ORLANDO — Plenty of factors contributed to the Seahawks missing the postseason in 2017, including some significant injuries as well as some missed opportunities late in games in all three phases of the game. But what might have bothered Seahawks coach Pete Carroll the most about his team's 9-7 season was that, for a second straight year, Seattle's offense struggled to find consistency in the running game.
In Carroll's opinion—and he's hardly alone on this—a balanced offense is the best approach for so many reasons, from how it helps the quarterback to the pressure it can take off the defense if the Seahawks are sustaining long drives. So it hardly came as a surprise that when Carroll was asked what his team needs to do to get back to being at its best, he quickly pointed to the running game.
Carroll first pointed to capturing the right work ethic, saying, "It's returning to the work ethic that makes you championship (caliber). That's always the biggest challenge and we have to find that first, and that comes through the leadership and the direction of the coaches, that's where it starts."
And after that, his attention quickly turned to the running game.
"Our formula of the running game being an integral part of it is really the focus," Carroll said. "We've got to get that done. Without that, then we're still kind of in a mode where we don't feel as comfortable as we want to be. So it's hugely important. Somehow we've got to keep our running backs healthy. In the last few years it just has not been the factor for us, and it's been a problem even going back two years when Russell (Wilson) was hurt the whole year. So that needs to emerge as a significant part of our program, and everything else I think will fall into place. We know what the formula is, we know what it takes, we just have to get ourselves back and feel that continuity. So that'll be a big focus again, and the challenge begins. Here we go."
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As Carroll noted, health has been a factor in the running game struggles. In 2016, Thomas Rawls returned from one leg injury only to go down early in the season with another, C.J. Prosise showed a lot of promise, but struggled to stay healthy and eventually landed on injured reserve, and Wilson, usually a big part of the running game—both in the yards he gains and the threat he represents—was not a factor on the ground because of ankle and knee injuries. Last season, rookie Chris Carson won the starting job, then saw his season end with a Week 4 injury, Prosise was again injured for much of the year, and in the end Wilson finished the season as the team's leading rusher. And while that's an impressive accomplishment for a quarterback, that's hardly how the Seahawks wanted things to play out heading into the season.
Carson, who was nearly able to return late in the season, is fully healthy now and as Carroll put it, "in beautiful shape, he's ready to go." He won't automatically jump right back into the starting role, however, not after Mike Davis showed potential, not to mention durability, late in the season.
"You can say (Carson is the starter) because of where he was when he got hurt, but Mike Davis did a really nice job for us last year," Carroll said. "Mike finished and sustained throughout the season, unlike some guys in the last couple of years, and he showed us consistency and toughness and production. I think Mike really comes back getting the ball first, and the competition is on. That's the first handoff, then after that it's dead even."
And even if the running backs stay healthy this season, the Seahawks also know there's room to improve along the line, and Carroll is expecting to see that improvement come to light in 2018. The Seahawks added former first-round pick D.J. Fluker to compete at right guard, and they return four players who finished the season as starters, Duane Brown, Ethan Pocic, Justin Britt and Germain Ifedi, giving them a level of continuity they have not had at that position in years.
"The offensive line is a factor," Carroll said. "This is the first year that we really have some continuity coming to us, and adding D.J. Fluker I think is a great positive for us to get his physical dimensions he's going to bring. I think we're poised to make a really good turn here."
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From having a full season with Brown, the Pro-Bowl left tackle the Seahawks added in a midseason trade, to the presence of Britt at center, to the growth the team is expecting from young players like Pocic and Ifedi, Carroll is optimistic about the strides his line can take this year.
"We haven't had a guy like Duane Brown in some time," Carroll said. "Duane coming back is a great plus. He barely got started with us last year, then he got hurt and struggled through an ankle and all of that. But his return, the consistency that he brings, the experience that he brings, the toughness that he brings. The growth of Ifedi on the other side—he's going to get better, he's going to make a big jump. I think the best thing that ever happened to him is there's a transition here for him where he can get a new start and really get going with (new offensive line coach) Mike Solari. Britt is going to be the best he has been, Pocic is going to be better than he has been, then D.J. coming in. Then there's George Fant returning to us. George was really poised to have a bigtime second year, and he has had a fantastic offseason working, I see him every day in the building, so he's going to factor into the competition.
"This is the best we've been in some time. A little quietly it's emerging that it's a very good group and it's going to be one that we're going to look forward to seeing some real progress made… It hasn't been mentioned that much, but we feel like we have continuity. We haven't said that in so many years, but we feel like we have some continuity on the offensive line, so we're looking forward to it."