Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee

After hearing that defensive tackle Marcus Tubbs was lost for the season due to a torn right Anterior Cruciate Ligament suffered in the first quarter of the 19-14 preseason win over the Oakland Raiders, coaches, teammates and fans are mourning another hit in the career of this amazing defensive player.

Tubbs underwent a microfracture procedure and months of rehab on his left knee, a process which began in late 2006, which made this newest setback a bitter pill to swallow. For the Seahawks, the concern must be twofold – to surround their fallen teammate with help and prayers, and to move forward with a season that begins on Sunday, September 9.

The $64 million questions are: Why will Tubbs' loss be so keenly felt, and how can the Seahawks overcome it?

The Closer

From a purely statistical standpoint, there are few NFL defensive tackles – especially nose tackles in either 3-4 or 4-3 defenses - who show more difference made than Tubbs. The nose tackles typically man the point, while the complementary 3-technique tackles blow through and make plays. In a position where tackles and sacks never tell the whole story, a series of numbers have been circulating for months, ever since Tubbs was lost for the remainder of the 2006 season with his November injured reserve designation: In the 11 regular season games Tubbs missed, Seattle's defense allowed 147 rushing yards per game and 4.8 yards per carry. The five games in which he played showed drastically different numbers - 82 yards per game and 3.9 yards per carry.

Two factors tend to reduce the impact to some who have analyzed these numbers – small sample size (how can you really rate the effectiveness of a variable based on five games versus 11?), and the different circumstances under which rushing attempts happen (were these rushing yards coming about due to opposing teams hogging the clock and adding yards based on garbage time – after all, the Seahawks went 5-6 without Tubbs in the lineup?)

These questions can be answered to a point by DVOA, Football Outsiders' proprietary statistic, which breaks down every play of the NFL season based on specific situations against the league average including opponent strength, down and distance, and many other things. Basically, it assigns importance to play-by-play data at a forensic level.

For the 2006 Seattle defense, the per-game run defense DVOA tells its own story, reduces the presence of garbage-time situations, and assigns perspective importance on conditions that help teams win or lose. Keep in mind that Defensive DVOA is always better when it is a negative number.

Based on a per-game average (and adjusted for Seattle's season-long defensive effectiveness), the Seahawks put together an aggregate defensive run DVOA of -14.04% with Tubbs (a total that would have ranked seventh in the league, prorated over a whole season), and +4.9% without (which would have ranked 24th). Opposing rushing attacks averaged a -22.7% DVOA with Tubbs (which would have ranked 31st over a full season), and -0.5% without (good enough for 13th).

The Seahawks with and without Tubbs faced two of their division opponents one time each. In Week 2, Arizona gained 65 yards rushing on 18 attempts against Tubbs, and 113 yards on 33 carries in a Week 14 contest without Tubbs in the lineup. The Rams rushed for 59 yards on 22 carries against Tubbs in Week 6, and 108 yards on 20 carries in We ek 10 without.

There will be a more specific analysis of these numbers on Football Outsiders in the near future. Aggregate DVOA is a very inexact method because DVOA itself can swing wildly from week to week, but the averages are enough.

Actually, if you're a Seahawks fan, they're quite a bit more than enough.

The Replacement Killers

Now that we know that the Seahawks are severely impacted without Tubbs in the lineup, we have to ask how the issue can be corrected. Last season, Seattle had a Tubbs-less defensive line rotation of too-small nose tackles and misplaced 3-technique linemen. They either got overwhelmed against the offensive line push as their size proved inadequate for the task at hand, or their penetrative abilities didn't do the job when what was needed was a stout man to stand the point and soak up blockers.

The domino effect was harsh and immediate. With no wall at the line, Seattle's linebackers, directed to shoot gaps and disrupt, found themselves hung up in traffic all too often. The carpool lanes for opposing running backs were the cutback routes – any back worth his salt who had time to make one move was running through ether. Seattle's overall defensive run DVOA plummeted from third in 2005 to 23rd in 2006, their defensive Adjusted Line Yards from first to 10th.

One pre-emptive measure against the sort of falloff that plagued this Tubbs-less team was the selection of Cal defensive tackle Brandon Mebane in the third round of the 2007 Draft. Mebane weighed 309 at the Combine, had a stellar Senior Bowl week, and appeared to be just the kind of insurance policy the Seahawks needed. His stellar performances through training camp and the preseason have validated Seattle's hope. Mebane plays with great leverage and pursuit - he's probably a better pursuer than Tubbs – but it's that very disruption that could get in his way as a "Tubbstitute" if he moves through or around double teams instead of occupying them.

