Bobby Wagner was back in the huddle he’s led for the last six years. He looked around at his Seahawks defense.
And he had an epiphany.
“Wow!” the All-Pro middle linebacker said to himself recently, looking at the new faces looking back at him.
“Where everybody at?”
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Wagner and $88-million franchise quarterback Russell Wilson aren’t just the pillars of these changed Seattle Seahawks for 2018, and beyond. They are just about the only two stars remaining to prop up Seattle’s championship legacy entering this season.
“This year feels kind of like my rookie year,” Wilson said.
He was referring to 2012. That was the start of Seattle’s run of five consecutive playoff appearances with two Super Bowls and one NFL title.
“Way more experience, obviously,” Wilson said. “But the feeling of it all, it’s just different. For whatever reason.”
For very justifiable reasons, actually.
Richard Sherman, the team’s star spoke of swagger, is gone. Kam Chancellor, the team’s soul, is gone. Earl Thomas is gone, at least for now. The All-Pro safety’s holdout is stretching into the regular season.
Michael Bennett, Cliff Avril, Sheldon Richardson, Jermaine Kearse, Jimmy Graham? Gone. Gone. Gone. Gone. And gone.
Even a couple of the other mainstays remaining with Wilson and Wagner on these new Seahawks are not fully here.
Top wide receiver Doug Baldwin, who turns 30 this month, says his left knee that had him out all but two days this preseason will be at 80- to 85-percent of full health when he plays in Sunday’s opener at Denver. He said the knee won’t be 100 percent all season.
K.J. Wright, Wagner’s Pro Bowl partner at linebacker, is out for a couple weeks after arthroscopic knee surgery late last month. The 29-year-old is entering the final year of his contract. This spring, Seattle drafted his potential replacement, Shaquem Griffin. The remarkable rookie, the first player with one hand drafted into the modern NFL, will begin his debut season by starting his first game, at weakside linebacker next to Wagner Sunday.
Seattle’s once-feared defense will have Griffin plus eight other new starters and a new-old coordinator in Denver, compared to last year’s opener. Wagner and tackle Jarran Reed are the only starters from September 2017 at Green Bay expected to start for the Seahawks on defense Sunday.
Ken Norton Jr., Wagner’s and Wright’s beloved linebackers coach during Seattle’s Super Bowl heyday four and five years ago, is back from three seasons running Oakland’s defense to be the Seahawks’ new coordinator.
Wilson has a new coordinator on offense. Brian Schottenheimer arrives with a reputation as a power-running-first play caller. That fits Carroll’s mandate to get the offense back to the run in 2018. Schottenheimer replaces Darrell Bevell, who until now was the only coordinator Wilson’s had in the quarterback’s six, hugely successful seasons as the Seahawks’ starter.
The initial reviews of the detailed, fundamentally based Schottenheimer have been glowing from Wilson, Baldwin and other veterans. Yet people in New York and St. Louis scoff at Seattle hiring the 44-year-old Schottenheimer. He left the Jets, the Rams and then the University of Georgia from 2011-15. He was Indianapolis’ quarterbacks coach last season, when Andrew Luck was out injured all year.
It’s Doubters Delight on the Seahawks right now. That’s the result of all the star departures, Seattle’s 2017 ending with the franchise’s first non-playoff season in six years, and then the most extensive staff overhaul of the Carroll era this past offseason. Most people around the NFL and some around the Pacific Northwest think the Seahawks’ championship chances and mere hopes of returning to the playoffs left with all those exits.
Many see Seattle as the third-best team in the NFC West it ruled until nine months ago. The Seahawks are undoubtedly chasing the defending division-champion Los Angeles Rams. This offseason the Rams used the formula Seattle did five years ago—taking advantage of a franchise quarterback still on a relatively cheaper rookie contract—to load up on defense. Last week Los Angeles brought back All-World tackle Aaron Donald from his holdout with a mammoth contract extension.
Heck, some see the San Francisco 49ers as above Seattle in the division this year—and the Seahawks have beaten the 49ers nine consecutive times. San Francisco is one season removed from finishing 2-14. But in the last year the 49ers have added Sherman and wunderkind quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, who if you listen to everyone south of Oregon apparently will never lose a game. The Seahawks-Niners games Dec. 2 on a Sunday-night showcase in Seattle plus Dec. 16 in the Bay Area as must-see games this season.
Last year at this time the question for the Seahawks was, “Is their window closing on championship opportunities?” Seattle had been propping it open after having re-signed their core through five consecutive playoff appearances.
Now? That window is shattered. The pieces are strewn across the NFL, and across the country in retirement.
