To answer the question about the 2006 Seahawks - they underachieved. They did come within a few plays of making the NFC title game, which has misled many people into believing that the Seahawks were an elite team last year. In reality, the Seahawks were the worst team in the NFL (by far) to make the playoffs in 2006, and they were the 3rd worst team to make the playoffs since 1998.
This conclusion, of course, was not reached by simple result-based analysis. The Seahawks were 9-7, and division winners, so certainly they could not have been THAT bad, right?
The problem is that a team's record can be grossly misleading. Because the NFL schedule is so short, small sample sizes allow "luck" to play a big factor, which is why you see teams like the Jets come out of nowhere and make the playoffs. A good way of getting around this problem for evaluating the quality of NFL teams is by using Football Outsiders. favorite metric, Defense adjusted Value over Average (DVOA), which, in layman's terms, is a system that measures how above average or below average a team is based on an analysis that measures every single play (including special teams plays) during an NFL season.
According to DVOA, the Seahawks were an overall 13.5% worse than the average NFL football team in 2006. In the nine seasons since 1998, only 8 teams made the playoffs with below average DVOA, and only two playoff teams had a worse DVOA than the '06 Seahawks: '04 Rams and the '98 Cardinals (note the division)*. By contrast, there are about 4-5 teams a year that post above average DVOA that miss the playoffs. To make the playoffs with negative DVOA, you have to be pretty fortunate.
Of course, "fortunate" is probably not the first thing to come to mind when thinking of the 2006 Seahawks, other than Romo's butterfingers or Josh Brown's clutch kicks. The Seahawks obviously encountered gratuitous bad fortune in 2006, namely injuries all over the offense and key injuries on defense. So in short, the Seahawks were a bad football team in 2006, but they were bad for unsustainable reasons.
Among the players that were injured and did not play 100% in 2006: Matt Hasselbeck, Walter Jones (as well as essentially the entire starting offensive line), Shaun Alexander, Marcus Tubbs, as well as many others, including some who are no longer with the team. There were also other players who were healthy but played at a lower level in 2006, and if they regress to the mean, figure to be better players in '07.
Here is a look at five notable returning Seahawks who figure to be better than they were in 2006:
Walter Jones: After giving up just 2 decoumented sacks in his 3 seasons prior, Walter Jones committed 9 blown blocks in 2007, which is to say he had 9 whiffs that directly resulted in sacks. To be fair, had Jones been a lesser man, he probably would have missed much of the season due to multiple injuries, including an injury he incurred at Detroit in the very first game of the season. According to Football Outsiders, the Seahawks had the 6th best offensive line in 2005, but in 2006, their offensive line ranked 29th in Adjusted Sack Rate and 30th in Adjusted Line Yards (which measures the "push" the line gets from the line of scrimmage). Certainly, replacing an All-Pro guard with a 4th round rookie didn't help matters, and neither did the constant lineup shuffling, but by and large, much, if not most, of the O-line's mighty struggles came from injury problems, and none loomed larger than the nagging injuries to Jones. If Jones stays healthy in 2007, he'll once again return to his status as one of the elite left tackles in the game. Going from mediocre to elite at the left tackle position is a windfall that cannot be overstated.
Matt Hasselbeck: In 2006, Hasselbeck arguably had the worst season of his career. The only season his passer rating was worse was in 2001, which was essentially his rookie season. Of course, Hasselbeck was not helped much by an MCL injury, a broken finger, a lingering shoulder injury, as well as one of the least effective offensive lines in the NFL and a near non-existent running game that made the offense transparently one-dimensional. The fact that he almost beat the NFC's best team on the road in the playoffs, or that he posted a league average passer rating during the season under those circumstances actually speaks very highly of Hasselbeck's toughness and intelligence. If the Seahawks offensive line stays reasonably healthy, Hasselbeck is a safe bet to post his typical solid passer rating, which is typically in the 80s (career passer rating of 85.2). Injuries aside, Hasselbeck made more than his normal share of mental mistakes in 2006, and if his history with Holmgren tells us anything, it's that Hasselbeck will learn from his mistakes and improve. By remaining healthy and not having to run for his life, a 10 point passer rating increase is very possible.
Shaun Alexander: Shaun was perhaps never at 100% health in 2006, and neither was his offensive line. Still, if you're looking for a glimmer of hope in his 3.6 YPC, 12-catch, 7 TD season, there really isn't much to spin positively. The bottom line is, whether or not the Madden Curse is real (it's not), Alexander had the toughest year of his professional career in 2006, and his response to it wasn't so great. Last season he was 29 years old, which while old for a running back, is actually the prime of a man's life. Alexander should not have slowed from age last season. Whether or not he slows this year from wear and tear is another story. It's the offseason, and most of us just assume that Alexander will AT LEAST return to his old 1,300-1,400 yard, 15 TD form. I guess I am too, which would be a very big improvement over 2006. But underneath the homerism, I worry about Alexander's future. The team doesn't really have a featured RB (Leonard Weaver being the closest thing) to groom behind him, and with his contract, the team needs Alexander to be effective for at least a couple more seasons.
Deion Branch: Branch is a unique receiver, or at least, he's unique to Matt Hasselbeck. For most of the 2006 season, Branch was just flat out "faster" than what Hasselbeck had become accustomed to throwing to guys like Darrell Jackson, Bobby Engram and Jerramy Stevens. This led to some errant throws, and combined with Branch's unfamiliarity, also resulted in a few missed routes. Despite these problems, and an ailing offense that ranked 27th in offensive DVOA (and 28th in yardage per football outsiders), Deion Branch managed a solid 53 receptions for 725 yards or 13.7 yards per catch as the team's #2 receiver. With a year of familiarity in the system, a year of Hasselbeck adjusting for Branch's speed, and in general an upcoming year where the offense figures to be healthier and more effective to some degree, Branch figures to be a 900-1000 yard receiver. He won't quite be as effective overall as Darrell Jackson, but with fewer dropped passes, his consistency will make him a valuable commodity to the offense, as well as a fan favorite.
Marcus Tubbs: If Lofa Tatupu is the heart of the defense, then Marcus Tubbs must be the guts. Take just one look at the Seahawks run defense and red zone defense in 2005 with Tubbs, then look at 2006 without him. Or if you're not a Seahawks fan, look at the difference Haloti Ngata made for the Ravens and Ray Lewis specifically. Or look at the Bears playoff defense without their starting DTs. If Tubbs can somehow stay healthy, his presence on the defense might be the most dramatic of any Seahawks player.
There are many other players that could be mentioned as likely candidates to improve on their 2006 performance: Michael Boulware, Marcus Trufant, Rocky Bernard, Bryce Fisher, and much of the offensive line. In general, the Seahawks underachieved in 2006, and if they regress to the mean or even overachieve in 2007, they will be a significantly better football team.
*(On a side rant, the fact that all three of those teams won a playoff game is proof positive that the playoffs are a crapshoot...)
Kip Earlywine goes by the handle "kearly" on the NETNation message boards, where he can frequently be found. Feel free to e-mail him here.