Since his arrival on the scene heading into the 2005 season, Tim Ruskell has seemingly done everything right.
Orchestrating his maiden draft as the Seahawks GM, Ruskell (Karl Rove’s identical cousin), came under fire for trading up to obtain a slight and “slow” linebacker from USC, named Lofa Tatupu. Obviously, the move was delightful from a strict personnel standpoint, as Lofa went on to play in the Pro-Bowl in his rookie season.
Even more delightful, at least to me personally, was how that move in particular exposed the snake-oil industry that is “NFL Draft Experts/Analysis”. I get an unhealthy, erotic murmur in my loins when anything proves Mel Kiper, and others of his ilk, to be more wrong than Michael Jackson’s subscription to Playground magazine.
The balance of the players selected in that draft all went on to become major contributors, be signed elsewhere, or have their careers cut short by an injury or circumstance.
2006 saw more of the same from Ruskell, as he netted the Seahawks three starters in the first three rounds.
For the first time, in a long time, the Seahawks appear to have a football wizard manning the personnel department. Bringing in names like Tatupu, Spencer, Hill, Jennings, Sims, Tapp, Plackemeier, etc. in only two seasons.
Gathering such pieces through a combination of the draft and free agency would be phenomenal. But to garner players of that magnitude, utilizing only the draft, is simply amazing.
While April 2005 was the first time Seattle fans truly got to witness and/or realize Ruskell’s understanding of the game, he quickly proved equally adept in free-agency.
Utilizing the confident patience of a sniper and brilliant timing of a Seinfeld, Ruskell’s free agent acquisitions and trades are the difference in vaulting Seattle to a soft pretender to a bona-fide contender.
While names like Joe Jurevicius and Chartric Darby, can easily be identified as difference makers during Ruskell’s first foray into free agency, starters and regular contributors only tell part of the story.
More important was Ruskell’s seemingly non-stop churning of the practice players, 3rd and 4th string no-names, that set a tone of competitive toughness and helped reverse a culture of unspent potential.
While the usual suspects were out spending money on every big name under the sun, collecting love and adoration from their fans and pundits, Ruskell confidently continued his due diligence.
Despite the temptation for instant gratification, especially for a first year GM, Ruskell remained true to his own ideals. Brilliantly collecting unheralded, competitive people to populate the Seahawks roster.
At the end of his first full season as GM, it appeared that Ruskell could no wrong. He became the face of a franchise’s long overdue ascenst into legitimacy. He quickly endeared himself to any knowledgeable NFL fan. He did this by approaching his position without fanfare and by adhering to a method that honored instincts and character over the all too familiar shortcomings of high-priced free agents/trades.
The future was brighter than Marsellus Wallace’s suitcase. I was first in line to accept every transaction Ruskell made, every NFL cliché he spewed, and gladly gulp any Kool-aid he passed my way.
Then, the Steve Hutchinson poison-pill incident occurred.
The initial sign of concern isn’t the fact Ruskell failed to place the Franchise Tag on Hutchinson. Nor was it the fact that being a NFL GM, he should be aware of a potential misdealing, like a poison pill.
From a purely business perspective, Ruskell and the Seahawks played their hand right. No one knew what type of offer a player of Hutchinson’s unique skills would demand on the open market.
So with that, the Hawks were left with two choices: use the Franchise Tag on Hutchinson, which means the Seahawks are competing/negotiating against themselves or use the Transition Tag on Hutchinson and allow the market to set his price, matching any offer. Option “B” was the right choice.
The only action that bothered me about the Hutchinson saga was Ruskell’s reaction. Through no fault of his own, I had envisioned Ruskell through his actions during his first year.
Judging by the character of the players he signed, his reluctance to cling to prima donna types already dotting the Seahawks roster, and his avoidance of ESPN’s anointed “Top Free Agents” I would’ve never had imagined he’d willingly stoop to the level of the Vikings and Hutchinson’s representation. And let’s not kid ourselves, the signing of Nate Burleson had a lot to do with a retaliatory urination upon the shoes of the Vikings. Burleson, himself, was mere gravy.
But, my pious view of Ruskell based on his first foray into free agency, isn’t necessarily fair or accurate. I’m holding a human to an eclectic and divine standard I hold NFL GM’s to within my own soiled mind.
