A squeaker over the Panthers might have quieted the sniping and second-guessing, but the Seahawks still haven't answered the question: Are we watching (yet another) Lombardi backslide?
AS REPORTS of turmoil spread across the Internet last week, they left an impression of the Seahawks' locker room as the NFL's version of Congress, where division reigns supreme. The receiver who fought teammates had been traded. The running back's disgruntled act had worn thin; reports had him on the way out at year's end. The quarterback was too close to upper management, too visible from his myriad endorsements and (according to a Bleacher Report story) not "black enough" for his teammates.
Players were no longer defending the Lombardi trophy they won in February. They were defending themselves, one another, their pass rush, their secondary, their failure to force turnovers, their play-calling, their chemistry and their people skills. They'd gone from a dynasty to a travesty in the span of a month.
Flash forward, then, to Sunday afternoon in Charlotte, inside that supposedly tumultuous Seattle locker room. The receiver, Percy Harvin, was in New Jersey, with the Jets. The running back, Marshawn Lynch, flashed a smile at reporters and dropped a "Y'all enjoy y'all's self" as he skated out the door. The quarterback, Russell Wilson, had saved Seattle's season (at least for now) with a methodical, narrative-changing touchdown drive late in the fourth quarter to seize a 13--9 victory over the Panthers. Black enough, not black enough—on Sunday he was at least good enough.
"All wins feel exactly the same," defensive end Michael Bennett said at his locker. "It's like making love to your wife."
Well, then. The mood was relieved, the vibe copacetic, the contrast to recent weeks stark. And yet it seemed almost overly celebratory considering the way the win had unfolded. The Seahawks dropped at least two interceptions and recovered just one of four Carolina fumbles; Wilson threw a pick and was lucky not to lose his own fumble; and the offense, minus Harvin for the second straight week, limped more than it sped downfield, at least until the final drive.
But if Seattle's great escape did not inspire confidence in the way that its victories over the Packers and the Broncos had inspired talk of the first repeat Super Bowl champion in 10 years, then at least it averted the alternative. At 4--3 the Seahawks prevented their first three-game losing streak of the Wilson era, albeit with a brutal stretch of six games against potential playoff teams (the Chiefs, then the Eagles bookended by home-and-aways with the Cardinals and the 49ers) approaching in mid-November.
Afterward, all the anonymous sources who made noise midweek appeared to have taken the evening off. Rush Limbaugh, among the dozens of bloviators who had weighed in on Wilson, was silent.
"If you think there are distractions, you are wrong," said coach Pete Carroll from behind a lectern as he waved his hand dismissively at an audience of reporters and the millions watching on TV.
TURMOIL? HAH! Try 1993, says Warren Moon. Now an analyst for the Seahawks, Moon played quarterback that season for the Houston Oilers. First, in October, there was Babygate, when the birth of tackle David Williams's child led him to miss a game, drawing a $125,000 fine for "misplaced priorities." Then Moon was benched. In December defensive tackle Jeff Alm committed suicide immediately after getting into a car accident in which the passenger, his best friend, was killed. And in January the Oilers' defensive coordinator, Buddy Ryan, punched offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride in the head. During a game. The Seahawks' locker room is a wellness center by comparison.
At least, that's what Moon has tried to convey to Wilson in private conversations in recent weeks, encouraging him to overcome the Harvin deal and all of the negative press that accompanied it. "The majority of guys agree with the [trade]," says Moon. "There was just too much tension in that locker room."
But it didn't start that way when the Seahawks traded three draft picks to Minnesota for Harvin in March 2013 and signed him to a six-year extension, with $27 million guaranteed. Wilson had picked Harvin up at the airport and taken him out to dinner. He even came up with a catchphrase: Lord have mercy, we have Percy.
Harvin proved to be explosive on the field: His second-half kick-return touchdown in Super Bowl XLVIII all but sealed the win over Denver, and this season he hauled in three TD catches against the Redskins (only to see each one wiped out by a penalty). But Harvin was also explosive in the locker room. There was a fight with fellow receiver Golden Tate before the Super Bowl and another with wideout Doug Baldwin this preseason. Harvin didn't deny either incident when he met with reporters in New York.
