Taking the next step

Posted Jul 29, 2010

As well as the spring went for Jeremy Bates and the Seahawks’ offense, the team’s new coordinator wants – and needs – even more once Bing Training Camp practices start on Saturday.

So far, so good. But now, let’s get even better.

That’s the mindset of offensive coordinator Jeremy Bates as the Seahawks prepare for their first practice at Bing Training Camp on Saturday morning.

“Going into camp, as an offensive unit, I thought they picked up the playbook extremely fast, they came together and played together as a group,” Bates said. “Now, we’ve just got to take that next step and start playing fast – not thinking, and play with more with reaction.

“That starts with having full knowledge of the system and what we expect. I think we had a great start and I’m looking forward to having these guys come back.”

Change has been a constant since coach Pete Carroll and general manager John Schneider were hired in January – which plays into Carroll’s emphasis on improving the competition at every position, and also the fact that the Seahawks have won a combined nine games the past two seasons after dominating the NFC West the previous five years.

There are 18 new coaches, including Bates and his entire offensive staff. Forty-four of the 83 players on the current roster weren’t around last season, including 23 of 42 on Bates’ side of the ball.

Not surprisingly, the first portion of camp will feature repetition.

“They’ll hear the same playbook for the third time,” Bates said. “Usually, it takes three times to really get it.”

When so much is new, and even more could end up being new, stability at the quarterback position cannot be overrated. Carroll and Schneider have upgraded the position, and spiked the competition, by trading for Charlie Whitehurst and signing J.P. Losman.

But, at least at this pivotal position, the more things have changed the more they’ve stayed the same: Matt Hasselbeck not only remains the starter, he solidified his status with an impressive offseason.

“Matt has been her every day, starting in February, and he’s mastered the playbook,” Bates said. “When the quarterback understands it as well as he does, it makes all the other positions step up to get to his level.

“It definitely starts with the quarterback, and Matt is so smart and his football IQ is off the charts. He’s bought in.”

The process, as Bates mentioned, started Day One. Hasselbeck not only was involved in the early meetings with the new staff, the coaches asked his opinion about certain plays and formations.

“You’ve got to respect where he’s been,” Bates said of Hasselbeck, a three-time Pro Bowl passer who also led the Seahawks to the Super Bowl in 2005. “He’s not a rookie. He’s played the game a bunch. He’s got to feel the play. He’s got to understand it. He’s got to believe in it.

“If he doesn’t understand a play and we keep working at it and he still doesn’t get it, then that play is gone.”

The other spot where stability cannot be overemphasized is the unit where the Seahawks lacked it most last season – the line. In 2009, they used seven different starting combinations, including four starters at left tackle and three each at left guard and center.

That’s why the club used the sixth pick in the NFL draft to select left tackle Russell Okung and also signed left guard Ben Hamilton in free agency. That’s why Bates and line coach Alex Gibbs already have settled on a “starting” unit – Okung, Hamilton, center Chris Spencer, right guard Max Unger and right tackle Sean Locklear.

“You can talk about every position, but it all starts with the guys up front,” Bates said. “We’ll go as far as they’ll take us. If the line is doing big things and great things, then we’re going to go a long way. If they’re struggling, then we’ll struggle as a unit.”

It’s a different story at wide receiver and running back – where Bates will continue to mix-and-match players to find the right combinations – as well as for the backup spots at most positions.

“We’ve got a lot of positions that are open,” Bates said. “The battles that you have during two-a-days, the competition, as a coach you love watching that. You see who steps up and takes over some positions where we still have question marks.”

With that said, here’s a closer look at the offensive side of the roster heading into camp:

Quarterbacks (have three, will carry three): Hasselbeck, Whitehurst, Losman.
The word: Whitehurst was brought in to push Hasselbeck and give the offense a better option at the backup spot – as well as with an eye to the future, since Hasselbeck turns 35 in September. Now Losman, a former first-round draft choice of the Buffalo Bills, is pushing Whitehurst. But the key here remains keeping Hasselbeck healthy. He missed two games last season because of fractured ribs and nine in 2008 with a back problem.

Running backs (have seven, could carry five): tailbacks Julius Jones, Justin Forsett, Leon Washington, Quinton Ganther, Louis Rankin; fullbacks Owen Schmitt, Ryan Powdrell.
The word: At this position, it’s not so much who starts, but who does the most with the opportunities he gets. Carroll used a running-back-by-committee approach during his successful nine-season run at USC to get the best out of all his backs. Jones is the incumbent starter and has led the club in rushing in each of his first two seasons, but with yardage totals of 698 and 663. He remains a solid, if not spectacular, runner, receiver and blocker. Forsett averaged 5.4 yards on 114 carries last season and is pushing to get more this season. Washington was obtained in a draft day trade with the New York Jets after missing much of last season with a broken leg. But his speed and explosiveness provide elements that have been missing from the running game. Ganther’s value is his versatility, as he could play fullback in a pinch and also help on special teams.

Wide receivers (have 12, could carry five or six): T.J. Houshmandzadeh, Deion Branch, Golden Tate, Deon Butler, Ben Obomanu, Mike Williams, Sean Morey, Mike Hass, Marcus Maxwell, Isaiah Stanback, Kole Heckendorf, Ruvell Martin.
The word: Houshmandzadeh and Branch are the most experienced players in this group, but they also missed a lot of time in the spring minicamps and OTA sessions while recovering from minor surgical procedures. That gave more time to second-round draft choice Tate, Butler and Williams, and each took advantage. Bates likes the group so much that he labels the competition for starting jobs and roster spots “wide open,” adding, “It’s doesn’t matter if you’re on the board right now as ‘1’ or ‘11,’ we’ve got three, four weeks to figure out who’s going to make the team. We have not penned in anybody.”

Tight ends (have five, will carry three): John Carlson, Chris Baker, Cameron Morrah, Anthony McCoy, Jameson Konz.
The word: Bates has gotten a lot of credit for his successful – and innovative – use of two-tight end sets. Rightfully so. With Carlson, who has caught 106 passes in his first two seasons, he has a versatile receiver who should flourish in a variety of roles. Baker was signed in free agency to handle the more traditional duties. McCoy, who played for Carroll at USC, only got better as the spring progressed; while Morrah has stepped up his game because of the challenge from McCoy. “It’s a strong position for us, so we’re going to try to get those guys on the field every way we can,” Bates said.

Linemen (have 15, could carry nine or 10): Okung, Hamilton, Spencer, Unger, Locklear; T Ray Willis, C Steve Vallos, G Chester Pitts, G Mike Gibson, G Mansfield Wrotto, T Joe Toledo, T Jacob Phillips, G Mitch Erickson, C Adrian Martinez, C/G Jeff Byers.
The word: The real test of how well the linemen are taking to Gibbs’ zone-blocking scheme won’t come until the preseason games start Aug. 14, because they won’t use cut-block techniques in training camp practices – for obvious reasons. While the starting unit appears set, Bates doesn’t want to rule out experienced backups like Willis, one of only two linemen to start 16 games last season; Vallos, who started eight games the past two seasons; and Pitts, the former Houston Texan who agreed to contact terms on Thursday; or, the potential of Gibson, who played in a zone-blocking scheme at Cal. “If someone steps up and they beat somebody out, let’s go,” he said. “You want the five best. But at the same time, we’ve got to get those five to start playing together and communicating together.”