January 13, 2012

Jon Kitna's Seahawks Legacy

With the reports that Jon Kitna is retiring from football, I thought it would be a good time to look back at Kitna's time with the Seahawks over a decade ago. After leaving Seattle, Kitna carved out a nice career mostly as a competent back up with a few memorable stretches as a starter (particularly in Cincinnati). He threw for almost 30,000 yards and 169 touchdowns over his 15-year career, which is pretty damn good for an undrafted free agent from Central Washington University... but for Twelves, Kitna's career has a really specific flavor and meaning, which is what I want to talk about today.

I actually saw Kitna play once in college. It was the one and only game I went to while I was a student at Western Washington, and I remember two things about it: I went with a girl I was obsessed with (who I've talked about in this space before), and Kitna absolutely TORCHED our Vikings. I never gave the guy another thought until he stuck on the Seahawks' roster in 1997.

Kitna got a start in the penultimate game of the 1997 season, and he rallied the Seahawks to a dramatic 22-21 win over Oakland after falling behind 21-3 by halftime (still the 2nd-biggest comeback win in team history). In 1998, Kitna took over at QB for the final five games (he was the QB for the infamous "Phantom Touchdown" game v the Jets), and led the Hawks to three wins. Warren Moon was allowed to leave for Kansas City, and Mike Holmgren installed Kitna as the starter for the 1999 season.

As I've talked about before, for the first 10 weeks of the 1999 season, it really looked like Kitna was going to follow in the footsteps of Jim Zorn and Dave Krieg: lightly regarded college QBs who grew into competent/damn-near-great/sometimes-even-Pro Bowl NFL signal callers in Seattle. The Seahawks were 8-2, and Kitna was playing excellent football. The team was on the verge of giving him a HUGE long-term contract (media reports even began circulating about it), and I was on the verge of investing $75 in a Kitna Seahawks jersey.

Then the big, mean, nasty Tampa Bay Buccaneers came to town. They didn't just beat the Seahawks on the scoreboard- They BRUTALIZED us. Kitna would throw five interceptions, and the Bucs gave the rest of our opponents the blueprint for beating us: Blitz Kitna, Blitz Kitna, and Blitz Kitna. Seattle would lose 5 of their last 6 games (6 of 7 if you include the Wild Card loss at home to Miami), and Kitna's hold on the starting job became much more tenuous.

Kitna probably lost his chance to remain Seattle's long-term starter on Kickoff Weekend 2000 with a four-interception disaster in a shutout loss at Miami. He'd bounce back a bit after that, but Holmgren finally benched him for Brock Huard in Mid-October- Seattle had gone 3-9 in Kitna's last 12 starts at that point. Huard was so awful that Kitna quickly returned to the starting line-up, but Holmgren had seen enough- after the 2000 season ended, he let Kitna walk and traded for Matt Hasselbeck.

I happened to be there at Husky Stadium for Kitna's last great moment in a Seahawks uniform: That crazy 2000 win over Jon Gruden's mighty Oakland Raiders. In miserable conditions Kitna led the Seahawks to a dramatic upset win with a touchdown drive in the final minutes, and for a fleeting moment we could ignore his limitations and just focus on what endeared him to to us Twelves: His enthusiasm, his toughness, and his (ugh, I hate this term) moxie... but he was never going to lead us where we wanted to go, so we parted ways.

If there are lessons to be learned from Kitna's time in Seattle, I'd say they're as follows:

1) Along with a lot of Twelves, I wanted Kitna to be "The Next Dave Krieg" so badly that it blinded me to his limitations. It's easy to fall into believing a pre-fabricated narrative, and I think it's just as dangerous for us Twelves to fall into the "Matt Flynn could be The Next Hasselbeck" mental trap.

2) Jon Kitna was never going to magically "level-up" into an elite QB. It took Mike Holmgren one year to figure that out (maybe even less). Thankfully, I think Coach Carroll already knows that about Tarvaris Jackson- He's under no illusions that T-Jack will ever develop into Drew Brees. The question is whether Carroll will find HIS equivalent of Matt Hasselbeck, and if he'll be able to find him soon enough to take advantage of our young, quickly improving roster.

What do you think, sirs? Any Kitna memories to share?

