The Great "What If..."

With so much change happening in Seahawkland over the last few months, there are enough "What if?" scenarios to give the most adept thinker an Excedrin headache. Seahawks.NET's Greg Renick leans toward the positive and asks the following: "What if it all came true?"

WHAT IF...

... DE Grant Wistrom stays healthy and provides the edge-rushing presence the Seahawks’ defense so desperately needs?  Wistrom only played in 9 games last season, and the defense was noticeably better with him in the line up.  He not only has a high-energy motor that occupies opposing teams ’ace' tackles (normally the left tackle with right handed QB's), but he also is very good at dropping back into disguised zone coverage to disrupt the passing lanes with his 6'4" frame and long wingspan.  Prior to 2004, the fewest games he played in was thirteen in his rookie season in St. Louis -- so hopefully his injury-marred inaugural campaign in Seattle was an anomaly.  Something tells me that Wistrom will have a fire in the pit of his stomach to validate the $14 million signing bonus he received.  Wistrom will never be a high sack-total guy, but his relentless pursuit of  "quarterback flank steak" draws the attention of an offensive line -- and opens up angles and gaps for the other defenders.

WHAT IF...

the presence of LT Walter Jones in training camp allows the offense to gel earlier?  It's no secret that the Seahawks usually tiptoe out of the gate offensively at the beginning of the season, and how much of that is attributable to the fragmented line situation during camp?  This will be Jones' first camp since 2001.  Having big #71 in Cheney allows the whole line to start playing together right away, instead of waiting until the first weeks of the regular season to find their footing.  As long as someone tells Jones how to find the camp, I think his presence will help considerably.  It also spares the versatile Pork Chop Womack from having to cover the left tackle position during camp, allowing him to concentrate on fighting for a starting job at RG or RT.  Jones will also assume an on-site mentorship role for rookies  C Chris Spencer and OT Ray Willis, who can watch him ply his trade on the field instead of having to read about it in the history books.  With Jones in place throughout camp, the Seahawks will be better prepared for a tough task to start the regular season -- a road game at Jacksonville to tangle with the Jaguars’ feisty defense, ranked #11 in the league last season. 

WHAT IF...

...previous #1 draft picks realize their potential?  WR Koren Robinson, TE Jerramy Stevens and DT Marcus Tubbs have not played like first-round picks.  It's a bit premature to assess Tubbs, who only played in eleven games and had family issues (the passing of his mother) weighing him down.  But the court of public opinion is in session on Robinson and Stevens.  Robinson's 2004 was one he'd like to forget -- only 31 catches and 495 yards -- and he only played in ten games due to a league suspension for substance abuse, as well as individual discipline from head coach Mike Holmgren -- his most ardent supporter.  The Seahawks’ offense needs a viable playmaking threat to open up the seams of defenses, but he has not filled that task.  Robinson has not had a reception of 40+ yards since the 2002 season, and has NEVER had more than one touchdown catch in a game.  Simply put, that is not "#1 WR" production.  Meanwhile, Stevens shows improvement (setting career highs in receptions and yards), but he has yet to justify being a top draft pick.  He has the physical presence (6'7", 250 pounds) and the soft hands to wreak havoc in the red zone.

WHAT IF...

...defensive coordinator Ray Rhodes trusts the bodies he puts on the field to fulfill their job tasking?  The soft zone/loose defensive back coverage and habitually ineffective blitzes he employed in 2004 made the defense ripe for the picking.  After a solid start (albeit against questionable offensive teams), the defense progressively sank towards a season-ending #26 ranking.  To be fair, the injuries the unit sustained (mostly to Wistrom and LB's Chad Brown and Anthony Simmons) were a prime catalyst, but Rhodes frustrated the fan base with poor in-game adjustments and a reluctance to tinker with the mechanics of his game plan.  The silver lining was the rapid development of SS Michael Boulware, who emphatically answered the question as to whether he could make the switch from college linebacker to pro safety with 5 interceptions (two game savers, including a touchdown return to seal the Miami game).  Rhodes has the nucleus of one of the top secondaries in the league, with Boulware,  CB Marcus Trufant, FS Ken Hamlin and free agent additions, CB Andre Dyson (Titans) and CB Kelly Herndon (Broncos).  Now he just needs to find a way to help these guys with a consistent, determined pass rush.  The Seahawks defense MUST find a way to collapse the pocket, because all the changes on defense will be for naught if opposing quarterbacks have enough time to steam a latte during pass plays.

WHAT IF...

...head coach Mike Holmgren reinvents himself and breathes some innovation into his playbook?  There's no questioning Holmgren's offensive mind, but he looked criminally stale at times last season.  How many delayed draw plays on 3rd and long did he call?  How many short yardage runs met their demise at the line of scrimmage?  The playbook did not feature many new plays or variations, and in fact it became fairly easy to predict what play would be called based on formation and Holmgren's track record.  The coach needs to do some fine tuning -- nothing drastic, mind you -- just an occasional step off the beaten path.  He also needs to even the score with Rams head coach Mike Martz, who has found a way to eviscerate the Seahawks during the Rams four-game winning streak against Seattle.  Holmgren needs to figure out a way to beat the Rams, as much for the mental lift as the net result in the NFC West standings.

