The Seattle Seahawks' 2015 season came to an end with a divisional-round loss that left players and coaches both disappointed by how things ended, and optimistic about what lies ahead. The Seahawks fell two victories short of becoming the first team in the salary-cap era to appear in three straight Super Bowls, but they also overcame a lot of early-season adversity to get as far as they did. And most significantly moving forward, the Seahawks are still a relatively young team with a large portion of their nucleus coming back next season.
"This season was one that we didn't quite capture all of the opportunities that were there," Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said in last week's year-end press conference. "We know that there's a lot of future, and there's a big upside for us. I think (Richard Sherman) said some things to that effect when he was interviewed (after the Carolina loss)—this is a very young club. We have leadership, and big time players, and leadership from the quarterback position, which is so hard to find. The connection of what these guys are like on defense really gives us a hope that as we go into this offseason, that we're going to do something really special in the future, and continue to work at that. So more than you might think, everybody left here with the thought of let's have a great offseason, and let's get this thing cranked up and let's go. They were already thinking that way. They're ready to turn the page and want to get going."
While the season didn't end the way the Seahawks had hoped it would, a lot of good things did happen this year, so before we look ahead to 2016, a look back at some of the best performances and moments from the 2015 season.
MVP: QB Russell Wilson
Russell Wilson's 2015 season was the best by a quarterback in Seahawks history. He established franchise records in passing yards (4,024), touchdown passes (34) and completion percentage (67.9) while posting an NFL-best 110.1 passer rating that is also a Seahawks record.
Yet as impressive as those numbers are, they don't really tell the story of how good Wilson was during the second half of the season as the entire offense hit its stride to help the Seahawks win six of their final seven games and clinch a playoff berth. Starting with Seattle's Week 11 win over San Francisco, Wilson went five straight games throwing three or more touchdowns without an interception, something that had never been done in NFL history, and he had 24 touchdowns with just one interception over the final seven games of the year.
Offensive player of the year: WR Doug Baldwin
Yes, having separate awards for MVP and offensive player of the year is a copout, but it's a necessary one to make sure two outstanding seasons are recognized. Wilson was indeed phenomenal during the second half of the season, but he wasn't doing it on his own. In addition to improved pass protection, Wilson was also helped out by a talented receiving trio of Doug Baldwin, Jermaine Kearse and Tyler Lockett, with Baldwin leading the way.
Baldwin, who set a franchise record with 14 touchdown receptions, had 11 of those over the final six games of the season, and finished with a career highs in receptions (78) and yards (1,069).
"Doug Baldwin, Jermaine Kearse, Tyler Lockett played lights out all year, the same as the tight ends too," Wilson said. "It's exciting. We're still young, we're really, really young. That's a scary thing."
Defensive MVP: DE Michael Bennett
On a defense that produced five Pro Bowlers, it's hard to narrow this down to one player, but while numerous players, from Richard Sherman to Earl Thomas to Cliff Avril to K.J. Wright to Bobby Wagner all would be very good choices here, Michael Bennett gets the nod. Barely.
Bennett, the Seahawks' most versatile defensive lineman, was dominant both as an end and a tackle this season, and finished the season with career highs in sacks (10.0), tackles for loss (18), and tackles (52). Bennett's tackle for loss total was tied for fourth best in the NFL, his 30 quarterback hits ranked seventh and his sack total ranked 15th. All of those numbers would be exceptional for a player who was exclusively an edge rusher, but they're even more impressive for somebody who sees a significant amount of time at defensive tackle.
"He's really one of a kind," Carroll said. "Mike is an amazing kid. I had a good visit with him before he left today. I really admire Mike. I admire him for his heart. He has a great heart and he cares so much about playing this game at a high level, he cares about his teammates so much, and yet in the meantime, he's having all the fun you can possibly have. I really admire the guy that he's so consistent throughout the season… He's an amazing kid with a great mind, and he's a lot fun."
Defensive unsung hero: LB K.J. Wright
Wright wasn't one of Seattle's seven Pro Bowlers, but he was still one of their best players all season long, piling up a team-best 116 tackles and four forced fumbles. Wright's ability to diagnose a play before it happens has led teammates and coaches to call him Spider Man and refer to his "spider senses."