Worse though, Moon says, Harvin pulled himself out of multiple games this season—not just against the Cowboys. "You can't quit on your team," Moon says. "You can't make the quarterback uneasy. You can't have everybody walking around asking, What mood is Percy in today?"
The Seahawks shopped Harvin for the better part of a month. They were prepared to cut him if they didn't find a trade partner, even with that salary-cap hit, and they unloaded him for a sixth-round pick that could become a fourth-rounder. That, for the NFL's fourth-highest-paid receiver.
Teammates found out about the move two weeks ago as they boarded a bus for the airport and a game against the Rams. Harvin veered off and walked into a parking lot, alone. Here was the NFL in a snapshot: a tempestuous talent, useful only as long as he produced, then—poof—gone.
"I'm praying for him," Wilson said.
There was one other thing Moon tried to convey to the Seahawks' quarterback. In 1993 the Oilers finished 12--4.
NO TEAM since the 2003 and '04 Patriots has won back-to-back Super Bowls. In fact, none have won so much as a playoff game following a championship since the '05 Pats did so. But Seattle—with its historically dominant defense and its young core of stars and a championship quarterback entering just his third season—seemed well-positioned to buck that trend.
Instead, the problems that have typically plagued Super Bowl winners—talent drain, a schedule befitting a division winner—befell the Seahawks. Tate's defection to Detroit in free agency hurt more than expected, as did several defensive-line departures, notably Red Bryant and Chris Clemons. Seattle opened the season against three of the NFL's best teams: the Packers, Chargers and Broncos. After emerging from that stretch 2--1, the Seahawks then went on the road for three out of four weeks, with a home loss to Dallas, a surprise NFC title contender, in the middle.
A Seattle defense that allowed an NFL-low 14.4 points per game in 2013 traveled to Carolina averaging 23.5, worse than 18 other teams. Once the NFL's best in the red zone, it has been one of the worst. Third-down stops have evaporated. Depth has been a major issue: 17 players logged at least 450 defensive snaps in 2013; through Week 8 they're on pace for nine. Injuries have limited the team's options in the secondary; the lack of a pass rush has crippled the unit even more. The well of interceptions that led to lucrative contract extensions for free safety Earl Thomas and cornerback Richard Sherman all but dried up. Opposing quarterbacks now throw the ball earlier, mostly to underneath receivers.
One member of the last team to repeat, retired Patriots safety Rodney Harrison, has watched the Seahawks stumble. Now an analyst for NBC, he sees issues that extend beyond the roster and the playbook. "It's almost like Seattle has a mind-set of, We're the defending champs," he says. "No. You're not defending anything. You have to erase last season and start [fresh] on this one."
New England managed that, Harrison says, because Bill Belichick demanded it of them. If 80 plays went right, the coach singled out the 10 that went wrong. "You haven't won anything," he told them.
The Patriots' locker room also teemed with veteran leaders, Harrison says, pointing out the downside of the Seahawks' young core. "It seems like it's wearing on them," he says. "When you think of Seattle, you think of Richard Sherman, all fun and laughter. But you don't see those guys laughing and joking anymore. They're really serious. You don't see them playing with the same energy."
Then, this: "Percy Harvin would not have fit in our locker room. We held everyone accountable, even Tom Brady. We would bust his chops—the way he dressed, his hair, his commercials and endorsements."
THE DIFFERENCE one drive can make.
The Seahawks spent most of Sunday the same way that they'd spent the greater part of October: offense stalled, defense bent if not broken. In the middle of the fourth quarter, the game tied 6--6, Panthers quarterback Cam Newton lofted a prayer downfield into double coverage, and rookie receiver Kelvin Benjamin outmaneuvered both Sherman and Thomas to haul in a 51-yard bomb. Here was a play that defined the difference between last year's Seahawks and this year's bunch. Or seemed to, anyway.
