Sunday, January 9, 2011

The Morning After: Seahawks Earn Respect, Win Hearts, Beat Saints 41-36

There is a rite of passage for every sports fan. It is a time where you realize the bliss of athletics is not just the thrill of competition or victory. It is the majesty of participating in this perfect soul-touching moment where the wandering paths of players, coaches, and fans fuse together. You can zoom into any one individual life and see how that moment impacted them, or step back and absorb what it meant to entire community. What happened on Saturday was not a football game. It was a revival.

Matt Hasselbeck is possibly my favorite athlete ever. In a world where off-field issues and on-field egos are the rule, Hasselbeck stands out a great person who has also managed to be a great player. When other players flee the Great Northwest in the off-season, Hasselbeck has settled his family here and become a pillar in the community. Where many other Seattle stars have jumped at the chance to go elsewhere in free agency, he signed the first chance he got to come back, and continues to express a desire to finish his career here despite the way fans have treated him of late. He stepped onto the field Saturday with so much stacked against him with his injury, the growing support for his backup, and the Super Bowl champs in town. Then, he threw an interception on the Seahawks first possession and watched his team fall behind 10-0. The measure of man is how he handles adversity, and Matt came out looking like King Kong. Not only did he lead his team back to one of the best victories in franchise history--or even in NFL playoff history--he made some of the best throws of his entire career. Take your pick of the lob to Cameron Morrah, the bomb to Brandon Stokley or the mortar he dropped into Mike Williams. There were a handful of less flashy throws that were at least as impressive. Matt played with the kind of anticipation only a veteran quarterback who has finally had more than a week with the same wide receivers and offensive line can manage. So few fans appreciate how fine of line there is between great and horrid play at the quarterback position. Throws must be made before a player breaks open, before the defense reacts, before the outcome is certain. Matt had been sentenced to exile by many fans for a season where he played zero games in which Mike Williams, Brandon Stokley, Ben Obamanu and himself were all available the entire 60 minutes. Not one game! Even yesterday, Obamanu was out briefly to get his shoulder re-inserted into its socket. That was probably the closest thing to a full week of healthy preparation and in-game availability all season long. It showed. Give the Qwest faithful credit. There was no booing or chants of "Charlie" after the early interception. They lifted their captain today instead of torpedoing his ship. He rewarded them with a performance deserving of space in the Picasso exhibit that is in town. Hallelujah!

Pete Carroll has got to be one of the most compelling people I have ever observed. I can't think of many people that cast such a misleading first impression. The vast majority of people, including myself, read him as a superficial attention-lover that fits exclusively in the mold of "player's coach." Carroll sails through that cynicism as if it is not there. He is so comfortable with who he is that he appears to spend almost no time attempting to shape his image. Despite the great strides made from the depths this franchise reached just one year ago, Carroll was already coming under fire in Seattle. Brock Huard and Mike Salk hosted a segment on their radio show asking for people to grade him as a coach, and a fair number of people were giving him middling grades. Hugh Millen was noticeably dismissive of how Carroll handled the quarterback controversy this week, and has been among the critics that lump Carroll in the Wade Phillips category of guys that are not tough enough to lead an NFL team. A chunk of fans came back to the fold after the victory over the Rams, feeling that it validated the season. Beating the Saints was a whole different class of win. It takes a level of mental, physical and strategic preparation that deserves special recognition. The Seahawks beat a Saints team that put up almost 500 yards of offense and 36 points. They beat a Saints team without any advantage in the turnover category or big special teams plays. They beat the Saints, period. Carroll and his staff have earned at least a two-year free pass with what they accomplished yesterday. 

Jeremy Bates has been my whipping boy this year. He out-schemed one of the best defensive coordinators in football, and he did it for the second time this season. The opening touchdown to John Carlson was tremendous design. It was so good, I may need to dedicate a post to dissecting it. Bunching Carlson with the other receivers and having him sell the run or bubble screen by engaging the linebacker, only to release past the defenders into the clear was masterful. They goofed the Saints again by having Carlson cut block and lull them into thinking he was out of the play, before getting up and waltzing in for six. It was not just how Bates found the scores, it was who he scored with. Carlson had one touchdown on the season and Stokley had zero. They combined for three on Saturday. After being stuck on one TD all season, Mike Williams has caught one in each of the last two games. There is still some question about Bates commitment to a running game that was working all day long, as well as his stubborn insistence on passing on 3rd and 1, but that's like complaining about a pimple on Emmanuelle Chriqui's face. 

