SEATTLE – Maybe it started precisely a year ago, this unexpected odyssey to the playoffs for a Seahawks team that seemed headed instead toward a stark decline.
Maybe the seeds were planted as the calendar turned from 2017 to 2018, and the Seahawks dispersed to their homes after 16 games. For most of them, it was the first season of their pro careers that wasn’t extended into the postseason, and the jolt was tangible.
It was humbling, it was depressing, and it was motivating. Mostly, though, it was strange.
“It sucked. It was terrible,” linebacker Bobby Wagner said. “We had made the playoffs my whole time here since I’ve been here. The first couple of weeks, it just kind of felt like a bye week where it’s just like, ‘All right, well, other teams are playing and you’re not.’
“Then when you’re starting to work out and get ready for next season and you realize the season is still going, it’s a terrible feeling to be done (entering) January. So I’m going to do my best to make sure it never happens again.”
They all watched wistfully as 12 teams not named the Seahawks proceeded through the postseason. Wagner picked out friends still playing to root for. K.J. Wright, a self-proclaimed “football junkie,” morphed into a fan. Russell Wilson being Russell Wilson, he transported himself into the helmets of the playoff quarterbacks and tried to think along with them as plays developed – always with one overriding thought in the back of his head:
“My whole mindset was to never miss it again,” he said.
So maybe that’s where it began – even before the departure of players such as Richard Sherman, Michael Bennett, Cliff Avril, Kam Chancellor and Jimmy Graham. Before the latest revelation of a supposed locker-room rift. Before both coordinators and the offensive line coach were fired by Pete Carroll.
Out of all that chaos was born a 10-6 team, one that transformed itself midseason into a run-oriented bully and finds itself facing Dallas in the wild-card round Saturday.
It was a team that visibly grew in confidence over the course of the season, as it redoubled its commitment to the elements that Carroll built a career around but had briefly (and inexplicably) abandoned.
The accelerated pace of the Seahawks’ turnaround will be studied by football analysts. This simply wasn’t supposed to happen, and yet it did. As much as the playoff blackout last year had a galvanizing effect, it’s something that can’t just be willed – though there’s much to be said for leaders such as Wagner and Wright, Wilson and Doug Baldwin, and new ones such as Frank Clark and Jarran Reed, reinforcing the Seahawks’ ethos.
To Carroll, the Seahawks’ turnaround – from a 0-2 start to a 6-1 finish – was the inevitable byproduct of returning to the roots of Seattle’s original surge to the Super Bowl.
And, of course, Carroll being Carroll, he knew the right stuff was in there all along, just waiting to be brought out.
“It just seems like the heart and the soul and the potential and the speed and the youth and then the leadership – all of those elements were there that would be necessary,” he said.
After two weeks of talking about a run-first approach and yet not committing to it in the game plan, Carroll and offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer had a meeting, and an epiphany.
From that point, the Seahawks’ foundation has produced echoes of the Marshawn Lynch days, with Chris Carson emerging as the same sort of relentless, willful, punishing runner.
Everything else fell into place around that. The revamped offensive line has been a revelation. Wilson has been more efficient and deadly. The Seahawks again have conquered the vastly important realm of turnover differential.
Having recaptured the elements that incubated a playoff-caliber team, now Carroll is trying to emulate the mindset that led the Seahawks to their greatest postseason success.
To his way of thinking, there is overlap in those two realms. The key to winning regular-season games in Carroll’s world view is to buy into his mantra, repeated ad nauseam, that each week is a championship opportunity. Once the real championship opportunities arise in the playoffs, Carroll’s hope – his belief – is that the mindset is ingrained to such an extent it doesn’t feel like a stretch at all. Indeed, it’s second nature.
That’s why Carroll said a big focus this week is making sure the players without postseason experience – a surprisingly large portion of one of the NFL’s youngest rosters – understands how the Seahawks approach this segment of the season.
When asked to elaborate precisely what that approach is, Carroll replied, “It’s really important that we understand that we’ve got to do everything how we always do it. We have to stay with principles, stay with the approach and that we don’t let the playoffs change us.”
Perhaps it was the absence of the playoffs that first changed them, back when the Seahawks desperately needed change. Wright remembered vividly how he felt one year ago when the party began without an invitation to the Seahawks.
“That’s terrible. That’s terrible,” he said. “I’ve always been in the playoffs since I’ve been here. Playoff football, it’s just fun. It’s so much better. You just want to watch it when you’re at home, and you want to play in it.
“I’m glad we’re in it this year, and we’ve got to do something while we’re in it.”
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