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What Are the Seahawks Without Russell Wilson?

Sports Illustrated logo Sports Illustrated 10/8/2021 Conor Orr

Wilson's injury forces a struggling Seattle team to identify what it has beyond its star quarterback.

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Russell Wilson will be fine. If his incessant pacing on the sideline during Geno Smith’s brief tenure as the Seahawks’ starter on Thursday was an indication of his desire to return to play, it would seem Wilson would rather amputate the dislocated middle finger than spend another quarter not playing under center.

But the exercise in seeing him off the field was a valuable one amid Thursday’s 26-17 loss to the Rams in Seattle, because it forced some of us—beyond just their loyal, perpetually frustrated fan base who has been ruminating on this for years—to ask an important question about a team that is always good, sometimes great and seldom reminiscent of the Seahawks we have come to know under head coach Pete Carroll.

Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson (3) looks to pass against the Los Angeles Rams during the second quarter at Lumen Field. Joe Nicholson/USA TODAY Sports © Provided by Sports Illustrated Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson (3) looks to pass against the Los Angeles Rams during the second quarter at Lumen Field. Joe Nicholson/USA TODAY Sports

What are the Seahawks right now? What would they be without Russell Wilson?

There are varying levels of nuance we could explore here, but on the surface, what does this team do particularly well outside of having a generational quarterback who can (typically) whirl his way out of inconceivable pocket pressure and buy time for his pair of elite skill position players to free themselves from coverage? What are the Seahawks beyond Wilson producing this marathon effort each Sunday?

Coming into Thursday’s game against the Rams, their defense was 32nd in yards surrendered and 19th in points surrendered (25th in Football Outsiders’ DVOA rankings). They are middle of the road in turnovers caused, and among the worst teams in the NFL against the pass. Jamal Adams, their prized acquisition at safety, has struggled mightily in coverage and was seen against the Rams with his back turned while DeSean Jackson caught an underthrown ball and weaved through the defense for 60-plus yards. His greatest asset, which has typically been as a pass rusher from the secondary, has been woefully underutilized this year, with just a small handful of attempts and no pressures.

Their running game, the focal point of Carroll’s offensive philosophy, the one that has (likely) privately rankled Wilson for years and slowed the scheme to a crawl, is eighth in yards per attempt, 16th in total yards, and surprisingly at this stage, 25th in attempts.

In short, a team that has a blitzing safety who struggles in coverage that they don’t blitz and force into coverage. A running team that struggles to run consistently, at least to the standards of the coach steering their system in a certain direction.

Immediately following a pair of inspiring Smith-led scoring drives, which both brought the Seahawks to within a touchdown, the Rams almost instantly gutted Seattle’s defense. The first was a touchdown drive in which the scoring play was so wide open that Sony Michel was able to tip toe quietly into the end zone. The second play of that drive was a 24-yard pass to Robert Woods. The next was a 33-yard pass to Cooper Kupp.

After the second Smith scoring drive, the Rams opened up their offensive possession with a 12-yard run by Darrell Henderson that immediately produced a first down and forced the Seahawks to use one of their timeouts. Had it not been for the long paw of Carlos Dunlap, Smith may have never gotten the ball back with a chance to win the game.

While it would be unfair for us to demand the Seahawks have a generational defense every year, is it fair to wonder if the scheme has been dissected thoroughly enough to have rendered itself ineffective? Is it fair to expect Carroll, even if he no longer has the personnel, to be able to dial up something that can slow down Sean McVay’s dizzying array of Cover-3 beating routes? Is it fair to see this as a cry for help in the personnel department, begging for an injection of life?

Or is that no longer the Seahawks at all? Wilson will be fine and because of that the Seahawks will always be somewhat fine. This is the beauty of what a singular talent can provide. But beyond him, beyond DK Metcalf and Tyler Lockett, what can this team count on every week to help keep them afloat?

What are the Seahawks? And how long do they float in this space of no identity before they develop an idea or a plan of action? 

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