The Assumption Curve

NFL teams – or perhaps more accurately, their fan bases - enter each new season armed with a healthy stockpile of assumptions. These assumptions are a unique blend of wishful thinking, careful player analysis and the ability of most diehard fans to suppress genuine concerns about their team in favor of subscribing to the "hope springs eternal" theorem.

Establishing some kind of baseline formula to assess these assumptions is necessary to monitor the progress of the 2006 team.  But we’ll keep it very simple, instead of getting all Einstein-like on you:  if the results (to date) are equal to the pre-season assumptions, then we’ll call that STABLE.  Then we’ll grade whether the projection is for above the assumption (in other words, better than) or below (worse).  Arm yourself with this information and attack the digital water coolers with frenzy!

Keep in mind that the season is still young.  The Seahawks have only played four games, and have yet to field their projected starting line-up due to injuries.  But we have seen enough to direct a critical eye towards the defending NFC Champions.

ASSUMPTION #1: “The loss of LG Steve Hutchinson will not be a major factor since whomever they plug in to replace him has the benefit of playing next to Walter Jones…”

Current status:  BELOW
Projection:  STABLE/ABOVE

LG Floyd “Pork Chop” Womack was set to replace Hutch and help anchor the left side of the line, but once again he finds himself taking up space on the injured list.  Second-year youngster Chris Spencer – drafted to be the Hawks' heir apparent at center – stepped in to take over for Chop, but after a solid start he struggled against the Chicago Bears.

For that matter, even the all-world Jones struggled in that game. 

The offensive line has not performed well at all this season, at least not in anything other than brief stretches.  The longest gain on the ground this season is only 19 yards – and that was by QB Matt Hasselbeck on a “vacate the burning building” style scramble out of the pocket against the Bears.  Additionally, Hasselbeck is getting sacked and hit in the pocket way too much.  The disconcerting thing is that a lot of the pressure has been up the middle from several excellent defensive tackles the Seahawks have faced, including the Lions’ Shaun Rogers and the Bears Tommie Harris.

The projection is towards “stable/above”, as the line continues to develop cohesion and develop some rhythm.  Obviously, injuries will be a big factor.  But seriously, they can’t play much worse than they have so far.  Look for improvement. 

ASSUMPTION #2: “WR Nate Burleson will bring a downfield threat dimension to the offense…”

Current status:  BELOW
Projection:  STABLE

In theory, Burleson’s downfield speed and explosiveness were supposed to open up the short-to-mid range passing game so critical to the functionality of the West Coast Offense.  Burleson’s speed would draw over-the-top help from the safeties which would open up other areas of the passing game, most likely the tight ends and the slot.

But that theory has not come to fruition yet.  Burleson has only seven catches through the first quarter of the season, projecting to 28 for the season.  He’s not being paid the kind of money he is earning for 28 catches.

Too many dropped passes seems to have created some hesitancy in the passing game, with Hasselbeck looking mostly towards WR Darrell Jackson, WR Bobby Engram or newly acquired WR Deion Branch.  Also, we have seen more and more dump-offs to the backs, especially FB Mack Strong.  Strong was the leading receiver against the Lions, with six receptions.  It has to be a concern when your full back leads the team in catches in a game.

The grounding argument is that Burleson needs time to learn the offense, but shouldn’t he pretty much have it down by now? 

Meanwhile, WR D.J. Hackett – who makes plays every time he gets the chance – languishes on the sideline, inactivate.  By no means is this a suggestion that Hackett should replace Burleson, but Hackett possesses and uncanny knack for creating plays, be it big catches or timely penalties on defenders.  He also earned Hasselbeck’s confidence.  When Matt’s not busy playing “Keystone Cops” evading a pass rush it might be nice for him to see #18 out there waiting to rescue him.

But here again, the projection points toward “stable” as Burleson assimilates into the offense and gains the trust of his quarterback.  He seems to run good routes and he gets open, he just needs to make some plays.  With Jackson and Branch drawing a lot of attention in the passing game, he is going to have some opportunities.  He may not stand out, but he will get better.

ASSUMPTION #3: “LB Julian Peterson will be a dynamic force used in a variety of ways…”

Current status:  STABLE/BELOW
Projection:  ABOVE

All of you Peterson supporters take a breath:  I’m not saying that ‘J Pete’ has not played well.  In fact, the discussion probably should focus more on the coaching staff and how they have game planned and employed the teams big off-season signing.

Is Peterson being shackled by getting into a three-point stance and lining up as a defensive end on passing downs? 

