Titans/Seahawks Q&A with Vince Verhei

In preparation for tomorrow’s season-ender between the Tennessee Titans and Seattle Seahawks, I exchanged emails with Seahawks aficionado Vince Verhei. In addition to his Seattle allegiance, Vince authored the Seahawks’ team chapter in Football Outsiders Almanac 2009 while also contributing a weekly column to ESPN Insider regarding each week’s biggest upset. Our questions and answers…after the jump. Total Titans A few years ago when the Seahawks went to the Super Bowl, they looked like a young up-and-coming team with a very good young QB that would contend for several years. Now Hasselbeck looks awful and they are losing badly on a regular basis. What happened? Vince Verhei It is astounding how quickly things have fallen apart. If you’re not familiar with Football Outsiders, we use a stat called DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average) to measure, well, everything. In the second half of the season, Seattle ranks next to last in offensive DVOA, narrowly ahead of St. Louis, and dead last in defensive DVOA by a huge margin — No. 31 Cleveland is closer to No. 21 Tennessee than they are to Seattle. In the month of December, they have a three-point win over San Francisco, and losses to Houston, Tampa Bay, and Green Bay by a combined 82 points. Over those four games, they have scored 10 second-half points, and seven of those came in a fourth-quarter touchdown against the Packers that pulled the Seahawks within 38. There’s little argument this is the worst team in the league right now. As to what happened, Tim Ruskell made three disastrous moves: Trading a first-round pick for Deion Branch and then signing him to an extension; re-signing Shaun Alexander to a big extension when he was entering the decline phase of his career; and leaving Steve Hutchinson exposed in free agency to sign with Minnesota. Then he overpaid to get Nate Burleson from the Vikings out of spite. The quarterback got old (Hasselbeck is 34 now) and brittle; he has never started 16 games in a season two years in a row, and I don’t think he’ll ever play a full season again. The best player, left tackle Walter Jones, also got old and brittle, missing four games in 2008 and all of 2009. (He’s also 34.) They’re both probably done. They’ve had a LOT of injury problems up and down the roster. (Though they had MUCH more injuries last year, and lost only one more game, assuming the Titans win Sunday). They’ve gotten little out of the draft, particularly at the top. Their past four first-round draft picks have been: * 2005: C Chris Spencer (he has been and still is a regular starter, but he’s bad enough that they drafted Max Unger last April to replace him); * 2006: CB Kelly Jennings (starter in 2007, backup in 08 and 09); * 2007: CB Josh Wilson (starter each of the last two seasons; in 2008, FO ranked him 66th among CBs in Adjusted Yards Per Attempt when targeted, and keep in mind there are only 64 regular starters in the league); * 2008: DE Lawrence Jackson (hasn’t missed a game in his career, but he has more games as a backup (7) than career sacks (6.5)); * 2009: LB Aaron Curry. We’ll get to him in a minute. Did I mention the coaching? Jim Mora’s Atlanta’s teams got worse every year, and got worse in the second half of the season every year. Both trends have continued. Greg Knapp has installed an offense relying heavily on poorly designed screens that fool nobody and set up nothing. Besides that, everything’s great. Total Titans Julius Jones has been pretty bad this year but remains as the starting RB. Justin Forsett has played well as the backup and scored four TDs in two games when Jones was out. Why is Jones still the starter? Hasn’t Forsett earned the starting job? What’s Jim Mora’s reason/excuse/explanation for this? Vince Verhei There’s a lot of Julius Jones hate out there that I’ve never understood. He’s not a terrible runner; he’s just not very good. He’s been consistently slightly below average throughout his career. That’s not a superstar, but it’s a valuable player. That being said, I have no idea why he was playing in front of Marion Barber in Dallas, or why he has been the number-one runner this year in Seattle. By FO’s numbers, Forsett has been the fifth most valuable runner in the league on a per-carry basis. He’s much more of a home run threat, which makes him a better fit for a team that isn’t going to be cranking out long drives. To be fair, Jones and Forsett have essentially split carries evenly the past three games, and there are some things Jones does better — Forsett is a terrible blocker, and is much more likely to fumble than Jones. But if they’re just going to run the ball, Forsett is clearly the better option. Total Titans What are your thoughts and impressions on the rookie performance of 2009 first-round LB Aaron Curry? Are you satisfied with his development thus far? Vince Verhei Incomplete. Sometimes he shows good instincts, targeting a ball carrier and zooming in to make a play. Sometimes he’s been slow to react, letting runners charge by him before he realized they were there. He has also been taken off the field in nickel situations, which I don’t understand — the coaches have been critical of his pass coverage and said they don’t want to ask too much of him, but why can’t they tell him to put a hand on the ground and get the guy with the ball? Honestly, though, it’s hard to judge any player on this team, given the bowl of crap soup they’ve been swimming in. Total Titans Inquiring Titan fans want to know: How intimidating is it to play at Qwest Field? Also, how on earth did the putrid Tampa Bay Bucs overcome the adversities associated with winning at Qwest a couple of weeks ago? Vince Verhei Your second question answered your first. Qwest Field isn’t a particularly difficult place to play anymore. I put zero percent of the blame on the fans — for two years now, they’ve shown up to raise hell for a team that may have been spawned there. The Pacific Northwest is known for a few things — things like rainfall, coffee, Nirvana, and serial killers. We’re a little crazy up here. I was at the playoff game against the Redskins in 2005, when every fan in the building was on their feet for every second of actual football. It was insane. For the first quarter on Sunday, there will be screaming and hollering and white noise and mania. And then Chris Johnson will streak down the sideline, and Vince Young will get a long touchdown in blown coverage, and the Titans will be up 17-0 early, and it will all be over. Total Titans Last but certainly not least, just how bad does Seattle not want to be on the wrong end of the “Chris Johnson Breaks Lots of Records” highlight reel? Will that motivate the team to play inspired football? Vince Verhei I can’t see why it would. These players have been playing to SAVE THEIR JOBS, either in Seattle or somewhere else in the NFL, and that hasn’t motivated them to do diddly squat. I think most of them are motivated to get through this game as painlessly as possible, clean out their lockers, and get the hell away from this team, the coaches, and each other. On the other hand, Seattle’s front seven has been it’s biggest asset, without question. For the season, they rank 13th in run defense DVOA, and that’s one area where they’ve been strong even throughout most of their recent slide — we’ve graded their run defense as at least above average in five of the last six games, and in 11 games so far this season. They have been vulnerable to long runs — they’re 25 in allowing Open Field Yards per carry, which is our term for yards gained ten or more yards downfield. So it should be a prototypical Chris Johnson day — a ton of 1- or 2-yard runs, followed by a 65-yard gallop. That concludes the season’s final Q&A session. On behalf of Total Titans, a big thank you goes out to Vince for participating.

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