However, before the Seahawks can take their “rightful place” at the top of the NFC West, there’s a bit of knocking off to do…the 2003 Division Champion St. Louis Rams are still a serious threat, they’re the established winners, and they’ll be a headache all year. So, in the spirit of competition (and to hopefully establish a friendly rivalry between Seahawks.NET and GridironGateway), I thought it was high time that a fan of each team state their case. You’ll read the take of my esteemed adversary David Spalter (also known as "AvengerRam" on the ClanRam forums) not to mention my rebuttal…and here’s why I believe that the NFC West crown in 2004 can only go to our Seahawks.
Let’s get the obvious out of the way first…the Seahawks and the Rams are the only two teams with a real shot at the division, a fact to which even the most ardent 49ers and Cardinals fans would have to bend. The Cardinals might be a team to look out for down the road (hiring Denny Green and drafting Larry Fitzgerald and Darnell Dockett will do that…they might even play spoiler this year), but the Niners are smack-dab in the middle of what they want their fanbase to believe is an intelligent, reasoned “rebuilding program”. Uhhh…sure. According to .NET salary cap guru “The Hawkstorian”, SF has around $20 million in total 2004 cap hit reserved for players that aren’t even on their ROSTER…what else are they going to say? All I know is that the next time I’m playing poker, I want at least one 49ers executive at the table. It’s clean-up time!
The Draft/Free Agency: The Rams’ first-round pick of RB Steven Jackson may have been a good choice in theory, but in practice, this is a case where going “Best Player Available” may hurt them in the end. By taking Jackson and passing over several notable (and desperately needed) defensive players, St. Louis, in the words of Little Richard, “got what they wanted and lost what they had”. With Grant Wistrom off to Seattle and Leonard Little’s future in serious doubt (a situation which had availed itself at the time of the draft), the Rams come into 2004 with major potential deficiencies on the line. The Rams pulled off what could be their best reach pick in the sixth round with QB Jeff Smoker, who could be great and only dropped so far due to personal issues that Smoker himself sorted out. Don’t know why, but there’s a little part of me that’s rooting for him to make it work.
The Seahawks, in passing up Jackson and selecting Texas DT Marcus Tubbs, addressed need first. Seattle also drafted for potential (FSU linebacker Michael Boulware, who will be converted to safety), and depth in the offensive line (T/G Sean Locklear). They may have a steal of their own with fifth-round pick WR D.J. Hackett, a tough, smart potential possession receiver.
While it’s difficult to grade drafts at the time they happen (better obviously to wait and see what the kids do), the Seahawks get the edge in my mind simply because they drafted for need instead of BPA…an approach both teams should have taken at this stage.
Advantage – Seahawks.
Seattle –Yards Per Game – 351.7 (6th in the NFL), Rushing Yards Per Game – 125.6 (10th in the NFL), Passing Yards Per Game – 226.1 (7th in the NFL), Points Per Game – 25.3 (7th in the NFL), Pass/Run Ratio – 53.5% Pass.
St. Louis - Yards Per Game – 341.1 (9th in the NFL), Rushing Yards Per Game – 93.5 (30th in the NFL), Passing Yards Per Game – 247.6 (3rd in the NFL), Points Per Game – 27.9 (3rd in the NFL), Pass/Run Ratio – 59.3% Pass.
Quarterbacks: Just to avoid this article turning into the script for a soap opera, I’m going to write it assuming that Kurt Warner will NOT be a Ram by the middle of June. OK…with THAT out of the way, let’s look at Marc Bulger and Matt Hasselbeck. Bulger and Hass both have considerable weapons around them and coaches who plot to their strengths, and it’s possible that they are the two most promising young QB candidates for future NFL MVP honors (Hass, in fact, received a minute show of support in that regard last season). Overall, Hass had by far the better season statistically, and I just can’t put Bulger on his level yet when Bulger himself had as many INTs as touchdowns in 2003 (22 each). With the pass-happy offense the Rams carry out each week, Bulger has to reach that “Pantheon Level” if St. Louis is to have a chance at the division in 2004, especially with the brutal schedule both teams face.
