RVB: Lots of "experts" are picking Seattle to win the NFC West. Why is that a more popular pick than Arizona?
DF: As we'll discuss a little later, Seattle dealt with more injuries than just about any team in recent memory. Many of those players are back healthy (though there are a couple of important absentees), and I think that's the primary reason for the positive projection. Second, I think there's a reluctance to take Arizona seriously as anything but a fluke because they played horribly down the stretch in the regular season and caught fire in the playoffs. I'm not of that opinion – I actually think the Cardinals will repeat as NFC West champs for a number of reasons – but the national perception seems to be that the Seahawks are still the best team in a very bad division.
RVB: Seattle's offense suffered an unusually high number of injuries last season – at one point wasn't the entire offensive line made up of backups? – that seems unlikely this season, but Seattle, like recent Rams teams, have some older players at key spots and already dealing with injuries to C Chris Spencer and LT Walter Jones. Has the injury bug already had a negative impact on Seattle's season?
DF: Yes, the entire starting offensive line ended the season on injured reserve. Matt Hasselbeck missed a lot of time, most of the receivers were out for several weeks – it wasn't pretty. Not a great way for Mike Holmgren to go out. Bill Barnwell at Football Outsiders came up with a stat called Adjusted Games Lost, and the 2008 Seahawks had more AGL than any other team going back to 1996, which is where the current data stops. Seattle had 66.3 AGL, and no other team ever broke 60.
Going forward, there are reasons for concern at those key spots. Walter Jones is out, and we're not really sure when he'll be back. He had microfracture surgery in the offseason, which tends to give people pause when thinking about his future. Spencer's never been great at center; the Seahawks have Steve Vallos and rookie Max Unger to evaluate at the center position, and Spencer's in the last year of his contract, so that injury might open up a few things.
RVB: Speaking of Jones and Spencer, how do those injuries impact Hasselbeck's status for the season?
DF: Jones' injury is huge – obviously, he protects Hasselbeck's blind side, and I'm not at all impressed with Sean Locklear as a left tackle. When the Seahawks gave Locklear a five-year, $32 million contract in 2008, they put escalators in for time at left tackle, which tells me that they see him as the future at the position. More telling was the fact that team president Tim Ruskell took a pass on every tackle in the last two draft classes, which were the most stocked in history. I just don't see Locklear as someone who's quick enough off the snap and strong enough to take bull-rushes to be an elite left tackle. Spencer's injury affects the team less – Vallos isn't great, but he's serviceable. Unger's the future at the position, but they're projecting him at right guard to start his career.
RVB: How do the offensive line injuries impact so-so running backs in Jones and James?
DF: So-so is a good way of putting it. The Seahawks are convinced that a running back by committee system is the way to go, but they don't seem to know what kind of backs they want. They signed T.J. Duckett in 2008 because Duckett did well in Atlanta when Ruskell was there, but Holmgren never seemed to know how to use him and the Seahawks actually released him on August 25 AFTER paying him a $2.5 million bonus, which makes little sense. James was acquired to pride veteran presence, pass-blocking, and the ability to spell Jones over the season. Neither back is exceptional at this point – Jones never really has been – and behind a line that's still figuring it out, initial returns aren't optimistic.
RVB: Not to get stuck on the offensive line, but I'm curious as to your thoughts on the change to a zone blocking scheme? Does Seattle have the personnel for that?
DF: Yes, new offensive coordinator Greg Knapp has implemented the zone-blocking scheme he has run for years and really perfected when he worked with Alex Gibbs in Atlanta. Unger's a great fit for the scheme, because he played inside and outside zone at Oregon. If he's healthy, Jones is still agile enough to run anything they want him to run. Locklear will probably benefit for the decreased emphasis on pure power-blocking. I tend to wonder about the stouter guys like Rob Sims and Mansfield Wrotto and how they'll fit in, because my initial impression is that Knapp doesn't want the kind of hybrid power zone you see in Tennessee or Atlanta now – he wants guys who are quick off the ball and can get to their assignments in unison with speed and accuracy. Zone blocking isn't some sort of cure-all, especially with a team that's so used to man schemes, and there isn't the kind of talent on this line that can just flip a switch and make this work. I think it will prove beneficial to the talent deficit over time, but there may be rough spots to start.