January 6, 2012

That'll Do, Tarvaris.

"Seahawks? PFFT. Why the hell did you guys sign Tarvaris?"

That was what a TSA agent said to me before I boarded my flight west for that Seahawks v Cardinals game last September. Few of Seattle's offseason moves were more derided than the twin decisions to let Matt Hasselbeck walk and replace him with ex-Vikings QB Tarvaris Jackson. I'll admit that at that moment I was stunned... But I came around to the notion that Jackson could be an effective "bridge" to the quarterback of the future, and that he was far more likely to survive the 2011-2012 seasons than Hasselbeck (and would be available at a much lower price). Back on July 31, I wrote this:

"I'm not thrilled that Matt Hasselbeck has been replaced by Tarvaris Jackson, but with the improved offensive talent surrounding him now, T-Jack doesn't have to be an All-Pro for the Seahawks to succeed. Really, he just needs to be as good (or a bit better) than Jon Kitna was with the Seahawks from 1997-2000. We don't have fond memories of Special K, but he WAS 18-15 as Seattle's starting QB. We just need T-Jack to be an average NFL QB."

After the preseason, many fans were clamoring for Charlie Whitehurst, and after two atrocious performances against the Niners and Steelers, Jackson was being called the worst starting quarterback in the NFL. It looked like it was just a matter of time before Whitehurst replaced T-Jack, and comparisons to the forlorn Seahawks offense of 1992 seemed apt.

Jackson started to win me over with a flawed but tough performance against Arizona in week 3, where he scored the go-ahead, lone TD in Seattle's 13-10 victory. His effort the next week in a losing cause against Atlanta made me a believer: 319 yards, 3 touchdowns, and a spectacular rally to almost transform a 27-7 blowout into a Seattle victory. T-Jack would have another impressive outing against the Giants before injuring his pectoral muscle- Charlie Whitehurst's pathetic performances against Cleveland and Cincinnati settled any possible QB "controversy" for good. In fact, Jackson would come off the bench against the Bengals and throw for a season-high 323 yards in just three-fourths of that game.

As Seattle's running game gained strength, Jackson became an effective "game manager" in the 2nd half of the season, throwing only four interceptions in Seattle's final eight games. He would still aggravate Twelves by holding the ball too long, and giving up more sacks than we all felt were necessary, and missing too many open receivers- But he also largely avoided the big mistakes that would cost us games, and when given time to throw he could unleash some of the prettiest deep balls you'll see in the NFL. Is it a triumph to be an average NFL quarterback? Hell no! But when your starting position is comparisons to stiffs like Stan Gelbaugh and Kelly Stouffer, ending up being as good or better than Jon Kitna aint bad.

Was T-Jack better than 1999 Jon Kitna? Jackson had a higher passer rating, threw fewer interceptions, and had a higher completion percentage, while Special K had more touchdown passes and passing yards. I'd say 2011 Jackson was better than 1999 Kitna, mainly based on the fact that Jackson improved as his season progressed while Kitna completely cratered in the 1999 stretch run after a hot start. It's also worth noting that 2011 Jackson was statistically better than 2008-2010 Matt Hasselbeck, and even this season Hasselbeck's numbers weren't significantly better than T-Jack's either. In short, Seattle got better QB play than it had seen over the last three years, and they got it from a player significantly younger and cheaper than Matt Hasselbeck. We can debate what Beck might have done had he stayed in Seattle, but I'm in the "Hass probably doesn't survive September behind that young O-line" camp.

Was Jackson good enough to allow Seattle to avoid needing to get a QB of the future? No. Was he good enough that I think he can lead us to the playoffs in 2012 as we continue to add more talent around him? Hell yes. For being a leader on our team, for playing through pain and injury, and for making nattering nabobs like that TSA dude look stupid, T-Jack deserves our thanks. I'm very happy that he's our quarterback right now.

What do you think, sirs?

