The Mike Shanahan Redskins vs. The Pete Carroll Seahawks: A memoir on rebuilding efforts

In the modern day NFL, you have to be able to win right away, and you have to be able to continue to win consistently in order to keep your job.  This is very true of coaches who are tasked with building projects as well.  Just look around the NFL: Raheem Morris of the Bucs and Steve Spagnuolo of the Rams both took over struggling programs and combined to take those programs to 17 wins in 2010, during their second seasons.  Despite this accomplishment, the expectation in 2011 was to get to the playoffs.  The Rams and Bucs both bombed to the point of being maybe the two worst teams in the NFL this year, and now Morris and Spagnuolo will coach the 2012 season elsewhere.

Building a winning culture in the NFL is incredibly difficult, and there are no points for minor accomplishments or for coming close.  You either succeed in doing so and get paid handsomely for success, or you find out for yourself why you have entered the only profession where the expectation is that you will get fired.  NFL Head Coach is not exactly a thankless task: look at Bill Belichick and Tony Dungy, for example.  But it is a job where you probably will not be well-liked in your local market.

In December 2009, the Washington Redskins and Seattle Seahawks fired their hand picked coaches and their general managers, and decided to start again from the ground up.  Neither organization blew up it’s front office, but personnel guys Vinny Cerrato and Tim Ruskell were sent packing along with head coaches Jim Zorn and Jim Mora Jr.  It’s not that either roster was particularly talentless: at least eight guys on each of those teams have emerged as starters in other cities; but the vast majority of each team’s roster from that 2009 season was not in the NFL in 2011.  

What made the situations that Mike Shanahan and Pete Carroll were stepping into unique was that these weren’t just building projects: they were tear down projects.  The game of football had progressed in such a way that both teams were relying on tenets of football that just didn’t lead to winning anymore.  These are teams that were running offenses with no vertical elements, defenses that were built to stop the run and not the pass, and had no idea how to build an offensive line.

This is a RHH case study that will examine how each team approached the last two years, will evaluate where they are today, and look at what the future holds.  It will not look at the Seahawks as a significantly better team than the Redskins in 2010 simply because they won that NFC West division: in many ways, the Redskins (in their worst year of the Snyder era) were actually a better team.  It will grade each building block critically on it’s merits and the juncture and context at which it happened.  This will be a lengthy post.

2009

The Seahawks were a 5-11 team under Jim Mora in 2009.  The Redskins were a 4-12 team under Jim Zorn in 2009.  We’re essentially looking at two teams starting in the same spot, right?  But the deeper we look, the more decieving those looks are.

The 2009 Redskins were not a young team.  They were actually a veteran laden team who was incredibly limited in the amount of 25 and under talent it had on the roster.  It’s four best players under the age of 25 were pro-bowl LB Brian Orakpo, third year LB HB Blades, third year FS LaRon Landry, and second string TE Fred Davis.  CB DeAngelo Hall was only 26 and many still had very high hopes for his development.  But the majority of the talent on the 2009 Redskins was at or past it’s prime.  The median age of a Redskins starter in 2009 was 28 years old, the age of RB Clinton Portis (draft year: 2002), DT Albert Haynesworth (2002), or CB Carlos Rogers (2005).  That’s a rather experienced team.

The Seahawks were a much younger team than the Redskins on average, having an average median age of 27 for a stater.  But unlike the Zorn Redskins, the Seahawks were starting young players in their prime who weren’t quality NFL starters.  The skill players of that Seahawks team stick out in particular because aside from TE John Carlson, these were not drafted/developed Seahawk WRs and RBs.  The quarterback was Matt Hasselbeck, who was of course acquired from Green Bay via trade when he came over with Mike Holmgren in 2001.  The backfield was Julius Jones (drafted by the Cowboys) and FB Justin Griffith (drafted by the Falcons where he played for Seahawks OC Greg Knapp).  The Seahawks’ top three receivers were a name bunch, famous only for succeeding elsewhere before being teammates in Seattle: Nate Burleson, TJ Houshmandzadeh, and Deion Branch.  

