Dave Boling

Dave Boling: The return of Steve Hutchinson is an elegy for an extinct species

Back when the Seattle Seahawks had the best offensive line in the National Football League, guard Steve Hutchinson was a dominating force. Now a scout, he was in the press box for the Seahawks-Vikings preseason game on Thursday, and served as a reminder that the current Seahawks linemen still have a long way to go.
Back when the Seattle Seahawks had the best offensive line in the National Football League, guard Steve Hutchinson was a dominating force. Now a scout, he was in the press box for the Seahawks-Vikings preseason game on Thursday, and served as a reminder that the current Seahawks linemen still have a long way to go. Staff file, 2006

The face was so familiar, and haunting.

Surely, he was out of context in the CenturyLink press box, where fitness and athleticism are concepts to be observed and discussed but rarely experienced firsthand.

But there he was, Steve Hutchinson, a living reminder of a time when great offensive linemen roamed these parts.

Now a scout for the Tennessee Titans, he was on hand to assess personnel, in case the Seahawks or Vikings might have talent among those who eventually get cast off.

Now 38 and retired following the 2012 season, Hutchinson is lean and fit at some 40 pounds below his playing weight. But still monolithic.

Hutchinson was one of that ancient breed from back when college linemen arrived NFL-ready, having played for four years in a game that at least somewhat resembled the one they’d be asked to play for a living.

He had been All-Big Ten all four seasons at Michigan and showed up in Seattle in 2001 at 6-foot-5 and 315 pounds — a guard-in-full. For five seasons here, he was a mauler who got his hands on defenders and nullified their existence.

He was plugged in between Walter Jones, the Quintessence of Tacklehood, and Robbie Tobeck, a wily and athletic center, and they formed the left side of one of the best lines in NFL history.

Proof? In 2005, Shaun Alexander rushed for an NFL-record 27 touchdowns and 1,880 yards.

Most of those gains were behind Jones and Hutchinson.

A little contemporary context for Alexander’s 27 touchdowns: Consider that Marshawn Lynch’s top seasonal production of rushing TDs with the Seahawks was 13.

Hutchinson left for Minnesota after the 2005 Super Bowl season when Hawks management botched the attempt to “transition” tag him and his agent got him the infamous “poison pill” contract that made him wealthy.

A five-time first-team All-Pro with seven Pro Bowl honors, I’d offer that Hutchinson deserves Hall of Fame consideration.

Seeing him in the press box at Thursday’s game was a chance to air my laments over the paucity of quality linemen in the modern NFL.

Since it was a casual chat rather than an obvious on-the-record interview, I won’t quote him, but the gist included many of the factors you’ve heard. Colleges now feature offenses that typically leave linemen ill-prepared for what they’ll see in the NFL.

A lot of the most athletic big guys in this era want to play defense, where compiling sacks is a ticket to wealth.

And this edition of the collective bargaining agreement leaves teams without much live-action practice time to teach and refine techniques and mechanics.

Talent evaluators in the league, now, he said, are in the position of trying to project the potential of a player to develop into an NFL offensive lineman, rather than going on actual evidence.

And training camps now, so often without pads or contact, leave staffs with very little proof of how a player will perform when they prop them up in a game against an amped-up and slavering Von Miller or J.J. Watt, or any of the dozen other lineman’s nightmares inhabiting defensive rosters.

Even when teams expend high draft picks on linemen, the failure rate is shocking. Getting a tackle is even tougher than finding a quarterback.

In the five drafts between 2011 and 2015, 14 quarterbacks were taken in the first round, and five have made at least one Pro Bowl appearance (35 percent). In that span, 22 tackles were taken in the first round, and only two have made the Pro Bowl (9 percent).

If you don’t hit them in the draft, good luck getting one as a free agent. If they’re good, teams keep them.

Even with all their success, the Seahawks have never matched the line they had with Hutchinson and Jones. These days, the big contracts are on defense and at quarterback. It’s left the offensive line as a unit under heavy scrutiny.

In the game that Hutchinson witnessed, the interior of guards Mark Glowinski and Germain Ifedi bracketing center Justin Britt, played with promise. Maybe this could turn into the core of a young and tough line.

But for now, the tackle positions are unsettled and seem destined to be some pairing among Garry Gilliam, Bradley Sowell and J’Marcus Webb.

Of that group, Gilliam and Sowell were undrafted, and Webb was a seventh-rounder in 2010. As it stands, it’s safe to say that this would not be considered the making for an upper-tier tackle tandem in the NFL.

If the Hawks wanted to try to lure a proven talent from another team via trade, it would be very expensive and rather untimely, only three weeks from the start of the regular season.

Other than that, it’s a matter of coaching them up and hoping for the best.

And thinking back wistfully to the days when Pro Bowl linemen like Hutchinson were on the field instead of in the press box.

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