The opening week of the 2015 season was a tad turbulent for the Seattle Seahawks.
Star safety Kam Chancellor is almost two months and two games into a contract holdout with no sign of end or compromise in the immediate future. General manager John Schneider and coach Pete Carroll are subsequently under fire from within as Chancellor’s teammates support the holdout, both publicly and, reportedly, privately — players are said to have lobbied the powers-that-be to do whatever it takes to bring Chancellor back into the fold. Meanwhile, Chancellor’s replacement, Dion Bailey, fell down while in coverage on the game-tying touchdown in an eventual 34-31 loss to the St. Louis Rams in Week 1 – a game that saw quarterback Russell Wilson under endless harassment and ended when the Rams stopped a Marshawn Lynch run on fourth-and-2 in overtime.
It wasn’t the ideal start for a franchise hoping to erase the heartache of Super Bowl XLIX. Combined with Chancellor’s continued absence and a looming date against the Green Bay Packers on Sunday night, questions that would normally disappear into the background after one game are resounding with greater emphasis within the NFL’s echo chamber. And although the idea of outright panic is weeks and several more losses away, it’s worthwhile to examine the concerns that could become the building blocks of genuine worry.
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At the heart of the public outcry is Chancellor, the NFL’s best strong safety and a player whose fearless physicality stands as the corporeal representation of Seattle’s defense. His continued absence has induced cries from fans and former players alike, claiming Chancellor is dishonoring himself and his teammates by not reporting for duty while under contract. Legally, the critics have ground on which to stand. Chancellor is in the second season of a four-year, $28M contract that made him one of the highest-paid players at his position. The Seahawks have the right to fine him an amount designated by the collective bargaining agreement for every day he misses, dating back to the first day of training camp.
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The problem being that NFL contracts are not nearly as binding as they appear. Teams will terminate the non-guaranteed agreement whenever they feel the need to, be it due to injury, declining play or what they view as a bloated salary. The only money NFL teams are beholden to pay is the guaranteed amount, a number in itself that can be tied to either skill (quality of play) or injury. Despite an average annual value of over $7 million, only 27.9 percent of Chancellor’s total deal is guaranteed, a startlingly low number that ranks below the percentages for deals signed by safeties T.J. Ward, Ron Parker and Marcus Gilchrist.
If NFL teams are not unreasonable to terminate contracts when they no longer appear useful to the organization, it stands to reason that players have a right to refuse to offer their services when they view the deal as no longer befitting their value – especially when the players are the ones potentially sacrificing years of their lives or of comfortable living due to the physical dangers of the sport.
The conundrum puts both the Seahawks and Chancellor in tough spots. Schneider is loath to renegotiate big-money contracts with multiple years remaining, but every miscue by Bailey paints the organization further into a corner. If the Seahawks bend to Chancellor and his agent’s requests, they chance setting off a ripple effect that is sure to affect disgruntled defensive end Michael Bennett immediately, along with setting a new standard for disgruntled players down the road. If Schneider holds strong, and at least for this week it appears he will, he puts a large portion of his leverage and his negotiating power at risk every time the Seahawks’ defense takes the field.
Although Bailey’s stumble received the headlines, the unit was far from imposing against the Rams. After allowing a total of 32 20-plus yard passing plays in 16 games last season, the Seahawks gave up eight to the Rams on Sunday afternoon alone. Linebacker Bobby Wagner, normally the bastion of consistency and a linchpin in Seattle’s pass defense, played one of the worst games of his career, allowing four receptions for 105 yards, 80 of which were yards gained after the catch, according to Pro Football Focus.