Understanding that, I forgave that odd exchange between Ruskell and the Vikings. I was once again willing and accepting of any moves and trades Ruskell would make. While the Vikings episode had left a bitter taste in my mouth, I wasn’t about to put down the Kool-aid altogether.
Being so blinded by allegiance and fandom, it took me near the beginning of the start of the 2006 season before I realized another alarming trend with Ruskell.
I was then, and still am, as overjoyed as anyone else by Ruskell’s aggressive march into the 2006 Free Agency market. Julian Peterson is the type of player that can revolutionize a defense, defensive philosophies, and defensive personnel for not only his team, but also the league. I was heartbroken over the near miss that was John Abraham in a Seattle Seahawks uniform.
After my emotions of neurotic homerism had passed however, I noticed that Ruskell and the Seahawks were breaking an NFL ideology I subscribe to. That ideology being, you don’t build defenses through free agency
Further more, Linebackers and Defensive Linemen in general, have a crippling high bust rate, once they venture into the free agency marketplace. I don’t have the exact numbers, nor will I look them up at this time, it’s just something I’ve noticed.
For every Reggie White there’s three or more Hugh Douglases. Name me a successful free agent linebacker, one whose productivity didn’t decrease, and I’ll gladly raise you a handful of Jeremiah Trotters.
It’s just the way the business works. The thing Mike Holmgren learned quickly in Seattle. That being, you don’t build defenses through free agency - you build them through drafts.
And to Ruskell’s credit, the core strength of the Seattle Seahawks defense has a lot to do with his drafts. But, again, it just seemed uncharacteristic of the philosophy used in year
A philosophy that gave us Kelly Herndon and Andre Dyson at half the cost of one Ken Lucas. A philosophy that quickly disposed of Anthony Simmons and Rashad Moore, even though they were acknowledged as the most “talented” players at their respective positions. Not a philosophy that reaches for alto familiar big name, quick fixes.
That off-season Ruskell acted more like Bob Whitsitt than his mentor Rich McKay.
Even with that, I found myself diving into the pool of Ruskell faith. He knows better than me. He was integral in catapulting my beloved birds of prey into the ranks of legitimacy. The Kool-aid he poured still tasted and quenched delectably. I convinced myself that the eager free agent acquisitions of the ’06 off-season were just a solitary bout of aggressiveness, and not the symptom of a larger issue.
Then, the Deion Branch deal happened.
When the swapping of a first round pick for Branch initially occurred, I fell right in line with most of the fan base. The move appeared a coup, further strengthening the Seahawks dominant unit.
I shrugged off the first rounder stereotypical of any person born of the MTV generation; that debt of a first rounder was too far into the future to even be concerned with. It was an insignificant price to pay for the services of a Super Bowl MVP like Branch. Ruskell was back into my pious graces.
Then, the season started, and my view of the trade began to morph into more uncertainty. It wasn’t the play of Branch that caused my concern. It was the play of the New England Patriots receivers still on the roster that did.
Tom Brady and the Patriots seemingly didn’t miss a beat. Sure, they struggled a bit early in the season, but about the midway point Brady at the Patriots offense regained its dominant form. Branch had been easily replaced with names like: Troy Brown, Reche Caldwell and Doug Gabriel. Or to put it another way: a has-been, never-has-been, and a who-is-that?
It became abundantly clear that a New England WR should be placed in the same category a Denver Bronco RB or Pittsburgh Steeler LB reside. All players within that category may be talented, but more likely they’re the product of a system. In the case of New England Patriot WR’s, not as much of a system as it is Brady himself.
Obviously this is hindsight, and hindsight’s always 20-20. But, I’m not a NFL GM, such missteps in judgment are to be expected. After all, I’m just a fan with an outlet.
But Ruskell should’ve known better. He should’ve been able to tell that while Branch is a nice player, the price was just too high. It’s especially high for a receiver that has the benefit of playing with one of the greatest QBs of all time. Hell, it’s even high for a player like Steve Smith, Larry Fitzgerald, or Santana Moss.
Again, Ruskell should’ve known better.