The expectation was that defensive coordinator John Marshall would devise some innovative schemes to fully utilize Peterson’s athletic ability.  Perhaps they are keeping some of that on the shelf until later in the season.  But it does seem that they could get more creative with how #59 attacks the opposition.

One of the factors is probably the revolving door at defensive tackle.  In order for the linebackers to get freed up to make some plays, the wide bodies up front need to absorb the offensive line.  With DT Marcus Tubbs out and DT Russell Davis just recently activated – plus DT Rocky Bernard a little slow out of the gate – we could argue that improved line play will help unleash the “freak”.

The staff will figure it all out and that projects to “above stable”.  Peterson is making tackles and has recorded two sacks already; they just need to find ways to create favorable mismatches as many times as possible during a game.

ASSUMPTION #4: “QB Matt Hasselbeck will cement his status as one of the NFL’s top passers”

Current status:  BELOW
Projection:  ABOVE

Not so fast.  Yes, he tied a franchise record (his own, set in 2003 against the Baltimore Ravens) with 5 TD passes against the New York Giants.  But he also has more interceptions than touchdowns so far.

Let’s look at that another way:  5 of his 6 TDs were in three quarters of play.  In the other 13 quarters he has played, he has just one scoring toss.  Since the

3 rd quarter of the New York game, he has not thrown a touchdown while tossing four interceptions – two of which were so ugly they looked like they were thrown by Seahawks Hall of Shame QB Dan McGwire, and not the experienced Hasselbeck. 

Something seems a little off with #8 so far this season. The suspect is list is as long as an Alaskan summer night:  No Steve Hutchinson, the lack of an effective running game, breaking in new receivers, the lack of reps with Jackson in practice, disjointed offensive line play, TE Jerramy Stevens’ absence, etc. 

To be fair, Hasselbeck – like any quarterback – needs protection to function effectively.  He cannot continue to get sacked and hit as much as he has during the first four games.  After being sacked 24 times last season, he is already more than halfway to that figure. 

I project “above stable” because Hasselbeck, and this offense, is too talented to keep treading water.  The schedule features only a few more games against upper-tier defenses, and Hasselbeck usually plays lights out in the last month of the season.  Add to that Stevens coming back, plus Burleson and Branch getting more involved in the game plans – and this is one assumption I’d put a little money on.

ASSUMPTION #5: “The Seahawks – upset at the national lack of respect and their painful Super Bowl experience – will be fired up and looking to stake their claim as NFL elite…”

Current status:  BELOW
Projection:  STABLE

Perhaps the most disturbing worry on the laundry list right now is the lack of passion and intensity exhibited, for the most part, in the first four-games.

The Seahawks played tentative and nervous Nelly at Detroit.  They looked much better in the home opener against Arizona, but that game was closer than it should have been because of some mistakes and close-to-the-vest play calling.   They looked like the team we expected to see through the first three quarters against New York, rolling up a 42-3 lead, but then they got relaxed and almost let the Giants back into the game.  Do we need to even address the Chicago game?  Let’s not – I just ate.

Since taking that 42-3 lead at Qwest Field against the Giants, this team has been outscored 67-6 (with back-to-back games allowing the opponent more than 30 points). 

Does this team think that it has earned the right to just show up for the game, and that the opponent du jour will wither in the face of their excellence?  One would hope not.  And that’s entirely on Mike Holmgren and his staff to correct if that’s the case – not to mention the veteran leadership on the team. 

Expect to see a determined and pumped up Seahawks team take the field in St. Louis on October 15 th.  They will be looking to get it rolling again.

Stable is the current projection just because expectations are so high this season and this team has to prove it is not suffering from fat cat syndrome. 

There are probably other assumptions that could be addressed.  Like Holmgren breathing some new life into his offensive scheme, especially with a different mix of weapons at his disposal.  But once again, the Seahawks seem to have one play available on 3rd down and long – the draw.  It’s as predictable as a young child’s hunger for ice cream, but nowhere near as amusing.  And is it still too much to ask to execute a nice screen pass?  Will this team ever return another kick-off or punt for a touchdown?

Well, there you have it.  By no means is this process a scientific metric, but these assumptions address a lot of the pre-season debate that focused on how the Seahawks might perform this season.  It just goes to show you that the NFL is as mystifying and perplexing at times as it is exciting. 

Just remember…the assumption can be a slippery slope. 

Greg Renick writes for Seahawks.NET on a regular basis. He also has his own exclusive fan blog on the Seattle Post-Intelligencer’s website. Feel free to e-mail Greg here. Top Stories