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Larry Stone: Seahawks have obvious goal for next season – win division, play at home

UPDATED: Wed., Jan. 9, 2019, 5:29 p.m.

Seattle Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll watches play against the Dallas Cowboys during last Saturday’s NFC wild-card game in Arlington, Texas. (Michael Ainsworth / AP)
Seattle Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll watches play against the Dallas Cowboys during last Saturday’s NFC wild-card game in Arlington, Texas. (Michael Ainsworth / AP)

SEATTLE – For all but one team, locker cleanup day is the most melancholy ritual in sports.

The Seahawks had theirs Sunday and they exuded the standard mixture of wistfulness, frustration and regret – all those emotions still raw, less than 24 hours after being eliminated from the playoffs in Dallas.

“To wake up this morning and realize you don’t get to compete with your guys today – it makes you a little bit sick,” said Russell Wilson, who four years ago participated in the most melancholy (and heartsick) locker cleanup in NFL history after Super Bowl XLIX.

Some players left the room knowing it would be for the last time. For others, that would be the same fate; they just didn’t know it yet. All left with the ache of Seattle’s 24-22 loss to the Cowboys gnawing at their insides.

“It’s still frustrating, especially watching football and knowing you could still be competing,” linebacker Bobby Wagner said. “But we had to do a little bit more to win the game, and we didn’t do enough.”

In the big picture, it was a season of growth and promise for the Seahawks.

But in the smaller picture – the one on your television screen from 5:15 to 8:30 on Saturday night – it was a jarring ending that temporarily pushed the good feelings aside. In a way, the disgruntlement is a measure of the Seahawks’ ultimate triumph this season: They raised expectations back to the exacting standards of what was thought to have been a bygone era.

The fact that Seattle’s undoing was largely strategic – a stubborn and ill-advised adherence to the run-centric game plan – should also be perversely comforting. Even Wilson, who rarely questions tactics in any way, said in a gentle fashion, “I think when you reflect back on it, we were throwing it pretty well in the game and we could have kept doing that some more.”

Strategy and game planning can be tweaked and adjusted far easier than personnel deficiencies. That’s not to say Seattle’s roster doesn’t need to be upgraded. It most certainly does, in tricky and challenging ways.

But what shouldn’t be lost in the grim aftermath of Saturday is that the Seahawks made themselves into contenders in 2018 when few thought they would, and put themselves in position to strive, realistically, for more and better in 2019.

They have exemplary standard-bearers on both sides of the ball in Wilson and Wagner. Both players are one season away from potential free agency, so navigating those contractual waters should be a key item on the Seahawks’ offseason agenda. Of more immediate urgency, though, is figuring out what to do with the players facing free agency after this season, particularly Frank Clark and K.J. Wright.

Clark (and his 14 sacks) isn’t much of a mystery. He won’t be going anywhere, whether via extension or franchise tag. Wright, with lingering knee issues and mounting years, will be much thornier. But it says here that the Seahawks should find a way to reward a player who has done it the right way, on and off the field, from Day One, and showed Saturday that he can still perform at a high level. It will be fascinating to see how highly the Seahawks will value sentiment, with the knowledge that it has burned them before.

When you start listing the areas the Seahawks need to shore up, they are substantial – which is the tricky and challenging part. Certainly, they need to find pass rushers beyond Clark and Jarran Reed. They need to address depth at linebacker (particularly if Wright isn’t back) and in the secondary. The offensive line, so transformative in 2018, may need restructuring again depending on what happens with pending free agents D.J. Fluker and J.R. Sweezy. And they could definitely use another play-making wide receiver, and, oh yeah, a kicker.

The good news is that the Seahawks will have more salary-cap space ($54.7 million, ninth highest in the league) than they’ve ever had. And John Schneider and Pete Carroll seem to have rediscovered some of their draft mojo, unearthing players like Reed, Chris Carson, Tre Flowers, Shaquill Griffin, Will Dissly, Tedric Thompson and Michael Dickson outside of the first round in the past three years. Having lost their second-round pick to Houston in the Duane Brown trade, the Seahawks will have to be even more astute this time around.

One goal for management and players should be finding a way to win the division, which is another way of saying, finding a way to bridge the gap with the Rams. The fact that the Seahawks lost their two games against L.A. by a combined seven points is a sign that it’s not an impossible task. And the loss in Dallas shows why it’s so important. It’s easy to imagine a different result if the game had been played in Seattle. In the Wilson era, the Seahawks have never lost a home playoff game (going 5-0), while putting up a 3-5 record away from CenturyLink.

Before he joined the parade of players lugging boxes and gear out of the locker room, Wagner said, “I think our future is very bright.”

That sentiment was hard to muster in the gloom that prevailed. But it deserved to peek through the dark clouds.

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