SEATTLE – Never before has a shovelful of dirt fit a man better than tailored Armani.
We keep trying to bury Matt Hasselbeck, but he will not go quietly, like the Python character on the oxcart of dead bodies protesting, “I feel fine.” His contract is up, his callow relief was poised and conservative last week and he’s been a mess for a month or more. He keeps getting fluid drained from his hip. On Saturday, the defending Super Bowl champs and the Sports Illustrated Athlete of the Year were imported to nudge him over the lip of the grave.
And what was learned?
That Drew Brees is no Matt Hasselbeck.
Not this day, anyway. With a Qwest Field crowd of 66,336 already whipped into delirium, the 35-year-old Hasselbeck lifted them to rapture with a game that summoned memories of his vintage self from the season he steered the Seattle Seahawks to the Super Bowl.
You may have trouble convincing the 12th Man that feeling was better than this one.
Castigated and exploited as comic relief, the Seahawks – the first team to reach the playoffs of a 16-game season with a losing record – pulled off one of the biggest postseason upsets in National Football League history, eliminating the New Orleans Saints in the first round in a 41-36 shootout.
Who dat? Who dat dis.
That could have been Hasselbeck’s posture postgame, given the general sniping about his job in the wake of some miserable late-season showings and backup Charlie Whitehurst’s no-muss, no-fuss performance in getting the Seahawks into the playoffs last week. And don’t think it didn’t reach the Seattle locker room.
“Welcome back,” safety Lawyer Milloy said. “He knew that (with) the way we got into the playoffs kind of without him – on the sideline or whatever – he had to come in and do his part. He wanted to get on this ship with us.”
No one wanted him back on the ship more than coach Pete Carroll, who knew the Saints would not be subdued with the same no-risks approach that nursed Whitehurst through the regular-season finale. Hasselbeck had thrown for 366 yards in a 34-19 loss at New Orleans before Thanksgiving. Yards were needed again. Points were needed even more; Seattle settled for four field goals the first time.
But Hasselbeck couldn’t be the train wreck he was in late-season losses to Kansas City, San Francisco and Atlanta. And it was not particularly promising when his third pass of the game ticked off the hands of Ben Obomanu and straight to Saints cornerback Jabrari Greer, helping to stake the champs to a 10-0 lead.
“You could easily tank it right there,” Hasselbeck said. “The crowd could have easily tanked it on me, too.”
He got tight end John Carlson – forgotten a week ago – into the mix with a pair of touchdown passes on some well-sold play-action. He lofted a crazy lob to Cameron Morrah that turned near-disaster into 39 yards.
He put the Seahawks into the lead with a 45-yarder to Brandon Stokley just before halftime, and pushed the lead to 11 points on a brassy third-and-1 home run to Mike Williams, who got behind two defenders and gathered in the ball over his shoulder.
“Matt Hasselbeck,” said Carroll, “was ridiculously good today.”
The tally would be 272 yards passing, four touchdowns and a quarterback rating of 113.0 – compared to a season rating of 73.2. Three passes went for 38 yards or more; 12 of his 22 completions covered at least 10.
“He played phenomenal,” Brees said. “We were inside their red zone seven times. They were inside ours three. That means you’re coming up with a lot of big plays.
“I think he just showed what a veteran quarterback does. That’s what you expect from a guy like him.”
Well, sometimes. You also expect the forcing-it interception, and the maddening cold stretches. Carroll’s confidence in him has been strained this season, and even Saturday’s fireworks don’t mitigate the clock that’s ticking on his career.
“As a football player, you never know when your last play is going to be,” he said. “It’s just one random play, nothing special. I know you’re talking about my contract being up this year and all that, but it’s football. I’m sort of just trained, it’s sort of my mentality – you just never know.”
He’s telling us? Who could possibly have imagined the scenario that played out Saturday – Team Punch Line taking down the champs?
OK, sure. The Seahawks could.
“I’ve felt good about our season this whole time,” Hasselbeck said, “even though other people don’t, and they want to say what they want to say.
“We were not a good football team the last two years. We didn’t win many games and didn’t have the ingredients, the recipe, the camaraderie, the feeling like a team. I’m proud of the season we’ve had.”
And Saturday was a proud moment. Cheating the gravedigger always is.