With Tom Cable at the controls of the offensive line, there has been one important mantra: a great athlete can make a good offensive lineman regardless of experience and skill.
The rest of the NFL must have been intrigued when the Seahawks began this endeavor. Seattle, in truth, was doing the rest of the league a favor. That favor was to answer for them a confounding question: Can raw, athletic giants learn to master the craft of offensive line in the NFL?
Well, the experiment did not yield favorable results.
The league watched as the Seahawks theory fell apart. The black holes created on their O-Line were too much for the offense to handle. The Seahawks apparently agreed; This year, Seattle appeared to change the method by which they have scouted offensive linemen since Cable joined the team in 2011.
The paradigm shift should be a welcome one for Seahawks fans. Even with the dearth of offensive line talent in the NFL, the Seahawks have been falling down the bell curve when it comes to OL play.
And the reason for the Seahawks’ decline could be tied to their strong tendency of relying on the athleticism of their linemen. Patriots OL coach Dante Scarnecchia is highly regarded for his 47 years of coaching experience. In a talk at Bob Wylie’s C.O.O.L clinic last month, Scarnecchia emphasized that technique and leverage are the most effective tools a lineman can use.
“Look, the worst thing you could ever do to a defensive lineman is try to out-athlete him,” Scarnecchia said. “That’s like a one-legged man in an ass-kicking contest.”
And yet, out-athlete the Seahawks tried. Their original prototype came in 2012, when Seattle drafted a defensive tackle out of NC State named J.R. Sweezy. His conversion to the other side of the ball was heavily scrutinized by the public. Those who believed Sweezy could become an NFL guard were few and far between. Sweezy had zero experience playing the position.
But Sweezy, make no mistake, emphatically proved the doubters wrong. He started 49 games for the Seahawks from 2012 through 2015. Also, he paved the way for Marshawn Lynch and his four straight seasons of 1,000+ rushing yards. In 2013, he started 18 games to help the Seahawks win Superbowl 48.
But as big a feather Sweezy was in Cable’s cap, he was just as much a detriment to the future of Seattle’s offensive line.
Let’s face the most likely truth: Sweezy was a bookmark the Seahawks kept coming back to as they combed the college ranks for OL prospects. It led them to select New Hampshire Defensive Tackle Jared Smith in 2014, and Buffalo Adonis Kristjan Sokoli the next year. Both of them flamed out before doing much of anything.
These selections weren’t the only stumbles along the way, either. The other error the Seahawks made was whom they did not acquire. In the 2014 draft, many Seahawks fans were banging the table for Seattle to select Nevada Tackle Joel Bitonio. Instead, the team traded back to take Receiver Paul Richardson.
Bitonio would have been a major upgrade on the offensive front. The decision to pass on him was costly; Seattle was left with an offensive line in decay. They would spend the next two years struggling to find competent tackles (even after drafting Germain Ifedi and discovering George Fant). The Seahawks missed the next two Superbowls despite dripping with talent. It was clear the offensive line woes were a major contributor to the downfall.
In the end, the extension of the Sweezy logic proved to be a gigantic flop. And when the Seahawks let Breno Giacomini and Russell Okung walk in free agency, they never found viable successors. They simply tried to patch holes with guys like Brad Sowell, J’Marcus Webb and Terry Poole. However, no amount of bandaging could pull the veil over the Seahawks’ greatest weakness.
But this offseason, the Seahawks did something they haven’t done in years: invested in proven OL commodities. Instead of hunting for bargain-bin athletes, they signed former Jaguars G/T Luke Joeckel. Joeckel’s physical profile (5.30 40, 28.5” vertical, 8’10” broad, 27 bench reps) is good, but he’s not the workout warrior the Seahawks have historically looked for. He’s also experienced, a former first round pick, and the Seahawks added him for market value at one-year and $7m.
Then Seattle drafted LSU C Ethan Pocic in the second round. With the versatility to play multiple positions, Pocic fits the mold of a multi-faceted Seattle lineman. But here’s the kicker: According to Pro Football Focus, Pocic was the third-ranked center in all Power 5 conferences last year. Maybe not coincidentally, his athletic testing was similar to Joeckel’s (5.12 40, 27” vertical, 8’11” broad, 27 bench reps). Again, not a super-athlete; athletic enough. But his skill and technique are why the Seahawks drafted him.
These acquisitions are different from what we are used to. For one, significant cap dollars were set aside to attract Joeckel. Seattle hasn’t laid down that much cash for an OL in years. They also went for players who were offensive linemen by trade and have previous success playing the position. For once, the Seahawks went all-in on the big men up front to make the offense better.
The Seahawks are unique in how they build their team. For example, they run a 4-3 base defense with 3-4 personnel. They helped bring about the league’s high demand for tall and lanky cornerbacks. Also, they hired Cable and asked him to mold balls of athletic clay into potential pro bowlers. Two of those distinct strategies paid off. The third one is being replaced with a more fundamental approach that could save the Seahawks offense.