ATLANTA — Despair was thick in the Seahawks locker room, profound as any I’ve seen. Thirty minutes after the game, many players were in full uniform with towels over heads, staring into the floor as if solace might erupt from the concrete.
Richard Sherman, the verbose cornerback who is fated to die in mid-sentence, waved off reporters. Safety Earl Thomas shook his head no to questions. A third Seahawk All Pro selection, center Max Unger, almost got away before I stepped between him and the exit.
“I don’t even want to think about this,” he said. “It’s a tough one to get over. It’s going to take a long time.”
Finally, tight end Zach Miller, buoyed by the individual game of his career (eight catches, 142 yards, one glorious touchdown), had the presence of mind to drill down past the anguish to the core of the ache.
“We wanted to win it,” he said, “for him.”
That would be Russell Wilson, the stumpy kid who is relentless as Puget Sound rain, only lots more fun. Wilson should have been celebrated as having led one of the greatest comebacks in NFL playoff history, but instead will be a footnote — a bold-faced italic footnote, but a footnote — in the chronicle of the 2012 season as the Atlanta Falcons, who won 30-28, move on the the NFC championship game Sunday against the San Francisco 49ers.
Screaming back from a 20-0 halftime deficit for a 28-27 lead with 34 seconds left, Wilson left ashen the red-clad hordes in the Georgia Dome. But moments later, it was the Seahawks and a vocal knot of fans who were flabbergasted when the Seahawks foolishly played a soft zone defense that allowed Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan two long completions that set up a game-winning, 49-yard field goal from Matt Bryant with eight seconds remaining.
The whipsaw brought a devastating end to a brilliant season that was within reach of the Super Bowl. Wilson had a splendid second half, finishing with a club-playoff-record 385 yards, two passing TDs and one on the ground. Yet after the win, he was almost as remarkable with his response to defeat.
Instead of moping, Wilson simply refused to give in, demonstrating why the team has fallen for a rookie they all came to cherish.
“When the game was over, I was very disappointed, but when I got to the tunnel, walking off, I got so excited for the opportunity next year,” he said. What? The kid just had a metaphorical arrow shot through his heart, and he already pulled it out.
“I told (QB position coach Carl Smith) afterward, ‘I’m so excited. I can’t wait to get to the off-season and work and work and work . . . to get to the next season and play.”
That’s why he is the leader and the rest of his world follows, happily. Some people will not believe that’s how his mind works, but some people could not lead, in their first year on the job, drives of 80, 80, 62 and 61 yards in the final half on the road in an NFL playoff game against the conference’s top-seeded team.
Indefatigable. Resourceful. Visionary. Unflappable. The human adjective dictionary that is Pete Carroll cannot himself finish the description.
“There is no way I can describe (in 20 minutes) the amount of what he does,” he said. “He’s just an amazing kid. It is so unheard of for rookies to do stuff like that. But he ain’t a rookie. He is just good.”
The best of many moments came inside the final minute, third-and-five at the Atlanta 27-yard line, trailing 27-21 and Falcons fans coughing up lungs for a defensive stop. Wilson, out of the shotgun, looked deep for a moment and then was nearly sacked before pivoting away, Bugs Bunny style, as Seahawks fans have learned to expect. He checked down to Marshawn Lynch, waiting patiently along the sideline, who caught the short throw and turned it into first-and-goal at the Atlanta 3.
He scored on the next play, the crowd fell silent, and everyone in the Northwest who had quit at 20-0 snapped both axles of the bandwagon as they jumped back on.
It wasn’t enough. Thirty-one seconds remained after kickoff, and the Seahawks fell back into a deep zone instead of playing the coverage that held the Falcons in the second half to seven points and 107 yards to that point. If that was the idea of coordinator Gus Bradley, he may have just played himself out of the head coaching jobs for which he interviewed this weekend.
Ryan hit two long passes that set up Matt Bryant to hit the game-winner from 49 yards with eight seconds left. Time remained for the Seahawks to dial up a Hail Mary, but having answered against Green Bay, Mary rarely picks up a second time in a season.
