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Can this be fixed: A look at the 49ers, Steelers, and Seahawks

Having spent my entire adult life in the front office of various NFL teams, I have seen my share of prosperity, adversity, and drama. Every staff builds a team on paper that they think will be successful. However, managing a team’s ups and downs throughout the NFL season, particularly for a team’s general manager, is simply about fixing things that get broken.

There are a few ways general managers go about fixing these things during a season. Some things are fixed with actions and others are fixed with hope. Regardless of the method, decision makers among an organization must have a plan either way. To keep everyone rowing in the same direction, that plan needs to be communicated both above the GM chair and below to all branches of the organization. Additionally, sometimes that plan is communicated through the media so that a team can stay in front of the narrative. Once the NFL season is underway, two of the most crucial tasks a decision maker faces are putting out fires that arise and then effectively communicating these solutions to all members of the team.

A general manager must be honest in the process of evaluating a team’s parts as both a group and individually. Below are some key aspects of this process that some teams are facing in the NFL today. Identifying and addressing these problems will be crucial for these teams (and fundamentally for all NFL teams) if they want to get their team back on track.

What’s up with Big Ben and the Steeler offense?

When looking at Big Ben and the Steelers offense, there are a few things that jump out. First, the offense itself is being orchestrated by a first-year offensive coordinator with only one year of NFL coaching under his belt (he was the QB coach for Pittsburgh in 2020). This is not a formula that I personally had a lot of faith in even before the season started. This factor, combined with a rebuilt offensive line that is starting two rookies, is a “work in progress” at its very best. Primarily, they run a lot of zone blocking that is mixed with indecision in terms of who blocks who and a rookie running back who excels at running downhill. This is a bad mix. This is not your typical “Dad’s Steelers” who love trapping and/or driving people off the ball to create a push at the point of attack. This year, the Steelers are all finesse, baby. They are simply not physical in the run game or pass protection.

It is apparent that Big Ben is feeling the pressure in his face but the difference is now, at this point of his career, he lacks the mobility to escape. He is aware of this as well so his immediate answer is to get rid of the ball as quickly as he can. This seems to make sense: but there is one problem: The Steeler’s downfield passing game is suspect at best which means Big Ben needs time for it to unfold. In my opinion, Ben is struggling to make the most basic NFL throws. Even on the short and medium end of things. His anticipation is that of a “paint-by-numbers” level artist and his vision becomes distorted because his eyes are on the pass rush soon after the ball is snapped. But the even bigger noticeable concern is the inaccuracy of the throws themselves from the pocket. This includes even the most basic level of throws. It’s apparent that Big Ben has reached that point of life that we all do someday. The one where our mind makes appointments our body can no longer keep. This offense will have to undergo an extensive amount of change if it wants to get better.

The last question concerning Big Ben is perhaps the most obvious one: Do they have a replacement for the future Hall of Famer on their roster? While the question may be simple, the answer is not. The reason this answer is a bit harder to come by is because it entirely depends on the offense they run in the future. To render a guess going forward, my prediction is that General Manager Kevin Colbert is hitting the scouting trail hard looking for hope. Unless, of course, the “love-fest” we witnessed between Packers QB Aaron Rodgers and Steelers Head Coach Mike Tomlin leading up to, during, and after the two franchises’ meeting last week is an indicator of things to come. Especially considering all of the speculation about Rodgers finding a new home for 2022.

The Trey Lance Gamble in SF

It is no secret that 49ers Head Coach Kyle Shanahan is looking to replace current quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo in the City by the Bay. After all, he made the extremely bold move to mortgage a lot of future draft capital so he could trade up to select North Dakota quarterback Trey Lance. He even did this despite Trey Lance only playing in one football game in 2020 and coming from a 1-AA program where his skill set was debatable by evaluators (many whom I know and respect personally) at the NFL level.

Of the five quarterbacks who were drafted in the top half of the 2021 NFL Draft, Lance, for my money, was the biggest project. He had the furthest to come to get to NFL passer level and this reason (along with many others) was why he brought the most amount of risk to whichever team decided to draft him. While I will admit to the immense amount of upside, there is no way I personally would have had the intestinal fortitude or confidence to make this move.

