FOR 55 MINUTES AGAINST THE PACKERS THE SEAHAWKS' SUPER BOWL TITLE DEFENSE LOOKED DEAD. BUT THANKS TO AN UNIMAGINABLE COMEBACK—A FAKE FIELD GOAL, A DESPERATION TWO-POINT CONVERSION, AN ONSIDE MIRACLE AND A BEAUTIFUL OVERTIME BOMB—SEATTLE IS EXACTLY WHERE IT EXPECTED TO BE: ONE WIN AWAY FROM ANOTHER RING
SORRY, CHRIS MATTHEWS told the Seahawks last February, but he probably wouldn't be able to get to Seattle in time to work out for them the next day. The 6'5", 218-pound Winnipeg Blue Bombers wide receiver was in Long Beach, Calif., selling shoes at Foot Locker by day and moonlighting as a security guard. When the Seahawks called and asked if he could get to the airport, he told them, "I don't get off work for a few hours, so I don't know."
The next call he took was from his agent, who advised, "Get your ass home and pack." Matthews recalled all this with a smile, seated at his stall in the CenturyLink Field locker room, 40 minutes after playing a brief but critical role in one of the most implausible comebacks in NFL postseason history. "I called my boss and told him, 'I gotta leave, right now.'
"I almost messed it up by saying I don't get off work until nine.... And look at me now!"
Packers fans cannot bear to watch replays of the onside kick recovered by Matthews, who leaped and snagged the ball after it had doinked off the helmet of Brandon Bostick, the hard-luck Green Bay tight end whose ill-timed gaffe will serve as a meme and memorial to one of the most painful losses in the 95-year history of this club. In a lugubrious press conference afterward, quarterback Aaron Rodgers tendered his opinion that the Packers had squandered this game. "Gave it away," he mourned.
Of course we intend to examine the heroics—and subsequent sobbing—of his Seattle counterpart, Russell Wilson, whose performance called to mind the antics of the mercurial child in the Longfellow nursery rhyme: When he was good (the last four minutes of regulation, the first four minutes of OT), he was very, very good; and when he was bad (the rest of the game), he was horrid. We'll laud the strong, silent Marshawn Lynch, whose 120 second-half rushing yards softened what had been an ironclad Green Bay D. In so doing he created opportunities for Seattle's unheralded receivers, who'd spent much of the day producing clanging sounds as Wilson's passes caromed off their hands and otherwise demonstrating why they tend to be unheralded.
No need to sing the praises of the Seattle D, which spent its day cleaning up messes left by the offense. Pete Carroll is on the case. "We just screwed up. We were off in so many different things, early on," allowed the Seahawks' coach, standing in the locker room postvictory, exuding ... relief. "We just gave them so much." Four Wilson interceptions and a Doug Baldwin kickoff fumble, to be specific. This after just 14 giveaways all season. Pivoting to address the positive, as is his wont, Carroll pointed out that Green Bay converted those gifts into just six points. "That's the story. It's not about the turnovers, it's about the defense stopping them on those sudden changes and making them kick field goals."
The story is also about the supporting actors who kept this team in the game until the defending champs rediscovered their mojo—bit players like CFL refugee Matthews, and Steven Hauschka, the pride of Middlebury College, whose textbook onside kick (his first in four seasons as a Seahawk) was the result of hundreds of practice reps. Right, Steven?
Kind of. "We practice 'em Saturday," he reported while wading through confetti on the field after the game. And even on that one day, he adds, "we don't actually kick them." The unnatural, hip-opening motion required to swing down on the ball is tough on a specialist's leg. Hauschka preserves his by running up to the ball in practice, then visualizing a successful onside kick. "I do practice them in training camp and the off-season," he adds.
The story is about one of Hauschka's fellow special-teamers, ginger-haired punter Jon Ryan, who also holds on placement kicks, such as Seattle's 38-yard field goal attempt late in the third quarter, with the home team trailing 16--0. Just before Hauschka's foot struck the ball, Ryan pulled it up and rolled to his left. With linebacker A.J. Hawk getting large in his windshield, Ryan calmly floated the ball over Hawk's head—following through as casually as if he'd tossed a dart in a pub in his native Regina, Saskatchewan—and into the hands of rookie tackle Garry Gilliam, who, come to think of it, played tight end at Penn State before moving to the interior offensive line.
