In Ruskell We Trust?

NorthwestFootball.net
Posted Oct 23, 2009


NorthwestFootball.net's Editor-in-Chief Brian McIntyre looks at the three key positions Tim Ruskell has ignored during his five drafts as the Seattle Seahawks president/general manager.

At 2-4, Seattle Seahawks quarterback Matt Hasselbeck isn’t ready to throw in the towel on the 2009 season.

“I know that there's a time in a season where a team can pull apart or pull together," Hasselbeck said earlier this week. "After a performance like we had at home, I think people have definitely counted us out. I think there's a lot of negativity around our team. I've heard people that this season is over and we've got no chance. That's ridiculous. That's absolutely ridiculous. I think for us, as a team, this is an opportunity for us to pull together and prove people wrong."

Hasselbeck’s assault on the negativity may have been Rick Pitinoesque, he’s absolutely right. There’s a lot of football still to be played this season, and with a veteran team that is built to win right now, it is premature to give up on them.

However, it’s not too early to wonder if the man who built this franchise is the right guy for the job in 2010 and beyond. 

The Offensive Line

The 2005 offensive line excelled because it had two future Hall of Famers (Walter Jones, Steve Hutchinson) on the left side, two veterans who knew every trick in the book (Robbie Tobeck, Chris Gray) in the middle, and an emerging stud at right tackle (Sean Locklear). Having Pro Bowlers at quarterback (Hasselbeck), running back (Shaun Alexander) and fullback (Mack Strong) helped the line play, as did solid blockers at tight end (Ryan Hannam) and wide receiver (Joe Jurevicius), along with a Hall of Fame offensive mind (Mike Holmgren) calling the plays.

As much as the 12th Man wants to roll back the clock to that great offensive line—and it was one of the league’s best—the truth of the matter is that no matter how good it was, it was equally as unsustainable.

If a lack of continuity is the number one threat to an offensive line, age is a close second. While Ruskell may have royally messed up by not franchising Steve Hutchinson (though not completely his fault, it was ultimately his responsibility) there was nothing he or anyone could have done to prevent Jones from turning 32 during the 2005 NFL Playoffs, or Tobeck and Gray from turning 36 shortly thereafter.

New pieces were needed for the line, and to Ruskell’s credit, he recognized that before the 2005 season began..

His very first selection as general manager of the Seahawks was used on center Chris Spencer, who has yet to live up to the “Future Pro Bowler” expectations many scouts and personnel execs had of him. On the second day of that ‘05 draft, Ruskell took Ray Willis in the 4th round (105th overall) and Doug Nienhuis in the 7th round (254th overall). In 2006 he added Rob Sims, with Mansfield Wrotto and Steve Vallos coming aboard in 2007. After skipping the line in 2008, he traded back into the second-round this year to snag Max Unger.

Seven linemen have been chosen in his drafts (NFL average during that span: 6.8), and six of those seven are still with the team, which I suppose is a win.

However, there’s one glaring problem with this list: Of the six that are still with the team, Willis is the only draft pick who’s capable of playing offensive tackle at the NFL level, and even then he’s limited to the right side only and may be best-suited to play guard.

Over the last four years, a span covering 28 draft choices, not once has the Ruskell administration felt the need to bolster the tackle position though the draft. Instead, the “plan” for the post-Jones Era at left tackle was to slide Locklear (who received a 5-year, $32M extension before last season) over to that side and plug Ray Willis (or whichever street free agent happens to be on the roster at the time) in at right tackle, with no resources devoted to tackle depth should one or both of those players get hurt, which both have.

It’s been nearly a full year since Jones last played, and we’ve gotten a 10-game preview of the “Locklear or Bust” plan this front office has for the second-most important position on the field. Would it surprise you to learn that since last Thanksgiving, Kyle Williams (231) and Brandon Frye (199) have logged more snaps at left tackle than Locklear (198) has?

There’s a misconception that elite tackles can play deep into their thirties. While some tackles have continued to play at a high level as they approach or pass 35, most tackles begin their descent once they hit 32-33 years old. You can count on one hand the number of tackles who hit 35 and continued to play at a high level over the course of a full season. The human body can only take so much punishment, and presumably those tackles who continued into their late 30s can, unlike Jones, take anti-inflammatory medications.

That Jones continued to play at a high level from 2006 right up until last Thanksgiving is a testament to just how great and rare a player he is and has been, but there’s always been an expiration date on Walter Jones: Elite Left Tackle and the front office has seemingly ignored it.

Meanwhile, just 9 of the 32 projected starters at left tackle entering the 2009 season were over the age of 30 (including Minnesota’s Bryant McKinnie, who turned 30 in September) and at 35, Jones would've been the oldest. Among those nine teams that entered the season with an over-30 starter at left tackle, five teams selected an offensive tackle prospect in the first or second round of the last three drafts, which has produced a staggering 23 starting tackles. Overall, 43 of the 64 projected starters at offensive tackle entering this season had entered the NFL within the last five years, and that list does not include 2009 sixth overall pick Andre Smith, who’ll start at right tackle at some point this season, or second-round tackles Sebastian Vollmer, who’ll make his second start at left tackle for the New England Patriots in London this Sunday, and Will Beatty, who could start at right tackle for the New York Giants against the Arizona Cardinals.