Advantage – Seahawks.
Running Backs: With Marshall Faulk and Steven Jackson in the fold, the Rams have a potential running attack never before seen in the “Greatest Show On Turf” era. They would be very wise to make this aspect the focal point of their offense, but as I’ll detail later, there are some serious questions as to whether that will happen. In any case, few questions here…Faulk, although injury-prone of late and beginning the twilight of his Hall Of Fame career, is an all-time great and there’s absolutely no reason on paper to believe that Jackson will be anything but a great success in the NFL. Size, speed, agility and determination…the kid’s got it all.
The Seahawks counter with a highly productive and varied rushing attack led by Shaun Alexander. Playing in the West Coast Offense, where total yardage is the true standard to which running backs are held, Alexander has excelled. Backup Maurice Morris earned kudos in spot duty, and Mack Strong is one of the best blocking fullbacks in the league. Mike Holmgren is generally regarded as a Quarterback Guru, but he has the ‘Hawks’ offense going strong with a very balanced mix of run and pass.
Advantage – Push.
Receivers: Ram fans enjoy the idea that in Torry Holt, they have the finest receiver in the NFL. Marvin Harrison may have something to say about that, but in 2003, it was certainly an arguable point. Holt was 1st in the NFL in receptions (117) and receiving yards (1696), and second in receiving touchdowns (12). The venerable Isaac Bruce is getting up there in years, but still has what it takes to provide a serious threat, whether it’s deep or in the flats. Slight debit here…the team hasn’t really replaced the astonishing speed of Az-zahir Hakim, who departed for Detroit in 2002. Dane Looker doesn’t have Hakim’s physical tools, but he could make a place for himself on toughness and determination alone.
Seattle’s WR corps was beset with a case of “What If” in 2003…as in, ”What if these guys didn’t drop the ball so damn much???”. Still, Darrell Jackson firmly established himself as Hasselbeck’s Go-To Guy, Koren Robinson rebounded from a disappointing season start to make some vital grabs down the stretch, and Bobby Engram may very well be the best “in-the-clutch” possession receiver in the NFL. Let’s get Jackson and Robinson some “mental stickum” and turn them loose on the league!
Advantage – Rams.
Offensive Line: The stars of both lines, tackles Orlando Pace and Walter Jones, share not only the status as two of the best at their positions, but an annoying tendency to hold out at the drop of a dime. Aside from that, the lines look fairly evenly matched, with one exception. I’m issuing an official warning to any defensive lineman who goes up against UberGuard Steve Hutchinson this year…just take the day off. You’re not going to do a thing anyway. Just take my word for it.
Advantage – Seahawks.
Seattle –Yards Per Game – 327.4 (19th in the NFL), Rushing Yards Per Game – 109.9 (14th in the NFL), Passing Yards Per Game – 217.5 (27th in the NFL), Points Per Game – 20.4 (16th in the NFL), Giveaways/Takeaways: -1.
St. Louis - Yards Per Game – 315.8 (16th in the NFL), Rushing Yards Per Game – 123.8 (21st in the NFL), Passing Yards Per Game – 192.0 (12th in the NFL), Points Per Game – 20.5 (17th in the NFL), Giveaways/Takeaways: +7.
D-line: Uh, oops. With Grant Wistrom gone, the key to the Rams’ success at the line is the TBD status of Leonard Little. Not a good thing when you have to bank on a guy who almost has to miss some fairly serious time in 2004. The Rams have not addressed this issue…not even close. Tyoka Jackson and Damione Lewis will not likely replace Wistrom’s production, nor will Wistrom’s motivational impact on the team be easily supplanted. Big problems here for the team…and while second-year DT Jimmy Kennedy looks like he’ll step up, one has to wonder what the line as an overall unit will do.
Seattle has no such issue with its defensive ends – Wistrom joins Chike Okeafor to provide consistent, if not spectacular, edge rush and run defense. With the departures of Chad Eaton, John Randle and Norman Hand, the DT position is the true question mark here. Second-year DT Rashad Moore will look to build on a fine rookie effort, and Tubbs will be asked to produce as much as possible right off the bat.
