This column was inevitable. We could have penciled it in months ago. It's my third annual look at whether the Seattle Seahawks can overcome the various early-season offensive maladies that inevitably threaten to knock them from the contending ranks. The 2015 version of this column explained why a badly listing offense would right itself (it did). Last year's incarnation suggested there were issues that would work against a dramatic reversal (also true).
The tradition continues.
One critical factor differentiates this Seattle team from the 2016 edition that stumbled out of the starting gates. There are other similarities and differences compared to past teams that will influence Seattle's trajectory following a 1-2 start to this season. We examine them here.
What's the same?
An unusually young offensive line: Seattle has had the NFL's youngest starting line by a wide margin this season. This is the seventh consecutive season in which the team's starting five has ranked among the seven youngest through September. Young doesn't have to mean bad -- Dallas and Tennessee rank among the five youngest lines now -- but it does when a line somewhat lacking in pedigree is patched together at the last minute.
The plan was for veterans Luke Joeckel and T.J. Lang to stabilize a young line featuring talented (but raw) prospect George Fant at left tackle. Seattle dined with Joeckel and Lang together during free agency and thought it would land both, only to have Lang sign with Detroit instead. Seattle then lost Fant to a season-ending knee injury during the preseason.
Seattle will bank on this young group improving as it plays together, same as in past seasons.
Angst over Jimmy Graham: When tight end Jimmy Graham was with New Orleans, the Saints made it a point to use formations that featured him. They targeted him 7.8 times per game in his final 32 games with the team. Seattle has targeted Graham 6.0 times per game in his first 32 games with the team, but it might as well have been 0.6 times per game based on how much attention his role commands when the offense struggles. Graham did have 11 targets against Tennessee on Sunday, tying his Seahawks high, but that was with quarterback Russell Wilson putting up a career-high 49 attempts.
Uncertainty at RB: Seattle was bouncing between Thomas Rawls and Christine Michael at running back early last season. Marshawn Lynch was in and out of the lineup with injuries the season before, until Rawls hit his stride. Eddie Lacy was supposed to be the answer in 2017, but it's clear now that rookie seventh-round choice Chris Carson -- labeled "the real deal" by a personnel director who scouted him in the preseason -- is the player Seattle has targeted as its next long-term starter.
The offensive staff: Coordinator Darrell Bevell, line coach Tom Cable and quarterbacks coach Carl Smith have all been with Seattle since 2011, the year before Wilson arrived. Seattle ranks among the NFL leaders since then on a per-game basis in rushing yards (first), fewest turnovers (third), offensive points (ninth) and explosive plays (11th), defined as 12-plus-yard rushes and 16-plus-yard passes.
Those are impressive numbers, but they tell half the story. Since 2011, Seattle is 28th in offensive points per game in the first halves of seasons and fourth -- behind only the Patriots, Saints and Packers -- in the second halves of seasons. The Seahawks' ranking for explosive plays jumps from 25th in Games 1-8 to third, behind the Eagles and Saints, in Games 9-16.
That clear history for improvement does not seem to be random. It looks like Seattle's offense starts over annually with new parts, especially along the line, and then finds its way. That doesn't mean another turnaround is assured. The improvements were much more modest last season -- for reasons related to the quarterback.
Russell Wilson is healthy: Wilson hobbled through most of last season after suffering an ankle injury in the opener. ESPN charting shows that Wilson has been pressured, sacked or put under duress on 36 percent of pass plays since he entered the league, the highest rate for any quarterback with 100 pass attempts or more in those five-plus seasons. Wilson's pressure rate is near 35 percent so far this season -- but he is healthy. That is critical for an offense that needs the threat of his running to be at its best and needs his elusiveness to compensate for a leaky line.
Doug Baldwin is not: Baldwin is the most consistently excellent performer on the Seahawks' offense. He is the one receiver Wilson can trust now that Jermaine Kearse is wearing a Jets uniform. He is also a phenomenal all-around player whose contributions as a blocker and super-energized force go beyond catching the ball. There's some young talent at the position but not proven young talent. That's why it was significant when a groin injury forced Baldwin to finish the Tennessee game on the sideline. Will the injury linger? Seattle draws Indy at home in Week 4 and the Rams on the road in Week 5 before reaching its bye. Getting Baldwin healthy is key.
An oddly tough schedule: Seattle is the only team in the league that has played two road games against teams that finished 2016 with winning records. The Seahawks led both of those road games in the third quarter before falling 17-9 at Green Bay and 33-27 at Tennessee. This would probably be a 2-1 team finding its way amid much less angst if the schedule hadn't served up two of its tougher road games right away.
Some age on defense: Seattle still has top-shelf talent on defense. A couple of shaky second halves against Green Bay and Tennessee should not be reason for panic. Age is creeping in, however, and that could, at least in theory, make this defense more reliant on a baseline level of assistance from its offense. Seattle's defensive starters went into Week 3 as the second oldest behind Arizona's in average age (the ranking was only 15th by median age, however).
Was the second-half meltdown in the heat at Tennessee an aberration? The Seahawks gave up 24 second-half points, the most a Seahawks team has allowed in 129 total games under Carroll. The advanced stats showed Seattle at minus-13.7 in defensive expected points added for that second half, the worst for Seattle in a second half since a 2010 game against Tampa Bay that saw Josh Freeman throw three scoring passes after halftime (Richard Sherman was at Stanford then).
Seattle should be fine, but fine might not be good enough to earn the Seahawks what they need most to become a Super Bowl team again: home-field advantage through the NFC playoffs. Losing at Green Bay surrendered one possible tiebreaker. Seattle can win back another potential tiebreaker with a Week 11 home victory over Atlanta. A game at Dallas in Week 16 could also help shape the NFC race.
The Seahawks nearly pulled off a comeback Sunday at Tennessee, but with the loss, Seattle is 3-7-1 on the road since the start of last season, including the playoffs. The Seahawks were 8-3 in their 11 road games before that, with a 27-13 average final score for those games, even counting the defeats. They didn't just win on the road. They dominated. Now, they mostly lose away from home.
That drop-off reveals a championship team becoming a very good team that tends to play its best later in the season. Getting back to the Super Bowl will most likely require a healthy Wilson and an emerging young back in Carson elevating an offense with more question marks around it -- and specifically, up front -- than the Seahawks anticipated having.