RENTON, Wash. – Greg Knapp was having a San Francisco flashback. The former assistant to Steve Mariucci and George Seifert thought he was coaching another one of Steve Young’s aerial circuses with the old 49ers.
Seattle’s first-year offensive coordinator was dutifully trying to follow last weekend’s plan for his Seahawks to run the ball as much as throw it. Then, down 17-0 in the first quarter to Detroit, head coach Jim Mora came to his friend and trusted play caller on the sidelines with a clear order, what he believed was the only chance to win.
“Pass the ball!”
Knapp complied. He called 51 throws for Matt Hasselbeck, even though the three-time Pro Bowl passer has broken ribs and a sore shoulder. Hasselbeck completed a team-record 39 of them on a day that would have made pass-happy former Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren proud.
The fact that was the only way Seattle could beat the lowly Lions amplified how rocky the transition has been going from Holmgren’s high-flying schemes to Knapp’s ground-based approach.
For eight consecutive seasons, from San Francisco to Atlanta to even woebegone Oakland, Knapp’s offenses finished in the league’s top 10 in rushing. But now he’s in Seattle, where offensive linemen get seriously injured and backs seem to run in place.
The Seahawks are ranked 30th in rushing going into Sunday’s divisional game at Arizona, averaging just 84.5 yards per game. Things are so bad, Seattle gave starting running back Julius Jones a game ball – after he rushed for 36 yards on 16 carries. The screen pass has become Seattle’s best running play.
Call it Knapp’s nadir.
“No, I don’t take it personally,” Knapp said Wednesday. “There’s been too many interchangeable parts. I’ve got to be patient. It’s going to take time, especially with everybody that’s been hurt.”
Seattle has been missing three-fifths of its starting offensive line for much of the season. The entire left side of the line is gone. Six-time All-Pro tackle Walter Jones is on injured reserve. Guard Mike Wahle failed a physical and was released before training camp started.
The Seahawks are down to their fifth option at left tackle, Kansas City castoff Damion McIntosh.
Eight players have run the ball this season. That includes Edgerrin James, the former Cardinal whom Seattle released last week after he averaged just 2.7 yards per carry backing up Jones.
“And keep in mind, it’s a new system,” Knapp said of his zone-blocking schemes.
Instead of being asked to take a defender out of a hole with sustained drive blocks, Seahawks linemen are getting in the way of any defender who comes into an assigned area. It’s then up to the ballcarrier to make a quick assessment, cut once and go.
Denver and former Super Bowl MVP Terrell Davis used the system to win championships a decade ago. But, as Seahawks fullback Justin Griffith noted, those Broncos had something these Seahawks do not: continuity on offense.
Griffith was the Falcons’ fullback for Knapp and Mora when all three were in Atlanta from 2004-06. He said the same linemen working with the same backs in recognizing defenses each week is the key to Knapp’s running game.
“If you can’t recognize defenses, you’ll be blocking the wrong guys all day,” Griffith said. “It’s going to take time. We just need to keep grinding. I know statistically it doesn’t look like it, but we’re getting there.”
Asked how long it has taken his new system to take hold with the 49ers, Falcons and Raiders, Knapp just chuckled.
“Well, everybody being healthy, having the same running backs on the field …” he said, “it would take probably two-thirds of the way into the season to feel good with it.”
Seattle is facing its last chance to rejoin the NFC West race. A win at Arizona would put the Seahawks just a game out of first place.
When these teams last met, the Seahawks rushed 11 times for just 14 yards on Oct. 18. The Cardinals went on to sack Hasselbeck five times and held Seattle to its lowest point total in a home game in seven years while winning 27-3.
Mora said if the running game flops again, he won’t have Knapp banging his head against a Cardinals brick wall.
“We’re not going to run the football just to prove a point,” Mora said. “If there is another way to try to win, then that’s what we’re going to try to do.”
Subscribe to the sports newsletter
Get the day’s top sports headlines and breaking news delivered to your inbox by subscribing here.