One analyst who has been in Mebane's corner for a long time is NFLDraftScout.com Senior Draft Analyst Rob Rang. When asked about Mebane's ability to take over this most important role from an understudy position. Rang was fairly definite about the idea.

"Mebane's play thus far has been a pleasant surprise," Rang said. "His ability to clog running lanes while at Cal was the primary reason for his being selected (by Seattle). Mebane has very good strength at the point of attack and plays with great leverage, making him tough to move off the line. If used in a rotation, he should be able to fill a similar role to the one Tubbs has filled in the past.

"The surprising aspect about Mebane's play has been his ability to collapse the pocket. In this capacity Mebane has actually been an improvement over Tubbs. While at Cal Mebane was coached to occupy blockers, allowing the defenders around him to make plays behind the line of scrimmage. He has great quickness off the snap, but wasn't coached to use his hands to disengage and attack. Over the past few months, the Seahawks' coaching staff has done a great job in realizing Mebane's untapped potential. He's already demonstrating the ability to be a more consistent disruptor  than he was at Cal."

Rang also noted the importance of others on the defense stepping up and making things happen. "The addition of safeties Brian Russell and Deon Grant is also significant," he said. "Russell's cerebral, consistent play should provide an influence to the Seattle secondary similar to the one Marquand Manuel had two years ago. Similarly, Deon Grant is a very reliable open field tackler and flashes the big hitting ability that characterized Ken Hamlin's early days."

"Clearly the Seahawks are a lesser team in losing Marcus Tubbs for the season," Rang said. "Because his healthy return was far from guaranteed, however, the team was forced to plan for his absence. The addition of Mebane, Russell and Grant eases the team's concerns."

In addition, Seattle's linebackers will most likely serve different functions this year. Leroy Hill, who was often directed to cover the pass in 2006 against his most obvious abilities, will return to a more forward, blitzing, run-stopping role. For Lofa Tatupu, the gifted third-year man in the middle, the necessity to display his in-game acumen at all times will be more important than ever.

The Seahawks will have to do what any potential championship team does – find a way to win under adverse circumstances. The last team to sail through the entire NFL season untouched by fickle fate was a virtual one, created in Madden Franchise Mode, and most likely on the "Rookie" setting. Remember that the 1972 Miami Dolphins, the only undefeated team in NFL history, didn't have their starting quarterback for half the season.

Ah, those damned injuries…

Future Shock

For Marcus Tubbs, 26-year-old professional defensive tackle, it's all about the sum total of a professional life. With his inability to play this year, Tubbs will have played in only 29 of a possible 64 regular-season games when 2007 ends. His rookie contract, signed in August of 2004, expires after next season. The final question is – will he even be around the team to enjoy it? Between a microfracture procedure and a blown ACL, how many defensive tackles can do more than play with their kids on two repaired knees?

Will Carroll, sports injury expert for Baseball Prospectus, Football Outsiders, and SI.com, says that it's really dependent on how much "faith in Richard Steadman's controversial (microfracture) technique - one that seems to get great results or, at worst, does nothing."

In short, the arthroscopic procedure involves the removal of any unstable cartilage from the knee area, and the creation of small holes ("microfractures") in the bone. Bone Marrow cells and blood from the area will then form a new structure – at least, that's the idea. The problem, of course, is whether the extension of a career this violent through these means is the rough equivalent of trying to stop a charging rhino with a toy pistol. According to Carroll, the ACL repair procedure has more documented reliability in these types of cases, and the two injuries should not necessarily be seen as cumulative.

"The ACL, as we've seen, doesn't really factor in, especially for linemen. I think what we have to look at is that we've seen comebacks from both (injuries, though most microfracture "survivors" have not been linemen) and consider them separately rather than as most people logically do -- as parts of the same person," Carroll concluded. "I'm more worried about the weight and the microfracture - there's just no good comparable. From the ACL, we've seen a lot of (recoveries), usually without short-term problems. I'd think the biggest concern is that he can come back from the microfracture, something he's already demonstrated to some extent, and that his career is not likely to challenge Chris Gray's for longevity!"

For the Seahawks, the concern is the here and now, For Marcus Tubbs, it's the future on his mind. How that impossible gap is bridged over time will decide the fates of both entities.


Doug Farrar is the Editor-in-Chief of Seahawks.NET, a staff writer for Football Outsiders, and a contributing author to Pro Football Prospectus 2007. Feel free to e-mail him here.

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