As 2006 pushed on, seemingly absent were the weekly addition of practice or 3rd and 4th stringers. There were no Rodney Baileys added. No Jimmy Williams making plays. There was little or no change, outside of changes deemed necessary due to injuries.
Despite my concerns, the 2006 season was a successful one. The team demonstrated the internal fortitude of soldiers, fighting on through every adversity laid at their feet.
No more cornerbacks? No problem.
Shaun Alexander injured? Who cares.
Matt Hasselbeck’s out for a month? Fine, Seneca can do the job.
And of course, no one can speak enough about the job Mike Holmgren did in 2006. He coached as if his life was on the line.
Want proof? Go back and review Holmgren on the sideline during the heartbreaking Chicago Bears playoff loss. I for one can never remember Holmgren showing that much frustrated emotion. He wanted that win more than he’s ever wanted another.
All of the above adversity and effort speaks well for our Seahawks heading into the 2007 season. That is of course, as long as the man calling the shots, Ruskell, recaptures the identity of 2005.
However, the signs look bleak.
You can’t put a price on loyalty and a creating culture of rewarding men that have been through the fire with you. Yet, Ruskell is.
Injuries, aloofness, silent discontent and age are all said to factor into the Seahawks’ desire to trade Darryl Jackson. None of which are enough to trade the original “face” of Holmgren’s Seahawks, in my opinion.
I understand that at the end of the day, the NFL is a business and no player should be immune from the business model. But at a base of $3.25M and a possible bonus prorated at $1.3M, when players like Donte Stallworth are nabbing similar in free agency, I don’t see it as a purely business decision.
Ruskell just wants Jackson out, for whatever reason. It’s been evident since the end of the 2005 season. The Seahawks were seemingly involved in trade talks for every available receiver since that season. Yet, pushing Jackson out flies in the face of Ruskell’s successful philosophy of 2005, creating competition throughout the roster.
Another move that seems to defy Ruskell’s own logic, the move that pushed me towards publishing this babble, was the failure to resign one Ken Hamlin.
More than any other Seahawks defender, arguably more than any other player on the team, Hamlin is the face of the franchise. More than that, Hamlin has a presence that strikes fear and uncertainty into Seahawks opponents.
From his initial pro game, where he decleated and nearly beheaded Donte Stallworth, Hamlin’s presence on the Seahawks was known. Whether it was challenging Brett Favre or flexing after handing the 49ers first shutout in over 20 years, Hamlin proved to be as much “Seahawks” as Paul Allen.
Hamlin’s reward for such presence and identity?
Being abruptly shown the door, forced to sign an embarrassing one-year contract with the embodiment of a nemesis, the Dallas Cowboys.
Sure, some can go on and on about the missed tackles, or blown assignments. Some of which maybe true – but not all of that is Hamlin’s fault. Last year, the secondary as a whole played poorly, despite personnel upgrades. That reeks of coaching, not poor player performance, to me.
Even assuming that the last years consistent breakdowns in the secondary were due to the players, at least partly, Hamlin still possesses an intangible that is rare, toughness.
Intangibles like toughness and swagger, both of which are readily are present in Hamlin, are rare in today’s NFL. Even rarer in defensive backs, considering how pass interference penalties have hogtied the position over the past 25 years.
All good defenses have a dominant, hard-hitting, somewhat imbalanced safety roaming the defensive backfield. Hamlin filled that role, and filled it well. That’s why his absence from the Seahawks roster puzzles and angers me.
Is Ruskell telling us that Ken Hamlin, isn’t worth $2.5M a year for the Seahawks? Wouldn’t he at least be worth signing him for that amount, and letting him compete for the job? Wasn’t competition the building block that lead to a successful 2005 mindset?
My answer’s yes – Ruskell’s is obviously no.
In the end, I haven’t entirely given up hope on Ruskell. I have to remind myself I’m just a hacky fan, and he’s the professional.
The potential move of Jackson and the shunning of Hamlin may very well produce a similar result as cutting of Anthony Simmons and Rashad Moore did. The signing of Burleson may end up being a coup. And whomever the Patriots select with that Seahawks first-rounder, may turn out to be a bust. If all that happens, I’ll gladly eat crow.
But until then, Mr. Ruskell’s in my scope.
Ryan Davis is an armchair GM with a vibrating recliner. Feel free to e-mail him here.