The Seahawks under Holmgren/Ruskell and Mora/Ruskell had no vehicle for offensive player development, which hurt both the offensive line and made them go out and pay big money for skill position guys.  They were strong at the linebacker level, and had a budding star on the defensive line in Brandon Mebane.  But the secondary was a major issue with all the money the Seahawks had tied up in the underperforming Marcus Trufant.  A young corner by the name of Josh Wilson had made some plays that year, but couldn’t stop getting torched when opposing offenses picked on him.  The Seahawks roster was a little younger, but compared to the Redskins roster, it was a mess.  For the Redskins, the problem was age: they had an older roster that was caught up in the vicious cycle of trading draft picks for veteran talent.  The Seahawks weren’t particularly young, but their young talent wasn’t developing unless it was in the defensive front.  Neither Mora nor Zorn had been doing the job adequately.

The Tear Down processes

A good rebuilding process can not so much as begin until you tear down the parts that aren’t adequate.  Carroll and GM Jon Schneider probably gave away more talent via trade than maybe they should have.  But the Seahawks looked at their roster, and what Ruskell had built, and they took an interesting approach: they started to take the  pieces who had underperformed under Mora and trade them away or just get rid of them entirely.  What made the Seahawks’ work so interesting is that they didn’t start and end the tear down in February 2010.  They continued to move people out until the middle of the season.

They let Knapp go and hired Jeremy Bates at offensive coordinator.  They retained defensive coordinator Gus Bradley, who the new management decided would not be held responsible for the lack of development of players.  To an extent, Bradley has been running the kind of defense preferred by Carroll and Schneider, but it’s Bradley — a Mora holdover — who calls the plays in this defense.  Patrick Kerney didn’t want to be part of the rebuilding process, he retired.  Schneider traded the last year of Josh Wilson’s rookie contract to the Baltimore Ravens for a draft pick.  The young pass rushing specialist Darryl Tapp was swapped to Philadelphia for pass rusher (and former LB) Chris Clemons.  FS Deon Grant was not retained.  Maybe most controversially, the Seahawks opted to retain Trufant and his large contract despite his struggles in 2009.  Burleson signed with the Detroit Lions in free agency.  They traded durable starting LG Rob Sims to the Lions for a fifth round pick.  They did not retain 16 game starter RT Ray Willis.

The Seahawks did not stop making moves during the season.  TJ Houshmandzadeh was released during the preseason, in the shocking move of the season.  Deion Branch got traded to the New England Patriots at the trade deadline.  Julius Jones was moved to the Saints when they ran into injury problems early in the season.  And DE Lawrence Jackson (who played for Carroll at USC) was released by the Seahawks in the middle of Carroll’s first season, where Detroit grabbed him off waivers.  The damage?  6 players who the Seahawks parted ways with during this season alone ended up as starters elsewhere in the NFL.  That’s probably more than they intended.  Rebuilding teams tend to error though on the side of moving too many parts of the old culture than keeping too many parts.

The Redskins had a three day period in February 2010 where they released unwanted players.  Following the expected retirement of LT Chris Samuels, they cut the following veterans: DT Corneilius Griffin, RB Rock Cartwright, RB Ladell Betts, CB Fred Smoot, RG Randy Thomas, RB Marcus Mason, WR Antwaan Randle El, and QB Todd Collins (that’s just two cuts on the defensive side).  Of that list of 8, only Randle El, Collins, and Cartwright ever appeared in another NFL game, and only Rock Cartwright is still an active NFL player as we speak.  So far, so good.

The Redskins continued to work on trades for a number of the players which Mike Shanahan had no use for, coming to terms on trades for QB Jason Campbell to Oakland on draft day, and CB Justin Tryon to the Colts on the eve of the season, receiving a 2011 7th rounder and a 2012 4th rounder for their troubles. And that was it.  Wait, that was it?  The epic teardown of the awful Cerrato/Zorn roster involved changing…ten players?  Well, there were the cases of FB Eddie Williams, G Edwin Williams (not the same person) and G Chad Rinehart, who all went on to be starters elsewhere, after failing to make the 2010 Redskins in training camp.  And WR Devin Thomas lost the kick returning job to UDFA Brandon Banks, getting released in the process.  But yeah, that looks like it.  After hearing how awful the roster was that the Shanahan’s acquired, their sweeping changes amounted to the decision to get rid of ten players, half of which went on to play elsewhere.

