Are Hawks capable of building a talented, consistent O-line?

Pete Carroll has said he wants to create continuity on Seattle’s offensive line.

He said he thinks Seattle’s young guys are going to improve and he hopes Luke Joeckel becomes part of the core. As he said after Joeckel signed, “Now that we have a good young bunch of guys, we’re going to try to keep this thing together.”

It’s debatable whether they have enough good guys yet, but the bigger question as pertains to Carroll’s stated goal: Will they ever be able to keep a quintet together in Tom Cable’s zone blocking system using their scattershot approach?

Whether it’s bad drafting, a bad scheme or just bad luck, Carroll’s Seahawks have had terrible fortune on the offensive line — typically fielding one of the weaker units in the NFL and annually needing to overcome its deficiencies just to get to the playoffs.

Why has it been so terrible? John Schneider and the coaches have consistently pointed to the disconnect between college and NFL offenses and the CBA-mandated lack of practice time.

But every team faces those issues. For Seattle, it has been more than that. It has been a complete inability to field a healthy, consistent line — and a total failure to set up a line of succession.

Schneider and Cable have often talked about the lack of NFL-ready talent in college. Schneider reiterated that at the Combine in early March, saying, “When you go to colleges and you talk to the coaches, they struggle to find offensive linemen. Everyone wants to play quarterback and running back and defensive line. … There’s just a dearth at the position. There just has been for a number of years now.”

That doesn’t excuse the Seahawks’ inattention to the position though — especially knowing that football games are won at the line of scrimmage. Don’t be fooled by the stat saying the Seahawks have invested the most draft capital on the O-line in the NFL since Carroll and Schneider arrived in 2010 — many of those 15 picks were conversion projects or long shots.

After drafting Russell Okung and James Carpenter in the first round in 2010 and 2011, and John Moffitt in the third in 2011, the Seahawks apparently thought they had what they needed to form a solid core; they basically stopped trying to add quality linemen for several years. A huge mistake.

From 2012 to 2014, they used their high picks on speed — Bruce Irvin, Christine Michael, Paul Richardson — rather than good linemen such as David DeCastro, Terron Armstead and Joel Bitonio. They instead drafted four seventh-rounders, including two D-line converts, and a guy with a heart defect; they reached for Justin Britt in the second round in 2014; and they relied on Cable to try to build them up.

The Hawks perhaps were lulled into a false sense of security by the game-breaking talents of Russell Wilson and Marshawn Lynch, who overcame the line’s major deficiencies, due largely to injuries, in 2013 and 2014 to help lead the Hawks to the Super Bowl.

The Hawks thought they were setting up their line for the long haul in 2011. But Moffitt flamed out due to a drug problem, and Carpenter played in just 39 of 64 possible games. Okung, Max Unger and Breno Giacomini had just as much trouble staying healthy, and the initial plan of creating a long-term core with high draft picks Okung, Carpenter, Unger (2009 second-rounder) and Moffitt did not work out. That crew faded away one by one and was completely gone by 2016, along with Giacomini. The Seahawks have averaged 6.5 starting O-line combinations per season under Carroll.

It is telling that Unger, Okung, Carpenter and Giacomini all managed to stay much healthier with their new teams. With the Seahawks from 2013 to 2015, that quartet combined to play in just 67 percent of the games. In eight aggregate seasons since they all left, they have played in 91 percent of the snaps: Unger has missed one game in two seasons with the Saints; Carpenter has played in every game in two years with the Jets; in Denver last year, Okung played in all 16 for the first time in his career; and Giacomini had been healthy in his first two years with the Jets until a back injury sidelined him for most of 2016.

J.R. Sweezy, the only successful D-line convert among the handful the Hawks have tried, was the one starter who managed to stay healthy in Seattle — starting 46 of 48 games over three years. But that clearly took a toll as he brought a back problem to Tampa and missed the entire season after signing with the Bucs last year.

It’s all anecdotal, but it seems to indicate Cable’s power zone scheme, requiring big men to think and move quickly in sync, is rougher on players than other schemes with other teams. Unger plays in a similar zone system in New Orleans, yet has been much healthier there than he was his last two years in Seattle, when he missed 13 games with arm, foot, knee and ankle injuries.

Last year’s unit had the same issues. Garry Gilliam entered the season off knee surgery, Germain Ifedi missed the first three games with a high ankle sprain, Bradley Sowell missed a few weeks with a knee injury and Britt missed a game with an ankle injury.

Injuries certainly are part of the game, but the running litany of ailments suffered by Seattle blockers every year begs the questions: Does Cable demand too much of his linemen? Is the scheme itself unsafe? Does the constant moving around of players lead to more injuries? Are the Hawks not finding the right players?

It has to be a big concern for Carroll as he asserts the need to create a consistent crew. He can’t do it if the players can’t stay healthy.

Aside from that worry, Carroll now has his hopes pinned on the marked improvement of a unit that last year was the youngest in the NFL — and played like it.

