RENTON, Wash. – Russell Wilson cooked during the season and then he stewed after it.
Now, as the Seahawks enter another season when anything short of the Super Bowl will be deemed disappointing, the question is whether the team has given Wilson all the necessary ingredients to get there.
OK, so maybe it’s just about time to let the Wilson-cooking analogies flame out.
But for better or worse, that debate – whether the Seahawks are “letting Russ cook” enough to take advantage of his vast talents during the prime of his career – has come to define the conversation about the Seahawks as they embark on a season that may be as critical as any in the 12-year Pete Carroll era.
All seems good now between coach, general manager John Schneider and quarterback.
But Wilson’s discontent in the offseason was far from a media creation.
A player known for carefully measuring every word uttered publicly used the occasion of a media conference call to celebrate winning the NFL Man of the Year Award to candidly admit his frustration over being hit as often as he had been during his Seahawks career.
That comment came after Wilson attended the Super Bowl and seethed over seeing a quarterback other than him play in it for a sixth straight year.
That, in turn, led to further reports that Wilson had not been happy when the Seahawks turned to a more conservative offense in the second half of the season after losing three of four games in which Wilson had 10 turnovers. After throwing 28 touchdown passes in the first half of the season, on pace to set an NFL single-season record, he threw 12 the rest of the way.
And that led to a month or so of trade rumors – including a credible report the Seahawks considered an offer from the Bears – and to a lengthy heart-to-heart between Carroll and Wilson before peace was reached.
Shortly before the season, Carroll candidly recalled that conversation.
“We talked for a long time one night,” Carroll said. “We were just dealing with what was going on in the media and all that and how we were going to move forward together. We just revisited all of the foundation and the background and the vision for the future. All of those things we would often touch base on. But we just kind of regrouped. That’s basically what happened. There’s so much commonality to how we think and how we approach stuff. It was really a process of revisiting that, remembering who we were and what we were all about.”
But around the league, a perception persists that this regrouping of Carroll and Wilson, who has just two years left on his contract after this season, could be temporary.
There is a belief that if the Seahawks don’t advance at least past the divisional round for the first time since 2014, or if Wilson doesn’t have the kind of season that raises no doubts about how he’s being used, the Seahawks and Wilson could be standing on the same ledge next offseason.
Into that breach steps Shane Waldron.
A new look
What caught observers most off-guard about Wilson’s offseason comments was that they came after Seattle had hired Waldron as the new offensive coordinator – a hiring process Wilson was involved in from start to finish.
Wilson has praised Waldron at every step, recently saying, “We’re really connected, which is good, and on the same page, too.”
Waldron was hired after the firing of Brian Schottenheimer for what was said in a team news release to be “philosophical differences.”
Carroll declined to say what those specifically were. But the easy assumption is that Schottenheimer wasn’t totally on board with Carroll saying after the season that “we have to run the ball better. Not even better, we have to run it more.”
Maybe Carroll just wanted change after the Seahawks devolved from Wilson being on pace to set the NFL record for TD passes in the first half to appearing inept in the wild-card loss to the Rams.
In came Waldron, the passing game coordinator with the Los Angeles Rams, with the idea he will bring significant elements of the Sean McVay offense, which is known for its use of play-action, presnap motion, use of running backs in the passing game and receivers in the running game, and running many plays out of the same formations.
The Rams, for instance, used play action on 35% of plays last season, according to Football Outsiders, the sixth-highest percentage in the NFL. The Seahawks used play action on 27% of snaps, 15th.
Wilson has always been particularly good on play-action plays, last year leading the NFL with a 74.3% completion percentage on such plays, compared to 68.8% overall.
The hope is that a more diversified offense will allow for more answers when defenses enact a strategy that Carroll said helped lead to the offensive downturn last year – playing a two-deep zone designed to take away Seattle’s deep passing attack.
But the biggest change could be Seattle using more up-tempo offense – not necessarily no-huddle.
The Seahawks ran a play every 30.22 seconds last year, according to Football Outsiders, 22nd in the NFL (the Rams weren’t much different at 29.80, 12th).