Advantage – Seahawks.
Linebackers: Questions abound for both teams here as well, but the Seahawks would appear to have a very slight edge in front-line quality. OLBs Anthony Simmons (when focused) and Chad Brown (when healthy) have what it takes to dominate, and all-purpose stud D.D. Lewis was one of the team’s nicest surprises last year. Where the Seahawks have a potential issue in on the inside – the Mike position will be coveted by Orlando Huff and Solomon Bates, with 4th round pick Niko Koutuovides finding his way. The possibility of acquiring Redskins LB Jeremiah Trotter (an almost certain June 1st cap cut) would go a fairly long way towards making Seattle’s middle the dominant force it will need to be.
The Rams came up trumps in the 2003 draft with Pisa Tinoisamoa…other than that, they may have a bit more depth than the Seahawks, although the overall potential probably lies in the Emerald City.
Advantage – Push.
Cornerbacks/Safeties: Hmmm…let’s start with the Seahawks here, because we have potential liftoff. The two primary reasons for the success of Seattle’s 2003 draft are CB Marcus Trufant and S Ken Hamlin, and both unquestionably lived up to expectations. Trufant has a seemingly limitless ceiling – even when he was learning on the job last year, he successfully shut down some fine receivers. Seahawks fans are looking forward with great anticipation to what he’ll do with a year in the NFL under his belt. It’s also fun to speculate how many wide receivers Hamlin will completely lay out in 2004…Donte’ Stallworth and Anquan Boldin just hope it’s not them again! In addition, if you look up “underrated” in the dictionary, you might see a picture of Ken Lucas. While Trufant and Hamlin were finding their feet, Lucas was busy putting his name in the books as well. Although inexplicably sidelined in the second half of the season at times, he’ll be ready this year.
The addition of Bobby Taylor will provide two important factors – veteran leadership in the secondary and some actual HEIGHT. Taylor is 6’3”, and he’ll help with the team’s endless susceptibility to the jump ball. Not to be discounted is the subtraction of Shawn Springs, the once-great cornerback who had very little left last year.
The Safety position isn’t quite as locked up – Hamlin is joined by Damien Robinson and Boulware (who will be in the “Experimental Phase” for a while). But the cornerbacks? Watch out, Mr. Bulger…
In short, the Rams’ secondary just doesn’t match up. Adam Archuleta and Aeneas Williams lead a good overall unit, but we’re talking about a different league here, especially over the next few years.
Advantage – Seahawks.
Coaches: Both Mike Holmgren and Mike Martz have encountered great success and a fairly heavy amount of second-guessing in their careers. That’s the nature of the coaching biz, but when you look closer, it’s really one for our side.
To be perfectly honest, there are times when Holmgren’s coaching decisions make me want to perform a Keith Moon Demolition Exorcism on my television set (this could be said of any coach in the NFL, by the way…as a Seahawk fan, I’m just more familiar with Holmgren’s work both good and bad), but I’d still take Holmy over Martz every day of the week and thrice on Sunday. It could be argued that the Holmgren transformation of the Seahawks took “too long”, but that’s water under the bridge now that it’s happened. Besides, it will now be Martz’ job to rebuild the Rams over the next few years…he inherited a Godlike team from Dick Vermeil, who probably doesn’t get enough credit when the Rams’ ride of the last five years is discussed.
