By Chris Cluff
The Seahawks’ advancement into the second round of the playoffs this season was not a big surprise. Some of us predicted they would be a playoff team if they got much better play at quarterback than they did in 2011.
What was a surprise is the fact that Russell Wilson, not Matt Flynn, was the quarterback who took them to the playoffs.
An even bigger surprise is the fact that he played well enough to get them to the NFC Championship Game, but the defense — the supposed strength of the team — failed him.
The Seahawks were knocked out in the divisional round for the second time in Pete Carroll’s three seasons as coach, but this is a much different team than his first unit, which backed into the NFC West title at 7-9 and pulled off a stunning playoff upset before getting knocked out in Chicago.
These Seahawks appear poised to contend for the rest of the decade, with young Wilson as their leader.
Wilson told reporters, “When the game was over, I was very disappointed, but…walking off the field, I got so excited for the next opportunity, next year. Looking forward to what we have in the future. We have a great football team.”
Here’s a look at what went right and wrong in 2012 and what to expect in 2013:
What went right
The Seahawks gambled on a rookie quarterback, and Wilson picked it up more quickly than anyone could have hoped.
He set a team record with a 100.0 passer rating, topping every QB in the franchise’s 36-year history. He also tied Peyton Manning’s NFL rookie record with 26 touchdown passes.
And he topped it all off by setting a team playoff record with 385 yards passing in the vastly disappointing playoff loss to Atlanta.
“He’s an amazing football player. I think he proved it again,” Carroll said. “It’s so unheard of for rookies to do something like that. He ain’t a rookie. … I can’t even imagine how he can get better.”
Wilson made plenty of mistakes, especially early in the season as the Seahawks stumbled to a 4-4 start. It wasn’t until December that Carroll and his coaches decided Wilson had figured it out enough to take control. And then he took off. They started running the option read, which led to him rushing for 489 yards and four scores.
The running game and defense carried the Seahawks to a 4-2 start. Marshawn Lynch and the O-line picked up where they left off in 2011, as Lynch rushed for 1,590 yards (third in the NFL) and 11 touchdowns.
Golden Tate finally stepped up in this third year, coming up with career highs of 45 catches for 688 yards and seven touchdowns.
Amazingly, Sidney Rice was the only receiver to start every game, although a knee injury hindered him in the final weeks. He led the team with 50 receptions for 748 yards and seven scores — decent numbers when you consider a rookie was throwing to him and he wasn’t 100 percent healthy. However, he certainly is not worth the $7 million salary he made.
The defense started great and faded. It was the league’s top-ranked unit in Week 6, but injuries and inconsistent play from the young defenders caused it to drop to fourth — still a solid finish. They were also the stingiest unit in scoring, giving up just 15 points a game.
What went wrong
The offense failed the team too much in the first part of the season, and the defense fell apart in the second half.
The struggles of a rookie-led offense were understandable, so it’s easy to see how the Hawks could not pull out close games at Arizona, St. Louis and San Francisco.
This can be blamed mostly on Carroll’s asinine three-headed QB battle in camp, which hindered the development of the offense.
Then the defense started falling apart, giving up last-second TD drives to Detroit, Chicago, Miami and the Falcons — the Hawks lost all but the Chicago game, which Wilson bailed that unit out of.
Outside of Chris Clemons’ 11.5 sacks and a little help from rookie Bruce Irvin (eight), the Hawks could not rush the passer. After netting just 33 sacks in 2011, they came up with only three more this season. It was a huge reason they were not any better than they were, and it cost them dearly on the Falcons’ winning final drive.
The signing of Jason Jones and drafting of Irvin helped only marginally, and losing Jones and Clemons to injuries killed them against Atlanta as Irvin proved he was not ready to be a three-down player.
Carroll admits he needs more pass rushers if the team is going to advance past the second round in 2013.
What will happen next
The Seahawks will turn over every stone to find pass rushers.
They likely will consider Detroit’s Cliff Avril (9.5 sacks) or Cincinnati’s Michael Johnson (11.5) with some of their $18 million in cap space.
They also figure to purse some interior linemen on both sides of the ball to help stop the run and run the ball more effectively. They lost to the Falcons largely because they failed in both of those categories.
The Seahawks also figure to explore a trade of Flynn, who could garner some interest from teams in need of QBs. The Chiefs could be a perfect landing spot for him. Seattle GM John Schneider said he would listen to any offers, and Kansas City’s new GM is John Dorsey, who worked with Schneider in Green Bay. Plus, the Chiefs will be running the West Coast offense under Andy Reid. Perfect fits for Flynn.
The Hawks obviously are not far from being a Super Bowl team. It really comes down to adding impact players on both lines.
With $18 million to spend and as many as 12 draft picks, they should be able to accomplish it.
Their goal in 2013 will be to win the NFC West, get a first-round bye and as many home playoff games as possible to help their march to the Super Bowl.
If they fix their problem areas, they could do it.
For more Local Football Bloggers and the latest Seahawks news, see CBS Sports Seattle.
Chris Cluff worked as a sports editor and writer for The Seattle Times for 11 years and has written two books on the Seattle Seahawks. Since leaving the Times, he has written about the Seahawks and Seattle sports for Bleacher Report and the blog he shares with a fellow sportswriter, outsidethepressbox.com. His work can be found on Examiner.com.