Ruskell’s approach to the offensive tackle position, perhaps even more so than allowing Hutchinson to poison pill his way out of Seattle, has been the main reason why the Seahawks’ offensive line has crumbled. This willful neglect has led to Mike Solari—who has done an outstanding job considering the materials he’s had to work with—needing to use 17 different offensive line combinations in their last 22 games, which has resulted in a 6-16 record and an abysmal running game.

Running Back

Since 2005, Seattle has drafted one running back, 2008 seventh-rounder Justin Forsett, and two fullbacks in the fifth-round, David Kirtman (2006) and Owen Schmitt (2008).

Instead, Ruskell has opted to guarantee nearly $25 million dollars in re-signing Shaun Alexander, along with veteran free agents Julius Jones, T.J. Duckett, and Edgerrin James, who have combined for 2,881 yards, 21 touchdowns, and 3.6 yards per carry over the last four seasons. It hasn’t been all bad, as Maurice Morris was re-signed to a modest three-year deal after Super Bowl XL. Morris was Seattle’s most-consistent runner during those three seasons, rushing for 1,806 yards and 4 touchdowns on 4.2 yards per carry as a back-up to Alexander and Jones.

Re-signing Alexander after his MVP season may have been popular with a segment of the 12th Man, but big-money contracts in the NFL are not rewards, they're down payments on future production. (Which is why the suggestion of a rookie salary scale, in addition to the one that already exists, is ludicrous). Guaranteeing Alexander $15.1 million dollars after the kind of workload he had been subjected to, and so close to his 30th birthday, wasn’t the most prudent of business or football decisions and few were surprised that after getting the large contract, Alexander’s production slipped dramatically.

Seattle’s running game has gone from 3rd in the NFL in 2005, to 14th (2006), to 20th (2007), where it plateaued at 19th (2008), but this year it at 26th through six weeks. No indication has been given that the regime who helped break it, is even remotely capable of fixing it.

Safety

Ruskell arrived in Year 2 of the Michael Boulware experiment, which also saw the team’s top safety, Ken Hamlin, had his season prematurely ended for him outside a Pioneer Square nightclub. Neither player would last beyond the 2006 season, with Boulware shipped to Houston for the legendary Jason Babin.

Despite Ruskell’s emphasis on building the defense from the front-seven out, he’s worked in front offices that rarely ever went an entire draft without picking up a corner or safety. He’s been in war rooms that have picked Hall of Fame candidates John Lynch and Ronde Barber, as well as Super Bowl MVP Dexter Jackson and longtime Buccaneers safety Jermaine Phillips, all of whom were mid-to-late round picks.

So it’s rather surprising that he’s only drafted three defensive backs in the last five years, including just one safety (2009 seventh-rounder Courtney Greene), who wasn’t even brought back to the practice squad.

Ruskell hasn’t ignored the safety position, he just prefers they come with a fair amount of seasoning. Veterans Marquand Manuel and special teamer John Howell were added in 2005, and in 2006, he traded Seattle’s sixth-round pick (200th overall) that year to the Chicago Bears for veteran Mike Green. (Indianapolis Colts safety Antoine Bethea was the 207th overall pick in 2006 and went to the Pro Bowl in ‘07)

In 2007, Deon Grant (6-years, $31.8M) and Brian Russell (5-years, $13.5M) were signed to solidify the back-end of a porous secondary, and Jordan Babineaux was signed to a five-year extension and is now the starting free safety. Undrafted free agents C.J. Wallace (2007) and Jamar Adams (2008) have lingered on the practice squad and special teams units, but there’s really no telling what, if any, future they have in the secondary as 36-year old Lawyer Milloy was signed to be the third safety.

In addition to Bethea, another missed draft opportunity is Washington Redskins safety Chris Horton, a hard-hitter out of UCLA (If memory serves, Seattle has had some luck with those) who was chosen in the 7th round (248th overall) in 2008. Horton won a starting job in last year’s training camp, was the NFL’s Defensive Rookie of the Month last September, and picked off three passes during his rookie season, more than Grant and Russell had combined.

To be fair, plenty of teams passed on Horton on multiple occasions that weekend, and that usually doesn’t happen without good reason. But to pass him over to choose a long-snapper and a kicker, two not-so-subtle jabs at the team’s former franchise kicker who questioned the seriousness you took the special teams units and had skipped town to avoid being “a slave to the businessman”, raises some questions about the seriousness in which Ruskell has about fixing what’s still a porous back-end of the secondary.

If the front office is truly honest with itself, it would have to admit that the roster was not so deep that it could afford to waste two picks and nearly $500,000 on a pair specialists who never played a down for the franchise.

Consider this: With better play from the safeties, does Frank Gore break touchdown runs of 79 and 80 yards? Does Devin Hester’s 37-yard catch-and-run happen? Remove those three plays, and the Seahawks could be 4-2 at the bye and in charge of this division. Instead, they’re 2-4 and their quarterback is calling out people who are shoveling dirt on the team’s season.

In addition to writing for NorthwestFootball.net, Brian McIntyre blogs daily at Mac's Football Blog. You can follow Brian on Twittah, and if you’d like to e-mail him, you can always do so by clicking here.


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