After some brief discussions I decided to put together an interview with Doug Farrar, lead writer of the Seahawks scout.com website and the NFC West man for Football Outsiders. He was gracious enough to take time to answer some questions about the 49ers, Seahawks and the NFC West in general. Here's part 1 of that interview.
NN: The question on everyone's mind, how come the Seahawks seemed to have no problems dealing Darrell Jackson within the division, particularly to an up-and-coming team in the division? (wjackalope)
DF: Several factors led to Seattle's devaluation and dismissal of Jackson. First, there was the six-year, $25 million contract he signed in March of 2004. When the contract was signed, former team president Bob Whitsitt apparently promised Jackson and his representation that as time went along, the salary structure would be revisited so that it would be in line with other elite receivers. This was a verbal agreement - never put in writing. When Terrell Owens and Marvin Harrison signed their more lucrative contracts with the Eagles and Colts soon after Jackson's, that was step one in the unraveling.
Tim Ruskell replaced Whitsitt before the 2005 season, and when it came time for either Jackson or his agent to collect on Whitsitt's promise, they found that the new administration had no intention of honoring that promise without a written agreement. Jackson began skipping passing camps and minicamps, and though he never held out of training camp, he made his dissatisfaction very clear. In the Seahawks' 2005 season, Jackson missed nine games with a knee injury. Though he came through with strong performances in the postseason, the team's excellence in his absence (they won every one of the nine consecutive games he missed) proved that he was not as indispensable as he thought.
Jackson's dissatisfaction continued though the 2006 preseason, and Ruskell made a very definite statement by trading the team's 2007 first-round pick to the Patriots for Deion Branch in September. The Seahawks then signed Branch to a six-year, $39 million contract - certainly what Jackson would have been happy with. But by this point, I think the relationship between the Seahawks and Jackson's side had been polluted beyond all reason. This probably could have been sorted out with a few workout bonuses, but the Seahawks weren't going to bend, and I think it caused them to overvalue Branch. Keep in mind that I'm in the minority when it comes to that opinion - I just don't believe that wide receiver is a first-round position, no matter how good the player is, unless you're pretty sure you're getting a future Hall of Famer.
Ruskell's contention that the San Francisco deal was the best available says a lot about how much they wanted Jackson gone. If you really want to get full value from a player, you wait until after training camp. This is when injuries happen, rosters shake out, and desperation makes other personnel guys do funny things. When you do a draft-day deal for a fourth-round pick, you just want the guy off your team. As to whether they'll regret letting him go and having to face him twice a year, I tend to think they will. It's my belief that the trade was more about drawing a line in the sand than anything else. It also took a bit of San Francisco's need at the position away, and that's not something you really want to do with the team that most people consider to be your primary division challenger.
NN: Are you particularly worried about Alexander's foot issues, and do the Seahawks think Maurice Morris is a capable enough backup if Alexander has further injury issues? (sfgfan)
DF: My concern about Alexander's foot is less than my overall concern about the system he's in, the players in front of him, and his lack of ability to catch the football. Last issue first: Football Outsiders, led by Aaron Schatz's research three years ago, has written extensively about the 370-carry barrier, and the workload indicator it has proven to be. That research has shown that with very few exceptions (pretty much Eric Dickerson, and that's it), backs who carry the call 370 times or more in a season will show a severe decline in productivity from then on, and that said decline will almost always be injury-related. On the other hand, backs who have 370 or more touches (carries and catches) tend to not only survive, but thrive. I wrote an article in the upcoming Rotoworld fantasy football annual which details this, and I identify 85 percent carries as the rough breaking point. Of course, Alexander carried the ball 370 times in 2005, and we all know how his 2006 season fell apart.
What we don't know is how the Seahawks are going to fix this. The team was unable to seriously upgrade an offensive line that was one of the NFL's worst in terms of Adjusted Line Yards and Adjusted Sack Rate. Seattle led the league in four-receiver sets, and in formations without a tight end, and I would think they'll do so again this season. So, there's less of a blocking presence from the tight end position. Mack Strong pretty much fell off the face of the earth as a blocker last season, leading all non-linemen in blown blocks. Alexander's catches have decreased every year since 2002, and judging from his form when he does catch the ball, he doesn't seem to find improvement in this area to be very interesting.
While I think that Alexander can have a few more productive years, the window is closing. He's not someone who's going to survive another season with that many carries, and he doesn't have the kind of line that will allow him five-plus yards per carry - at least not right now. What should happen is that Morris, or someone else, should take some of the reps even when Alexander's healthy. Whether that's Morris, who is a versatile player but too small to handle a full season's workload (think Warrick Dunn), or fullback Leonard Weaver, is an interesting topic. Should Shaun be the "thunder" or the "lightning" in that equation? I don't know, but let's face facts - he's going to be 30 in August, and running backs generally don't age well.
NN: I was curious how you got involved with Football Outsiders? (Fooch)
Well, I have been writing for Seahawks.NET for four years, and Scout.com for three, and I began exchanging E-mails with FO founder Aaron Schatz about two years ago. Interestingly, this started when I noticed that a writer for an official team site (I won't mention which one) had appropriated graphics and text from a Football Outsiders article about the Cover 2 defense without attribution, and called it his own. I let Aaron know about it, and our correspondence just went from there. This is ironic in the wake of Gil Brandt's recent "appropriation" of FO data, detailed here. Beyond that, I found the site fascinating, as I've been reading Bill James since I was a kid and I always loved sabermetrics.
Aaron seemed to be the one who was bringing forth new ideas about football that made sense and got people thinking about the game in different ways. We exchanged ideas, bounced some stuff off each other during Seattle's Super Bowl season, and he asked me to write the NFC West preseason reports for the site while the staff was working on the Pro Football Prospectus 2006 book. In June of 2006, I was asked to join the staff, and I happily accepted. This led to more FO work, a weekly column for FOXSports.com called "Manic Monday", and my writing all the NFC West content for Pro Football Prospectus 2007. This book comes out in July (there's the plug!), and it should be a good one.
It's certainly the most challenging writing I do - being a part of that staff is a responsibility I don't take lightly.
I'll get the second part of the interview up later tomorrow or early Monday. In it, Doug discusses the NFC West as a whole, the growing rivalry between Seattle and San Francisco, and some of the 49ers strengths and questions going into 2007.