“As you can tell,” said Bradley McDougald, Chancellor’s replacement at strong safety, “it’s a different era.”
It absolutely is that.
Wagner’s reaction to all this?
The linebacker loves carry a chip on his massive shoulders.
He’s got one the size of Mount Rainier on them entering 2018.
“Most definitely,” Wagner said. “You know, every year there’s something. Not to say that’s what drives me, but it’s nice to have a little extra something.
“So we’ve got people that feel like we’re not going to do well, that feel like with all the guys missing that we aren’t going to be that good. It’s an opportunity for me and K.J. to show how much we can elevate our game. It’s an opportunity for the guys that are replacing those guys who they are.
“You’ve got to remember, Sherm just didn’t happen overnight. He was here and he became who he became. Same with Mike B., Cliff. Same with me, with everybody. Everybody got their opportunity, and thrived in their opportunity.
“So it’s an opportunity for the new guys to run with it. And we’ll see who does.”
Coach Pete Carroll says he and his players have heard the doubters, and are fueled by them.
“I think we’ve sensed it the whole time. I think we’ve sensed it since the last game of the (2017) season, without question,” Carroll said. “It’s really been part of the mentality that’s made these guys kind of in this mode of they’re really grinding and they’re really fired up about working and making right and all that.
“There’s so many areas for us to improve from last season. And it’s so obvious..”
THE NEW DEFENSE
With no end in sight to Thomas’ holdout and Chancellor retired with a neck injury from November, the Seahawks’ new starting pairing at safety is McDougald and Tedric Thompson. Thompson is an unproven draft pick from 2017. He really didn’t play but on special teams as a rookie.
Shaquill Griffin moves from right cornerback where he started 11 games last season as a rookie to left cornerback, to replace Sherman. Dontae Johnson, who started 16 games at right cornerback for San Francisco last year, is poised to start the opener at right cornerback. That will be while big, long rookie Tre Flowers, Seattle’s future at the position, learns it. He played safety in college at Oklahoma State. Byron Maxwell, who started the final month and half of last season after Sherman ruptured his Achilles, is on injured reserve.
Yes, it’s a “Legion of Whom.”
Barkevious Mingo, a former first-round pick, is on his fourth team in four years. He will start the season as the strongside linebacker in base defense. The last few years under since-fired coordinator Kris Richard the Seahawks played nickel defense with a fifth defensive back and no strongside linebacker about two-thirds of all snaps. When that happens this season Mingo will get time as a rush end. Justin Coleman returns as the nickel back.
Losing Bennett and Avril, Pro Bowl ends, leaves the Seahawks’ pass rush as their biggest issue entering this season. Frank Clark is the lone proven returning pass rusher. His 19 sacks the last two season came while offense’s were schemed to double-team Bennett and/or Avril. Now Clark will attract those double-teams, for the first time. It’s the final year of his rookie contract.
Dion Jordan was supposed to be the starting end opposite Clark. Then he had his third knee surgery in 13 months this offseason. A stress fracture in his leg kept him out all training camp and preseason. Jordan came off the physically-unable-to-perform list Saturday, and Carroll said this week he would have no hesitation to play him in the opener. But Jordan hasn’t practiced fully since December. He’s played in just five games the last three years.
Rookie third-round pick Rasheem Green is learning the role Bennett used to have before the Seahawks traded him to Philadelphia in March. That’s outside as an end on early downs, inside as a tackle on passing downs.
To augment this needy pass rush, expect Norton to blitz more than his predecessor Richard did. Norton blitzed far more in the preseason than Seattle has in years.
“We are (blitzing more),” Wright said. “That’s Coach Norton’s style. He gets us going. You want to be on the attack as a defensive player. You don’t want to just sit back and run your same, old zone coverages. You want to be aggressive and get guys going. So, I like what we are doing.
“Coach Norton tells us throughout the week what he’s thinking, tells us on game day what he’s thinking. He’s got us being aggressive. That really helps us out.
“It can work out in your favor, instead of just staying back.”
HELP FOR WILSON
Wilson is not going to throw for 3,983 yards—the third-highest passing total in Seahawks’ history—and lead the NFL with 34 touchdown passes again as he did last season. Not if Seattle wants to return to the playoffs.
All Wilson accounting for a league-record 86 percent of his team’s total yards on offense got the Seahawks in 2017 was seats on their couches to watch the playoffs. That’s why Carroll hired Schottenheimer and replaced his offensive-line coach of the previous seven seasons, Tom Cable, with Mike Solari. That was to provide Wilson with the first viable running game to support his unique skills since Marshawn Lynch got hurt then left town in the 2015 season.
