RENTON — Hearing the praise that followed news Tuesday of Max Unger’s healthy return to the Seahawks’ starting lineup, it evoked the greetings in cinematic depictions of heroic emperors and military commanders of Greek and Roman legend. You know, where citizens and slaves toga up, make a path and shout upon his return:
“All hail Maximus the Ungerian!”
OK, maybe the shouting wasn’t quite like that. And togas were few. But the sentiment at Seahawks headquarters was there. The captain of the offensive line, six weeks gone, was back. In time for the playoffs.
In those six weeks, when the pass protection broke down or a rushing play blew up, offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell conceded there were moments when he pined for his veteran center.
“I mean there’s times, yeah,” he said. But he moved quickly to salute replacements Patrick Lewis and Lemuel Jeanpierre, as well as the injured Steven Schilling, who were in a whirling rotation inexplicable to the outside observer.
“I have no different confidence that it’s going to work with Patrick in there, with Lemuel in there, with Max in there,” Bevell said. “I have a lot of respect for all those guys. They all work really hard. They do the best that they can. I was proud of those guys for how they stepped up.”
But Lewis was hired off a practice squad, Lemuel was waived after an injury and out of football, and before Schilling was hurt, he was a guard who was just learning the center spot. They did offer up nobly, but to say there was no difference is merely a coach doing the right thing in standing up for his guys.
But coach Pete Carroll let loose a bit of candor that was telling.
“We won’t do things any different, but when Max plays, our numbers are a little bit better,” he said. “It actually statistically shows up, we’re running the ball a little bit better, we protect a little bit better.
“That’s his guidance and his experience (helping) the other guys up there. He’s an expert at recognizing looks and calls and directing what’s going on. So it just stands to reason that we maximize more so with him there.”
Carroll didn’t seem to recognize his word play. But the Seahawks have a good chance to Unger-ize Saturday, because even with an offense that, besides Unger, missed its starting tight end and fullback and threw away its most explosive player, was not playing minimally.
The Seahawks finished ninth in yards, and first in rushing yards with 2,762 and a 5.3-yard per carry average — most in the NFL since the 2006 Atlanta Falcons of QB Michael Vick and RB Warrick Dunn.
Not only is the Seattle total well ahead of No. 2 Dallas (2,354 and 4.6), it is much better than Seattle’s 2,188 from the Super Bowl season and better by a full yard in average per carry (4.3).
In the other O-line tell-tale, sacks, the Seahawks gave up 42, after 44 a year ago. So despite the change in personnel, the Seahawks offense had an uptick in productivity.
It must be said that a significant part of the success is due to the singular talents of QB Russell Wilson and RB Marshawn Lynch, both of whom at their running positions are arguably the best in the NFL. At its best, Seattle’s O-line talent level is about average. But that ratio worked well a year ago.
And it has always worked better when Unger calls out the blocking responsibilities as he crouches over the ball.
“We’ll just be a little bit more accurate with stuff,” Carroll said. “It’s the kind of experience that just takes time to get. Patrick and Lemuel, they just haven’t had the background. It’s a wonderful dimension that helps us be right more, and that’s a really important thing.
“He and (assistant coach Tom Cable) have communicated so well. He really knows what Tom is looking for.”
After spraining an ankle and knee in a Nov. 16 24-20 loss to the Chiefs, Unger rehabbed while the season turned around. Decisive was getting the NFC’s top seed and the bye, so he could return to practice last week without having a game imminent.
“The bye was huge, as it always is,” he said, “especially for me not having played the last six weeks. It was nice not having to be thrown back in there.”
Unger offers no laments about a season limited to six games.
“Tough thing about the injuries,” he said, shrugging. “But I got a good shot to play this week. Was in all the meetings, so that helped. Not too much rust, so we’ll see.”
A win Saturday would set him up for a twin celebration — a victory by his alma mater, Oregon, over Ohio State, in the first real championship game of college football Monday night in Arlington, TX. There is no doubt in his mind.
“I don’t play there anymore, so I can make all the guarantees I want,” he said, predicting a Ducks triumph. “(Teammates) had a spirited discussion of the SEC not being in there this year. The (Pac-12) has the chance this year. I’m pretty stoked about that.”
Stoked too, are the Seahawks for the return of Maximus the Ungerian. Upon the remake of Ben-Hur, Unger has dibs on the Charlton Heston chariot.