That play was put in last Thursday, Ryan said afterward. "We might have practiced it seven or eight times." The hardest part, he explained, was having to take the snap and put the ball on the ground for a second while Packers defenders came hurtling off either edge. "Sitting down there, it's a very long second," he recalled. "But ya gotta sell the fake."
The story is about Ryan's fellow Canadian, second-year tight end Luke Willson, who found himself on the receiving end of the zaniest two-point conversion of this NFL season, a cross-field desperation heave from a scrambling, cornered QB with 85 seconds remaining in regulation. Willson's unlikely, bobbled catch put the Hawks up by three; without it, Mason Crosby's 48-yard field goal with 14 seconds on the clock wins the game, rather than tying it.
Because it is about those unlikely heroes, the story must also be about the scouts who found them, and the man to whom those scouts report. At 5'9" or so, Seahawks general manager John Schneider is one of the few people in the organization who looks up to Russell Wilson, one of many home runs he's hit in five years of co-presiding—along with Carroll—over Seattle's drafts.
It's not often that a new coach sits in on an interview with (and essentially handpicks) an incoming GM, as Carroll did in 2010. Early concerns that Schneider would be a yes-man, a vessel for Carroll's will, were unfounded. Theirs has become one of the NFL's most productive collaborations. Carroll arrived in Seattle with a set of core principles, the foremost of which is his belief that competition should pervade every corner of the organization. Schneider took that to heart, making 284 roster moves in his first year with the franchise, churning personnel, wearing out the drivers that the team uses to shuttle people to and from the airport.
Another Pete Principle, adopted during his decade coaching at USC: Youth will be served. The old NFL conventional wisdom is that rookies and young players will get you beat. The Carroll/Schneider conventional wisdom is that well-coached youth, tempered by a sprinkling of savvy vets and cut loose in a fairly straightforward defensive scheme, can win—has won—championships. According to the website FootballPerspective.com, the Seahawks' weighted average age (26.0) was second youngest in the league a season ago and youngest among Super Bowl winners since the AFL-NFL merger in 1966.
At 43, Schneider himself is the league's fourth-youngest GM. A former star running back at Abbot Pennings High in De Pere, Wis., he is well-liked by Seahawks players, despite his relentless efforts to find better, younger talent with which to replace them. Then again it's tough not to like a GM who's willing to loosen up the locker room, as Schneider did on the eve of last year's Super Bowl, by walking around shirtless, rocking a faux WWE championship belt.
RON WOLF still doesn't know who gave the kid his digits. "I was sitting in my office one day and my private line rang," remembers Wolf, who in 1992 was enjoying his first year as Green Bay's GM. "How [Schneider] got my private office number, I don't know. But he did, and he persevered." Schneider, then a junior at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, reminded Wolf of himself at that age. "I said, 'Come in; we'll sit you down and see if you have the ability to scout.'"
He learned to.
After working for four years under Wolf, who was busy assembling the pieces for Green Bay's 1996 Super Bowl championship team, Schneider left the nest, making stops in Kansas City (where he worked under Marty Schottenheimer), Seattle and Washington. He rejoined the Packers in '02, this time working his way up to director of player personnel for GM Ted Thompson. Among Schneider's colleagues in that Green Bay front office: VP of player finance Andrew Brandt (who now writes for TheMMQB.com). After ticking off a list of Wolf mentees and protégés—Schneider, Thompson, Raiders GM Reggie McKenzie, Chiefs GM John Dorsey—Brandt says that he sees "some Ron in all of them, but I also see their divergent personalities. [Schneider's] the most aggressive as a personality, and the most aggressive in terms of not limiting himself in any way when it comes to player acquisition.
"Whereas Ted is very draft-and-develop," he goes on, "John's more aggressive—selective, but aggressive—in acquiring who he wants. He's got some of Ron in him, that way. Ron was never afraid to swing for the fences."
Wolf's first trade in Green Bay would go down as his most inspired. In February 1992 he sent a first-round draft pick to the Falcons for their third-string quarterback, Brett Favre. Wolf remembers talking to Schneider before the 2012 draft—his protégé's third as Seattle's GM—and making the point that, "If you have someone who's a unique talent, don't worry about the height." Despite considerable protest from inside their own building, the Seahawks took 5'10" Wisconsin QB Russell Wilson in the third round of that year's draft.
