Disequilibrium: Has the Offense Lost it?

Pharmaceutical companies are currently making a fortune by producing treatments for complex chemical imbalances in people from all walks of life. These patients are being treated for common forms of a medical disequilibrium. Vicodin and other such pain medications are also popular prescriptions for other ailments.

No overdose of pain medication can possibly remedy what can happen in four weeks of professional football. Manic depression has been “touchin’ the soul” of several NFL teams, the Seattle Seahawks among them, with performance swings ranging from the brilliant to the pathetic. By the time Brett Favre makes his last heroic throw into Monday Night Football airspace, we will have ushered in new meaning to the concept of “extreme” sports.

A case-in-point: Through three quarters of football on September 24th, The Seahawks looked invincible at the Q, shutting down the New York Giants defensively and scoring at will on offense. One week of minimal preparation and two hideous interceptions later, the Seahawks subjected themselves to a humiliating rout on national television by a very good Chicago Bears football team. How can the Seahawks look so “fantastic” one week and so “dysfunctional” the next?

It is a classic case of team disequilibrium.

Mercifully, this is the end of the first quarter of the 2006 season, and the 3-1 Hawks have lots of games to win, many of them by way of shoring-up each phase of the game. Contrary to what we might have anticipated, this coming week turns out to be an ideal time to enter into the bye so that turning point decisions can be made and better strategies can be planned. Disequilibrium is a cause for retreat and re-upping, not for confusion and panic. Not this early in the season, anyway.

Meanwhile, self-gratifying columnists will cash-in on Seahawks woes by puffing those tired curse theories. Others continue to over-simplify the cause of Seattle’s mis-queues by the loss of one stand out player. Other sources, ones we would just as soon ignore, occasionally make correct assessments, adding stinging truisms to the concussive shock of defeat.

One such truth came from pregame comments by Chris Collinsworth on NBC. In essence, Collinsworth observed that Seattle is still in search of its identity on offense. No doubt, fans were thinking, “What? After that impressive show by Hasselbeck and his four outstanding receivers, Seattle is still finding itself?” Another warning came earlier in the week from Mark Schlereth who stated on ESPN’s Chicago radio affiliate that Seattle is too one-dimensional as a passing team with no running threat.

Oversimplified answers are marketable, but they are not satisfying to fans who may be having difficulty reconciling real potential with disappointing outcomes. However, insights by former players, whether we like those voices or not, are often the most accurate and may be a key to understanding what the hell is going on.

Disequilibrium is usually created by a domino effect of mounting facts and circumstances that affect every team in the game of football. None of these are excuses for the Seahawks, but certainly stand out as traceable elements that make-up the overall condition that Seattle’s offense is facing, while avoiding the temptation to over-simplify matters to a singular issue. For now, we’ll leave that to extreme politics.

One issue reaping seriously negative results is the loss of Steve Hutchinson. In this case, it is more about what Hutchinson’s impact on the offensive line chemistry meant to Holmgren’s offense than about the player that Hutchinson is (or what he is worth). You don’t invest years developing a powerful run blocking and pass protection scheme with a premium talent like Hutchinison and then expect to replace him with developmental players and simply resume where you left off, business as usual. We glean insight from John Madden who, during an NBC preseason game against Colts, was asked this question by Al Michaels (paraphrase): ‘Who is affected more by the movement of Steve Hutchinson, Minnesota or Seattle?’ Without hesitation, Madden said ‘Seattle.’ The “Madden Curse?” Try the “Oracles of Madden.”

Since Hutchinson’s departure, Hasselbeck has had time to throw the football, so were not talking about a complete breakdown here. Hasselbeck sustained 5 sacks against a Bears defense that could easily have doubled that number if he wasn’t getting the protection he needed by a young Chris Spencer. Walter Jones, who thoroughly protected Matt against the persistent Osi Umenyiora a week earlier, had a tough night in Chicago by letting 3 get by him (assisted as he was by Hasselbeck moving into two of those left-leaning sacks). More significantly, the offensive line has had far less push for running purposes, especially on the left side. This sort of discontinuity impacts the integrity of the entire offensive line. Unfortunately, it shows up in terms of offensive output and in the Hawks’ case, the impact is most clearly seen in the running game. In case you haven’t noticed, Maurice Morris, Shaun Alexander and Mack Strong have had nowhere to run. To put it another way, for each of the first four games of 2006, no single Seattle rusher has established a 100 yard effort, or anything close.