But the game was not lost late; it was was lost in the first half when the Seahawks came away scoreless despite twice having first downs at the Atlanta 11-yard line. Particularly acute was the fourth-and-one handoff to fullback Michael Robinson. He was stopped for a yard loss and the ball went over to the Falcons. Three or six points there would have been a game-changer.
Wilson contended that wasn’t the turning point, but he inadvertently explained why it was a dubious play call.
“We’ve done that play a lot (fullback dive in short-yardage situations),” Wilson said. “They made a great play in the backfield to stop him.”
It’s easy to make a great play on defense when the offensive play is known. Wilson was right; the Seahawks called the play often — too often. The Falcons were ready for it.
Wilson, however, is not about second-guessing or lamentations. His eyes are always forward.
“There’s so many what-if questions, but that’s not how you play,” he said, almost insistent. “You have to move on to the next opportunity. That’s what we did all season. So many games came down to the last minutes, similar to today. We won a lot of crucial games. We could have done better things earlier (today), but you can’t deal in what-if’s.”
Well, he doesn’t have to, but coaches, fans and media will dissect this one for the multitude of if-thens, choosing one of many that would have sent the Seahawks to San Francisco.
But beyond the outcome, there is little debate about one thing: The Seahawks have set themselves up nicely for a few years. Assembled here is a team of youth, speed and strength that has bought into Carroll and Wilson, and once they quit dragging their lower lips, will see that the final game would have been a disaster only if they had quit at 20-0.
“It was an exquisite job of returning to a football game and score like that,” Carroll said. “There aren’t a lot of teams that could do that. I keep telling them this team is really good and we are just getting started.”
The Seahawks already know they have key ingredient — a leader who gets better when the situation gets worse.
“I love it when things are a little bit tight,” Wilson said. “When everybody else is nervous, I get excited. You gotta be clutch in in tough situations. I think we did that as an offense.”
The Super Bowl was visible to the Seahawks from Atlanta. They’ll will play another one next year, when Wilson is smarter and more mature.
Well, I guess the “Mayberry’s” from the world-class city of Atlanta manned up as men do, and the Seahawks, in keeping with a long, illustrative Hooterville tradition . . . .
Saw good men all over the yard, Michael. We’re all students of history, I hope, but not slaves to it.
“Manned up?” Perfectly explains Ryan’s 0-4 play off record, right?
The discovery of WIlson, who epitomizes what professional athletes SHOULD be, but far too often are not, makes the entirety of this season worth it.
He has a strength that the Falcons and the rest of the NFL can only dream of. He is the core that a team can… and has… built itself around.
And he… and the ‘Hawks… will be back.
Now let’s talk reality, not typical Hooterville “but wait till next year!!!!!” In fact, I also was going to comment on another aspect of Art’s column. Only in Hooterville would a team fall behind 20-0 in, mind you, still only a Divisional Playoff game, not even a Conference Championship, go on to lose, also arguably of course, and have people say, “The Super Bowl was visible . . . .” LOL. Ryan may have been 0-4, but now there is only one quarterback between the two of them that has not won at this level of the playoffs. But, hey, “wait till next year,” right? And as for Wilson “epitomiz[ing]” what professional athletes “should be,” somehow athletics survived for quite some time without Wilson. How could that have happened?
If you don’t think Wilson is an athlete and leader to look up to, you haven’t watched him enough. The kid knows what he is doing, and is mature beyond his years. He possesses qualities that many quarterbacks in the league do not. There are not many things that will hold him back in his career.
Michael, you have your full crank on, not reality. This team can’t make up in one season for the shortcomings of the past. Take it for what it is, and don’t try to connect dots that fit your stereotype.
Michael below struggles with the word epitomize. Wilson didn’t invent the idea, he represents it well. Kid’s special.
