The hurtin' Seahawks backfield is running on empty

The win over Cincinnati came from breaks and turnovers more than offensive command, although that fourth-quarter performance by Matt Hasselbeck was a beaut.
The win over Cincinnati came from breaks and turnovers more than offensive command, although that fourth-quarter performance by Matt Hasselbeck was a beaut.

After the better-late-than-never Seattle Seahawks parlayed big fourth-quarter plays into an unconvincing 24-21 home win against the Cincinnati Bengals Sunday, Sept. 23, Coach Mike Holmgren said he's looking forward to the return next week of some key Hawk players.

They might be Curt Warner and John L. Williams, running backs who could be expected to hit holes during the early quarters rather than saving the occasional seven-yard rumble for the final minutes, as resident featured runner Shaun Alexander does. Unfortunately, Warner and Williams haven't played for two decades. More glaring is the fact that Maurice Morris hasn't played for two weeks. With the versatile Morris, the Hawks probably would have beaten Arizona Sept. 16 and certainly would have been in a position to mount a commanding second-half lead against the Bengals. But Morris has been bunged up with a bad hip for half a month, leaving the team with a plodding running game and, in the left-wrist-wrapped Alexander, a one-handed back who often runs tentatively and didn't catch well when both paws were at their best. He also hasn't shown the go-for-the-goal-line intensity demonstrated during his deserved National Football League MVP season, just two years ago.

The Hawks paid dearly to keep Alexander, even with the well-documented knowledge that NFL ball carriers who run wild run down at a certain age. That age seems to be getting younger, possibly because of the sheer physics of the NFL experience. Even a guy as talented and tough as Alexander is vulnerable to the constant collision with bodies stronger and more athletic than those of any specimens in the history of sport. Jim Brown, Gale Sayers, and others from the past could accrue amazing yards-gained numbers, largely because of the relative smallness of competitors. They were playing against guys their size. Today an NFL running back such as Alexander, even with the best of blocking, runs a constant collision course with the human equivalent of a fleet of trucks.

Seattle plays the 49ers, division co-leaders, in San Francisco next Sunday, Sept. 30. Both have 2-1 records; both easily could be 3-0 or 0-3. Some cite apparent parity for tighter point spreads in the NFL, but that may not be the case. There can be a wide disparity between the talent level of one team versus another, and the club with weaker personnel still can win. It has to do with breaks and key match-ups, and that is where the running game comes into play. "Game" is the key word. Against Arizona, the Hawks clearly were in need of a fast, experienced, multi-talented back to spell Alexander; same during the Cincinnati tiff, which went to the Hawks because of game breaks, mainly the fumble that was a key Bengal bungle with a minute left.

Holmgren said several times after the game that his club hasn't played its best yet. The evidence is that the Hawks soon will put together a string of exemplary efforts. The defense is as fast and savvy as anything Seattle fans have seen. One hesitates to suggest the D "contained" Carson Palmer and company (the Bengals had 412 total yards), but it forced fumbles and pickoffs. When the offense again has the services of Morris and injured receiver D.J. Hackett, it ought to be able to intimidate on the road and dominate at home. Matt Hasselbeck's quarterback rating during the fourth quarter is, literally, almost as good as it gets. The Hawks' problems on offense are during the first three quarters, when even experienced receivers such as Bobby Engram and Nate Burleson (who caught the winning touchdown pass after dropping another in the end zone) have mishandled the ball.

Speaking of three quarters, such is the fraction of NFL West Division teams hurting after week three of the schedule. The 49ers, Arizona Cardinals, and St. Louis Rams were road kill this week, meaning Seattle fans may - I emphasize may - have little to worry about as far as their club reclaiming the division championship. But the key worry remains running back or, in the case of Morris, back-up running back. Even when (and if) his sprained wrist heals, Alexander's Teflon hands and hesitant tendencies are such that his own coach, relieved with Sunday's outcome, seemed astonished when told that the back had 100 yards rushing. Maybe it just seemed less since, in Morris's absence, the rest of the team netted just two yards: 72 inches, if you're counting, and the coach seemed to be.


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