WHAT IF…

...the wide receivers stop dropping so many passes (enough to finish in the top-5 in the league the last two seasons in that notorious category)?  New president Tim Ruskell seems to think it's a problem -- even as the receivers themselves down play the impact the drops have on offensive rhythm -- as he inked veteran "hands" guys WR Joe Jurevicius (Bucs) and WR Jerome Pathon (Saints).  The Seahawks will start training camp with eleven WR's on the roster, and I sense that the dropsies won't be acceptable anymore; comp etition breeds competence.  I credit QB Matt Hasselbeck with keeping his chin held high the last few seasons, when his final statistics could have been so much better without all the butter fingered hot potato shenanigans. Fittingly, the Seahawks season ended with a Hasselbeck pass sailing through WR Bobby Engram's hands.  The Seahawks receivers need to stow the "Aw, shucks, everybody drops passes" attitude and take it personally that the league and media pundits consistently point out how inconsistent they have been.  Were the Seahawks’ receivers listening when Rams WR Torry Holt called them out AGAIN on national TV during the recent draft?  Despite suffering through another spot of the drops last season, WR Darrell Jackson set career highs with 87 catches and 1199 yards.  He also exhibited a level of play commensurate with a #1 wideout in the big road win at Minnesota late in the season (10 catches, 135 yards, a TD days after his father passed away) as well as the playoff game against the Rams (12 catches, 128 yards, TD).

WHAT IF...

...the young MLB's develop into a solid combination?  LB Niko Koutouvides and rookie LB's Lofa Tatupu and Cornelius Wortham will be entrusted to slam shut the long-term revolving door (featuring the likes of George Koonce, Levon Kirk land, Randall Godfrey and Orlando Huff, who is now an Arizona Cardinal).  There were rumors that they even considered Steelers Hall of Famer Jack Lambert for the job, even though he is 54-years old.  Although the "Mike" position is a bit overrated in the scheme Rhodes employs (only because of the number of "pass happy" teams the Seahawks face and consequently, the number of 'passing downs' the nickel defense plays), the Seahawks need a reliable gap plugger to anchor the center of the defense and dominate at the point of attack in run defense.  Veteran free agent pick-up LB Jamie Sharper (Texans) looks to take over the strong side slot vacated by the recently released (and oft-injured) Brown last month, and his veteran leadership should help out the young guys.  Sharper has experience playing on a Super Bowl champion (the 2001 Baltimore Ravens), and you can never have enough of those players on a young defense.  LB D.D. Lewis also returns to the field after missing the entire 2004 season with a shoulder injury, and he will compete with LB Solomon Bates and rookie LB LeRoy Hill (Clemson) for the weak side starting gig.

WHAT IF...

...the special teams unit actually is special?  Last season, they were anything but "special" -- not a single blocked punt, kick, or return touchdown the entire season.  Add to that problems with covering on-side kicks (an issue which led directly to the improbable last minute 43-39 loss to Dallas ) and it's no surprise that the unit has a new maestro,  Bob Casullo.  Casullo will have his special teams gunner back in the mix, WR Alex Bannister, who only played in 7 games last year due to a broken clavicle after going to the Pro Bowl as a special teamer following the 2003 season.  His presence was sorely missed, and Casullo will be lucky to have him back at full strength.  Already, in the first mini-camp just completed, the Seahawks coaching staff is looking to rectify the kick return issue.  Undrafted rookie Marquis Weeks, Pathon and even #2 QB Seneca Wallace all got a look.  Engram averaged 11.8 yards per punt return last season, and RB Maurice Morris managed only 21.1 yards per kick return.  Overall, the Seahawks were #22 in the NFL in kick return average and #22 in punt return average.  The latter -- combined with a ranking of #30 in their own punt yardage -- means the Seahawks offense had a longer field to operate on, while the defense had a shorter patch of territory to defend.  That's not a good combination.  Incumbent P Donnie Jones and veteran free agent acquisition P Leo Araguz will compete with upstart P Ryan Dutton, who is currently booming punts across the Atlantic in NFL Europe. 

WHAT IF...

...the "character" movement enacted by Ruskell bears fruit?  Ruskell will never be accused of being bashful.  He has made wholesale roster changes since taking over for  Bob Whitsitt, who was fired.  The dearly departed include Brown, Simmons, RT Chris Terry and SS Damien Robinson.  While some of those moves surprised the fan base, Ruskell looked at what the team was getting as far as games played (Brown) as well as sidebar issues (Simmons/Terry) and made the hard decisions.  The list of new acquisitions is as long as Mt. Rainier is high, and it features names that are not glossy nor sexy but who will work hard, seamlessly integrate with the existing personalities, and offer up a challenge for playing time.  Jurevicius, Pathon, DE Bryce Fisher (Rams), LB Kevin Bentley (Browns) and DT Chartric "Chuck" Darby (Bucs) all fit the mold of the seed change Ruskell is trying to grow.  There is no statistical model available to measure how heart, desire and team chemistry compares to a collection of individually solid players. 

Overall, of course, the talent level is not the question with the Seahawks.  What has to happen is for that talent to translate into productivity on the field and less drama off of it. 

So...that's not asking a lot, right?  "What if" all of the aforementioned comes to fruition?  Then you might just have yourselves a good football team.  A very, very good football team.  Optimism abounds in the off-season, at least until the first 17-point 4th quarter lead is squandered or the first star player suffers a season ending injury.  But worry about all that in September.

What if the Seahawks finally win that elusive playoff game (gulp)?  Or if the planets align and the franchise earns its first trip to the Super Bowl (gasp)?  There may not be anything left on the slate to complain about.

Greg Renick is a writer for www.talkhawks.com, and his articles are syndicated to Seahawks.NET. Feel free to contact Greg at renickg@nwc.navy.mil.

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