Behind Enemy Lines: Bears/Seahawks, Part II

In Part II of an exclusive four-part series, John Crist of and Doug Farrar of continue their back-and-forth banter with five questions from John to Doug. What's with all this 'team of destiny' talk, why has Matt Hasselbeck seemingly regressed, and is Walter Jones not the same player without Steve Hutchinson? These Q&As and more inside.

John Crist, Editor in Chief, After last weekend's nail-biter win against the Cowboys, what is the prevailing sentiment in Seattle about this team? Mack Strong was making ‘team of destiny' overtures, but is it possible they just got lucky?

Doug Farrar, Publisher, I think the prevailing sentiment in Seattle right now is one of complete shock. After perhaps the most improbable late series of events leading to a win in franchise history, Seattle fans could be forgiven for becoming a tad verklempt. When you've had as many bad calls and funny-bouncing balls as this team's had through their history - fumbles that almost weren't, spots that came within inches of finishing the Seahawks for good, and that final Romo field goal implosion (assisted, if you believe those in Dallas, by a curiously slick-looking football) - added up to a feeling if destiny. People in the Pacific Northwest just aren't used to the breaks going their way when it comes to pro football.

Did the Seahawks get lucky? Sure. No team in NFL history has made an extended playoff run without some good fortune. The Seahawks were privileged to be facing a quarterback who kept throwing at the feet of his receivers when he was facing three cornerbacks who had two starts at their positions all season. They were lucky when Jerramy Stevens brought his 'good hands.' Dame Fortune smiled on the defense when the front four was able to bring pressure and integrate a great gameplan. And fate worked when the game drew a mostly attentive and balanced officiating crew (of course, any game is amazingly fortunate to get that). The Seahawks were lucky in a lot of ways, but they were also good enough, in this case, to be in position to make those breaks work for them.

What did Branch Rickey used to say? Ah, yes ... "Luck is the residue of design."

JC: Matt Hasselbeck's passer rating dropped from an impressive 98.2 last season all the way down to a pedestrian 76 this season. We all know he missed a few games and has been dealing with injuries in 2006, but are the numbers telling a bigger story here?

DF: There are a few stories there. Hasselbeck's been dealing with a shredded offensive line – he's seen nine different personnel combinations in his front five this season. His own knee and hand injuries put him out of action for a month and impacted his ability to perform when he was able. He lost Shaun Alexander for six weeks (though Alexander and Hasselbeck were out at the same time for a month, which made things even worse).

He was dealing with two new receivers, Nate Burleson and Deion Branch, getting used to the west coast offense. Darrell Jackson, his best receiver, missed the last three regular season games with a turf toe injury and may not be 100% for the Bears game. Stevens, who was supposed to be his main red zone weapon, struggled with inconsistency all season. And Hasselbeck felt the pressure of all those factors, trying much too hard to make things happen as opposed to letting the offensive rhythm dictate the game's positive momentum.

I'd put the decrease in productivity about 30% on Hasselbeck and 70% on the factors around him. He's not a game-changer, per se – while he's one of the NFL's best 'system quarterbacks,' he's not a guy who can take a team on his shoulders for weeks and weeks at a time. Things around him must work.

JC: Speaking of injured superstars, last year's league MVP, Shaun Alexander, was only able to play in 10 ballgames due to a bad foot. His yards per game and yards per carry are way down this year compared to his `04 and `05 performances, so is he the same player?

DF: He's the same player with a suddenly putrid run-blocking offensive line and a fullback whose ability to block pretty much fell off the face of the earth in one offseason. First, Seattle's line, ranked sixth in the NFL in Adjusted Line Yards last season, plummeted to 30th in 2006. Alexander had the worst yards-per-carry average of his career – but once again, you have to look at everything around him. Certainly he was affected by the foot injury that he played through early in the season before he missed those six games, and certainly he was affected by a cheesecloth line that didn't come close to the support it offered last season. Fullback Mack Strong, who earned his first Pro Bowl berth last year with stellar blocking, resembled a turnstile far too often when he tried to free-up lanes from the backfield in 2006.

Alexander is a patient cutback runner. He waits for plays to develop, and he's used to not having to outrun his blocks because he's used to his blocks actually being there. Having such a pliant line in front of him put Alexander in a square peg/round hole scenario that he really didn't overcome until late in the season when he was healthy for the first time all year and the line could get some continuity.

JC: Seattle might be the most talented team in the league on the depth chart at receiver from one through five, but injuries are starting to take their toll. Is Darrell Jackson going to play on Sunday, and if not, how does that change the roles of the other four?

DF: Mike Holmgren said on Monday that Jackson, who started the win against the Cowboys but aggravated his toe injury, feels better this week and will most likely play. Were he not able, Branch would slip into his spot as the No. 1 receiver. Unfortunately for the Seahawks, it appears that third-year receiver D.J. Hackett might be out with a high ankle injury. Hackett has been money all season for the team – the one constant in an ever-changing receiver corps.

Branch is great when he's on point with the gameplan – and he'll most likely be twice as good next season when he has an offseason to work with Hasselbeck – but there are times right now when he will zig when he should have zagged. Nate Burleson was an early disappointment as a receiver, but has been a great return man.

JC: Losing Steve Hutchinson in free agency had to be a big blow to the offensive line. How has the group performed without him, and is left tackle Walter Jones still as dominant as he has been in the past?

DF: Losing Hutchinson was a huge blow, but the real problem has been the lack of stability from week to week. Offensive line success is tied so much to communication that it really hurts when you're constantly having to shift players into new slots.

Jones hasn't been as dominant, but neither has Hutchinson in Minnesota. For Hutchinson, that's been as much about not having Jones next to him as it has been adjusting to the Vikings' zone blocking scheme. For Jones, it's been about having a revolving door at left guard all season after five seasons lining up next to Hutchinson. Keep in mind, however, that a more 'mortal' version of Walter Jones is still better than most linemen could ever dream of becoming.

Be on the lookout for Part III of this four-part series as John will answer six more of Doug's questions.

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