It’s Not Kam Chancellor the Hawks Have Been Missing. It’s Max Unger

Still, have faith the Graham-Unger trade will pay off in the long run.

Anyone who’d blame Kam Chancellor for the Seahawks’ 0-2 start probably also blames Amazon when their rent goes up, and their boss when their pay doesn’t. Sorry friend, but as with most of life’s disappointments, multiple factors are to blame. And when it comes to the Seahawks’ winless start, Chancellor’s absence wasn’t the biggest one.

If the Seahawks had to win a game today, Chancellor’s not the player I’d want back from the 2014 squad. I’d rather have Max Unger.

The Seahawks traded Unger, their two-time Pro Bowl center and best-ever player from Hawai’i, to New Orleans in the offseason as part of a deal for star tight end Jimmy Graham. Preliminary dividends are minimal—Graham’s caught just 7 passes. Meanwhile the Seahawks’ Unger-less offensive line is a dumpster fire. Inside of a tire fire. With a little flaming white flag on top.

While Chancellor’s backups at strong safety weren’t stellar, at least DeShawn Shead and Dion Bailey played that position in college. In fact each was an all-conference strong safety. Unger’s replacement at center, Drew Nowak, was an all-conference player as well—at defensive tackle.

Until Week 1 against St. Louis, Drew Nowak hadn’t started a game at center since high school. But wait, there’s more! Starting right tackle Garry Gilliam was a tight end in college. And starting right guard Justin Britt was a tackle the past five years.

The appalling lack of experience shows. The Seahawks’ running game is non-existent.

Bill Barnwell said it best last week on the Grantland NFL podcast, a must-listen for football fans: “A lot of the discussion is around Kam Chancellor and how the Seahawks need to pay him. To me it’s, ‘Man, the Seahawks were smart to pay Russell Wilson.’”

Right now, Wilson is the offense. Against St. Louis, Marshawn Lynch struggled, and Wilson’s ability to scramble away from relentless pressure kept the Seahawks in the game. Against Green Bay, the Seahawks’ running game was comatose until Wilson made himself a part of it. He ended the game as the team’s leading rusher. For the season, he’s only 5 yards behind Lynch.

St. Louis held Lynch to 71 yards. The next week, the Rams gave up 123 to Washington rookie Matt Jones. Green Bay allowed Matt Forte to run for 141 yards in Week 1. Then on Sunday Lynch managed just 41 against them.

Lynch is 29 years old—AARP-y for a running back—so the inevitability of time tells us that he could be in decline. I don’t see it. To my eyes, Lynch is running with the same elusiveness and ferocity as ever, and stats back that up—according to game charting by Pro Football Focus, Lynch has broken or eluded 8 tackles in 2015, more than all but 2 other NFL backs.

Lynch isn’t the problem. The inexperienced line is.

Football Outsiders tracks a stat called “stuffed” runs. That’s the number of running plays where the back is stopped at or behind the line of scrimmage. Seahawks running backs were stuffed 17 percent of the time in 2014, the sixth-best mark in the NFL. In 2015, the “stuffed” rate has leaped to 28 percent, fourth-worst. Doesn’t matter what your first name is if you start your run with a 300-pounder hanging off you.

Still, there’s a method to the ugliness. The Hawks’ decision to move Nowak from defensive to offense isn’t out of desperation. It’s intentional. Carroll explained the tactic in his Wednesday press conference:

“In college, you’re gonna put your better athletes on defense, the guys that move the best. And the guys that move the least, that’s kind of the last stop for them, the offensive line. And so when they come out of college, a lot of the guys that weren’t equipped to be an NFL defensive lineman but still had better movement than the bulk of the offensive linemen coming at you, it gives you an opportunity to see if you can create something special out of these guys. So you get a guy with a great attitude, defensive-minded, tough, understands defenses and has more athleticism, and if he has the potential to be big enough, then we think we have a chance.”

So far Nowak hasn’t been a success. Pro Football Focus, which charts and grades individual player performance, rates him 26th out of 32 NFL centers. But Nowak does have athleticism—his 5.25 40-yard-dash time at his college pro day would’ve ranked first among centers in the recent draft combine. He beat out 6-year veteran Lemuel Jeanpierre for the starting spot. And as he learns the position, he’ll get better.

Pete Carroll had to know his team would struggle to run early. What he’s counting on—what he always counts on—is that he’ll coach his team up and find success by season’s end. “We’re going to continue to tweak until we get the right balance,” Carroll said Wednesday. “We’ll improve as we go.”

Which is why I specified above: If I wanted to win a game today, I’d want Unger over Chancellor. If I wanted to win 20 weeks from now, in Super Bowl 50? Give me Chancellor and Graham.

Chancellor’s size, speed, and strength (he’s 6 percent body fat, Carroll said Wednesday) is a key to that. So is Graham. He was MIA in Green Bay, but he and Wilson are working on timing and throwing angles to capitalize on chances that may have been lost against the Packers. Graham will get more catches has the year goes on. Chancellor will lay the boom on opposing ballcarriers. Drew Nowak will keep D-linemen out of Marshawn Lynch’s face. By November the Seahawks will be playing championship football. How do I know this? Because, unlike Nowak, Pete Carroll has done this before.

The past three years, in September and October, Pete Carroll’s Seahawks are 15-8. From November on? 27-6. In Pete I trust.

Sure the Hawks are 0-2. Other facts about the 2015 season:

Johnny Manziel is 10th in passer rating and Andrew Luck is 35th.

Calvin Johnson has caught fewer touchdowns than Crockett Gilmore.

Carson Palmer has not been sacked.

It’s early, folks. Says Carroll on this week’s game against the Bears: “The chance to come home, get in front of the 12s, it’s exciting for us. We really feel like this is a start. Maybe nobody else does, but I don’t really care. That’s how we’re doing it.”

 
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