Great column, Art. No fun to drop this one today, but when you think of how much this team has matured this year, and the astounding development of RW, it’s likely that there are even bigger games ahead in the future. 11-5 was a great regular season, but one more skinny win and we would have had the division and an easier sail into the playoffs. Next year we need to win our division, get a bye and play a critical playoff game at home. This team is poised for a Super Bowl run and is only getting better. Quite a wonderful season, so unlike anything the Mariners provide.
Lousy coaching job by Carroll. No way they should have been down 20-0 if he has them ready to play and it’s clueless not to kick at least one of those close-in first half field goals. Terrific comeback effort, but all for nought. Still nice season overall and Russell Wilson was just amazing.
Carroll made a couple poor decisions, matched by Smith on the other side. This team was ready to play, they just were out-schemed and outplayed in the first half. Give Falcons credit for taking Lynch out of the game.
Yeah and the Hawks figured it out and adjusted I think Miller being wide open over the middle was directly related to how they were taking away the running game
Very good analysis, Art. Wilson led an incredible comeback (and had plenty of help from his receivers) which would have been plenty if the Seahawks’ defense had been close to their usual selves, or if the Seahawks didn’t mismanage themselves out of two first-half field goals. And the Prevent defense should be called the “Surrender” defense – snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. The Seahawks may be back in force next year, but strange things can happen, and wasting this opportunity is going to be something they rue for a long time.
Remember the Seahawks outscored their opponents 33-9 the last six games. They were confident they could get a yard on fourth. But the playcall for Robinson was a predictable play. Gots to break tendencies. Or at least call timeout.
Yeah I didn’t have a problem going for 4th down, the problem I had was the play calls on both 3rd and 4th down, no Lynch on either one? No read option for Wilson?
I seem to recall Carroll having some interesting 4th down calls at USC too, notably in the National title game vs Texas.
Pete Carroll, abosolutely the best strategist, and the worst tactician! He can assemble an army of undeniably the best young team in the NFL, and botch game after game. The only way Carroll can win the coveted prize is to be the number 1 seed. Run the path to the Super Bowl through the 12th man, and they can bring it home! In spite of Carroll!
Exactly! The man knows what he is doing, but sometimes I think he gets way too ahead of himself! Instead of being one of the coaches who stands on his heels and speaks behind the laminated sheet, he is out and everywhere, and I think the excitement gets to him and he thinks some things work that will not. I will not say he has held the team back, because he’s helped them just as much as he has hurt them, but maybe chewing a few more pieces of gum at a time will help calm him down haha.
Smith had his second-half bricks too — remember the Ryan pass that Thomas picked. Play never should have been called. But Bradley in the three-deep zone on the Falcons’ final possession — no, no, no . . .
Seems too easy of a hindsight reaction Art. You HAVE to play zone there. ANYTHING beats you in that situation: catch and run on a shallow cross, pick plays, even a cheap PI flag. ATL had every pass option on the table with 2 TOs. Seattle had to defend the length and width of the field. In that situation you have to make them complete at least two throws in bounds and kick a long FG in that situation. 49 yards is no chip shot.
To his credit, Bradley brought pressure. It’s the only card in the deck at that point. Seattle blitzed up front but just couldn’t get there. For all the people screaming about blitzing more, Seattle blitzed ALL day long for all the good it did. As we saw with RW’s progression, once a good QB gets a little experience he’s gonna beat your blitz more often than not.
In truth, the play that beat us was the Lynch fumble in the first half. I thought ATL would score on our D. We just couldn’t give them any cheap scores based on bad field position. It was a good play by Spoon in that Lynch just never saw him.