Just how good and consistent was Wright this season? According to ProFootballFocus.com, over the course of 994 snaps this season, Wright missed only four tackles.
Rookie of the year and Special Teams MVP: WR/KR/PR Tyler Lockett
The Seahawks like to trade back in the draft to acquire more picks. General manager John Schneider has even joked about that pattern, noting it's hardly a secret that the Seahawks have moved back in the draft a lot more often than they have traded picks to move up.
Yet for just the second time under Schneider and Carroll, the Seahawks made the decisions to move up for a draft pick last spring, trading four picks to Washington to acquire Tyler Lockett with the 69th overall pick. And while a rare move for the Seahawks, it was a wildly successful one.
The Seahawks picked Lockett hoping he could be their punt and kick returner first and foremost—and he thrived in both of those roles, earning Pro Bowl and first-team All-Pro honors as a returner—but he also came in an showed he could help on offense right off the bat. Lockett, who had 51 receptions for 664 yards and six touchdowns, joined Hall of Famer Gale Sayers as the only two rookies in league history to have five receiving touchdowns along with scores on kick and punt returns. Lockett's 1,231 combined kick and punt return yards were the most in the NFL this season, and his 1,915 all-purpose yards ranked third in the league and also established a franchise rookie record.
Best rookie performance in a shortened season: RB Thomas Rawls
Thomas Rawls began his season backing up Marshawn Lynch, and he unfortunately finished it on injured reserve with a broken ankle, but during a midseason stretch when he took over for an injured Lynch, the undrafted rookie out of Central Michigan was spectacular. In seven starts, Rawls eclipsed 100 yards four times, and one of those seven starts was his final game in which he had 44 yards on Seattle's first possess before injuring his ankle. Rawls' 209-yard game against San Francisco established a Seahawks rookie record, and his 5.6 yard-per-carry average was the best in the NFL among rushers with 100 or more carries.
"He had a fantastic start, and he has a great attitude," Carroll said. "He's a great kid. It will be really fun to put him back out there and see how he does. Now we know what we have, so it'll be even more exciting. He's confident that he'll get it done, and he's got plenty of time. So that should be a really interesting spot."
Best free agent addition: DT Ahtyba Rubin
The Seahawks didn't make a lot of noise in free agency last offseason, but one move, which didn't get a ton of attention at the time, turned out to be a very significant one for their defense. In signing Ahtyba Rubin, who spent his first seven seasons in Cleveland, the Seahawks found a three-technique defensive tackle to pair with Brandon Mebane in the middle of their line, and those two played big roles in Seattle leading the NFL in run defense while not allowing an individual 100-yard rusher in the regular season.
Rubin, a player Carroll frequently praised for his hustle and ability to chase plays, demonstrated those traits on one of the biggest plays of Seattle's season, recovering a fumble to set up the go-ahead field goal in the wild-card win at Minnesota.
Surprise bigtime contributor: DB DeShawn Shead
Shead, who began his Seahawks career on the practice squad in 2012, eventually earned a place on the roster as a key special teams contributor. And heading into the 2015 season, it seemed likely that Shead would again be one of Seattle's best special teams players while serving as a backup at safety and/or cornerback. And while half of that equation proved true—Shead again was a key member of the "core four" special teams units (punt and kick return and coverage teams)—Shead ended up having a much bigger role on defense than he has in previous seasons.
Shead started six games this season, totaling 55 tackles, one interception, two forced fumbles, one sack, and eight passes defensed, but that stat line doesn't illustrate what might be his best trait—his versatility. After spending most of offseason workouts playing free safety while Earl Thomas recovered from shoulder surgery, Shead moved to strong safety when Kam Chancellor didn't report to camp, then opened the season playing left cornerback when Richard Sherman spent time in the nickel role against St. Louis. Shead went back to strong safety, starting in Week 2, then moved back to cornerback to take over the nickel role after Marcus Burley broke his thumb. Shead then took the starting job at right corner from Cary Williams, and spent the rest of the season playing both there and in the nickel role after Jeremy Lane returned from the PUP list.
