"Last team with the ball wins" is a cliche, but sometimes cliches are the best way to get across the central narrative of an important game. If you like great quarterback play, you have to watch the NFC Championship Game.
13 Jan 2006
by Mike Tanier
If he didn't have a great offensive line blocking for him, Shaun Alexander would still be a top running back. He would certainly be an All Pro. But he wouldn't be a record breaker, and he probably wouldn't be MVP.
Without a stellar offensive line protecting him, Matt Hasselbeck would be a very good quarterback, but he wouldn't be the top rated passer in the conference. Without exceptional blocking, the Seahawks would still be a playoff team: a 10-6, one-and-done Wild Card team, not the odds-on favorite in the NFC.
The Seahawks offensive line is easily the best in the NFC and is one of the two or three best in the league. It's also remarkably stable; four of the linemen have been starting for the team since 2001. Stability and continuity lead to strength on the offensive line, but 12 months ago the Seahawks line was on the verge of collapse, with three starters facing free agency. The team's front office, led by CEO Tod Leiweke and GM Tim Ruskell, placed a premium on re-signing the veteran linemen. The results of that decision: a 13-3 season, an MVP award, a touchdown record, and counting.
A few weeks ago, Sports Illustrated put Alexander on its cover. "Do You Know Who This Is?" read the caption. Yes, we do, thank you. But what about Alexander's blockers? Do you know who they are?
Steve Hutchinson was a defensive end in high school, amassing 294 tackles, 19 sacks, eleven forced fumbles, and three blocked kicks during his prep career. Hutchinson was recruited by Michigan as a defensive tackle. He switched to the offensive line after his redshirt year, but teammates say that Hutchinson is still a defender at heart. "He's got that defensive mentality," Seneca Wallace said. "He's an aggressive guy, really physical."
Hutchinson played center and guard on Michigan lines that included future pros Jon Jansen and Jeff Backus. He was a consensus All American in 2000 and left college as the best guard prospect in the nation. With two first-round picks in 2001, the Seahawks selected Hutchinson and receiver Koren Robinson. They couldn't have been more different. "Hutchinson ... showed the maturity and focus that Koren Robinson lacked," Pro Football Weekly wrote in 2002. "Hutchinson stepped right in and replaced Pete Kendall at left guard and was the most consistent and best rookie offensive lineman in the league." A broken leg sidelined Hutchinson for most of the 2002 season, but he bounced back to reach the Pro Bowl in 2003, 2004 and 2005.
Scouts usually list Hutchinson as the third or fourth best guard in the NFL, with Kansas City's Will Shields, Pittsburgh's Alan Faneca, and Carolina's Mike Wahle joining him on the short list. Football Outsiders' Adjusted Line Yards statistic ranks the Seahawks line as the sixth best in the NFL in run blocking, the best in short-yardage blocking (Power Success), and the second best at running up the middle. The Sporting News Ultimate Scouting Guide calls Hutchinson " feisty and relentless" and says that he "shows awareness on blitzes and stunts." He didn't incur a single penalty in 2005: no holding, no false starts, no mistakes whatsoever.
But while Hutchinson is praised for his intelligence and work habits, he shouldn't be underestimated as an athlete. "He's the strongest offensive lineman I've ever seen play the game," Seahawks defensive tackle Craig Terrill told the Everett Herald. "I played against him in college and in practices here, and he's always been a step ahead of everyone else." And then there's the intensity factor. "He's really focused," said tight end Itula Mili. "He almost would be an intimidating guy if you didn't know him so well because his switch turns on so quickly," added Shaun Alexander.
Hutchinson the intimidator will soon become Hutchinson the free agent. A three-time Pro Bowl participant, he'll likely command a $20-million contract similar to the one signed by guard Marco Rivera. Hutchinson will cash in whether he leaves Seattle or stays, but he may take a cue from some teammates who stayed put last year when they could have made bigger bucks elsewhere.
Robbie Tobeck has been a starting center in the NFL since 1995. He has been the Seahawks starter since 2001. It's a wonder that no one has killed him in all of those seasons.
If Hutchinson is the intense member of the Seahawks line, then Tobeck is clearly the prankster. He's the guy who poured coyote urine all over Trent Dilfer's dorm room in training camp a few years ago. He's the guy who handcuffs rookies to their beds.
