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When starters can’t, it’s up to the backups

Posted Jun 19, 2013

Dan Quinn, the Seahawks’ first-year defensive coordinator, learned a valuable – and lasting – lesson from Bill Walsh when the former 49ers coach once told his players, “Anyone of you can be called on to win the game at any time.”


One of the secrets to the Seahawks’ success in 2012 was not a secret at all.

Rookie Russell Wilson started all 16 regular-season games at quarterback, the first time that had happened for the Seahawks since Matt Hasselbeck did it in 2007 – which also happened to be the last time the Seahawks posted a winning record. Leading rusher Marshawn Lynch and leading receiver Sidney Rice also played in 16 regular-season games for the first time in their six NFL seasons. On the offensive line, All-Pro center Max Unger, right tackle Breno Giacomini and guard Paul McQuistan each started 16 games, while Pro Bowl left tackle Russell Okung made 15 starts.

On defense, eight of the 11 starters had 16-start seasons – ends Red Bryant and Chris Clemons, tackles Brandon Mebane and Alan Branch (since departed in free agency), linebacker K.J. Wright, All-Pro cornerback Richard Sherman and safeties Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor. Middle linebacker Bobby Wagner only missed a 16th start because the Seahawks opened the Week 3 game against the Green Bay Packers in their nickel defense.

Another not-so-secret ingredient in their 11-5 season: When the coaches needed a backup to step up, he did.

Malcolm Smith played well in three starts at weak-side linebacker. Mike Morgan did the same in his one start on the strong side, as did Jeremy Lane in starting three games at right cornerback and Frank Omiyale in his one start for Okung.

While these are elements you can’t count on, the health of your starters and the ability of your backups to play like starters definitely are reasons that can be counted among the factors that lead to success.

Dan Quinn, the Seahawks’ first-year defensive coordinator, was introduced to this reality early in his NFL career as a quality control coach on Bill Walsh’s (pictured below) San Francisco 49ers staff in 2001. It was after the team had made its final roster cuts and was preparing for its season opener.

“I remember coach Walsh looking at the team and saying, ‘Anyone of you can be called on to win the game at any time,’ ” said Quinn, the Seahawks’ defensive line coach in 2009-10 who has returned after serving as the D-coordinator at the University of Florida the past two seasons.

“You’re a quarterback, you’re a backup guard; whatever it might have been, it didn’t matter. It was one of those times in your life when you think, ‘Man, think of all the times that happens.’ It’s totally true. And it’s a cool feeling when a guy goes in and comes through for you, and for him, too.”

Think of the times it has happened for the Seahawks.

In 2011, the Seahawks were down to their third option at left cornerback because of injuries to starter Marcus Trufant and backup Walter Thurmond. They were forced to play Sherman, who answered the call then and now answers to All-Pro. During training camp that year, Thurmond was expected to be the right cornerback. When an injury sidelined him, CFL refugee Brandon Browner not only stepped in, he intercepted six passes, had 23 passes defensed and ended up playing in the Pro Bowl.

It happened to a lesser degree last season with Smith and Lane, who each had nine tackles in their three starts; Morgan, who had six tackles in his one start; and Omiyale, who helped the Seahawks rush for 185 yards in his one start.

It also is part of the story in the most successful season in club history – 2005, when the Seahawks went 13-3, won 11 consecutive games and won the franchise’s only conference championship on the way to the Super Bowl.

Marquand Manuel, now a defensive assistant on coach Pete Carroll’s staff, took over at free safety when Ken Hamlin was sidelined. Manuel, a sixth-round draft choice, who had not started a game in 2004 for the Seahawks and had been a part-time starter the previous two seasons for the Cincinnati Bengals, played to Hamlin’s second-round draft choice status, in starting the final 11 regular-season games and all three postseason games.

When linebacker Jamie Sharper was lost to an injury at midseason, rookie Leroy Hill stepped in and produced 7.5 sacks and 67 tackles – to tie Manuel for third on the team.

With injuries limiting leading receiver Darrell Jackson to six games, Joe Jurevicius had a team-high 10 touchdown catches among his 55 receptions.

Quinn admires players who can handle that challenge – as Smith, Lane, Morgan and Omiyale did last year; Sherman and Browner did in 2011; and Manuel, Hill and Jurevicius did in ’05.

“That’s one of the cool parts about it,” Quinn said. “If you’re on that 53 (man roster) and you step up to do something it’s like, ‘What a cool opportunity to show somebody, I am this good. This is something I’ve been training my whole life to do. I’m getting my opportunity.’

“I don’t look at it like the guy should go in and be like, ‘Huh.’ Or that the guy shouldn’t have to go in the game and feel like, ‘Man, I’ve really got to do something. I’ve got to prepare differently now.’ It’s not a case of, ‘Oh, I’d better really start preparing now.’ If the guy’s really on it, he’s been preparing that way all along.”

The rewards of preparing as if you are a starter, even though you’re not, come on multiple levels.

“I’ve always had a respect for those guys who just stayed ready, with that mindset of, ‘When my time comes, I’m going to be ready,’ ” Quinn said. “The guys that realize that, they stay in the league a long time.”

Game Rewind: Seattle Seahawks