Doug Farrar: 2006 certainly was a rough year for the defending NFC Champs. The Seahawks lost 59 starter game to injury, the most of any playoff team. This included Shaun Alexander's six games lost to a foot injury and Matt Hasselbeck's four games to a knee injury. That those injuries overlapped make them even more devastating. In addition, the team's best player – left tackle Walter Jones – spent all year struggling with ankle and shoulder injuries. Though Jones didn't miss a game, he was nowhere near his normal, dominant self. Now, you can look at the 2003 New England Patriots' 80+ starter games lost to injury and their Super Bowl title, but that's a historically different level of coaching and motivation. We may never see a season like that again.
Because the team overcame all those injuries and still made it to within an overtime field goal of their second straight NFC Championship game, most wouldn't classify the season as a disappointment. However, most observers are looking for a huge rebound – there's a general feeling among the Seattle fanbase that this is an 11-12 win team if everyone stays healthy. That might be the case (especially given the weak division they're in, the 49ers' ascent notwithstanding), but I'm not totally convinced just yet. There are too many question marks at too many positions. On the other hand, I'm not quite ready to close the door on Seattle's run. I think this team is at least one season away from the downhill slide.
CM: What needs to happen for the Seahawks to get back to the Super Bowl level, and how far away from that do you see them being as training camp begins? Are they still a legit contender for the NFC championship?
DF: Legit? Yes. Possible? Sure. Probable? Again, I'm not completely convinced just yet. The Seahawks will have to drastically improve several fundamental issues to get back to the Super Bowl. First and foremost is the play on both sides of the line – the offensive line was truly abysmal at the start of the season, though it improved as 2006 progressed; and the defensive line relied far too much on Marcus Tubbs to stop the run. Since Tubbs missed eleven games last year, the Seahawks' defense was frequently gashed against any back with a pulse. Elite backs, such as San Francisco's Frank Gore, went through that Tubbs-less defense like the proverbial hot knife through butter.
The offensive line really worries me. Mike Holmgren offenses are complex entities, and plays need time to develop. Too often last year, you'd see busted plays and rushing attempts that went nowhere as the front fives collapsed in the face of an enemy defense. The secondary should see some improvement Jim Mora (who will reprise his 1997 49ers role as secondary coach under defensive coordinator John Marshall) and new safeties Deon Grant and Brian Russell. Seattle's 2006 secondary was a festival of miscommunication and blown coverages. The tight end position now has 35-year-old Marcus Pollard and little else, and the receivers are in a state of transition.
That's the long answer. The short version: Most teams need very little thing to go right for an extended period of time for a Super Bowl berth to happen. The Seahawks will have to rely heavily on good fortune if they're to see a return to the big dance.
CM: What kind of offseason did the Seahawks have? Did they improve their team through the draft and free agency?
DF: It was a decent offseason (though nothing like San Francisco's shopping spree!) First, there were two disappointments: Seattle was jilted at the altar by Chargers guard Kris Dielman (who would have been a fine replacement for Steve Hutchinson) and former Pats and current Broncos tight end Daniel Graham (who would have been a considerable upgrade over the exiled Jerramy Stevens; Pollard was second choice in a short market). The Seahawks did outbid Denver for the services of ex-Falcons defensive end Patrick Kerney, who should provide an improved pass rush, and the aforementioned safeties Deon Grant and Brian Russell. It was a plus offseason in that regard, and the team did have a solid draft, but I'd feel much better about things if one of the better guards on the market had signed on the line. On the other hand … they didn't make the Dallas mistake and give Leonard Davis a Steve Hutchinson Special, for which we're all grateful.
CM: What newcomer is the key acquisition, and what offseason additions do you see helping the team most?
DF: Grant and Russell will provide veteran presence in the defensive backfield, but Kerney is the big-ticket free agent. He signed a six-year, $39.5 million contract with $19.5 million guaranteed. Kerney is a pass rushing force when healthy, but he's also coming off a pectoral injury and he turned 30 last December. Seattle has racked up high sack totals over the last few seasons, but Kerney is supposed to be the sort of dedicated edge-rusher Seattle's been looking for since Moses wore short pants.
I think the offseason acquisition that will help the most is Jim Mora. Very few people were impressed with the ways in which Larry Marmie got the secondary ready for situations last season, and Mora has a great deal of experience in that regard. As I'm sure you know, Mora and John Marshall were the pointmen in San Francisco's 1997 defense, which was the NFL's best. We're hoping for similar results a decade later.
CM: Is trading Darrell Jackson to the 49ers going to come back and bite the Seahawks? How does Seattle's receiver corps look now that he's gone? Who's stepping in for Jackson, and will his absence allow Deion Branch to emerge after a so-so first season with the team?
DF: If he's healthy and doesn't balk at his contract conditions, Jackson could be a real benefit to Alex Smith. He has the kind of effectiveness in traffic, and yards-after-catch productivity, that Smith needs and hasn't ever really had from a receiver. On the other hand, the turf toe issue appears to linger, and Jackson has always had trouble with dropped passes.
Branch is expected to be the main man now, though D.J. Hackett (a taller target with better hands) could be ready for the breakout season so many have predicted. He and Branch are basically a "1 and 1a" tandem going into 2007.