Tobeck is sometimes called "The Instigator", and he liked to stir the pot long before he reached the NFL. At Washington State, he roomed with Drew Bledsoe. Their disagreements would sometimes lead to fisticuffs. "I don't tend to argue much, but he would get me into arguments all the time," Bledsoe said. "We got into a good argument once. As was usually the case, I was right and he was wrong."
Tobeck began his college career as running back, then moved to fullback, linebacker, and defensive line before settling in at center. "He kind of devloved down the evolutionary chain of football," Bledsoe quipped. He arrived in Atlanta as an undrafted free agent, working his way up the depth chart and starting for five seasons. He signed with the Seahawks in 2000 but missed most of the season with a knee injury. He hasn't missed a start since.
Tobeck's durability and knowledge of the game are his greatest assets; he's never mentioned among the league's elite centers. But the Seahawks know what they have in Tobeck, and he knows what he has in Seattle. He was a free agent this offseason, and he received offers from the Cowboys, Browns, and Bengals. But he took less money and signed a two-year deal with the Seahawks. "I'm not leaving my kids," Tobeck said last March. "That's why leaving Seattle was not an option for me -- plus, the fact that this is home for me. I'm not leaving home. Not at this point in my career."
Tobeck's career is winding down; seven holding penalties in 2005 indicate that his skills are deteriorating. The Seahawks drafted center Chris Spencer in the first round of the 2005 draft, and Spencer will soon push for playing time. But stability has been the Seahawks' secret weapon on the offensive line, and Tobeck has been an anchor. "He is a vocal leader with a dry sense of humor that keeps the whole team loose," noted Pro Football Weekly in the offseason. Every team needs a resident smart-aleck.
Tobeck the vocal leader is impressed with the offensive line's newest starter, right tackle Sean Locklear. "I can't say enough about Sean," Tobeck said. "He has played absolutely great."
Locklear wasn't supposed to be a starter; veteran Floyd "Pork Chop" Womack was penciled in at right tackle when camp started. But when Womack suffered a triceps injury in an exhibition game, Locklear earned a six-week starting stint. "I know the plays, the coaching staff and my teams, he said at the time. "Now I've got a chance to prove I belong as a starter. This is my chance and I want to make the most of it."
Locklear did make the most of his chance, holding on to his job after Womack returned. Locklear had a reputation as a hard worker at North Carolina State; he graduated a semester early, sat through commencement services, then boarded the team plane to play in the Tangerine Bowl. An all-purpose lineman who played everywhere but center on the Wolfpack line (he also played defense and tight end), Locklear was selected by Seattle in the third round of the 2004 draft.
He has been impressing teammates and coaches ever since with his quickness and his work habits. "The big thing is Sean has really worked hard at this trade and his skills are improving day by day," line coach Bill Laveroni said during camp. Locklear was flagged for holding in his first two starts but quickly settled down; his only other holding penalties came against Michael Strahan. He hasn't been flagged since Week 12.
Locklear's emerging skills are evident when you break down the Seahawks rushing stats: Alexander and company are more effective when running to Locklear's right side (5.22 Adjusted Line Yards off right tackle, 4.71 ALY off right end), than to the left, where the Pro Bowlers play (3.76 ALY off left tackle, 4.21 ALY off left end). Many factors contribute to this unusual split, but Locklear's play is certainly part of the puzzle.
"When he came in ... I told him, 'Hey this is a chance for you to go earn some money and take care of business,'" Tobeck said of Locklear. "'We don't expect to miss a beat.'" The Seahawks haven't missed a beat. In fact, they've picked up the tempo.
Chris Gray is not supposed to be an NFL starter anymore. His career should really have ended long ago.
Gray was drafted in the fifth round by the Dolphins in 1993, the same year they took O.J. McDuffie and Terry Kirby. McDuffie and Kirby are long gone, as are most of the players selected in that draft, but Gray is still in the NFL.
Gray suffered an ankle injury in 1995. He broke a leg in 1996. He was released by the Dolphins during training camp in 1997. The Bears signed him, planted him on the bench, and then released him at the end of that year. That should have been the end. When the Seahawks signed Gray in 1998, they thought they were getting a three-position backup to provide depth, a guy who would be gone in a year or two.
