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Windows hazy for Seahawks, others

10/29/2008

Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

Windows of opportunity can be foggy in the NFL.

They do not open as wide nor shut as tightly as they once did, and more teams enjoy access to them.

Salary-cap mismanagement no longer derails the best teams the way it did after the Dallas Cowboys, Green Bay Packers and San Francisco 49ers enjoyed dominant runs through the 1990s. Quarterbacks remain key variables, obviously, and teams can have a harder time when injuries hit a position hard.

The context helps make sense of three successful franchises suffering through subpar seasons. The Indianapolis Colts, San Diego Chargers and Seattle Seahawks have combined for 14 playoff appearances over the last six seasons. None is even .500 through Week 8.

Are their windows closing?

Perhaps, but check back next week, next month and next season.

Fortunes turn so quickly that teams can slip through seemingly narrow windows. Two of the last three Super Bowl winners -- the New York Giants and Pittsburgh Steelers -- defied expectations.

The salary cap has leveled the playing field to an extent that minimizes the chances of one team propping open its window of opportunity at the expense of others. More teams have a chance to get hot at the right time.

Teams that defied the cap in the 1990s paid for it with diminished flexibility, one reason the 49ers had a harder time staying on top late in Steve Young's career. But salary caps have expanded dramatically. Teams have generally prevented their best players from hitting the market.

The quality of a team's quarterback has long served as a reliable indicator for keeping open windows of opportunity. How much a team relies upon that quarterback can determine how abruptly the window slams shut.

The Colts rely on Peyton Manning more than any team relies on a quarterback. They have built their team around him at the expense of other positions, to a degree not seen on other rosters. Manning's ability to make it work has made the Colts a perennial contender despite fielding one of the NFL's youngest teams each season.

As long as Manning is healthy -- and he has not looked right this season -- the Colts' window figures to remain open.

The Chargers and Seahawks have more depth throughout their rosters.

When both teams are playing well, the Seahawks rely more heavily upon their quarterback. The offense flows through Matt Hasselbeck at the line of scrimmage. The decisions he has made at the line, notably checking to running plays in passing situations, keyed the team's run to four consecutive NFC West titles.

Take away Hasselbeck and the window narrows. Take away his receivers, as injuries have this season, and the window shatters.

San Diego's struggles defy a singular explanation. But this hasn't been a consistent team for years. The Chargers have been above .500 through eight games once in the last three seasons. They would be 4-4 for the third time in four seasons, instead of their current 3-5, if referee Ed Hochuli hadn't doomed them in Denver.

The Seahawks face additional challenges.

Mike Holmgren's impending departure after 10 seasons as head coach will affect continuity and stability. Key members of Holmgren's offensive staff departed before this season, notably longtime quarterbacks coach Jim Zorn.

Hasselbeck's lingering back injury raises natural questions about his long-term future. He'll be 34 years old entering next season. Two of his best receivers, Deion Branch and Nate Burleson, are dealing with injury problems of their own. Bobby Engram, who caught 94 passes last season before a shoulder injury altered his season, doesn't have a contract for 2009.

If the window isn't closing in Seattle, it's certainly hazier than it's been recently. The injury situation has compounded matters exponentially.

"Most of the time, in the planning of your football team, you can pull it off if you lose a player or two [to injury]," Holmgren said recently. "You see it all around the league now. Guys are getting hurt, and some teams overcome it -- as long as you don't get killed at a position or two, or [lose] some very key people.

"That dynamic is a very interesting one. Sometimes, all the best-laid plans go out the window."

(Here's AFC South blogger Paul Kuharsky's take on the Colts and AFC West blogger Bill Williamson's take on the Chargers.)