach Pete Carroll and general manager John Schneider (unless Schneider leaves for the suddenly vacant Green Bay GM job) is whether this year’s outcome was an aberration or an irreversible trend. How they answer that will, in turn, determine whether they feel the need to blow up the roster and struggle through some rough years, with the payoff being a strong young nucleus ready to compete by, say 2020; or merely tweak the roster with upgrades to the aforementioned trouble spots.

Put me on Team Tweak. With a better kicker, this team could have won up to three more games. With better health, particularly on defense, they probably wouldn’t have missed the playoffs. Shut your eyes and imagine them drafting an impact running back like, say, Penn State’s Saquon Barkley or Louisiana State’s Derrius Guice, and see how much better things suddenly look.

Again, that’s not to minimize the very real problems facing the Seahawks. Their feeble first halves were inexplicable and ultimately deadly – “the story of our season,’’ said lineman Frank Clark. They must augment their pass rush, particularly if Avril is forced into retirement by his neck injury. Wilson himself was a paradox, at times (mostly in the second half of games) a nearly single-handed savior of their offense, and at other times off-kilter and slow to get into rhythm. The team’s culture does not seem as strong as it once was, with distractions and drama far too common.

But it’s also not a team that’s poised to become one of the NFL’s dregs, if the offseason is skillfully handled. Wright is one of the few players who can remember back to 2011, the last year the Seahawks didn’t make the playoffs.

“We weren’t a good football team then. We just weren’t,’’ Wright said. “We didn’t know how to win, we were extremely young. But this just feels bad, because we’re a quality team, we have experienced guys, we have tons of Pro Bowlers and a great franchise quarterback. We don’t want to be in this position when a team is so talented. It feels much, much worse this time, because in 2011, we had no business in the playoffs.”

Wright falls into the same camp as Wilson in believing that the Seahawks were excruciatingly close to winning several more games.

“It’s just small things that are easily correctable,’’ he said.

And asked if this offseason feels different, Wright answered quickly and without hesitation.

“Nope, not at all,’’ he said. “It’s not that big of a deal. Just because we’re not making the playoffs, it doesn’t mean that we have to change everything completely. We’re going to be fine. I trust Coach Carroll, I trust John Schneider to put together a good football team, draft well, get good free agents to help us to get back to winning the NFC West.”

Those two, Carroll and Schneider, have much work to do – painful, delicate, complicated work. Yet it’s a task that’s not hopeless, which is something for heartbroken Seahawks fans to cling to right now.