This story originally appeared in the January 19 edition of Hawk Mail. To sign up for Hawk Mail, click here.
The Seahawks saw their season end on the road in the Divisional Round of the postseason for a second straight year, but despite the way things ended in Atlanta, head coach Pete Carroll and his players remain confident about what lies ahead.
And even if the Seahawks battled significant injury setbacks and inconsistent play in 2016, plenty of good still came out of this year. For the fifth straight season, the Seahawks went to at least the Divisional Round of the playoffs and finished with a double-digit win total—matching the number of 10-plus-win seasons they had in their entire history prior to this run—and won their third NFC West title in the past four years. And as Carroll mentioned after Saturday's loss in Atlanta, there's no reason to think the end of this successful run is coming up anytime soon.
"We're right in the middle of it," Carroll said after the game. "It isn't over, we're right in the middle of it. Everybody in that locker room knows that and they felt that and extend it by spreading their appreciation for one another. It didn't happen for this team. We're not as far as we wanted. We did some good stuff now, won a division and all that, but we're still in the process. That's what it feels like. We're in the middle of it, not at the end of anything."
Before we turn our attention to the offseason and what should be a bright future for the Seahawks, let's take a look back at some of the players and moments that stood out in 2016.
Offensive MVP: Quarterback Russell Wilson
This wasn't Russell Wilson's best season from a statistical standpoint; it might have been his most impressive.
Wilson's numbers, which included a franchise-record 4,219 passing yards, were still very good in 2016, but he did finish with the worst passer rating of his career (92.6) and most interceptions (11)—and it should be noted that those are awfully impressive career worsts.
But what doesn't show up in Wilson's numbers is how he battled through multiple serious injuries while never missing a game, helping keep the Seahawks offense functioning despite two bad legs. Wilson sustained a high ankle sprain in Seattle's season opener, then sprained his MCL in Week 3, a pair of injuries that usually cause players to miss multiple games. Later in the year, he dealt with a pectoral injury that limited his ability to throw in practice. Wilson has been better in his career than he was in 2016, but never has he been asked to do more—the Seahawks had by far their least balanced offense of Wilson's career—and Wilson still performed well despite multiple injuries, helping lead the way to a division title. And Wilson being Wilson, he found a positive in the injuries that limited him for much of the season.
"This year has been a blessing, a tough season obviously with the injuries—the ankle, then the knee, then the pec and all that and still battling through it," Wilson said following Saturday's game. "We had a lot of guys that were able to battle and persevere and show the resilience of our team and the mindset we have. So we were able to keep winning; we were able to win a lot of football games and do as much as we could. Unfortunately, we didn't get to win tonight but I'm grateful. I'm grateful for the journey this season has brought me personally just because I've been able to overcome situations and continue to show that, continue to believe in that. To not miss practice, not miss a play, that matters to me."
Defensive MVP: Linebacker Bobby Wagner
As has been the case nearly every season under Carroll and general manager John Schneider, there were numerous standouts on defense, as is evident in the fact that five Seahawks defensive players made the Pro Bowl—Richard Sherman, Bobby Wagner, Michael Bennett and a pair of very deserving first-timers, Cliff Avril and K.J. Wright.
But as good as all of those players were, Wagner stood out even among the standouts in 2016. Not only did Wagner lead the league in tackles this season, his total of 167 also set a franchise record. Wagner, who earned first-team All-Pro honors for the second time in three years, has grown into a bigger leadership role while also continuing to improve his game on the field, taking strides both in coverage and as a pass-rusher.
"Nobody has played better football anywhere that I have seen in this league," Carroll said. "He has just been such a stellar part of what we're doing, and he put the numbers up week in and week out, and he has been a great leader for us."
Special Teams MVP: Cornerback Neiko Thorpe
For the second straight season, the Seahawks added a defensive back to their roster in September with the hopes that said player could make a difference on special teams, and for the second straight season, that move paid off. In 2015, Kelcie McCray came to Seattle in a trade just before the start of the regular season, and he immediately became one of the Seahawks' top special teams players while also proving to be a solid option at strong safety when Kam Chancellor was injured late that year then again for part of this season.
This year, the Seahawks signed former Raiders cornerback Neiko Thorpe one week into the season, and while Thorpe played some on defense, his big contribution this year came on special teams, where he led the team with nine special teams tackles. Thorpe particularly stood out as a gunner on punt coverage, regularly being the first player down the field to make a tackle, force a fair catch or down a punt inside an opponent's 20-yard line. It was no accident that Carroll mentioned the addition of Thorpe unsolicited both after Saturday's loss in Atlanta then again in his year-end press conference Monday; he was that good on special teams.
Also worth a mention are Dewey McDonald, Brandon Williams and Cassius Marsh, to name a few other standouts. Punter Jon Ryan also deserves credit not just for another good season punting, but also for the under-the-radar part of his game, his job as the holder on place kicks. The Seahawks had a couple more inaccurate snaps that they would have liked this season, but Ryan kept most of them from resulting in missed kicks thanks to his ability to catch and spot the ball for kicker Steven Hauschka.