Cornerback Richard Sherman insisted Wednesday that Seattle’s Week 1 errors were easily correctable ahead of Sunday night’s showdown with the Packers – something Schneider and Carroll very much need to be true. If Chancellor’s absence is truly responsible for the overall drop in quality of play, any minor crack or fissure that existed against St. Louis will be magnified tenfold by quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
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If the Seahawks’ secondary can be described as leaky against the Rams, the offensive line was an overflowing faucet of failure. According to PFF, Wilson was pressured 18 times Sunday, hit twice and sacked six times, all numbers that could’ve been enlarged if not for his mobility. The struggle extended to the rushing game, where Lynch gained 39 of his 73 yards after initial contact, per PFF. On that fourth-down stop in overtime, Rams defensive tackle Michael Brockers was two full yards into the offensive backfield by the time Lynch received the handoff from Wilson, and he and Aaron Donald combined for the stop.
Part of the problem stems from a loaded Rams front seven that was literally built to stop Lynch, Wilson and the Seahawks. Donald and his compatriots would be a bear for any reputable offensive line, but against a shaky group like Seattle’s, they’re practically unstoppable. The good news is the Seahawks only have to see St. Louis’ front once more in the regular season. The concern is that the Rams’ skilled collection of talent was not the only reason for the Seahawks’ problems.
Of Seattle’s five starting linemen, none played even remotely well. Even former Pro Bowl tackle Russell Okung was dominated at the point of attack and pushed back several times by defensive end Robert Quinn. The rest of the group proved pedestrian at best and the Rams’ multiple looks and blitz patterns brought about a series of miscommunications, especially on the right side of the line. The Packers don’t possess a player like Quinn or Donald, but they racked up 17 pressures against the Chicago Bears in their opener and can rush the passer from a variety of looks.
While much of the problem came from the men up front, Wilson also draws some blame. Facing a Rams defense that was religiously devoted to deep zone coverage and playing its cornerbacks several yards off the line of scrimmage, the Seahawks’ passing game lacked rhythm and refused to test St. Louis down the field. Wilson attempted just one pass over 20 yards and was 4 of 8 for 74 yards on throws 10 yards and longer, per PFF. Presented with underneath options several times thanks to the Rams’ off coverage, Wilson also hesitated to take advantage. Whether he was hoping for an opening downfield, Wilson’s refusal to take what was given put further pressure on the line and also resulted in multiple drives ending prematurely.
Against the Packers, Seattle should be able to run the ball more consistently. Green Bay is down to only rookie linebacker Jake Ryan and converted outside backer Clay Matthews inside, further limiting a run defense that allowed the Bears to average 4.4 yards per carry on the ground in their opener. A sound running game will alleviate pressure on the line, eliminate some third-and-longs and potentially force the Packers to bring a safety down near the line of scrimmage. That could free up the middle of the field for rookie wide receiver Tyler Lockett and tight end Jimmy Graham. The two were added with the idea that their presence would force defenses to alter their coverages and create mismatches for them or for their teammates. In the opener, the Rams were able to remain steadfast in the secondary because the dominant front corralled Wilson and limited the Seahawks’ ground attack. The Seahawks must find a way to set the tone up and force Green Bay’s defense to react to their personnel instead of the other way around.
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Even if they play their best game Sunday night, it’s plausible the Seahawks will begin the season 0-2. Rodgers and the Packers possess one of the NFL’s best offenses – even without injured wideout Jordy Nelson – and enough playmakers up front to take advantage of a shaky offensive line in obvious passing situations.
Even then, panic would be rash. The Seahawks play three of their next four games at home, where the noisy cocoon of CenturyLink Field makes Seattle’s defense nearly impenetrable. And it seems illogical that Schneider and Chancellor won’t be able to hammer out their differences at some point in the near future. Recent reports have the sides roughly $900,000 apart, a number that could very well shrink if Bailey and the defense struggle in primetime against Green Bay.
It’s wise to remember that only a year ago, the Seahawks appeared rudderless after seven weeks and trailed the division-leading Arizona Cardinals by three full games in the loss column after Week 11. Those Seahawks found their sea legs by midseason and ended up winning 12 games and the NFC West before advancing to a second straight Super Bowl. As of now, there’s no reason to think it can’t or won’t happen again.