As far as last week goes, Jimmy G did what Jimmy G does. He got hurt and left the game. Trey Lance replaced him at halftime and then proceeded to show the football world all of the reasons that drafting him high was risky. He struggled with the speed of the game, he couldn’t decide where to go with the ball, he was flushed from the pocket early, and his inconsistent accuracy resulted in wild misses or giving the receiver no chance to run after the catch if he did connect to them. The 49ers had protection issues (which may have stemmed from Lance’s inexperience) and when the quarterback did decide to run, he put his body and health in jeopardy.

On a positive note, and as was evident in Chicago with Justin Fields, one can improve on their next time out. The biggest concern surrounding Trey Lance is that this project may take even longer than expected. It’s becoming more and more apparent than even Kyle Shanahan knows this now. In terms of the future draft capital given up by the 49ers to select the quarterback, it feels more as if it was wishful thinking. My conclusion on Trey Lance after his performance last week is that he might be a year away from being a year away.

Losing Russell Wilson might not be the Seahawks Biggest Issue

It is definitely apparent that the Seahawks offense looks disjointed and somewhat anemic. But in actuality, it did show some life when back-up quarterback Geno Smith entered the game following Russell Wilson’s finger injury. For example, Smith led the team on a 96-yard scoring drive. Although he threw a late interception that ended their hopes of a comeback, it was not due to any error that he himself had made. After watching the replay, Wide Receiver Tyler Lockett slipped and fell which ultimately led to the pick. Another positive that is noticeable among Seattle’s offense is that they do have some playmakers which might give them a chance in the weeks to come. But this all depends on the matchup.

While the offense showed some promising signs concerning the future, the biggest fix that this team must repair is on the defensive side of the ball. They have given up 450-plus yards in four straight games. This is only the 4th time this has happened since the AFL-NFL merger. Immediately, I notice a defense that has been constructed in a very non-traditional way. This is problematic for me. It appears as if Defensive Coordinator Ken Norton is working with a vast amount of individual skill sets that don’t really fit what he is trying to do.

From a salary cap angle, it is also clear that there is money being paid to positions that have had very little impact on controlling a game. For example, they have no pass rushers or cover corners to speak of and an enormous amount of money tied up in a safety (who is much more of a linebacker) who must be aligned in the box and must be helped in coverage. Said another way: they have $35M on APY salaries allocated to Bobby Wagner and Jamal Adams. These two players are much more effective inside the hash marks. In contrast, Defensive Tackles Puna Ford and Al Woods have proved to be formidable inside against the run and pass. This shows that the team can win if the game is played inside a phone booth. However, if it breaks out to the playground and the game becomes a spread-out, 7 on 7 match, the Seahawks are in trouble.

For the Seahawks to create in sort of pressure, they are going to have to blitz. This is something that Pete Carroll is not known for. This creates a difficult situation because any ability to adapt to a pressure style defensive scheme will require an immediate upgrade of their secondary.

Unfortunately, two fixes that are available in season just passed them by. For example, the Carolina Panthers traded for Cornerbacks E.J. Henderson last week and former Defensive Player of the Year Stephon Gilmore this week due to their available cap. Both of these players could prove to be valuable additions. Panthers General Manager Scott Fitterer came from Seattle, where I know for a fact they are normally aggressive. When I was in charge of football operations for the Seahawks, I used to hear this time and time again from ownership. Specifically, my instructions were to “get us in the middle of every deal.” Because of this experience, that became my philosophy and I have that way of thinking to this day. In turn, the Panthers now live by this philosophy as well. Unfortunately for the Seahawks, they missed out on the opportunity to acquire these two players (who would be instant fixes to their secondary) because they have zero wiggle room in their salary cap. As mentioned earlier, this is due to some questionable decisions from their past.

In my opinion, the Seahawks have a fundamental roster construction problem that will need to be addressed in the offseason. They have had several swings and misses in the draft over the last few years and these decisions have finally come back to haunt them. Unfortunately for Seahawks fans, they just might have to endure a year of transition before these changes to be made. This is something nobody in the Northwest wants to hear.

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