The aforementioned pick of Steven Jackson would, one would think, auger well for a more balanced approach from the Rams’ offense. I mean, if you’re going to go to the trouble to ignore your desperate need at DE for this guy when you already have Marshall Faulk, it should be Smashmouth Time, right?. Having said that, I believe it would likely be entirely in Martz’ nature to draft a great RB like Jackson and then go out and run the ball 12 times per game. It’s certainly possible that Martz’ intention is to throw a balanced gameplan out there before his guys strap it on, but it appears that there’s something about gameday that sometimes transforms him into a 15-year-old kid playing Madden in his mom’s basement. It’s not uncommon for pro coaches to fall into the “Bombs Away” trap (Steve Spurrier, anyone?)…but it is not by any stretch of the imagination a common denominator of GOOD coaches to do so at this level. There aren’t any “Raccoon State Teacher’s Colleges” in the NFL – you play to a certain level of competition every week, and to think you can will your half-built schemes over opponents of this caliber borders on the absurd. It’s balance or else for the Rams. More’s the pity…
Holmgren, on the other hand, has finally built a machine tailored for the most part to his considerable offensive gameplanning strengths. Yes, there were still too many easy initial dink reads, too many “Shaun Alexander up the middle” calls (although it could be said that one of those would be too many), and there was still the occasional nagging realization that he doesn’t always seem to know which player can best do what. However, this is one of the architects of the West Coast Offense - Holmgren might not be the WCO’s Ben Franklin, but he was in the room and he’s flown the kite. That counts for a great deal, and you’ll see it on the field again. In fact, you’ll see the Industrial–Strength version this year. Your defense won’t like it, and you will call it “Daddy”.
As for the respective defensive coordinators…there’s a lot prove for both the ‘Hawks’ Ray Rhodes and new Ram DC Larry Marmie. Rhodes did improve Seattle’s bottom-feeding run defense last season, but the team’s susceptibility to the pass left them in the lurch far too often and pretty much single-handedly cost them at least two games (Cincinnati and Baltimore being the main culprits in my mind, Tom White aside). However, with two defense-laden, high-quality drafts in a row, Rhodes’ input growing (Boulware will be his personal project), very possibly the finest young secondary in the league and a defensive line and linebacker corps ready to take the next step, there’s good news on the horizon. At least, there had better be…
Marmie’s foray into the Rams’ DC position could be fraught with peril. Not only will he be replacing a legend in Lovie Smith (who had that defense playing over their heads for quite a few years), he’s firing a gun without some key bullets, personnel-wise. Eek.
Advantage – Seahawks.
Head-to Head: The NFC West title could have gone either way in 2003. Can’t get much closer here…a home-home split, with the first game decided by one point and the second by five. While Seattle’s 24-23 victory in Week Three at Seahawks’ Stadium was notable for the Hawks’ valiant second-half comeback (not to mention the birth of Shaun Alexander’s daughter, Heaven, which delayed the new daddy until the second quarter), the Rams’ Week Fifteen 27-22…uh…”victory” in their own backyard was equally notable for some really interesting officiating, Grant Wistrom’s uncalled attempted beheading of Matt Hasselbeck, and back judge Greg Steed’s impressive chop block on Bobby Engram late in the game. For the sake of argument (and the overall civility of this debate), let’s just say that a win is a win and leave it at that.
Advantage – Push.
Conclusion: It will be a tight race…of that there is no doubt. But I believe that is it the Seahawks who did the far better job of filling the holes that needed to be filled in the offseason, both through free agency and the draft. I would also submit that while the two teams have a fairly equal number of impact players, the Seahawks have a greater number of talented young players who will only benefit from increased experience …both on paper and (I believe) on the field when it’s time to prove it all. The Rams will have another fine season, but they’ll be battling for a wild-card slot as the Seahawks begin their own ride. Domination awaits, if the team will answer the call.
Rebuttal: Don't Believe the Hype of the Sea-Quill
What is it about the city of Seattle? From Starbucks coffee, to grunge rock, to the recent emergence of the Seahawks, it seems that this town has the uncanny ability to produce hype that sweeps the nation. But, alas, take it from one who has tasted the bitter espresso of an over-franchised coffee shop and cringed at the throaty wails of the Cobain wannabes… the Hawks' ascension is not all it is rumored to be.
That's not to say that my worthy opponent has failed to put forth a cogent comparison of the Rams and the Hawks of 2004, its just that, much like the view of Seattle from Frasier Crane's apartment (which could only have existed if his building rose from the center of Puget Sound), it is merely a façade and an illusion.