Thanks for the great column Art. Having seen Wilson’s new Lee commercial
during pregame, I was totally pumped. Friends here in Albuquerque texted me
in the first half that things weren’t looking good, but I told them we’re spotting
Atl the first half not just the first quarter. No doubt the Hawks were both physically
and mentally drained, but if they could get fired up about something they
could ride the adrenalin. That happened. I agree that the defensive set when
we had the lead was poorly chosen. Same with our second to last play. Instead of
a Hail Mary they should have let all the receivers release downfield then block for
a Russell keeper. Would have had more of a chance! Hey, this team is on the
upswing and I’m thinking set 1st seed and take it all. We are the team to beat
next year. I’ve been all in with Wilson since Wisconsin, and with Carroll since
the last 49er game. As my QB always says at the end of interviews GO HAWKS
Dave, the Seahawks moved the ball in the first half but never scored. Those dubious calls by Pete will haunt. But to your point about Wilson: He’s the new Griffey.
Wilson is the new Griffey and Sherman is the new Glove.
IF those are both true, is Beast Mode the new Reign Man?
Wilson’s incredible. There aren’t many NFL QB’s who can escape a sack and zing a pass for a huge gain or run for a first down. The lightnening-quick way the Seahawks offense can move the ball downfield is exhilirating.
Thanks for the piece Art. While Wilson did a great job of rallying the troops, the seahawks were not themselves, and this is ultimately what doomed them. Lynch with less than 50 yards rushing? opponent scoring 30 points? That is the most they have given up all season! Not to mention zero pass rush, with lots of explosive run plays by the Falcons.
Maybe its the grueling road games but this all makes me think the Hawks have a bit of an identity crisis that hopefully they can sort out over the off season. There are certainly some strengths, but we are in no way the complete team that the Niners are.
I would love it if the Hawks get it all figured out and come back stronger next year, but as others have mentioned you never know when you’ll make it this far again..
Bruce Irvin cost us the game. Falcon game plan was to identify which side of the line he was on, then audible a run right at him. Epic fail.
I don’t think Irvin was responsible for the loss, but I would like to see Schneider find some more pass rush help this offseason. The lack of edge-rush depth was exposed when Clemons went down. That was the one spot where the defense was most vulnerable. If Jones isn’t re-signed, then another inside rusher (or two) will be needed as well.
Unless I’m mistaken, Wilson would’ve been the first rookie QB to have ever won three road playoff games and the first rookie to ever lead a team to the Super Bowl. As much as it would’ve been an unprecedented achievement, that’s not gonna happen. Looking forward to next season, perhaps Wilson can be the third 2nd year quarterback to make it to the Super Bowl. The other QBs: Dan Marino and Ben Roethlisberger.
Ben Roethlisberger 2005.. but it doesn’t take anything away from the job Wilson has done.
I agree. Wilson’s post-game interview was rather refreshing. Instead of feeling sorry and harping on missed opportunities, Wilson is looking forward to next season. Why give up hope?
Swamp_fox, that was Roethlisberger’s second year.
I have to admit at the beginning of the season I did not agree with Carroll going with Wilson as the starting QB. I knew Wilson outplayed Flynn in exhibition games but thought when the season came around Wilson would be over his head and he more than proved the doubters wrong. I love how he does his interviews in a shirt, coat and tie and ends his interviews with “Go Hawks.” And I love his never say die attitude. He looks and acts like a professional, period. And he represents the Seahawks and Seattle well. There’s no “take things one play at at time” approach with him. He wants the ball and he’s gonna score!
I also had misgivings about canning Jim Mora after only one season (still kinda do) but I’ve been seeing what the appeal of Pete Carroll is. And John Schneider is quietly becoming the NFL’s version of Sam Presti. Some graded the Seahawks draft this season as low as a D however all but one made the team. With drafting like that and a performance like this past season it’s a bright future for the franchise.
Wilson’s latest Tweet only further proves how much of a plus this young man is to the franchise.
After losing the game in the last 34 seconds I wouldn’t worry about losing our defensive coordinator to another team.
Fix the field in Washington and we would have had a better defense and a kicker that could and does put the kickoff into the end zone for no run back.
Hey Art I just listened to your pre-game comments on the KPLU website and I must compliment you on your prescience. You called it. Unfortunately Marshawn was anon, and Ryan was right-on. Maybe next year…