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The current trend in the NFL is to have your next coach in place before your current coach exits. That’s what Seattle did last season, with Mike Holmgren having already passed the torch to Jim Mora even before the Seahawks went belly-up in 2008.
Unless the rash of injuries that befell the Seahawks was triggered by Holmgren’s lame-duck campaign, it’s tough to pin Seattle’s 4-12 mark entirely on the Walrus. But it wasn’t exactly the way Holmgren figured he’d go out, and he’s already apparently spent enough time with his family to the point that he’s ready to return to coaching.
That will happen elsewhere, as this is now Mora’s team. The former Falcons head coach has spent the past two seasons coaching Seattle’s secondary, and his experience falls on the defensive side of the ball. So Mora will turn the Seahawks offense over to Greg Knapp, who was his coordinator in Atlanta.
The knee-jerk reaction is to view Knapp as a devotee of the running game, as under his rule the Falcons ranked first in the NFL in rushing each of his three seasons. Of course, during that run Atlanta had a quarterback by the name of Michael Vick, who helped produce 2,674 rushing yards and 11 rushing touchdowns over that span—including 1,060 yards on the ground in 2006. Contrast that with Matt Hasselbeck, who has 1,075 rushing yards in his nine-year NFL career.
Hasselbeck, however, is a far better passer than Vick ever was. It’s tough to run a West Coast offense when your quarterback is completing just over half his passes, and during Knapp’s tenure in Atlanta Vick never topped a 56.4% completion rate. Hasselbeck is a 60.1% for his career and has topped 3,000 yards every time he’s made more than a dozen starts in a season; Vick maxed out at 2,907 during the Mora/Knapp years.
What will be most interesting to watch is where Hasselbeck’s passes are directed. With Vick at the helm in Atlanta, Falcon wideouts ranked 31st, 30th, and 32nd in fantasy scoring from 2004 to 2006. For comparison, during that span Atlanta wide receivers caught 320 balls for 4,302 yards and 24 touchdowns; last year alone Arizona wideouts put up 310-4,013-30.
Were those numbers due to Vick’s inability to throw downfield, or does Knapp prefer to look underneath? The throws weren’t going to the backs, who caught 59, 59, and 61 passes during that time frame. Tight ends, on the other hand, benefited greatly. During the Mora/Knapp years in Atlanta, Falcons tight ends ranked 9th, 8th, and 6th in fantasy scoring; the average season for the position produced 61 catches, 857 yards, and seven touchdowns.
So while at least some of John Carlson‘s success for the Seahawks last season was due to inexperienced quarterbacks and a banged up wide receiving corps, there’s plenty of reason to expect his sophomore season numbers to be just as solid as his rookie stats.
Now, what about Knapp’s reputation as a running-game mastermind? Truth be told, Atlanta’s running backs were only slightly better than adequate in Knapp’s version of the West Coast offense, finishing 11th, 12th, and 17th in fantasy points scored by the position in 2004 through 2006; those rushing titles leaned heavily on the contributions of the quarterback. Of course, those finishes are still better than anything the Seahawks have pulled off in the three seasons since Shaun Alexander’s MVP campaign of 2005, so it’s safe to expect an improvement in the Seattle running game.
As it stands, the Seahawks plan to enter 2009 with a running back committee, with the hope that someone from amongst Julius Jones, T.J. Duckett, and Justin Forsett emerges as a go-to guy. During the Mora/Knapp years in Atlanta, Warrick Dunn was the more productive fantasy back about 75% of the time. However, in both 2004 and 2005 Duckett scored eight touchdowns—the same number he had as Seattle’s goal line back last season. So a similar division of labor, with Jones playing the Dunn role and Duckett reprising his duties at the stripe, seems a logical expectation.
In short, the biggest transition from Holmgren to Mora/Knapp will likely be in the frequency Seattle runs the ball; whereas Holmgren’s WCO was pass-happy, the expectation is that Knapp will look to run first. If he can be as successful with a Jones/Duckett/Hasselbeck backfield as he was with Vick/Dunn/Duckett, the Seahawks should find themselves right back in the thick of the NFC West race.