Will Ruskell’s cards be enough to win the Wild West? ….the NFC West, that is.
It seems to be the en vogue stance right now to look at these changes with a mostly critical eye, wringing our hands over that second- or third-string back-up player who should have been cut, or should have stayed, because, darn it, we just KNOW that’s the Seahawks’ weakest link....
Ruskell looked at his Seahawks team, specifically the defense, and he realized two things: First, Texas Tim saw some Seahawk free agents who were ready to jump the stage coach and decided that for what those players would command on the free agent market, the team was better off galloping down another trail. Paying those fellows what they could receive elsewhere would have crippled the Seahawks ability to re-make the defense into type of unit Texas Tim had learned would work successfully in the NFL from his previous two stops in Tampa Bay and Atlanta.
Ruskell looked closely at the Seahawks 26th ranked defense and said, 'Holy Toledo! I can do better than that!'
Anyone who has paid a measure of attention to the Seahawks team since Holmgren came here knows that the defense has simply failed to keep pace with the offense and has been the Achilles’ heel of the franchise. A guy whose been around the league as long as Texas Tim has to cringe at how the defense has played in recent years when he’s been witness to the best while in Tampa Bay.
So Texas Tim went to work, and thus began the biggest gamble of Ruskell’s professional life. Texas Tim put his money on the table…but as everyone knows, The Gambler has to know when to Hold ‘Em and know when to Fold ‘Em.
In the first hand he was dealt, Ruskell never blinked. He folded on the losing hands of retaining both Chike Okeafor and Ken Lucas. Too much money…there were hands to be played later that would pay bigger returns on his investment. His next hand played was to release once-popular players who stopped being productive for the Seahawks, saying goodbye to Anthony Simmons, Chad Brown and other less prominent players.
A few uneventful turns at the table were played when along came his next big hand: the April college draft. Huge gambles were played there, and many of the moves made by Texas Tim were pooh-poohed by prognosticators who claimed that the players that Tim drafted could have been had in later rounds. But Texas Tim has his own ideas of a players worth….and those have not a thing to do with what Big Hair Mel Kiper may believe. Texas Tim threw in a large stake in players like OC Chris Spencer, a first rounder who may not begin to pay off for another year or two and in Lofa Tatupu and Leroy Hill, second and third round picks respectively, who will be able to make big contributions immediately. Whether or not this bet is a winner may not be truly known for another few years, but at least one of his top three picks looks to be a starter on opening day.
Yet his biggest gamble may have been in the release of last years’ starting defensive tackle tandem in Cedric Woodard and Rashad Moore – both of who had off-season surgery to repair damage suffered over the 2004 season, and neither of whom were able to rehab those injuries in time to give 2005 any productive minutes.
The results of those moves are what lay before us now, as the first game of the 2005 NFL season looms large over the horizon.
We now have eight of eleven new players starting on the defense, including four who were not on the team last year. Gone are the previously mentioned Moore, Woodard, Okeafor, Lucas, Brown and Simmons, Orlando Huff and Terreal Bierria. In are previous back-ups DD Lewis and number one draft pick Marcus Tubbs. In are Free Agent acquisitions Bryce Fisher, Chuck Darby, Jamie Sharper, and either Andre Dyson or Kelly Herndon, along with rookie Lofa Tatupu. The starting Strong Safety position had already been solidified last year by heralded rookie Michael Boulware.
Texas Tim Ruskell has completely changed the philosophy of what type of Defensive Tackles the Seahawks run with, and apparently, on his defense, the big, slow, bubble-butts don't have a spot on the team. Likewise, the seven-year search for the next Reggie White has finally come to a close. With Antonio Cochran receiving his release last week the transition to smaller, faster Defensive Ends has come full-circle. The four Des now on the team are all within 10 lbs of each other, none more than 272 lbs.
The same goes for the Linebacking corps. Big has been replaced with fast. The biggest linebacker is this off-season’s most heralded free agent, Jamie Sharper, at 6-3 240. The fastest may be Leroy Hill, who seems to have a knack for making plays on the QB. The same can be said for the Cornerbacks, though this development may not be by design but by happenstance. Tall lanky CB's are but a memory in Ruskell’s plan. Ballers, guys who stay close to their man and who do everything they can to get to the ball and make a play are the rule of the day.
On the offensive side, it is a little different....players who've been on the team, working hard and waiting for their chance have finally been able to make a move. It's no longer Mr. Robinson's neighborhood. He has been replaced by guys who care more about playing hard and winning games than about where the next laugh or drink will come from.
