Let’s just admit it: This Seahawks team that starts the playoffs Saturday against the Los Angeles Rams remains an utter mystery.
They are a 12-win enigma, if that’s possible. After four months and 16 games, it’s just as easy to envision a scenario that has them surging into the Super Bowl as it is to see them getting unceremoniously ousted in the first round.
Now, I understand that’s the case to a certain extent for virtually every team, every year. I mean, those who made the case for the 14-2 Ravens, led by their surefire MVP candidate in quarterback Lamar Jackson, to get an early boot last season had it nailed, right? It’s extremely rare to have a team such as the 2013 Seahawks that seemed almost preordained for a championship run (and even then it took a miracle play at the end of the NFC title game).
But the vicissitudes of this particular Seahawks team are especially volatile — maybe because they exist on both sides of the ball.
Let’s start with the offense. For the first half of the season quarterback Russell Wilson was cooking, and the Seahawks were feasting. It appeared they had molded the high-powered, big-strike unit that seemed to be a priority to create after watching the team fizzle in the playoffs too many times in recent years.
But then defenses figured out a way to stop the Seahawks’ downfield passing game, particularly with regard to DK Metcalf. Coach Pete Carroll started to preach “offensive diversity” and “complementary football” — code words for the end of the short-lived “Let Russ Cook” era. And the Seahawks, who averaged 34 points per game in the first half of the season, scored at just a 22.6 per-game rate in the second half.
Wilson, once on an MVP pace, had some truly awful games — three interceptions in a defeat to Arizona; two interceptions and two lost fumbles in a defeat to Buffalo; two interceptions and a lost fumble in a defeat to the Rams; and an interception and lost fumble in a particularly galling defeat to the Giants.
Now Wilson has settled into a more cautious mode in which he is protecting the ball — and the Seahawks are 12-0 when they win the turnover battle, as Carroll is fond of pointing out. The offense has often been slow developing over the course of games, but Carroll says it’s often by design and he’s willing to live with it as long as it clicks eventually — and as long as the outcome is a victory.
“There’s a patience to it that nobody wants to see, but we are feeling OK about it,” Carroll said after a 26-23 win over the 49ers to close the regular season, in which Seattle trailed 9-6 before scoring three fourth-quarter touchdowns. “We just have to make sure we come out of it, and we get the points we need to win.”
Will that strategy work against increasingly talented teams in the playoffs? Will Wilson, who hasn’t appeared totally in sync the past few weeks, find a way to work his postseason magic in a manner we’ve all seen before?
Last year the Seahawks seemed doomed to their eventual fate — a second-round ouster — when all three of their running backs went down with injury late in the season and they were forced to sign Marshawn Lynch out of retirement. This year, they head in with a full complement of running backs, as well as their entire starting offensive line for the first time since Week 4 against Miami.
But what that all means is unclear. For all the “ebbs and flows” of Seattle’s offense, to use the words of offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer on Wednesday, they did rack up more points than any team in Seahawks history. Wilson threw more touchdown passes, Metcalf had more receiving yards and Tyler Lockett had more receptions than anyone in team history. That shows definitively the potential that is lurking, still.
But it’s impossible to know which Seahawks offense shows up — and whether a ball-control win over the Rams could be replicated against, say, a powerhouse such as the New Orleans Saints in the next round.
And then there’s the Seahawks defense — equally mercurial but in the opposite direction. From the horrid start, when opposing teams were moving at will against Seattle, to the gradual reformation of the unit into one of the best in the league, at least statistically, the turnaround has been startling.
You can choose any number of turning points, but an especially popular one seems to be the acquisition of defensive end Carlos Dunlap from Cincinnati in late October. Since Dunlap was inserted into the lineup in Week 9 against Buffalo, he had five sacks in eight games. But more important, the Seahawks have 33 sacks over nine games (Dunlap missed one because of an injury).
“Once he comes in the building, there’s a certain aura, a certain respect for what he can do,” Seahawks defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. said Tuesday. “You just look at the person, look at the body, watch him talk … his stats speak for himself. So automatically it gives us credibility. You know we have a pass rusher, something we’ve certainly been looking for since (Jadeveon) Clowney left, or Cliff (Avril) left.”
There are still some nagging questions, however. Such as whether the dramatically improved defensive showing by the Seahawks was built on the strength of a stretch of games that included teams ranked 24th 30th, 31st and 32nd in total offense.
Two of those teams started backup quarterbacks, as did the 49ers last week. And the Seahawks might face another backup this week if L.A.’s Jared Goff, who broke his right thumb against Seattle just two weeks ago and underwent surgery, can’t go.
Even if Seattle gets by the Rams, a glittering array of A-list quarterbacks potentially awaits the Seahawks — Drew Brees, Tom Brady and/or Aaron Rodgers. Those are the sort of defensive tests that will answer the lingering questions definitively.
Until then, savor the mystery — that’s what makes all this so intriguing, and so much fun. Asked a question Tuesday about his concerns over the Seahawks’ uneven offensive performance, Carroll replied, “Well, generally, I’m not a worrier, so it doesn’t really apply.”
That accurately sums up Carroll’s demeanor. Everyone else? Feel free to worry away.