The pick, along with that of first-rounder Bruce Irvin (defensive end, West Virginia) and second-rounder Bobby Wagner (linebacker, Utah State), exposed Schneider to some fairly serious flak. USA Today ranked Seattle's draft class 26th of 32 teams. SPORTS ILLUSTRATED gave the Seahawks a C grade. Two years later Wilson was the face of the franchise, Irvin and Wagner were crucial defensive cogs, and Seattle had won its first Super Bowl.
Notwithstanding the Wilson selection, Schneider and his staff have had higher hit rates on defensive backs and linebackers. The fifth round, in particular, has been good to this franchise, yielding Kam Chancellor in 2010 and Richard Sherman the following year. Sherman is merely the best cornerback in the game—his balletic interception in the back of the end zone snuffed out Green Bay's opening drive—while Chancellor is a long-limbed, wide-ranging velociraptor of a strong safety whose hits "damage people's souls," according to Sherman.
They also sprain people's elbows. That, at least, was an early diagnosis of the injury Sherman suffered on the first play of the fourth quarter, when he took a nasty shot to the left arm from the helmet of a late-arriving Chancellor. Sherman played the remainder of the game in considerable pain, refusing to come out despite his inability to use that arm—he held it at a right angle, as if in an invisible sling—and against repeated requests from team doctors that he leave the field for X-rays. "I'm not coming out of the NFC championship game," he declared flatly, afterward.
There he was, arm still cradled in its phantom brace, angling toward the left sideline with 43 seconds left in regulation, forcing Rodgers out of bounds after the QB's hobbling, 12-yard scramble. Four plays later Crosby tucked that 48-yarder inside the right upright. Seattle won the coin toss going into overtime. It would fall to Russell Wilson to break the stalemate.
IT SEEMED a formidably tall order for a quarterback who'd thrown four interceptions and shown very little of the magic that led a local paper to editorialize, two days before the game, that Wilson needed to be included in the pantheon of today's elite NFL passers.
To that point he'd not gotten much help from his receivers. Two of Wilson's picks had ricocheted off the hands of wideout Jermaine Kearse, who'd been targeted five times without making a catch; Baldwin had a bone-headed fourth-quarter drop (and a special teams fumble). Suddenly flashing his old form—and a conveniently short memory—Wilson went back to Baldwin, parachuting a perfect, 35-yard pass into his arms at the right sideline. Lining up for the next play, Kearse and Wilson noticed that Green Bay came out in Cover Zero: both safeties crowding the line to take away the anticipated run. Wilson audibled into a pass designed for Kearse, who would be marked by the Packers' excellent cover corner, Tramon Williams.
Feinting outside, Kearse won an inside release, running a straight Go route to the end zone, wearing Williams like a gaudy shadow. In the same instant, Wilson's perfect pass fell into Kearse's outstretched arms as Williams wrapped him up, desperately trying to dislodge the gift as they fell to earth.
No dice. Kearse flung the ball into the stands while Williams sat in the end zone.
In the bedlam that ensued, cool, collected Russell Wilson let his guard down for the first time in anyone's memory, sobbing and smiling. After a shower he regained his composure, attributing his meltdown to the stresses of a season in which the Seahawks were 3--3, then 6--4, and for stretches failed to look like a Super Bowl team.
The same could be said of them on Sunday. But they discovered a way. Afterward, a short, smiling fortysomething bounded into the locker room, handed off the WWE belt and celebrated with a group of Seahawks scouts. The fellow celebrants seemed neither surprised nor disappointed when, before disappearing, their boss shouted over his shoulder at them, "Draft meetings in Phoenix!"
Hauschka's onside kick? Rarely practiced it. Ryan's TD toss? That play was added on Thursday. So how'd Seattle pull it off? The Pack "gave it away," Rodgers mourned.
Photograph by John W. McDonough/Sports Illustrated
LYNCH PIN For all the little moments that added up to the Seahawks' miracle, they couldn't have done it without their load-bearing back: 25 carries, 157 yards and this crucial 24-yard fourth-quarter TD run.
JONATHAN FERREY FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
YOU COMPLETE ME When it mattered most, Seattle found pass catchers in surprising (like tackle Gilliam, below) and redemptive (like the fumbling, bobbling Baldwin) places.
ROBERT BECK/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
DANGER, RUSS! Wilson found failure after failure in his early targets of Kearse and Baldwin (below), but by moving around and showing faith, completions—big ones—finally came late.