While most of the offense remains intact, the WR lineup has received the face-lift that an elite team needed. Darrell Jackson is back to his near-elite self, and looks to be ready to shed his dropsies label that has plagued him the last two years. Bobby Engram has been pushed into the starting role and looks to be ready to flourish. Not blessed with the ideal size many would like to have, Engram makes up for it with precise routes, a fearless attitude, and the kind of quickness that isn't measurable in a 40-yard time.
From there it becomes a little clouded, as the team just added Peter Warrick this past week. With limited duty in the final pre-season game, it's hard to say how he'll fit in – but if his contract is any indication, the team would have him be the 3rd WR in multiple sets, possibly in the slot position, which Engram used to man. Fighting for that position as a 3rd WR is the always ready and steady Joe Jurevicius, the tall and lanky kid with the sure hands. He was used minimally in the pre-season, but that could be more a case of the coaches needing to see other players. Players such as Jerheme Urban, DJ Hackett and Jerome Pathon.
As of Saturday, Pathon became the odd-man out, receiving his walking papers that morning.
Surprisingly, the Seahawks opted to keep 7 WRs, in order to keep Pro-Bowl Special Teams player Alex Bannister. To some, this seems a hard pill to swallow. Bannister has shown no ability to make plays as a WR, but has been a demon on the ST squads when he was healthy. Of course, therein lies the rub...Bannister hasn't been healthy since mid-way through the 2004 season, ending with an injury after only reeling in 2 whole receptions on the season. But without Bannister, the Seahawks Special Teams were anything but special. However, with a new ST coach, and renewed emphasis on ST by the coaching staff and players, it has looked during the pre-season like Bannister isn't needed anymore. It seems rare in this NFL age that a team would keep three ST specialists, but that is what the Seahawks have in Bannister, JP Darche and Josh Scobey.
Two players who have benefited from the expanded WR corps would be DJ Hackett and Jerheme Urban. Hackett seemed to be having a break-out Training Camp and pre-season, but an ankle injury derailed his efforts. The player who gained the most benefit from this development is his running mate, Jerheme Urban. Urban is speedy, but not quick, and is a tall receiver who runs very good routes. He has finally shown the ability to get separation and remain open. His greatest opponent seems to be himself...having the dreaded drops disease during the pre-season. He seems to have one big drop per game, but has come back to make up for those drops with big catches and run-after-the-catch plays, even while showing a disturbing trend of giving up the ball. Fortunately, none of those fumbles has resulted in a turnover. Urban ended the pre-season tied for the team lead in receptions and second in yards. However, it could be the efforts and wishes of QB Matt Hasselbeck, who has sung Urban’s praises most often during the last two off-seasons, that has really saved Urban's job.
The other skill positions remain intact with Hasselbeck, Shaun Alexander and Mack Strong returning to the fold for another season together. Alexander may well be on his way out next year, but at this time he keeps insisting that a long-term deal to stay in Seattle will get done sooner rather than later. Four of the five Offensive Line starters return, and that is only because RT Pork Chop Womack sustained a torn triceps last week and capable replacement, 2nd year player Sean Locklear has taken his place. The Offensive Line should be a season-long strength in 2005, especially with LT Walter Jones finally under contract for the long haul. Equally important is Jones' linemate, LG Steve Hutchinson, who has completed the pre-season stronger than ever before. The team has already stated their desire to complete a long-term extension for Hutch, before he gets a chance to try Free Agency at the end of this season.
Is everything perfect in Seahawk-land?
Many feel that Defensive depth is still an issue. The efforts on Friday night by defensive linemen Joe Tafoya, Craig Terrill, Rocky Bernard and Alain Kashama, along with Linebackers Leroy Hill, DD Lewis, (both of whom returned from injuries this past week), Isaiah Kacyvenski and Kevin Bentley eased some fears among the Seahawks faithful. But a serious injury to any of the starters on defense, and the somewhat unexpected release of both starting defensive tackles from last season, could seriously jeopardize the teams' ability to keep up with others in the NFC West. My guess is that Texas Tim Ruskell and company will be scouring the waivers for healthy, max effort players who may be able to bring some game to the second and third string units.
Overall, feelings on Texas Tim's plan and execution of the plan is:
So far, so good.
Will The Gambler win the right to sit at the big table this season? Will the bets even pay off this year, much less set us up for success in the future? Only time will tell if Texas Tim, the Seattle Gambler, has taken this stagecoach down the right trail, but it certainly seems the Seahawks are expecting a big payout off these bets as they head into the 2005 NFL season.