Conclusion: The Redskins had a much better roster when they changed coaches than the Seahawks did.  Much older, but much better.

2010 Acquisitions

The Seattle Seahawks needed a talent infusion as much as any team in the league.  They had no skill talent.  They had little talent in the defensive secondary, and traded one of the young pieces they had.  But the Seahawks were in a careful teardown mode throughout the 2010 offseason.  Having two first round picks and a major need at quarterback (Matt Hasselbeck was entering the last year of his deal and it was rumored that Carroll would not bring him back), the Seahawks used those picks on LT Russell Okung and FS Earl Thomas.  In the second round, they would select WR Golden Tate.  To solve their quarterback need they traded a third round pick to the San Diego Chargers for backup quarterback Charlie Whitehurst.  They also signed six offensive lineman with a zone background as part of a total makeover: Tyler Polumbus, Mike Gibson, Chester Pitts, Ben Hamilton, Stacey Andrews, and William Robinson from the Redskins.

The Seahawks signed Lawyer Milloy, who once played with Carroll when he coached the New England Patriots.  During the season, they traded a fourth round pick for Bills RB Marshawn Lynch.  They traded a fifth round pick for RB Leon Washington, who they would use as a kick returning specialist.  They traded a fourth round pick for former USC RB LenDale White, who Carroll ended up releasing before he ever played a game.  Their first year free agent signings were incredibly targeted, guys that had no market: Milloy, former Carroll receiver WR Mike Williams, WR Ruvell Martin who had played for Schneider in Green Bay, TE Chris Baker from the Jets, DE Raheem Brock of the Colts, and they stuck their franchise tag on K Olindo Mare.  They picked up DE Kentwan Balmer from the 49ers off of waivers, who started 11 games.

The Seahawks’ offensive additions largely failed in 2010, something that Carroll attributed to OC Jeremy Bates, who he fired at the conclusion of the season despite a great gameplan that helped to upset the Saints in the Wild Card round.  WR Mike Williams had a good season and earned himself an extension from Carroll.  Lynch started slow, but established himself as a featured back in the offense.  But Tate didn’t excel as a rookie and Charlie Whitehurst really bombed in the preseason and failed to wrest the starting quarterback position from Hasselbeck, which made the trade for him and subsequent one year contract extension look kind of silly in retrospect.  White never made it to the season.  Washington never played much offense.  Martin and Baker were just kind of there.  None of the offensive line signings panned out.

The Seahawks got good seasons from RT Sean Locklear and waiver WR pickup Brandon Stokely, but both left in free agency after the 2010 season and signed with Washington (though Stokely never officially signed the contract he agreed to).  Defensively, Clemons was a sack master and a great no-cost pickup by Schneider.  LB David Hawthorne had another great season, as did Brock and Mebane and the developing Red Bryant, a Ruskell pick who found his home at defensive end under Carroll/Bradley.  The secondary had another rough season as Wilson enjoyed a career year for the Ravens.  Milloy was a shell of his former self, as was Trufant.  Earl Thomas had a decent campaign to put himself in defensive rookie of the year consideration, but he didn’t have a whole lot of help.

Like the Seahawks, the Redskins also traded draft picks to solve their quarterback issue.  Washington dealt the second round pick and a fourth round pick to the Philadelphia Eagles for Donovan McNabb.  Unlike Whitehurst, there was little doubt that this trade would end with the Redskins solving their QB issue for a couple years, and not at all with him losing playing time to another veteran.  But the Redskins also added OT Jammal Brown via trade, making him a right tackle.  In doing the McNabb and Brown trades, the Redskins had managed to trade away the middle of their 2011 along with their 2010 second rounder for those two veterans.  Beyond that, they retained three of Zorn’s lineman: Will Montgomery, Mike Williams, and Derrick Dockery, while adding some guys with zone blocking experience in Artis Hicks and Kory Lichtensteiger.  The plan was for the Redskins OL to be about half retained Zorn guys (Rabach, Montgomery, M. Williams, Dockery), and half new guys (T. Williams, Brown, Lichtenstiger, Hicks).  This was similar to the plan the Seahawks had to retain three guys, but the main difference being that the Redskins actually gave out new contracts to most of the retained Zorn era lineman (Williams, Rabach, Montgomery).

