The team insists Super Bowls are still in its future, but the club seemed different, and more vulnerable, this season.
ATLANTA — The Seahawks were full of lament and resolve on Saturday, the expected reaction to a season-ending defeat that left little doubt that the better team had won.
Pete Carroll spoke of a championship window that remained open. K.J. Wright pointed to the veteran core that returns next year and concluded, “We’ll be all right.” Russell Wilson flashed back to their playoff defeat four years ago in Atlanta and experienced a feeling of déjà vu to the sense of opportunity and optimism that prevailed back then.
“It seems very, very similar, and that’s a good thing,’’ Wilson said. “We still have the same great guys, we still have the same great coaches, we still believe in everything we’re doing, and there’s no doubt.”
Yet it was impossible to watch the Seahawks this year, and in this 36-20 loss, and not conclude that they have changed, in tangible and intangible ways, subtly and dramatically. It was a difficult, frustrating season in which they often seemed on the verge of a breakout, and breakthrough, but never accomplished it.
Whether that’s a temporary setback or the end of an era remains to be seen, but the challenge is markedly different now than it was for that hungry, burgeoning Seattle team that lost to the Falcons in January of 2013 and broke through with a Super Bowl title the next year.
The aura of intimidation and danger that gave them an advantage just by stepping on the field has been shattered. The defense that was once historic proved vulnerable in ways that would have been unimaginable in their heyday and was outplayed by the Falcons’ dynamic offense. The reliance on a young, unproven and inexpensive offensive line proved to be a fatal decision.
That doesn’t mean that the Seahawks are done as a championship contender. There’s still too much talent on both sides of the ball to conclude they will begin a downward spiral. It’s not excuse-making to say that injuries played a factor in their halting march, most tellingly the ones that hampered Wilson for a long stretch and knocked out Earl Thomas in the Carolina game. If they could have found a way to one more victory, and played this game in Seattle rather than in front of a frenzied Georgia Dome crowd, perhaps the outcome would have been different.
But it was impossible to watch the Falcons on Saturday, full of vigor, explosive on both sides of the ball, feeding off their crowd and wonder what it will take for the Seahawks to recapture that mojo. Once, the Seahawks were never blown out; it was simply unthinkable; but this year, after going the first 76 games of Wilson’s career with no losses by more than 10 points, they did it for the second time in their last seven games.
“We could have covered better, we could we have got off the field more on third downs,’’ safety Kam Chancellor said. “There’s a lot of things we could have done better. We could have tackled better. We kind of shot ourselves in the foot. Hats off to them. They played a great game. They executed, played hard and played together.”
That’s a page out of the Seahawks’ playbook, one that Atlanta coach Dan Quinn, Seattle’s defensive coordinator through two Super Bowls, has transferred to the Falcons. Now the Hawks need to get that stamp back.
“We didn’t stay together the whole game,’’ Chancellor said. “We believed, but we didn’t stay together from an attitude standpoint. We got too caught up in things they were doing, and it kind of took away our energy and drained our energy from us.”
The Seahawks were on the verge Saturday of summoning the magic that they used to conjure seemingly at will, and to their credit they were still engaged and fighting to the end. Yet as has so often been the case this year, that magic was elusive and illusory as they plateaued at the end of the season for the second year in a row.
The game began in optimal fashion, a long, extended touchdown drive that felt like a line in the sand was being drawn. But just like the Huskies in this same building two weeks ago, when they scored early to take a lead against Alabama, it was not a portent of things to come. After putting up points on their first two possessions, the offense fizzled, the Seahawks’ momentum stunningly and irreparably changed by a penalty that negated Devin Hester’s punt return to Atlanta’s 7-yard line.
“I guess it’s the story of our season,’’ receiver Doug Baldwin said. “We just haven’t been able to be consistent, drive in and drive out.”
Baldwin added that the Seahawks have “all the pieces, all the tools” to maintain their position as an NFL power. But that statement also contained an undeniable element of frustration.
“I feel like we have so much talent, so much potential,’’ he said. “But potential doesn’t mean anything if you don’t put it in motion. At times, we were able to do that, and at times we were just stagnant. That’s the frustrating part: Looking at it on paper and realizing how talented we should be and it not coming to fruition on the field.”
Asked if this Seahawks team is as hungry as the one that exited Atlanta in January of 2013, still unproven yet bursting with the realization that greatness and glory lay just ahead, Wilson didn’t even hesitate.
“Oh, yeah,’’ he said. “I’m probably even more hungry. I just love the game so much. … We’re a little disappointed, obviously, to have not won tonight, but the good thing, is we still have all the fire and passion and love for the game, and even more. I’m looking forward to what’s ahead. I think the best is ahead.”
And therein lies the mission for the Seahawks: To prove that those aren’t so many empty words from Wilson, and that time and attrition hasn’t removed what made the Seahawks so special.