It was the culmination of four years of mostly ignoring the line, leaving them with a bunch of raw players. Witness the lack of planning:

In 2014, the Hawks replaced Giacomini with rookie Britt. In 2015, the Hawks traded Unger and lost Carpenter in free agency, replacing them with D-line convert Drew Nowak and Britt while undrafted Gilliam stepped in at right tackle. They were all overmatched, especially against great defensive lines such as the Rams and Panthers.

Yeah, the Seahawks led the league in rushing in 2014 and were a top-four rushing team from 2012 to 2015. But, as the coaches will tell you, that was mostly due to the unique talents of DangeRuss and Beast Mode making up for injuries and ineffectiveness up front.

The Seahawks lost that ability in 2016. Lynch retired, Thomas Rawls struggled to stay healthy and Wilson got hurt in Week 2. Okung and Sweezy were replaced with rookies George Fant and Ifedi. Britt moved to center, second-year player Mark Glowinski replaced Britt at left guard and Gilliam once again struggled at right tackle — partly because he was slow to come back from knee surgery.

The results were predictable, and the Hawks have now burned two precious years of this six-year Super Bowl window because they failed to keep even an average offensive line.

They should have known better than to try to build up a line in one offseason, considering the CBA rules that limit coaching time.

“To take these guys and teach them how to play, to hear a play in the huddle and decipher the information, to go up and get down in a stance, to run block that way, to get off on a hard count, it’s very hard for these guys,” Arizona’s Bruce Arians said recently. “They struggle all spring, and a lot of times they really struggle in training camp because that’s the first time they’ve put on pads and actually hit anybody (in the NFL). That’s a problem with our game; we just don’t get to practice enough in pads with these young kids.”

The 2011 CBA put a limit on the amount of time teams could work with players. They can’t conduct contact practices in offseason minicamps (the Seahawks have violated that rule three times in various ways and are without their fifth-round pick in this draft and a few OTAs because of it).

During training camp, teams are limited to one padded practice per day. And, during the season, they can conduct just 14 padded practices (only one week can have two).

As longtime NFL line coach Paul Boudreau said in 2015: “I think the hardest thing I see is the way we have to practice now because of the rules that are put on our coaching staffs. … It’s put a lot of stress on line coaches, offense and defense. … If you don’t practice in pads and you’re always in ‘underwear’ and you can’t go against the defensive line but once or twice a week in pads, you’re going to be behind.

“In the 1980s and ’90s, you came out of training camp, you were ready to play on Day 1. Now, by the third or fourth game, you can tell that your guys are still not there.”

Last season, the Seahawks’ guys were still not there in the final game.

With Lynch retired, Wilson and Rawls injured and a JV line, the Hawks were a pitiful 25th in rushing. Wilson spent the season hobbling through knee and ankle injuries that should have sidelined him for weeks.

Schneider admitted he let the line get too young, saying he messed up by letting veteran guard Jahri Evans go at the end of the summer. His only veterans were third-tier players Sowell and J’Marcus Webb. This year, he has tried to do better by adding Joeckel and Oday Aboushi. The Hawks clearly are confident that Joeckel, guaranteed $7 million, will start at left tackle.

Other than Britt anchoring the unit at center, it’s anybody’s guess how it will shake out. At the moment, it looks like it could be LT Joeckel, LG Glowinksi or Rees Odhiambo, C Britt, RG Aboushi or Glowinski, RT Ifedi or Gilliam. This draft is not very strong along the line, and it seems unlikely the Hawks will add anyone better than what they have now. So it largely comes down to the 2016 guys improving.

“These guys are coming back and they’ll get after it … and be farther along than they were,” Carroll said. “It couldn’t be more obvious. That’s just the natural thing that’s going to happen. We need that natural occurrence to take place and help us be better from the start. We would like to see some continuity be really important.”

But first we have to see whether the Seahawks can find a combination that can be effective and stay healthy. Based on the last few seasons, it’s entirely possible that will never happen with this regime.

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4 thoughts on “Are Hawks capable of building a talented, consistent O-line?”

  1. Thank you. I follow many Hawks blogs and podcasts and this is the single best piece I have seen on the offensive line struggles that have held the entire team back. Those guys on the o-line mean well, but they are set up for failure.

    Like

  2. “It’s all anecdotal, but it seems to indicate Cable’s power zone scheme, requiring big men to think and move quickly in sync, is rougher on players than other schemes with other teams.”

    What I know about coaching OL would fit twice on a speck of lint. So this is more of question than a critique.

    Intuitively, it seems to me that TC coaches a complex scheme to inexperienced players.

    I wonder whether the team would be better off with a more straight-ahead approach. By most accounts, Carpenter has been much better in New York than here because the power scheme run there is simpler and more suited to his skills. If that’s true of for a guy who started at Alabama, it might also be true for someone who played hoops at Western Kentucky. Just a thought.

    Like

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