ATLANTA — So many cigars exploded in the faces of the Seahawks Saturday that it was difficult to see through the figurative smoke in the Georgia Dome locker room.
We could see DE Michael Bennett cursing out a reporter. CB Deshawn Shead was picking his way carefully on his new crutches after a knee injury took him out in the third quarter. And there was big RG Germain Ifedi hobbling on a left ankle injured in first quarter, which may have been as significant a development as anything.
Next to him sat Rees Odhiambo, the rookie guard who replaced Ifedi and made a big mistake.
However, the little-used kid from Boise State offered a moment of clarity that was rich, particularly in view of the oratorical haze of the Seahawks talking a better game than they played. In summary, they said the pieces were still there for continued playoff contention. It may be true, but what Odhiambo said made it a little hard to accept right then.
“I stepped on his foot,” he said of the play that caused QB Russell Wilson to tumble into end zone for a safety, a Kramer-like plunge into daffiness that delighted the rowdy sellout crowd and stunned the NFL world used to thinking of the Seahawks as a high-efficiency outfit. “I was a little too tight on my alignment. Too close to center. I dropped my foot back and hit him.”
How did that come to be?
“I never played (right guard) once besides tonight.”
There you have it. On the national stage of an NFL divisional playoff game against the favored Atlanta Falcons, when nearly everything needed to go right for the Seahawks to get just the fourth road playoff win in franchise history, the Seahawks were forced to trust a player who had never played the position into which he was thrust.
It wasn’t the lone reason the Seahawks’ season ended 11-6-1 with a 36-20 thud to the impressive Falcons (12-5), but it epitomized the principal weakness that has gone on without solution.
For two seasons, wails over the insufficiently staffed offensive line have dominated the conversation regarding the Seahawks’ ability to return to Super Bowl. Most people are tired of hearing about it.
But after the mortifying safety that not only cut the Seahawks’ lead to 10-9 but then gave the Falcons a fresh possession, which they turned into a field goal and never looked back, the Seahawks were compelled to put training wheels on Odhiambo.
“I was working the sets on the sideline,” he said. “It got easier as the game went along.”
That’s supposed to get done in training camp. Not in January in the hostility of the playoff road.
Odhiambo make a mistake of inexperience and should not be criticized. He was put in position he couldn’t handle by the coaches, who were working with a roster loaded with highly paid veterans, leaving little room under the NFL’s hard salary cap to hire competent backups.
After the Super Bowl win, the real struggle began, as it does for every NFL champion. They must pay top-of-market for veterans while the rest of the team stays around the NFL average of competence with youngsters hopefully capable of absorbing intense training.
The Seahawks at right guard ended up starting a rookie in Ifedi, a first-round pick who never justified his draft spot, and backed him only with a rookie, and an untrained one at that.
The Seahawks became the epitome of the famous proverb, “For want of a nail, a shoe was lost . . .”
As CB Richard Sherman put it, “Guys who haven’t played have to come in. It’s difficult to come in cold turkey like that in the game. Guys played as well as they could. Sometimes it works out like that.”
Perhaps one of those errors can be overcome. Not two.
Odhiambo’s mistake was preceded by another one more epic, but only because of the yardage involved. After the defense forced a three-and-out, punt returner Devin Hester flashed his historic brilliance with an 80-yard dash to the Atlanta seven-yard line. But it was disallowed after backup LB Kevin Pierre-Louis on the punt-return team was busted for an obvious hold.
Possession was rolled back to the Seattle 7, one of greatest real estate giveaways since the Louisiana Purchase. From there, the Seahawks offense went backward to the safety, and never recovered.
“It was, unfortunately, where the game hinged,” said coach Pete Carroll. “We weren’t able to get back on top. I felt like that was time to take command of the game at 17-7 and make them fight their way. It was a huge change, as obvious as you can get.”
The Seahawks have been down in playoff games before, such as three years ago in the NFC championship with the Packers, 16-0 in the third quarter. But it took several near-miracles to pull that one out.
This lopsided team lacks the depth for near-miracles. But Carroll was strident in his claim that Saturday was merely a loss, not an end.
“We’re in the middle of it,” he said. “We’re right int he middle of it. Everyone in that locker room feels it. It didn’t happen this time. But we did some good stuff. We’re still in the process. We’re not at the end of anything.”
He may be right. The team still has great players, including Wilson at quarterback. They have almost no key figures heading into free agency. The have systems of operation and belief that work.
But all of it can tumble for the want of a nail. And each year, it gets harder.