Off-field MVP: Defensive End Cliff Avril
Avril earned Pro Bowl honors for the first time in his career after recording 11.5 sacks this season, but what might be more impressive is the work he did off the field over the past year, resulting in him being named the Seahawks nominee for the 2016 Walter Payton Man of the Year Award.
In addition to continuing to help fight Type 2 diabetes through his Cliff Avril Family Foundation, Avril has also become involved helping make a difference in his parents' home country of Haiti. Avril went to Haiti last spring to host clinics and help build a school—and he's going back in April—and throughout the season, he funded the construction of a new house in Haiti for every sack he recorded.
So many Seahawks players do great things in the community, whether it's Doug Baldwin leading an effort to build a bridge between law enforcement agencies and the communities that they serve; or Richard Sherman giving out school supplies to children in need through his Blanket Coverage Foundation; or Jermaine Kearse supporting military families through his foundation, 15 to 1; or Russell Wilson visiting kids at Seattle Children's Hospital every week while also making a big difference through his Why Not You Foundation; or Michael Bennett hosting football camps and events to support childhood obesity prevention; or Kam Chancellor hosting a holiday toy drive with his Kam Cares Foundation and Seattle's Union Gospel Mission (and that's just a small sampling of what players do in the community). So Avril is far from alone in making a difference, but even on a team full of players who regularly give back, Avril stood out with the work he did off the field in 2016.
Most Improved Player: Center Justin Britt and Defensive End Clark
Clark, a second-round pick in 2015, showed flashes of his potential as a rookie, including three sacks late in the season, but did not make a huge impact that year. When the Seahawks opened training camp in 2016, Carroll made it clear that he wanted to get Clark more involved in the defense, and in his second season, Clark made the most of his increased playing time, recording 10.0 sacks, which ranked second on the team to Avril, and 47 tackles, the most of Seattle's defensive linemen. Clark spent much of the season as a situational pass rusher, but also showed he could take on a bigger role, starting five games when Bennett was sidelined by a knee injury.
Britt, meanwhile, made his second position switch in as many years, and ended up thriving at center after playing right tackle as a rookie and left guard during his second season. Heading into the season, center was a big question mark for the Seahawks, but it didn't take long to see that Britt not only could survive in that new role, but was quickly becoming the team's most consistent offensive linemen and a leader of a very young position group.
Comeback Player of the Year: Tight end Jimmy Graham
When Graham's 2015 season ended with a torn patellar tendon, there was legitimate concern that he might not make it back for the start of the 2016 season. Not only was Graham back for Week 1 of the regular season, he quickly became a big part of Seattle's offense, picking up where he left off late in the 2015 season when he and Wilson saw their chemistry start to build. Graham finished the season with 65 catches for 923 yards, both franchise bests for a tight end, earning Pro Bowl honors for the fourth time in his career. And as coaches have pointed out on multiple occasions, Graham also made significant improvements as a blocker in 2016. With another year in Seattle's offense under his belt and healthy offseason, Graham figures to only be better next year.
"I thought Jimmy had a terrific year," Carroll said. "He was explosive, dynamic, he blocked like he's never blocked before, he became a factor on the perimeter blocking stuff. He's a highlight film, he's got so many big plays that he made during the year… I'm excited for him to come back, imagine how much better he'll feel. Look what he had to undergo this offseason to get back and be in the phenomenal shape that he was. This will allow him to come back again, he should be stronger this year and more fit this year."
Best Follow-Up to a Breakout Season: Receiver Doug Baldwin
Baldwin has long been one of Seattle's top offensive weapons, but he really turned heads in 2015 when he hauled in a league-best 14 touchdown receptions, including 11 during a five-game stretch late in the year. Baldwin earned a contract extension over the summer, then went out in 2016 and showed once again why he is one of the league's best receivers, matching a franchise record with 94 receptions. With a career-high 1,128 receiving yards, Baldwin became just the fifth Seahawk with consecutive 1,000-yard seasons, joining Steve Largent, Darrell Jackson, Joey Galloway and Brian Blades.
Best free agent signing: Defensive Tackle Tony McDaniel
Tony McDaniel flew to Leavenworth last summer to enjoy a little time in nature—do a little hiking, go kayaking, etc. But when McDaniel's agent realized his client would be within a couple hours of Seattle, he reached out to the Seahawks about setting up a tryout for the defensive tackle, who was a starter for the Seahawks in 2013 and 2014. The result was McDaniel signing with his former team midway through training camp, and not only did McDaniel end up earning a roster spot, he became a key piece of a defense that allowed a league-low 3.4 yards per rush attempt in 2016, starting 10 games and playing in all 16.
Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright deservedly get a lot of credit for their standout seasons, but both are always quick to point out the dirty work done in the trenches by players like McDaniel, Ahtyba Rubin and Jarran Reed that allows them to make so many tackles. Richard Sherman even went as far as to call Rubin and McDaniel the "real MVPs" of the defense earlier in the season.