But will the Seahawks suddenly become an NFL version of Chip Kelly’s old “blur” offense at Oregon?
“I don’t think it will be the base of our offense,” backup quarterback Geno Smith said. “But we will see.”
Managing freedom and balance
The talk of a faster tempo excites Seahawks fans who recall the many times Wilson has led successful 2-minute drives, or frantic comebacks when Seattle has had to move fast.
Going fast can catch defenses off guard and also tire them out, because substitutions can’t be made.
Conversely, a three-and-out taking, say, 18 seconds off the clock runs anathema to much of what Carroll preaches about ball control and wearing down opponents with a punishing ground game.
One reason Wilson likes it is because it allows him greater freedom to make play calls at the line of scrimmage. Wilson talked glowingly of having more freedom in this offense following the team’s mock game Aug. 8 – the only game-like action Wilson got in the preseason.
“I think the emphasis of being able to do it all the time, all throughout the game is the key,” Wilson said. “I think it’s a little bit different in that sense.”
Wilson did say in the offseason he wanted more say in team decisions.
Maybe the Seahawks aren’t calling in Wilson to watch film of every prospective draftee. But by giving him an even larger hand in running the offense on the field, they certainly appear to be giving Wilson greater responsibility.
Still, the question is whether that will clash with Carroll’s stated desire to run the ball more.
By any metric – advanced or conventional – the Seahawks were one of the pass-heavy teams in the NFL last season. To cite one stat, in “neutral rate” situations (plays when the down and distance aren’t dictating a pass or a run) – Seattle threw 61.4% of the time, fourth highest in the NFL.
And to cite a conventional stat, Wilson’s 558 attempts were the most of his career.
Early in training camp, Carroll gave an expansive answer to clarify that balance isn’t really a number. Instead, it’s something he knows when he sees and feels it.
“We always want a balanced offense,” he said. “An explosive, balanced offense. That’s so we can run the ball when we need to. I’ve said it other ways at times, but we’ve always been that way. It goes all the way back to the Trojans. We did the same exact principle to be a balanced football team so that we can sustain throughout all the rigors and the challenges no matter what they are, and that’s something we need.
“We have featured Russell on the move and off the play actions and that’s why it’s so important to have the balance in the running game. That’s what we’re seeking. That does not mean it’s going to be 50-50, I never thought that. I don’t ever talk that way. But the balance to me is the ability and commitment to it so when you need it, it’s there so you can win games in the fourth quarter running the football and doing the things you want to do in the style that we want to win with.”
An aging team
Adding to the urgency is that the Seahawks are not a young, or new, team.
Whatever disappointment fans may have felt about the way last season ended, the Seahawks showed faith in the roster by pretty much bringing it back intact.
Of the 22 listed position starters in the wild-card loss to the Rams, 18 are back this year. That includes 10 of 11 on offense where the only change is Gabe Jackson replacing Mike Iupati at left guard (assuming Will Dissly starts at tight end).
When the Seahawks won the Super Bowl in 2013 they did so with what was the second-youngest team in the NFL, and the second-youngest team to win it all by average age. That team had just two starters who were 30 or older, one of whom was part-time offensive line starter Paul McQuistan and the other, defensive end Chris Clemons.
Due to turn 33 in November, Wilson is now older than any player who started on that team.
Seattle’s current listed starting lineup on its official depth chart includes six players 30 or older. That includes the team’s top three costliest players – Wilson, 31-year-old middle linebacker Bobby Wagner and 36-year-old left tackle Duane Brown.
Those three players account for a combined salary cap hit of $63.2 million, more than a third of Seattle’s current $176 million cap spending.
The Seahawks played hardball with Brown and despite his “hold in” did not give him an extension beyond 2021, content to let him play out the final year of his deal and negotiate after the season. But that leaves a key offensive position uncertain beyond this season.
Seattle could also have a decision next year about the future of Wagner, one of the greatest players in team history but whose $17.1 million cap hit this year increases to $20.3 million next year with no guaranteed money.
But those are discussions for another day.
For now, there’s a season to be played, and the success or failure of it will go a long way toward determining just how hard the decisions after this season might be.”
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