The Redskins showed during their draft they would value the offensive line, and in trades they valued the offensive line, but I guess they thought most of their offensive lineman of the future were already on the roster.  Kory Lichtenstieger replaced Derrick Dockery early in the season, but other than that, the 2010 OL resembled the 2009 OL after Samuels’ injury.

The Redskins also retained Santana Moss at wide receiver, pairing him with 40 year old Joey Galloway, and 29 year old Roydell Williams, though it was a Zorn practice squader (Anthony Armstrong) who actually won the no. 2 receiver position.  Like the Seahawks, the Redskins went the veteran route at running back, making moves to get Larry Johnson and Willie Parker (and eventually, Ryan Torain) to go along with 29 year old Clinton Portis.

The strategies employed for building the offenses in year one by the Seahawks and Redskins were incredibly comparable.  Defensively, the Seahawks went through an equally significant makeover while keeping the defensive coaching staff largely in place.  The Redskins hired a new defensive coordinator, but they mostly kept all the personnel in place from 2009.  Major additions for the Redskins on defense included Ma’ake Kemoeatu at NT, Vonnie Holliday at DE, and Adam Carriker at DE.  The Redskins pretty much went forward without changing defensive personnel at all.

Neither the Redskins or Seahawks succeeded on their offensive moves.  The Redskins risked draft picks, and were not rewarded.  The Seahawks risked significantly less, and had one of the worst offenses in football in 2010.  And without any meaningful additions, the 2009 Redskins defense became just a disappointing version of itself in 2010.  The Seahawks defense was also pretty bad in 2010, though it succeeded in developing a number of young players that would be the foundation of it’s efforts in 2011.

2011 Acquisitions

Carroll and Schneider knew that despite building a team that won it’s division in 2010, they did not build a team that was particularly good on either side of the ball.  The Seahawks had enjoyed a pretty good season as an organization in 2010, but for it to be a great year, they couldn’t justify that their offensive personnel moves largely failed, and so spectacularly that it became impractical to retain the highly regarded young Bates after just one season.  The hire they made to right the ship was Darrell Bevell, former OC of the Vikings.  As for the Redskins, they lost their TE coach Jon Embree to become the head coach of the University of Colorado.  The Redskins coaching staff was otherwise retained.

The focus of offseason two for the Seahawks (with the skill positions and the defensive line being vastly improved in offseason one) was the rest of the offensive line and the cornerback position.  Here is where the Seahawks were wildly successful.  They added the versatile Alan Branch to the defensive line mix, replacing Colin Cole.  In 2010, the Seahawks spent much of the season relying on the coverage abilities of rookie CBs Walter Thurmond and Nate Ness.  In 2011, the Seahawks never shied away from starting corners with limited experience, playing 5th round rookie Richard Sherman and former practice squader Brandon Browner as the starting corners.  They played so well in the preseason that the Seahawks felt comfortable enough trading former first rounder Kelly Jennings (on a one year contract) to Cincinnati.  Sherman has been one of the best corners in football this season.  Behind the abilites of Sherman and Browner, and the development of Earl Thomas into a pro bowler, the Seahawks produced one of the best defensive units in the game this year, one that has strength and depth at all 11 positions.

The offensive line of the Seahawks is still very much of a disaster zone due to injury, but the Seahawks changed the direction of it’s coaching: now under former Raiders coach Tom Cable, who brought LG Robert Gallery with him.  The Seahawks confirmed the importance of offensive line to them by drafting RT James Carpenter (widely considered a reach) in the first round.  They added John Moffitt in the third round, installing him at RG.  Max Ungar, the tenured Seahawk of the bunch, because the unit’s cornerstone under Cable at Center.  And while Russell Okung has yet to have a healthy year at LT, he has a lot of really good tape in his first two years.  This unit has been built, now it just needs health.  And the Seahawks managed to bring free agent QB Tarvaris Jackson over with Bevell, improving on Matt Hasselbeck’s 2010 production in the process.