But when center Kevin Glover got hurt in 1998, Gray took over at center. Glover was diagnosed with a blood clot in 1999; Gray once again started at center. Tobeck was signed to replace Gray, then injured his knee in a workout. Gray was the starter again.
Prospects like Hutchinson, Womack, and Floyd Weddebrun arrived, but Gray kept his starting job, moving from center to right guard. Like Tobeck, Gray was a free agent in the offseason but opted to return to Seattle despite offers elsewhere. In mid-November of this year, the guy the Bears released in 1998 started his 100th consecutive game. "He has been the consummate professional since I've been here," Tobeck said of Gray. "He has fought through injuries, he's always there, he's reliable. There has been competition for those positions every year and he has always earned it."
Gray and Tobeck are both wily vets whose best attribute is their experience. The duo has been together long enough to see the highs and lows of the organization. "Having gone through the bad days, makes this even sweeter," Gray said after the Seahawks clinched home field advantage. "This is the best season I've ever played in. This is the best team I've played on, without a doubt."
It happened in Week 12. Walter Jones had a bad day. He allowed two sacks to Giants defensive end Osi Umenyiora. He was also whistled for holding; it would be his second and last holding penalty for the year. Reporters surrounded Jones' locker after the game.
"I know I gave up the sack on the last play before halftime," Jones said. "It was a great play. He got a little push on me and I lost my footing for a little bit, but that's still no excuse. He got a sack." The irony of a lineman's life wasn't lost on him. "You get beat one time and it's like, 'Oh, man, Walter got beat.' Everything you did that game has just been wiped out. You just have to take it."
Umenyiora's sacks were news in Seattle because Jones just doesn't allow sacks. Pro Football Weekly stated that Jones didn't allow a single sack in the 2004 season. The Tacoma News Tribune reported that Jones hadn't allowed a sack in 350 pass attempts before the Giants came to town. Defenders rarely have much success against the man PFW says "has the footwork of a ballerina and the strength of an ox."
The Seahawks knew Jones was a future star when they selected him with the sixth pick of the 1997 draft. Jones had been a late-bloomer, a juco transfer who split time with Tra Thomas on the Florida State line. "We got a late start in looking at him, but it became apparent very quickly that Walt was a phenomenal athlete," remembered former Seahawks line coach Howard Mudd in a Seattle Post Intelligencer interview. After Jones ran the 40-yard dash in the 4.6-second range, recalled Mudd, "I'm like, 'Oh gosh, look what we have here.'" Jones went from second-team All ACC to the second best tackle prospect in the draft class behind Orlando Pace. And Mudd felt he would be better than Pace. "This kid is going to be better than anyone can possibly imagine."
Mudd knew that Jones would be a franchise player, but Jones became one of the most famous "franchise players" in the NFL. Jones' contract squabbles became an annual tradition in Seattle; he was assigned the franchise tag in 2002, 2003, and 2004, held out of training camp every year, and then signed a one-year contract late in each summer. He reached the Pro Bowl at the end of each season, but there's no telling how good he could have been had he practiced with his team each year.
It looked like 2005 would be another holdout year. With the Seattle front office in transition, Jones might have even left the organization last offseason. But Ruskell and Leiweke signed the unsignable tackle to a long-term deal. Jones actually spent the summer in camp with his teammates. "I'm going to have to ask some of the guys what to do once I get there, I haven't been there in so long," Jones said last spring. "But I'm looking forward to it."
Jones settled in quickly enough, and Giants game aside, he may have had his best season yet. He's already a member of the Seahawks' All-Time team, but Jones has never won a playoff game. He gets his chance this weekend.
Hutchinson was his high school's homecoming king and captained the basketball team. Locklear was also a high school basketball star. Gray is a Florida real estate mogul in the offseason. Tobeck's pranks against teammate Grant Wistrom almost escalated into locker room warfare. Jones pushed a pickup truck filled with his teammates in high school so he could learn how to maintain his leverage.
Five unique individuals; one outstanding line. They combine youth and experience, formidable talent with gritty determination. When you see them square off against the Redskins this week, look for Jones' strength, Locklear's quickness, and Hutchinson's efficiency at picking off linebackers. Watch Tobeck and Gray as they make reads and double team defenders. And don't look for yellow hankies: the Seahawks starting five has been flagged for just two holds and one false start in their last five games.
And when Alexander scores a touchdown, remember who got him there.
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