"He's doing a fantastic job," Carroll said last month. "I mean there's very few guys that are able to do that. He's been a great member of this team. He does everything you ask of him, he has been a great worker. They guys are really excited for him. There's another guy, he steps up for the opportunity. He comes through in a big way and the guys really rally around him. He's just one of our guys dyed in the wool of being a Seahawk."
Best offensive play: Doug Baldwin's 80-yard TD vs. Pittsburgh.
Baldwin's touchdown against Pittsburgh wasn't his best catch of the year in terms of degree of difficulty—that would be his one-handed grab in Minnesota—but it might have been the most important. Facing third-and-10 late in a back-and-forth game, the Seahawks were in danger of giving the ball back to the Steelers with more than two minutes on the clock if they didn't convert. With Pittsburgh blitzing, Seattle's line held up long enough for Wilson to fire a bullet to Baldwin, who made an impressive catch, shook off one tackle, stiff-armed away another, then raced down the sideline for the game-winning score. Had the Seahawks not won that game, they'd have fallen to 5-6 and put themselves in real danger of missing the playoffs. Instead that victory was part of a closing stretch that saw the Seahawks win six of their final seven games to make the postseason.
Best defensive play: DeShawn Shead's Week 17 interception at Arizona.
Like the offensive play of the year, this one wins not for sheer athletic prowess—though Shead did make a nice play to outleap Cardinals receiver John Brown and take away a potential touchdown—but rather for what it meant from a big-picture perspective. Had Brown hauled in a touchdown late in a game the Seahawks already had under control, it wouldn't have affected the outcome of that game, but those points would have prevented the Seahawks from leading the NFL in scoring defense for a fourth straight season, something that had never before been done in the Super Bowl era.
"I know that there's a record I couldn't be more proud of than to see our guys go four straight years leading the league in scoring defense," Carroll said after the game. "That's a remarkable accomplishment by a bunch of guys dedicated to the program and what we're doing and all of that. It's hard to do things over a long period of time that well."
Reason for optimism heading into 2016: Passing game growth.
As noted above, Wilson enjoyed a historic stretch of success in the second half of the season, a sign not just of his improvement, but also of the growth of the line and the steady play of Seattle's pass-catchers. The Seahawks will strive to be balanced for as long as Carroll is in charge, but now more than ever, they know they can lean on Wilson and the passing game when the situation calls for it.
"I couldn't be more excited about it, really," Carroll said of the passing game's improvement. "We made so much progress in such crucial areas. If we can come back and be anywhere near that kind of efficiency in the red zone and on third down, and the targeting of our receivers, and the high level of accuracy we had there. Getting Jimmy (Graham) back in it, and Paul (Richardson) back to competing with us too, that's a real boost to us and we're excited about it. We can go down the field if we have to, we can throw the ball really quick, and we can do all kinds of stuff. Russell showed all of the things we would have hoped to see in really consistent fashion this year, and a huge game (against Carolina) to get us back in the game. You always want to ask us, what if you had to throw the ball a lot, what would happen? We had to throw it almost 50 times, and he did a great job. The more we got into it, the better he was. He did a fine job of doing that for us."
Yet despite all the improvement shown by Wilson and the passing game, Carroll believes there is even more room for growth, which is why he plans on "going to school" with Wilson and Earl Thomas to help them better understand the game from the other side of the ball.
Biggest question mark heading into 2016: the offensive line
The line, and its coach, Tom Cable, deserve a lot of credit for how much improvement occurred during the season, but the hope next year is that such dramatic improvement won't be necessary. One potential challenge to building consistency is the fact that two of Seattle's five starters from this season are unrestricted free agents.
"Well I think it's still a work in progress," Carroll said. "I don't think we've nailed it yet. I think this needs to be a really competitive spot again, and we're going to work really hard to build it up. For the course of the season we weren't consistent enough. We found a real good rhythm, but we can't start and go through that again. We don't want to have to experience that if we can avoid it. I think that's a real area of focus again, so we'll be talking about it. We've got a couple unrestricted guys there, we're going to have to deal with how that's going to work out. There's just stuff that we're going to have to work through. But we are young, and we are athletic, and we do like our guys."