The Seattle Seahawks must stop ignoring the obvious problem on their offensive line that kept Russell Wilson under siege early in the season, instead of focusing on other areas.
The Seahawks aren’t going to recede into irrelevance any time soon, which is the solace to be gained from Sunday’s playoff loss.
But the very fact they have such a strong, young core returning makes it even more important for them to shore up their primary weakness. Little mystery about that. It’s an offensive line that killed the Seahawks early in the season and then was exploited big time in their NFC divisional playoff defeat against the Carolina Panthers.
Unless you’re the New England Patriots, the window of opportunity in the NFL can close awfully fast. The Seahawks need to maximize the privileged time they have now with a dynamic young quarterback and the nucleus of a dominant defense.
The Mariners haven’t been able to do it with Felix Hernandez and Robinson Cano, and now Felix is going to reach 30 years old in April without a single playoff game on his résumé.
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The Seahawks have four consecutive playoff appearances, two Super Bowls and one title. But the NFL is littered with teams that looked like they were positioned for the long haul only to flame out before their time. The best strategy is to be ever mindful of the big picture, but hone in zealously on the here and now.
All you had to do was listen to Pete Carroll’s exit interview with the media Monday to realize that the offensive line will rightly be a huge priority in the offseason.
“I don’t think we’ve nailed it yet,” Carroll said. “I think this needs to be a really competitive spot again, and we’re going to work really hard to build it up. For the course of the season, we weren’t consistent enough.
“We found a real good rhythm, but we can’t start and go through that again. We don’t want to have to experience that if we can avoid it. I think that’s a real area of focus again.”
That’s about as strong a condemnation as the perpetually positive Carroll ever gives.
Let’s face it, the Seahawks have made the offensive line a relatively low priority over the years, and it’s been a successful formula. They’ve relied on Tom Cable to be a coaching MacGyver, jerry-rigging a cohesive unit from whatever he’s handed. That’s included converted defensive linemen like J.R. Sweezy and Drew Nowak, a former tight end like Gary Gilliam, or a former tackle playing guard like Justin Britt.
To be fair, it must be pointed out that the Seahawks set a team record this year for yards per game (378.6), while their 26.4 points per game trails only the 2005 team in Seahawks history. They were fourth in the NFL in total yards per game and third in rushing yards (141.8 per game).
But that obscures the fact the unit was a major problem in the first seven games, when Russell Wilson was sacked a league-high 31 times. That was the primary reason the Seahawks switched to a quick passing game in which Wilson thrived, finishing the regular season with 24 touchdowns and just one interception over his final seven games.
Cable deserves praise for the juggling he did along the way to improve the line. But it still came back to bite them, both in the late defeat against the St. Louis Rams, and especially the Panthers game. On both of Wilson’s devastating first-half interceptions, he was under siege by Carolina rushers. The first one, a pick-six by Luke Kuechly, came after defensive tackle Kawann Short beat Britt, and the second resulted from a hit by defensive end Mario Addison, who had slipped past left tackle Russell Okung.
Okung, whose performance has declined because of injuries, is an unrestricted free agent. So is Sweezy at guard and backup center Lemuel Jeanpierre. Center Patrick Lewis and Gilliam at tackle are restricted free agents.
It’s conceivable Seattle will have an almost completely revamped offensive line next year, with just guard Mark Glowinski, center Kristjan Sokoli (another converted defensive lineman) and disappointing Alvin Bailey already on hand as potential replacements.
With the restrictions of the salary cap, teams have to make a choice about their financial priorities. The Seahawks have opted, quite successfully, to sink most of their payroll into maintaining a very expensive defense. They traded solid center Max Unger to get a flashy tight end, Jimmy Graham. And they prioritized running back Marshawn Lynch, theorizing that Wilson and Lynch could make up for a lot of mistakes by the offensive line.
This season showed again that maybe they can, but it also showed, with Thomas Rawls, that the Seahawks could have a successful running back without paying him $12 million a year.
The likely departure of Lynch will clear up salary-cap space, and the Seahawks have various other personnel choices to make that could add to their disposable income to sign some free agents. They own the 26th pick in the NFL draft, and have been quite crafty in finding impact players in the later rounds and through undrafted free agents.
It’s time for the Seahawks to make the O-line their priority, not an afterthought.