Compounding this foundational line issue is the recent injury to Shuan Alexander. Clearly Seattle brought a running game plan into Detroit to minimize mistakes on an emotional home opener with a new coach. Alexander injured his foot in that game where otherwise, his performance would have been the key to Seattle’s offensive momentum. Disappointing play by Floyd “Pork Chop” Womack combined with Alexander’s injured foot, Seattle nearly jeopardized itself by closely surviving that game. Knowing what we know now, Seattle’s close shave at Ford Field may have been the most remarkable win of the season thus far.

Forget about the West Coast offense for just a moment.

In 2005, Seattle’s success at run blocking and pass protection earned the respect of defenses because of the ever present danger of Shaun Alexander breaking a tackle and running for a ten, twelve, fourteen yard gain on a simple handoff out of the off-set “I” formation. It was almost as if defenders were forced to guess whether or not Seattle was going to run or pass. The rhythm and tempo of the Seahawks offense was nearly invincible.

There is yet another missing dynamic about Seattle’s offense that very few talk about. The role of Jerramy Stevens at Tight End. Last year, Holmgren was running more of a play action scheme, but instead of using the run to set up the pass, Holmgren would plan passes on first down to set-up runs. And once the chicken hatches the egg, the only resemblance to a West Coast scheme was way the receivers were used, especially Jerramy Stevens in the seam routes. Wide outs took defenders to the sidelines and options opened up for Stevens whose compelling 2005 season was nothing short of a break out. Frequently, the pace of the entire game was set by Matthew’s completion to Stevens on the very first play of the game.

A dominating offensive line, plus Alexander at tailback plus Stevens at tight end equaled a trifecta of elements that do not currently exist in Seattle’s present offense. This was an alpha formula for Hasselbeck who could manage mood swings in the game with utmost efficiency and self control. He could lead with confidence and dictate by way of audibles, rather than react and grovel to the demands of opposing defenses. Hasselbeck had arrived as and elite QB in this league, because for once, Holmgren’s offense had become the perfect chemistry of what we mean by “equilibrium.”

The “Fantastic Four” offense is a different chemistry with a different emphasis that may end-up on the scrap heap in this current redevelopment plan. It requires more from Hasselbeck who, despite his latest struggles, has the skills to find an open receiver in that fast paced scenario. However, expecting that to click right away is simply expecting too much. Most teams employ some form of cover 2, while making creative use of faster linebackers to defend underneath routes, if not coverage routes.

Sunday Night should serve as an excellent case study as to why the “Fantastic Four” scheme needs help. The Chicago Bears’ Tampa 2 (or more like Cover 1 at closer inspection) coverage was so complete and thorough, that Hasselbeck either checked down to last options, became tentative and forced the ball into coverage, or simply threw the ball away when no receivers where open. The three-and-outs were the almost as disturbing as the turnovers. When the game rests on the shoulders of Hasselbeck with no respect for the running game by the opposing teams, Hasselbeck must deliver the ball with pin-point accuracy or not at all.

Other than Superman, no QB in this league, including Matt Hasselbeck, would flourish in the present state of this offensive union.

When Nickel package defenses like Chicago’s are employed properly in the red zone, Hasselbeck needs a convincing running game to complement his passing options. Again the “Oracles of Madden” were apropos, “This is where Seattle misses Shaun Alexander . . .” All Matthew had was his token 2.5 seconds and receivers jammed up everywhere, with no openings. It is no wonder that he was unable to penetrate into the end zone with the passing game, either in Detroit or in Chicago.

On the bright side, Hass is getting fair protection to look off his receivers. Chris Spencer shows great promise at his present position at guard. In terms of what it takes for receivers to transition into Holmgren’s playbook, both Deion Branch and Nate Burleson are making their way into the scheme and have time to find their roles by mid-season. Most importantly, Jerramy Stevens and Shaun Alexander do not have season-ending injuries. We expect them back and we look for them to contribute significantly. By divine intervention, good hard work or both, Seattle’s offense has the better part of the season to get back into the rhythm, the tempo and the groove that it once knew.

Before there’s any talk about another Super Bowl run, might we suggest that a divisional lead would be more of a more realistic objective right now? We can only hope that Mike Holmgren can bring resolution to the state of transition in which the burgeoning offense finds itself. Get Matt Hasselbeck all the tools he needs and getting back on a winning track is a sure thing.

Perhaps by then, the only disequilibrium to be found will be on the opposing defense’s side of the ball.

Don Christensen writes for Seahawks.NET. You can reach him at audioeffects@yahoo.com.

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