Marshawn Lynch ran his way into Seahawks history. After outscoring the Saints 34-10 to take a 34-20 lead, the Seahawks were scuffling. You could feel the energy and edge was ebbing after such a brilliant stretch of football. Drew Brees had brought his team back to within four points at 34-30, and the Seahawks had to punt it back to him. Even after a terrific defensive stand that forced the Saints to punt it right back, there was still over four minutes left on the clock. The offense had not scored since the five-minute mark in the 3rd quarter. Running the ball was required to keep the clock moving, but the Saints knew that, and stuffed Lynch on his 1st down carry for a no gain. Then Lynch did his best Neo impression from The Matrix, and said "No." No to  LB Scott Shanle. No to DE Will Smith. No to S Darren Sharper. No to DT Remi Ayodele. No to Jabari Greer. Hell to the, Hell to the, Hell to NO to CB Tracy Porter. No to DE Alex Brown, and then No to Roman Harper. That play, by itself, would be in the conversation for best in franchise history. That play, at that time, in this game, against that opponent makes it a play that may never have a peer.


It was fitting that Lynch was accompanied down the sideline by LG Tyler Polumbus, Mike Williams, and Ben Obamanu (along with Hasselbeck and Carlson), three guys that run almost as far through almost as many obstacles to be contributing members of this indescribable team. Can I get an Amen?

You won't hear many defensive coordinators brag about a game when they gave up 36 points, over 400 yards passing, and nearly 500 yards in total offense. You probably won't hear Gus Bradley brag about this one, so let me do it for him. His scheme was fantastic. The evidence is there if you know what to look for. Devery Henderson was the Saints leading receiver with 7 catches for 77 yards. Both he and Heath Evans caught touchdown passes. It's what you don't see there that really matters. Brees' favorite targets, Marques Colston, Jeremy Shockey, and Lance Moore each had four receptions or less. None of them found the end zone. Bradley bracketed Colston much of the day, and took Brees off his first read at least three times as often as he did in the first matchup. Brees was not firing the ball at the top of his drop. He was scanning the field because his first option was not there. He's good enough to still beat you that way, but it is a far cry from the five straight touchdowns and 73% 3rd down conversion rate he managed in the first game.

There were contributions across the board with Raheem Brock, David Hawthorne and Earl Thomas standing out. Brock's forced fumble and sack were huge. Hawthorne led the team in tackles, recovered the fumble and  moved to middle linebacker for the end of the game after Lofa Tatupu left with a concussion. Thomas has scaled the rookie wall and is now accelerating through the end of this season. He just may be on the cusp of a game-changing performance. There are fewer false steps, and less hesitation in his game. Even Kam Chancellor got into the act with a great break on the ball to bat down a late 3rd down throw from Brees. The tackling was terrific all day, including the always dependable special teams that consistently pinned the Saints back toward their own end zone.

What made this game an instant classic was not just all these individuals rose to the occasion. It was the way the fans ignored the critics and those trying to convince them the game was an embarrassing waste of time. The energy in the city was palpable as early as 9AM. It was just a notch or two below the NFC Championship game in 2005, but only because there was less on the line. People attacked the Saints with unrelenting noise from beginning to end. They would not be denied, and lifted the team the way only the 12th Man can.

Somewhere yesterday, a kid became a lifelong Seahawks fan. He or she felt something they don't yet understand, but know it was different than anything else they have experienced before. Impossible became possible. The little guy can win. It is safe to cheer. It is safe to hope. There is magic in this game that causes total strangers to hug and slap five. This new fan will eventually feel the pain of following a Northwest sports team, but it will no longer matter. Once you experience a day like yesterday, it all becomes worth it.

2 comments :

Hawkgirl said...

Great post, been waiting all morning to read it.

A word about Pete. I have been on board with him, drinking the Kool Aid since day one. I think his particular persona fits the West coast beyond perfectly. He's positive, and incredibly engaging. His "theory" on life, on football, it's hard not to get swept up in it. The thing that I love most is seeing him jump into the arms of his players, to grab them by the helmet and say something meaningful, to high five them as they come off the field, to be on the sidelines in constant movement just as engaged in the game as they are. It's a rare thing to see as most coaches have this sour look on their face and show no emotion other than misery. I love Holmgren as much as anyone but never did I see him love his players so transparently as PC does.

When Marshawn had that run, it was like he was casting off all the criticism in Buffalo, and all the doubters and haters. Anybody else see the grin on his face when Pete grabbed him? And who would EVER imagine Mora, or even Holmgren, saying they were proud of Matt for a ridiculously great game? It was heartwarming to hear and went way beyond mere football.

People can say all they want that the "college" thing doesn't work with grown men but it does. I think no matter how old we are - from the new 8 year old fan to the 80 year old - we long for someone to believe in us, to encourage us when we make a mistake, and to jump into our arms with pure joy when we succeed. That's not a college perspective, that's a LIFE perspective.

Go Seahawks!!!

Jeff said...

Great post. I also have been waiting to read this one.

Great game. Can't stop watching the highlights. This win was so satisfying. Heres to hoping this continuity and streak continues!