Chris Carson is back from a broken leg that ended his rookie season as the starting running back in October. He’s the lead back. Rookie Rashaad Penny, only the third running back the Seahawks have drafted in the first round (Curt Warner and Shaun Alexander are the others), returned this week from a broken finger and surgery. He’s the number-two back; Carson has the advantage is pass receiving and blocking. C.J. Prosise is back from his seventh injury in 28 months to be the third-down back, for now at least. Mike Davis, the starter at the end of last season, returns to give Seattle more options running the ball than its had since 2015.
It can’t get worse than it was last year. Seahawks’ running backs scored just one rushing touchdown. They produced the fewest yards rushing in many NFL seasons. Wilson was the team’s rushing leader in 2017, by more than 300 yards.
If that happens again, Seattle will be sunk. And Carroll’s changes this offseason will have failed.
Solari has instituted a man-on-man, drive-blocking scheme that is simpler and more aggressive than Cable’s zone-blocking system. The Seahawks’ offensive linemen say they like the natural task of just driving their guy straight off the ball rather than shade and angle and wait.
Continuity, for a change, so far on that line has also helped. Solari picked a starting five for the first day of training camp July 26, and it remains the lineup this week: left tackle Duane Brown, left guard Ethan Pocic, center Justin Britt, new right guard D.J. Fluker and right tackle Germain Ifedi.
Ifedi withstood a brief challenge from George Fant, who returned last month from reconstructive knee surgery 12 months ago. But the former starting left tackle remains an option at right tackle if Ifedi’s struggles from his first two NFL seasons continue.
The concerns that could affect the line’s continuity entering the season: Fluker’s hamstring injury, and overall pass protection.
If Fluker leg’s not better by Sunday veteran J.R. Sweezy will start at right guard Sunday in Denver. That’s where Sweezy started Super Bowls 48 and 49 for the Seahawks, before he went away for two years to Tampa Bay.
If Ifedi, the league’s most penalized player last season, is not quicker and better getting outside to slow edge rushers such as Denver’s Von Miller and Chicago’s Khalil Mack, who are coming at the Seahawks in the first two games, Fant could be starting soon.
“Well, for the first time in, I don’t know, a while, in my opinion, really since we won the Super Bowl, we’ve had a consistent offensive line in practice. That consistency is huge,” Wilson said.
“We’re really solidified in our line and what we’re doing and the calls and everything else. It makes a big difference in terms of communication and how guys step up and how they play.”
Schottenheimer has basically been Wilson’s quarterbacks coach, too. Even though former wide-receivers coach Dave Canales technically has that title it’s Schottenheimer who is in the weeds with Wilson each day, on the field and in meeting rooms. Schottenheimer has been on Wilson each day in practice on the little things—footwork on hand-offs, carrying out fakes, getting the ball out on time with three-, five- and seven-step drops to pass rather than relying so much on his sandlot improvisation of extending plays from previous years.
This summer’s been something of a fundamental boot camp for the two-time Super Bowl QB, a mini-return to the basics if not a reinvention and refinement. The idea is for Wilson and the offense to take a next step because of it.
“Well, I feel great,” Wilson said entering seventh season, his next-to-last one before his contract ends. “Football is football, at the end of the day. I think that five steps are five steps, for the most part, and seven steps are seven. But I think that more than anything, it’s just trying to be really balanced and just trying to go through all of the progressions and all of the reads and do everything that I need to do. It’s just an everyday thing.
“I think that Coach Schottenheimer is doing a tremendous job of coaching me up.”
Because of all the changes, all that’s and who’s new, this Seahawks team is likely to be far different in November than it is in September.
Before, Seattle knew what it had. The veterans, especially on defense, sensed they could turn on and up their performance as needed, within a season or within a game. The Seahawks remaining among the league-leaders in fourth-quarter comebacks, consecutive games decided by fewer than 10 points and their record in Decembers spoke volumes to that confidence through Super Bowl experience.
“It’s going to take time,” Baldwin said.
“It’s been difficult to really tell what our identity is going to be as a team, just because those guys for so long have helped create the identity that we’ve had at the Seahawks and the championship mentality in this championship culture. And now that they’re not here, a lot of the young guys are just finding their way. And it’s OK, you know, because we had to do it when we first came in as well. But it’s going to take time.
“This is a young-guy-team now. So they’re going to find their way, and they’re going to have to rise to the top and create their own identity. As we continue to move forward throughout the course of the season, I think that will happen.
“I think there’s a lot of talent here. There’s a lot of great ability. But everyone has ability in the league. It’s really, when it comes down to it, who has the mental toughness to go out there and demonstrate who they are in a continuous basis.
“I’m really anxious to see who rises to the top for that.”