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My wife is even keel. She rarely gets too high or too low. Early in our relationship, I was able to get her into basketball. She enjoyed the rise of the Scottie Pippen, Steve Smith, Rasheed Wallace, and Arvydas Sabonis Trail Blazers. They were the best team in the NBA, so the wins were plentiful and often came easy. Then they ran into Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal in the playoffs. Even then, they were up 15 points in the fourth quarter of game seven. But it all fell apart. A season full of promise and hope was shredded in a matter of minutes. My wife never watched another game. She already hated the anxiety and stress of those fourth quarters, and now she knew what devastation felt like and that made the calculation simple. The rewards were not nearly enough to justify the risk.
As I dragged myself into bed last night angry, sulking, and sorrowful, for roughly the thousandth time following a loss by one of my favorite teams, I once again contemplated whether it was worth it. Unlike my wife, the emotional swings that come with fully investing in uncontrollable and unpredictable competition is what drew me into sports. I have learned that the cost of genuine thrilling moments is risking despair. Caring less can protect you on the downside, but robs you of the upside. Seahawks fans are grappling with that tradeoff this morning as the team looked nothing like a Super Bowl contender and is facing the real prospect of not making the playoffs for only the second time in the Pete Carroll era.
Already dealing with major injuries, the Seahawks graduated to the snakebitten category against the Falcons when Shaquill Griffin left the game on the second play, and sparkplug running back Mike Davis exited with a groin injury. Among the many things that tends to happen when the stars align for a championship run is good fortune with health. The 2013 and 2014 Seahawks biggest season-ending injuries were to players like Sidney Rice and Zach Miller. Important players for sure, but nowhere near the level of a Richard Sherman, Kam Chancellor, or even Cliff Avril. Consider that the Seahawks already have lost their starting left tackle, starting running back, starting strong safety, starting cornerback, second-best special teams player, and their top draft pick for the year. The only team that has been able to overcome injuries like that and still contend is the Patriots. Not every team can have the best player to ever play the game.
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This version of the Seahawks needed the offense to take over. The best case scenario I saw for the defense was to regress roughly 25% and allow 22-23 points per game instead of the 18.3 they entered with. There is simply no way this defense can be expected to be as good without the players they lost. They allowed 24 last night to a good Falcons offense, and that might have been less had the offense not surrendered field position with an interception early. The 279 yards of offense for Atlanta was a season-low, and despite all the injuries in the secondary, Seattle became the first team to hold Matt Ryan under 200 yards passing in the past 64 games.
Where Atlanta did their damage was on 3rd down, where they finished 9-14, including a number of 3rd and long backbreakers. They were also 2-3 in the red zone. Those critical situations are when experience and details matter the most. Bradley McDougald might be a better backup than Steven Terrell, but he was clearly having trouble with alignments and communication at various points in the game. It is completely reasonable to expect some rough spots in his first year with this team. Jeremy Lane has no such excuse. He hurts the team whenever he has to be on the field.
This game, though, was not decided by the defense. The offense and coaching simply was not good enough. Russell Wilson played a fantastic game for all but two plays. His interception was either a dreadful throw or a miscommunication on a route with Tyler Lockett. Wilson’s fumble that was returned for a touchdown was as much on the offensive line as it was on him, but he has to take responsibility for ball security if he is going to insist on spinning and scrambling as often as he has been.
The 14 points created by those two turnovers were huge, and created a deficit that was too big to overcome. Carroll did not help matters with what I would call his worst coaching decision with the Seahawks. And yes, I think it was even worse than that play. At least in the Super Bowl, there was some strategic logic that could be applied to why they called that pass even if I disagreed vehemently with it. There was no logic to calling a fake on a field goal before half.
Seattle needed every point they could get. They were going to open the second half with the football, and could have been down only four points. There was only 7 seconds left on the clock when they ran the fake from the 17-yard line. Unless Luke Willson would have scored a touchdown, time likely would have run out and they would have ended up with zero points anyway. It was a horrible, horrible, decision that may have ultimately cost his team the game and a lot more.
His other decision to challenge a clear dropped pass was not much better. If Seattle either had that extra timeout or the extra three points, they may have very well won that game. As much as Carroll brings to this team, his decision-making in the heat of the moment is his greatest weakness. He thinks he is being aggressive and bringing a certain mentality to his team, but he is really over thinking and over steering.
The refs also played an unfortunate role in this game. There were a series of questionable calls, but the biggest call was one they did not make. Paul Richardson made a tough catch over the middle on the final play before the missed field goal, and was popped by a Falcon who launched himself at Richardson’s head and neck area. That call is made nine times out of ten. I was sure a flag was coming, but none did. That would have been 15 yards and a much easier kick.
Many folks were calling for Blair Walsh’s job last night. Not me. Not yet. I have seen too many kickers from too many teams come up short on long field goals on that north end zone. He hit it dead center, but it fell short. Mariners fans may understand the kicker’s plight after seeing home runs turn into fly balls at Safeco Field for decades. The ball just doesn’t travel well down there, especially on damp days. It would have been amazing if he had made it, but there were a dozen bigger reasons the game was lost.
Other key moments were Doug Baldwin’s dropped third down pass that led to Carroll’s ill-advised challenge, and Jimmy Graham dropping a touchdown pass that went through his hands. Seattle finished an abysmal 2-6 in trips to the red zone.
The truth is that if the Seahawks had beaten the Redskins, this might not have been as crippling of a loss. Seattle is the only team to score more than 26 points against the Falcons. Tom Brady didn’t do it. Aaron Rodgers didn’t do it. Matthew Stafford didn’t do it. Six trips to the red zone was a season high for Seattle. They punted just once all night, and appeared to find something in Davis at running back. Luke Joeckel is set to come back, which will push the troublesome Oday Aboushi out of the lineup. Lockett and the return game finally looked dangerous again.
Four losses with games against the Eagles, Rams, and Jaguars ahead is a precarious position. They have been at this point in past years and found ways to finish with a flourish. Each time, I have reminded myself to never doubt this team’s ability to fight through adversity. And yet, I doubt. I doubt because I hope it will in some way make it hurt less when they lose. But it does not help. All my instincts were telling me the Seahawks were going to lose last night, but that did nothing to lessen the frustration and anger when the final kick fell short. Seattle will head down to San Francisco with the real possibility of sending me to bed punching pillows and grumbling to noone in particular yet again. I have no better chance to avoid the trap than Carroll does of eliminating his bravado-driven coaching decisions. It is who we are. You can envy the person next to you who has a lightness of being today that comes from having nothing tied to the outcome of a silly football game. They are riding the merry-go-round. You have chosen the roller coaster. Find community with the others on the ride with you, and make plans to celebrate like crazy with them when the thrills return.