After signing with the 49ers following his surprising firing in Seattle, Richard Sherman declared that the Seahawks had “lost their way.” It was a rebuke that stung because, despite a respectable 9-7 record, they did indeed miss the the playoffs for the first time in seven seasons, and looked bad on occasion doing it.
Age, injuries, bad drafts, burdensome contracts, social-protest turmoil and internal divisions about Russell Wilson’s accountability collectively seemed to have smothered the ruthlessly creative spark that marked Pete Carroll’s teams. Decline into the great mediocre middle of the NFL seemed imminent.
Fast forward to Sunday night at the Clink, after the Seahawks beat a substantial Kansas City team 38-31 (box) to improve to 9-6 and lock up a berth in the playoffs with a week left in the regular season. A national TV audience was treated to an uproarious spectacle in which the Seahawks offense out-performed the Chiefs attack, while a wounded defense kept precocious QB Patrick Mahomes from flattening the countryside.
So, Doug Baldwin, your pal Sherman missed the mark, right?
No,” he said. “He didn’t miss that one. We did lose our way for a minute.”
After his most impactful game of an injury-filled season he called “hell” — his seven catches for 126 yards included a leaping one-hander that will be part of Seahawks lore for generations — Baldwin acknowledged that the Seahawks had been messed up.
“It was hard to hear the ugly truth about some things sometimes,” he said. “But sometimes the truth is also beautiful. It forces you to look at yourself.”
Baldwin suspected he was in trouble with club management for endorsing Sherman’s hot take — “they’re already mad about me for saying this, already trying to figure out how they’re going to fix this” — but he went on.
“Truth of the matter is, we had some questions we had to answer,” he said. “I think we have done an excellent job as players, coaches and staff, asking ourselves about the hard truths about who we want to be, what our identity is going to be.
“We’ve figured it out. Still work to be done, obviously, but I don’t think (Sherman) was off. I think he was spot on. But I think we answered the call.”
What was the biggest question answered?
“Who was going to step up?” he said. “What guys were going to fill the void of the guys who were missing — Cliff Avril, Earl Thomas, Michael Bennett, Kam Chancellor, Richard Sherman?
“You’ve seen time and time and time again, these guys (the 2018 roster) step up and make plays.”
Argument was not possible. The departed players were eminent talents and personalities, but they were not the only ones capable of helping the Seahawks win. It did, however, take two seasons to re-create the system and the belief that twice put the Seahawks in the Super Bowl.
“The most powerful aspect is we know who we are,” Carroll said. “That’s such a powerful element. We know how to do it. I love that’s where we’ve arrived, because it was a long two years of not being able to get back to it.
“We just couldn’t get it right with all the guys that were coming through. We just couldn’t put it together properly.”
As Seahawks followers all know by now, it starts with the running game, and the 210 ground yards Sunday spoke volumes. The Chiefs knew exactly what to expect, and played a lot of cover-zero, dedicating personnel to stop the run. That meant Seahawks receivers were invited to win a lot of one-on-one matchups. They did.
As Baldwin put it, “The defense has to stop the run.”
That’s how Wilson’s modest 18 completions added up to 271 passing yards, which led to a season-high 464 yards of total offense.
It happened behind a mish-mash line. Because of injuries to RT Germain Ifedi and RG D.J. Fluker, George Fant had his first start of the the season at right tackle, and Ethan Pocic had his first start at right guard. Then LG J.R. Sweezy went down with a sprained ankle, so Fluker hobbled in on the right, bouncing Pocic to the left. It all worked.
And only three penalties for 20 yards, 11 and 128 fewer than a week earlier against the 49ers.
More pronounced has been the season-long growth of lesser-knowns stepping into the long shadow of a defense that gave up the fewest points in the NFL for four consecutive seasons. That had never happened before in the NFL, and perhaps will never again. But that doesn’t mean a younger defense can’t be good enough to win a game when the offense can carry its share of the load.
Frank Clark, Bradley McDougald, Jarran Reed, Tedric Thompson, Shaquill Griffin and Dion Jordan, among others, have been on steady upticks, complementing all-world LB Bobby Wagner. Sunday night, the Seahawks gave the potent Chiefs three long touchdown drives, but made them settle three times for field goals and twice ended drives by forcing fumbles.
The youngsters, the newbies and key holdovers have again made the Seahawks a playoff team.
“I don’t know they we’ve played any more complete than we did (tonight),” Carroll said. “It’s a fantastic night for us, and we’re going to the playoffs. There weren’t very many people that thought we would ever have a chance to be in this position. But the guys in the room did.
“They know who we are, and they’re ready to go. It’s thrilling.”
They found their way again. Sherman was right — until he wasn’t.