Seattle's ensuing drive started with 4:37 remaining, the Panthers ahead 9--6. Wilson scanned his teammates' eyes in the huddle. "There's no doubt," the QB says he told them. Relax, receiver Paul Richardson remembers Wilson ordering. Let's go win it, tackle Justin Britt recalls him saying.
Starting at his own 20-yard line, Wilson threw four times and connected with four different targets. Lynch twice bulled up the middle for first downs. Wilson scrambled for another. The Seahawks' offense, sluggish for more than three quarters, came alive, and Wilson found his backup tight end, Luke Wilson, for a 23-yard touchdown that put Seattle in front for the first time, and for good.
An impending disaster had been salvaged. A season that neared ruin had been saved. "There's always a chance if Russell Wilson is playing quarterback," says Seahawks guard J.R. Sweezy, a college teammate of Wilson's at N.C. State. "I've seen him win a lot of games like that."
THE VISITORS' locker room at Carolina's Bank of America Stadium is a vast, wide-open space with lockers lining all four walls. The middle of the room is typically empty, save for reporters and some equipment scattered about, and that open space seemed appropriate on Sunday afternoon.
There is no physical divide.
After the win Wilson dressed alone in front of his locker. This signified—well, not much, really. His teammates say they joked with him last week about the black-enough story, advising that he put more chocolate syrup in his milk. (It seems fair to wonder if any of those same guys spoke to Bleacher Report.) "The not-black-enough thing, I don't even know what that means," the quarterback says.
In this turbulent season Wilson has been the constant. He played flawlessly in the opener against Green Bay; marched Seattle down the field in overtime against Denver; carried them in a win over Washington; led a near-comeback against St. Louis—three straight TD drives to end the game—that was eventually derailed by special teams gaffes; and sparked the comeback against the Panthers. He threw for 199 yards, with a touchdown, to nine different targets on Sunday in what wasn't just another road win. Said Baldwin, "If we're being honest with ourselves, obviously it means a lot."
Afterward, while the receivers checked on Harvin's stats at their lockers (50 combined yards on three catches and four carries), Wilson insisted that he has moved on. "With all the people trying to distract us, we're probably the closest we've ever been," he said. That sounds impossible given the events of recent weeks, but it's the kind of thing that quarterbacks say when a crisis is temporarily averted.
As Wilson talked to reporters, someone behind him started to cough—and cough and cough. Ever aware, the QB made note of the hacking: "Somebody's choking, guys. Maybe he didn't like my answer." In that moment Wilson—known as the Robot to teammates—cracked wise with his eyes trained straight ahead. For him, there is no looking backward. There is only one divide that matters: the one between the Seahawks and the top of the NFC.
"It's like the Seahawks have a mind-set of, We're the defending champs," says Harrison. "NO. YOU'RE NOT DEFENDING ANYTHING. Erase last season and start fresh."
The Hangover, REDUX
Seattle's not the first Super Bowl champ to struggle in its encore
1981 / RAIDERS
QB controversy precipitated offensive backslide, from No. 7 to No. 25. Went 7--9 while Al Davis focused on moving team to L.A.
1988 / REDSKINS
QB Doug Williams's appendectomy (and later benching) plus a defensive drop-off (from No. 6 to No. 26) added up to 7--9.
1999 / BRONCOS
Reward for back-to-back titles: John Elway's retirement, NFL's toughest schedule. Finished 6--10.
2003 / BUCS
GM Rich McKay left midseason; WR Keyshawn Johnson got deactivated; RB Mike Alstott landed on IR. Result: 7--9.
Photograph by Simon Bruty Sports Illustrated
HEAVIER DUTY With his interception counter stuck on zero (after eight picks in 2013), Sherman (25) has had to make more tackles, like this stop on Jonathan Stewart.
DAVID E. KLUTHO/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
BREAKING UP IS HARD TO DO After slow starts by Lynch (left, being tackled by the Rams) and the departed Harvin (11, after a Week 1 win, with Wilson), Seattleites have plenty of reason to go sleepless.