Ray's Redemption

In his second year as the Seahawks' defensive coordinator, Ray Rhodes has his young charges playing like champions. A grateful city now chants his name...and a formerly dissenting voice finally joins the choir.

"You can tell Ray is an intense guy, but you wouldn't necessarily call him aggressive. Then you sit down and talk to him and you realize, 'There's a killer somewhere inside." – Chad Brown

“Each of us, in our private heart, carries a few opinions that are as perverse as they are deeply felt. We cling to them all the more because the world tells us we’re crazy.” – Thomas Boswell

Boswell, the Washington Post sports scribe and probably the best baseball writer of the last twenty years, zinged himself with that quote when he wrote a 1989 column in which he cried “Uncle!” in the face of Nolan Ryan’s one-hit shutout at the age of forty-two. You see, Boswell had always believed that Ryan was a grossly overrated one-trick pony whose winning percentage wasn’t generally too far above the oft-pedestrian teams for which he played. He held that belief for many years, and it was only when Ryan was still bringing near-Satanic heat at an age when most athletes are broadcasting that Boswell had to stare blankly into the factual and admit he was full of beans. Nolan Ryan was a Hall Of Fame pitcher, and there wasn’t a damn thing Thomas Boswell could do about it.

That’s the opportunity shared by journalists of any stripe, but sportswriters in particular. The challenge is to mine the intangible from the statistical and stamp your name all over it. The sporting life is an emotional entity, and since it is often the most devoted fan who somehow decides that he wants to make a go of writing about What He Sees And Cannot Do…well, you occasionally get a goofy perspective out there, as praiseworthy as it may be in its execution.

And after three years of writing about sports, I now get to take the plunge taken by some of my more courageous forbearers…in other words, I gotta admit I was full of beans, too.

So, without further ado, here it is:

Ray Rhodes is a really, really, REALLY good defensive coordinator.

There. I said it. It didn’t kill me. Pass the Kool-Aid, please!

I mean, I give up. The Seattle Seahawks’ defense, after the first three weeks of the 2004 season, are 2nd in the NFL in yards allowed per game (242.3). They are 3rd in rushing yards allowed per game (71.3). They are 7th in passing yards allowed per game (171.0, and two of the three teams they have faced were down late to the point where pretty much all they did was pass). They have given up 13 points in three games, best in the NFL. The #2 team in points allowed are the Buffalo Bills, and they’ve given up twice as many on the nose (26).

I had believed, since the day Ray Rhodes replaced Steve Sidwell as the team’s defensive coordinator, that the organization made a big mistake. Not in firing Sidwell, mind you …I seem to recall quite a few happy Seahawk fans after the departure of Sidwell and his dead-last-in-the-NFL rushing defense. But when it came to Rhodes, it turns out that I was the one who didn’t get it. With Seattle’s offense still finding its way up to ramming speed, it has been the defense that has given the Seahawks their current 3-0 spot in the NFC West catbird seat. In other words, without Ray Rhodes and his defense, the Seahawks would not be among the ranks of the undefeated.

So perhaps I should go back and explain the formation of my fallacious ex-opinion.

When Rhodes was hired on February 5, 2003, I had already made my debut as a Seahawks.NET columnist the month before with a column entitled “Ray Rhodes – The Case Against”. It would seem that the mere mention of his possible addition to the Seahawks’ coaching staff whipped me into a journalistic frenzy. I was basing the majority of my opinion on two factors: the way in which Rhodes resigned his previous position as the defensive coordinator of the Denver Broncos, and one very ugly game in which the Broncos faced the Oakland Raiders in Week 9 of the 2002 season.

First, his end in Denver. After the Broncos started off 6-2 in the 2002 season, the team finished 9-7 and missed the playoffs. The common perception among those in the know was that Mike Shanahan was doing a favor for a friend in letting Rhodes resign, and it appeared that the Broncos couldn’t hire Rhodes’ replacement, current Denver DC Larry Coyer, fast enough. Why did things go so wrong? Well, the Denver-Oakland game didn’t help. After the first half of the season, in which the Bronco defense was a swirling, terrifying mass of punishment, Rhodes called off the dogs, rushed 2 or 3 against Rich Gannon at times, backed the corners off the line, and let Gannon nickel-and-dime the Broncos to death. The result? A 34-10 loss, in which Gannon completed 34 of 38 for 352 yards and 3 touchdowns. The Broncos’ late-season wipeout that year can be partially attributed to Rhodes’ more cautious defensive playcalling…but there may have been mitigating factors.

Ray Rhodes was a defensive back for the New York Giants and the San Francisco 49ers, retiring as a player in 1980. He began his coaching career as the assistant secondary coach for the 49ers in 1981, being promoted to defensive backs coach in 1983 – a position he held until 1991. In presiding over the 49ers’ dynastic secondary of the time, it’s fair to speculate that Rhodes developed a view of the defense that begins in the defensive backfield. And if you look at the Broncos’ secondary during Rhodes’ tenure…well, it was hardly a Murderers’ Row. While cornerback Deltha O’Neal led the team in ’02 with 5 interceptions, the rest of the secondary (Sam Brandon, Kenoy Kennedy, Izell Reese and Jimmy Spencer) could only muster four INTs as a group. In truth, the Bronco secondary may have been the team’s weak point during Rhodes’ time there. So perhaps in his mind, Rhodes had to send his super-fast linebackers (Al Wilson, John Mobley and Ian Gold) into coverage rather than sending them after the ballcarriers.