As a preliminary thought, I think that the "head to head" type of analysis that Doug has utilized, though common, is not a particularly good prognostication tool. Truth is, quarterbacks don't play against other quarterbacks, they play against defenses. But hey, at this stage of the debate, I'll cede a "home field advantage" of sorts and respond within the parameters that have been set.
Doug starts with the draft/and free agency, and gives the advantage to the Seahawks. His main reasoning is his belief that the Seahawks filled needs, while the Rams used a "best player available" approach. Not the case. Given the manner in which the offense suffered in the past two years when Faulk could not play, one could easily assert that running back was a premier need for the Rams. And they filled this need with a player who has the ability both to supplement Faulk (as a power runner) and to be his heir apparent. Doug also discounts Tony Hargrove as a need-filler, which could be a mistake if early reviews of his talent prove accurate.
As for the Seahawks "need-filling," where's the blue-chip middle linebacker? Isn't that a huge need? And to think that the aptly named Marcus Tubbs and converted LB Michael Boulware are likely to fill needs at DT and SS, is indeed wishful thinking. In all, the teams acquisitions are a wash, which, as I stated in my primary argument, leaves the Rams with the advantage.
Doug also places Matt Hasselbeck over Marc Bulger at QB by noting that Bulger had far more interceptions. I suppose that's fair, though Bulger also did not have the benefit of a consistent running game last year – a factor that should change this year. I will say this much about the QB comparison – its way too close to be considered a meaningful advantage for either team.
At the skill positions (RB/WR), the Rams, as Doug acknowledges, have the overall advantage. This will become a landslide, though, if second year players Kevin Curtis and Shawn McDonald contribute.
On the offensive line, Doug argues that the teams are evenly matched except for the superiority of Steve Hutchinson over the Rams' guards. I guess Doug never heard of Kyle Turley, who is far superior to Hawks RT Chris Terry. Again, these units are comparable.
On the defensive line, Doug overestimates the impact of Leonard Little's legal troubles. In fact, the likelihood is that Little will not be impacted at all (if ever) until 2005. The part of Doug's analysis that made me chuckle, however, is the suggestion that the Hawks can count on rookie DT Tubbs and second year player Rashad Moore, but the Rams can't equally count on the trio of Ryan Pickett, Damione Lewis and Jimmy Kennedy. Come down from Mount Rainier, Doug, the thin air's getting to you! Bottom line – if Kennedy improves and Hargrove produces at all, the Rams have the better D line.
At linebacker and defensive back, the Rams again get the nod. Why? Lack of holes. Sure, the Hawks have some nice talent in players like Simmons, Brown, Trufant and Hamlin. But there are gaping holes at MLB and at SS, as noted before. The Rams, on the other hand, have (at least) solid and proven players at each spot.
I won't bother addressing the coaching issue in detail, as I think it’s of minor concern. Suffice to say, Mike Martz is an innovative, but eccentric coach, while Mike Holmgren is effective, but somewhat overrated. That said, in the end, player execution is what counts. Heck, even though Holmgren may have drawn up the perfect "we'll take the ball and we're going to score" gameplan, that doesn't mean its going to work.
Finally, last year's head-to-head. Break out the cheese, folks, because the whine is flowing. The Rams beat the Seahawks in St. Louis. It wasn't because of the refs (that ball was not going to be caught – unless it were intercepted), or any other factor other than the Rams having more points when the gun sounded. Besides, if the Hawks could have won more than two games on the road last year, they might not have had to worry about such things.
In closing, I have come here neither to praise nor to bury the Seahawks and their faithful scribe Doug. I merely wish to confirm that while hype may sell tickets, 12-4 records get home field advantage in the playoffs. January in St. Louis once again will be a hot ticket.
Doug Farrar is the Editor-in-Chief of Seahawks.NET and writes a .NET column every Monday. Feel free to send him your feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org.
David Spalter (a.k.a. “AvengerRam”) is a writer and moderator for GridironGateway and the ClanRam boards. Feel free to send him your feedback here.