The Redskins were unable to address questions on their offensive line in 2011, and enter 2012 with the same questions.  Trent Williams’ ability to play games has remained inconsistent, thanks to a high ankle sprain and a suspension for an illegal substance.  The Redskins lost Kory Lichtenstiger and Jammal Brown to injuries at different points this season, which was unfortunate.  They made a signing to shore up the disaster RG position of the last two years, and merely by playing every snap this season at RG, Chris Chester filled the role for the Redskins.  As a unit, this group still has questions.  We don’t know who the RT will be next year.  Will Montgomery is now a free agent.  Lichtenstieger is coming off a serious injury.  The Redskins have failed to solidify their OL in the first two years, a stated goal of the Shanahan/Forester offensive group.

Conclusions 

The Redskins in two seasons have managed to replace a number of Zorn era Redskins: Carlos Rogers has been replaced by Josh Wilson in free agency, Andre Carter has been replaced by Ryan Kerrigan in the draft, Albert Haynesworth has been replaced by Barry Cofield through free agency, Chris Samuels has been replaced by Trent Williams in the draft, O.J. Atogwe came in through free agency replacing Kareem Moore, DeJon Gomes became the new Chris Horton, Willie Smith the new Stephon Heyer, Derrick Dockery became Kory Lichtensteiger, Chris Cooley and Fred Davis have switched roles, Jabar Gaffney came over in a trade to replace Antwaan Randle El, and the RB position has received a total facelift, which is the one thing we all knew we would get with the Shanahans.

But what the Redskins have failed to change through rebuilding — and what the Seahawks have succeeded at — is changing the fundamental pieces of the who the Redskins were and are.  The veteran leader Jason Campbell, who became Donovan McNabb, and then just sort of disappeared back into a pair of 2012 future draft choices.  The Redskins got nothing out of the Albert Haynesworth contract but a few memorable plays and a 5th round pick.  DeAngelo Hall and Santana Moss became Captains, and lead the team the last two years in drawing 15 yard penalty flags.  The Cerrato/Zorn Redskins have mostly turned into late round picks, but the memories of the failures have not been replaced by memories of successes.  

The Seahawks fans have those memories of recent successes.  They are defined by physical Marshawn Lynch runs, strong defensive front stuffs, big physical corners, and a star safety.  Even though they had no weakness at wide receiver, the Seahawks in 2011 were led in receiving by a priority undrafted rookie free agent, Doug Baldwin.  The Redskins have similar successes in the defensive front to point to, but are mostly defined by London Fletcher pro bowl snubs, and drama involving LaRon Landry’s health.

There is no question from a roster standpoint, the Seahawks are ahead of the Redskins and have done a better job over the last two years, despite starting with less on the roster (though far more in terms of draft picks).   However, despite maybe not being the “winners” of this rebuilding comparision, the Redskins do have a trump card.  And thats that as much as the Seahawks have going right for them right now, they might not actually be a better team than the Redskins.  

The Seahawks may be ahead of the Redskin in terms of the contribution of their young talent, but while young talent offers you all the promise in the world, it is only that: promise.  The Redskins aren’t a great team.  But on offense in particular, at least one stat (DVOA) suggests that while the Redskins might not have the passing offense or the rushing offense of the Seahawks after two seasons, they rate higher on offense.  The reason?  Fewer presnap penalties and stronger defensive opponents.  The Redskins have improved on offense, if not in talent, then in on-the-field production.  Finding a quarterback that can curb the turnovers should be worth about a win to both the Redskins and the Seahawks.

Despite the worst quarterback play since 2003, the Redskins offense is back on the rise because of the strongest production by their running game since 2008.  And while the Redskins fans might not have classic Marshawn Lynch runs to hang their hat on, there will always be the 3rd and 3 toss play where Roy Helu’s hurdle over Roy Lewis…of the Seahawks.

The Seahawks have not been a measurably better team than the Redskins over the last two years.  They have won more games because they enjoy one of the strongest homefield advantages in all of sports, and the Redskins enjoy one of the weakest.  There is no question that Mike Shanahan will have to win more games, particularly at home, to keep his job beyond 2012.  But Carroll is likely to be in the same situation despite his 2010 division title.  Building a team that wins consistently isn’t easy, and nothing Shanahan accomplished with the Broncos, nor anything Carroll accomplished at USC really matters now.  All that matters is these two rosters, these two coaching staffs, and these two teams trying to make the playoffs in 2012. 

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