Was Rhodes hamstrung with poor defensive backs during his tenure in Denver? It’s worth mentioning that before the 2004 season, Denver traded franchise RB Clinton Portis to the Redskins for shutdown cornerback Champ Bailey. You don’t make a move of that magnitude unless you’re desperate for improvement.

Did Rhodes walk into a better situation in Seattle? Yes and no.

While Seattle’s 2002 secondary hardly set the world on fire, things were about to change. In the first Seahawk draft with Rhodes as the DC (not to mention the first with Mike Holmgren on board but not as the team’s general manager), Seattle immediately looked to change their secondary’s complexion. This they did with a vengeance, drafting Washington State cornerback Marcus Trufant in the first round and Arkansas safety Ken Hamlin in the second. The two rookies made an immediate impact (in Hamlin’s case, quite literally, heh heh heh…), and the Seahawks defense jumped from 28th in the NFL pre-Rhodes to 19th in 2003.

It wasn’t enough. With Shawn Springs, Reggie Tongue, Damien Robinson and Willie Williams as options to fill his defensive backfield, Rhodes was left with two talented but green rookies in Hamlin and Trufant and a bunch of role-players. Only Ken Lucas provided All-Pro caliber play, and that only happened in the first half of the 2003 season. Rhodes was faced with a defense that didn’t match his scheme. He needed four things – a veteran leader in the secondary, a reliable middle linebacker, defensive tackles that could hold the middle, and a disruptive pass-rushing threat at defensive end who would allow the defensive backs and linebackers to fill the roles Rhodes had planned for them.

Now, in 2004, the personnel has matched Ray Rhodes’ gameplanning and intensity. The Seahawks got Bobby Taylor from Philadelphia (who Rhodes drafted in 1995 when he was the Eagles’ head coach) to provide the secondary with a “wise old pro”, a signing that provided twofold dividends. The unexpected benefit of Taylor’s acquisition was Ken Lucas’ response. Faced with losing his starting spot at corner, Lucas was the undisputed star of training camp and maintained an incendiary level of play throughout the preseason and the first three games. Taylor is the nickel corner because of Lucas’ excellence – and he’d be a starting corner on most NFL teams. Taylor also bonded with Hamlin even before he came to Seattle (the two players share the same agent), and they started working out together in the offseason as neighbors in Houston. And now, with the outstanding play of Hamlin and Terreal Bierria at safety, college-linebacker-turned-pro-safety Michael Boulware can develop under the radar when two years ago, he’d have been forced to start due to a lack of depth. Of course, Boulware had interceptions in each of his first two NFL games in limited duty. The culture of defense in Seattle has changed dramatically.

At middle linebacker, Orlando Huff and 2004 draftee Niko Koutouvides are providing solid play in rotation – the starting spot, which is Huff’s now, seems to be Koutouvides’ to lose in the long run. At DT, 2004 first-round draft choice Marcus Tubbs can work his way in gradually because of the excellent play of Cedric Woodard, Rocky Bernard and Rashad Moore (Moore was yet another member of the Seahawks’ defensive draft class of 2003).

At defensive end, the Seahawks had two outside options in the offseason – free agents Jevon Kearse and Grant Wistrom. Although both are amazing players, both were big gambles because of the money they would receive. The Seahawks chose Wistrom. Actually, they didn’t just “choose” him – they wouldn’t let him out of Kirkland HQ until he accepted a six-year, $33 million contract with a much-ballyhooed $14 million signing bonus.

They were holding four of a kind with that hand – Wistrom is a stellar run-stopper, a dynamic pass rusher, a natural leader, and a rare teammate with the sort of infectious personality that transfers to anyone lucky enough to wear the same uniform that he does (the St. Louis Rams, Wistrom’s former team, are discovering this the hard way). The difference with Wistrom has been immediate…and painfully obvious to Seattle opponents.

Now, Rhodes has the horses. But what has broken the back of my “infallible opinion” (besides the Seahawks’ 34-0 shutout of the 49ers last week – San Fran’s first goose egg in 27 years) has been his players’ take on their defensive coordinator. When a warrior like Chad Brown believes in Ray Rhodes to the extent that he does - when young players fit into a system so quickly, surely and securely – when I see the way in which the players Rhodes wants in his defense react and respond to him…well, all I can do, like Thomas Boswell, is cry “Uncle!”

So, Mr. Rhodes, as I climb on the “Ray-Bob Bandwagon” and search in vain for an empty seat, I extend my newfound respect.

I thought I had the story told – leave it to you to provide the surprise ending.

Doug Farrar is the Editor-in-Chief of Seahawks.NET. Feel free to send comments, suggestions and "I TOLD you so!" missives to doug@seahawks.net.

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