January 3, 2012

Ranking the Squads #21: 2011 (With Updated All-Time Rankings)

21. 2011
Record: 7-9
Offensive Rank: 23th out of 32 teams
Defensive Rank: 7th out of 32
Turnover Ratio Rank: 5th out of 32
Team MVP: Earl Thomas
High Point: Seahawks 22, Ravens 17
Low Point: Steelers 24, Seahawks 0

In 2002, the Seahawks got off to an abysmal 2-6 start- It was bad enough that fans and media types in Seattle were calling for Mike Holmgren to get canned, only three years after coming to the Northwest as The Savior, covered in Super Bowl-winning glory. Somehow things started to come together in the 2nd half of that season, though- Matt Hasselbeck blossomed as a near-elite quarterback, throwing for over 3000 yards in only 10 starts. Holmgren's offense, anchored by Hasselbeck, Alexander, Jones and Hutchinson finally bloomed and the Hawks finished that campaign on a 5-3 uptick. It was the adolescence of one of the NFL's most prolific offenses from 2003-2007, and the beginning of Seattle's 2nd Pro Football "Golden Age."

We may look back in a few years and see 2011 as 2002's mirror image- Yes, Seattle's offense was much improved over 2010... Behind a talented and well-coached offensive line Marshawn Lynch punished enemy defenses and helped establish a new, tougher mentality. Tarvaris Jackson proved me right: He WAS better than 1999 Jon Kitna, and he played well enough that he is highly likely to be our starting QB again in 2012 (Even if he's just holding it down until a QB we draft is ready to go). Undrafted Free Agent Doug Baldwin was the team's leading receiver (and one of the NFL's best stories of 2011), and Golden Tate took steps towards becoming a dangerous weapon in the passing game. With better health next year, Seattle's offense could be in the top half of the NFL... But that's not why I'm so excited about the future of our team.

Seattle's defense is a pass-rushing DE or two away from becoming one of the top 5 defenses in the NFL. The quartet of Thomas, Chancellor, Sherman and Browner could become the best secondary in the league, perhaps as early as next season. Any of those four could lay a claim to the title of "team MVP," but I gave the nod to Thomas because his skills allowed the players around him to shine so brightly. Earl Thomas is Seattle's first Pro Bowl starter since 2007, and is on his way to a Kenny Easley-level NFL career. Up front, Red Bryant, Brandon Mebane, Chris Clemons and Alan Branch bedeviled opposing offenses and the linebacking corps of Hill, Wright and Hawthorne made Lofa Tatupu and Aaron Curry expendable. With one more solid draft and free agency period, Seattle could finish building an absolutely terrifying defense.

Special teams had an inconsistent year, but Jon Ryan was again one of the league's best punters, Leon Washington was still a dangerous return man, and the team blocked six kicks over the course of the 2011 season. A year that started with a plague of penalties and an offense that looked like it might sink to 1992 levels of ineptitude ended with nothing but hope for the future... The Seahawks were vastly improved over 2010 even in their losses- Instead of a string of blowout defeats, the 2011 Seahawks were within one score in the 4th quarter in all but one of their losses, and they notched memorable road wins at New York and Chicago. They shined on national TV against the Eagles and Rams, but their signature win was in a 22-17 blood-pisser vs the mighty Baltimore Ravens (and the play of the year was Marshawn Lynch nearly snapping off Ray Lewis' ankles with a juke to keep the game-clinching drive alive).

My memories of 2011 will always be fond ones- Even in that awful defeat at Cleveland, I got to shake hands with Earl Thomas and Pete Carroll before the game, which I'll never forget. I truly believe in time we'll look back on 2011 as the first shaky steps towards the 3rd Seahawks "Golden Age." First Knox, then Holmgren, now Carroll... But Coach Carroll will best Knox and Holmgren in the only criteria that matters: He will bring a Lombardi Trophy back to Seattle. I believe. It's only a matter of time.

Here's the updated all-time rankings- Enjoy!

1. 2005
2. 1984
3. 1983
4. 2007
5. 1986
6. 2003
7. 2006
8. 1988
9. 1987
10. 2010
11. 1979
12. 1990
13. 1978
14. 2001
15. 1999
16. 2004
17. 1998
18. 1985
19. 1997
20. 1995
21. 2011
22. 2002
23. 1991
24. 1996
25. 1989
26. 1982
27. 1977
28. 1981
29. 1993
30. 1994
31. 2000
32. 2008
33. 1980
34. 1976
35. 1992
36. 2009