Best Rookie: Defensive Tackle Jarran Reed
As mentioned above, the Seahawks had the league's best run defense on a yards-per-carry basis, and Reed, Seattle's second-round pick, was right in the middle of that. Other rookies showed a lot of upside, but none made as consistent of an impact over the course of the season as Reed, who played in 15 games, starting six, recording 34 tackles and 1.5 sacks while helping keep blockers off of the Seattle's playmaking linebackers so they could do their jobs.
First-round pick Germain Ifedi also made an impact at right guard a rookie and figures to take a step forward next year, while undrafted rookie George Fant became a surprise starter at left tackle and, given his very limited football background, should be considerably better next year. Running back C.J. Prosise was spectacular in limited action, but various injuries caused him to miss 10 regular-season games as well as the postseason.
Best offensive play: Paul Richardson's one-handed touchdown vs. Detroit.
Not much needs to be said about this spectacular catch, which was one of three impressive catches Richardson had in a Wild Card victory over Detroit, just watch the highlight a few times:
As good as Richardson's catch was, what might be more significant for the team moving forward was his overall play in Seattle's two playoff games when he took on a bigger role in Lockett's absence.
Also worth a mention: Baldwin's diving one-handed catch in a Week 3 win over San Francisco, several of Graham's one-handed catches, including a pair of touchdowns against Buffalo, Prosise's 72-yard touchdown run and Tyler Lockett's 75-yard touchdown run.
Best defensive play: Safety Earl Thomas' huge hit on New England Tight End Rob Gronkowski.
In their most impressive win of the regular season, the Seahawks went to New England on a short week to face the Patriots coming off of a bye, and left with a 31-24 victory. And while there were plenty of highlights in that game, the play that stood out most might have been the incredibly hard—but perfectly clean—hit Thomas put on Gronkowski, a tight end who outweighs him by more than 60 pounds, but who nonetheless was stopped dead in his tracks by Thomas' hit.
That hit, along with tight coverage from Kam Chancellor, caused an incomplete pass, and it was a textbook example of the style of tackling the Seahawks teach.
That was as perfectly legal and safe as you can make it," Carroll said. "That's the way the game should be played, right there. That's what we refer to as a strike-zone hit, and you saw Earl hit, leading with the shoulder to protect both himself and Gronk from getting hit in the head, and that is absolutely the way that we teach it. That was as perfect a play on a seam route you can play. Kam (Chancellor) knocks the ball down and bam, here comes the hit. Unfortunately Gronk got rocked little bit but he bounced back and came back on it, but it wasn't because he got hit in the head. Neither one of the players got hit in the head. Still the jolt was significant, but if we could show kids how we want them to hit and play this game, and college kids, that's how you do it. It's the new way, it's the new way to make hits. Strike-zone contact and you can hit guys as hard as you can and they can be very safe in that."
Unfortunately Gronkowski was shaken up on the play, but he and Thomas showed good sportsmanship with a nice exchange on Twitter after the fact to show that there was only mutual respect between the two.
Reason for optimism heading into 2017: Continuity
Some level of roster turnover is inevitable for every NFL team every offseason, but the Seahawks head into 2017 with almost every key player under contract for at least next season, and in many cases for several years beyond that.
Tight end Luke Willson, strongside linebacker Mike Morgan and kicker Steven Hauschka are among the top players headed to unrestricted free agency, but nearly every starter on both sides of the ball will be back next year.
The Seahawks really hope that continuity can help an offensive line that has gone through a lot of turnover in recent years. As young and inexperienced as that group was in 2016, the Seahawks are looking for that unit to take a big step forward next year.
The Seahawks will also hope next year brings more health than a 2016 season in which so many key players dealt with injuries. Russell Wilson wasn't himself for much of the year, Kam Chancellor, Michael Bennett, Thomas Rawls and C.J. Prosise all missed a significant portion of the season, and Earl Thomas and Tyler Lockett both finished the season on injured reserve. Every team deals with injuries, but few teams have so many to such important players.
Biggest question mark heading into 2017: Special Teams
The Seahawks have prided themselves on special teams play during Carroll's tenure, and while the Seahawks did plenty of good things in that phase once again, there were also a few more hiccups than in past years. The kicking game had some issues, ranging from inaccurate snaps to missed and blocked kicks, especially on extra points, and with Tyler Lockett limited by a knee injury for part of the season, then on injured reserve to end the year, there weren't as many big plays in the return game as a year ago.
The Seahawks will hope to see that phase of the game improve next year, but they also go into the offseason with uncertainty at kicker, as Steven Hauschka will be a free agent when the new league year begins in March. Lockett is also recovering from surgery after breaking his leg, and while Carroll is optimistic about the All-Pro returner's chances to be ready for the start of the season, it's not out of the question that he could be limited in return duties when he gets back depending on the timing of his return.