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The future looks bright

Posted Jan 4, 2012

Despite finishing with the same 7-9 record in 2011 that they had in 2010, coach Pete Carroll and his players are optimistic that the Seahawks are just getting started.

From coach Pete Carroll, to leading rusher Marshawn Lynch, to Pro Bowl free safety Earl Thomas, the feeling as the Seahawks cast a final glance at the 2011 season and set their sights on 2012 is that this team is heading in the right direction because of the positive steps it took in the past two months.

But didn’t the Seahawks finish with the same 7-9 record they had in 2010 – sans the NFC West title and stunning upset of the defending Super Bowl Champion New Orleans Saints in the playoffs? And, didn’t the Seahawks also lose their final two games – including Sunday’s finale against the Arizona Cardinals?

Yes, and yes. But just as affirmative is the fact that there are 7-9 teams, and then there are 7-9 teams. The Seahawks were the latter in 2011, after being the other in 2010.

“We know we’ve got a better team this season,” said Thomas, the Seahawks’ first Pro Bowl representative since 2008 in only his second NFL season.  “We’re young, but this experience we got this season and all the plays we made, we can build on that going into next season.”

There are statistics to support Thomas’ statement, and the most obvious is the Seahawks’ margin of defeat. In 2010, their nine losses came by an average of 21 points. This season, it was 9.8. In 2010, all nine losses were by double digits. This season, there were four, and only one in the final 10 games.

The Seahawks’ also gained style points for some of their efforts this season. They upset the playoff-bound New York Giants and Baltimore Ravens, and also had two-point losses to the NFC West Champion San Francisco 49ers and playoff-bound Atlanta Falcons. They even had victories over the Philadelphia Eagles and Chicago Bears that helped derail their postseason aspirations.

In 2010, they beat only one team that even came close to making the playoffs – the Bears – and were repeatedly abused while going 2-6 on the road.

Bottom line: The Seahawks were just more competitive in 2011, and it started with their ability to run the ball in the second half of the season, and stuff the run all season – especially in the first half of the season, when the run defense ranked as high as No. 7 after six games.

“It’s very encouraging,” said Lynch, who had career-highs in rushing yards (1,204) and touchdowns (13) despite missing one game. “Just to know that if we call a run play, we know we can run it and get success out of it. You’ve got to be real pleased with that, being a running back, knowing that they’re going to get the job done.

“And they’re young and are going to get better.”

That plays to the underlying reason for Carroll’s ability to embrace the seemingly symmetrical record this season, and his overflowing optimism for the future: The Seahawks have found their foundation. Carroll wants to play a certain way, and the Seahawks did that more often than not this season – especially during the stretch where they won five of six games, but even in the oh-so-close losses to the 49ers and Cardinals to end the season.

“We’re at the foundation of building this program, and it’s taken us a couple of years to do that,” he said. “We know the formula. We know the style.”

And that would be, running the ball with authority on offense to set up the play-action passing game; stopping the run while playing fast and aggressively on defense; and getting key contributions from the special teams.

There also are statistics to accompany that scenario.

The defense finished ninth in the league in average yards allowed, something that hadn’t happened since 1997 and now has happened only six times in franchise history. The Seahawks also forced 31 turnovers, and the only teams with more will be playing in the postseason.

The running game averaged 134.9 yards over the last nine games, after averaging 77.7 in the first seven games, and finished 21st in the league – up from 31 in 2010.

On special teams, Jon Ryan broke his own team records for punting average (46.6) and net average (39.3) and tied the mark for punts inside the 20 with a league-high 34; Red Bryant blocked a club-record four kicks (three field goals and a PAT); kicker Steven Hauschka quietly had a 109-point season; and Heath Farwell had a team-leading 20 coverage tackles, despite not joining the team until Week 7.

But the overriding reason for the overwhelming optimism as the Seahawks move forward is the number of young players who not only played this season, but made plays: rookie free agent Doug Baldwin, who led the team in receptions (51), receiving yards (788) and touchdown catches (four); the cornerback tandem of first-year starter Brandon Browner and rookie Richard Sherman, who combined for 10 interceptions; strong safety Kam Chancellor, another first-year starter who like Browner is a first alternate to the Pro Bowl; linebacker K.J. Wright, who finished fifth on the team in tackles (61); young offensive linemen Breno Giacomini and Lemuel Jeanpierre, who stepped in on the right side after rookies James Carpenter and John Moffitt went down with season-ending knee injuries in the same week; and, of course, Thomas.

As Lynch put it, “Just seeing all the guys who didn’t even have a shot at making the team becoming these key players for the squad. So I see them heading in the right direction.”

If seeing is indeed believing, count Carroll among the believers. But he also needs to see more.

“We haven’t done anything yet,” Carroll said. “But we feel like we’re at the point where we can go for it. So in that regard, when you look back, overall I’m pleased at this point because I’m really enthusiastic and excited about what we can do now.”

And the Seahawks will have to be better in 2012 because the competition will be, starting with the home-and-home matchups with a 49ers team that won 13 games this season. But the list of Seahawks opponents for next season also includes the Packers (15-1), Patriots (13-3) and Cowboys (8-8) at home and the Lions (10-6) and Bears (8-8) on the road.

“We’ve got to do it,” Carroll said. “Saying all that doesn’t mean a darn thing until we go out and do something with this offseason and come into preseason raring to go.”

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