As the last drive of the last game of a lost season was culminating with a tipped pass that ended up in the hands of a linebacker, Seahawks quarterback Matt Hasselbeck clung to the hope that his ears were more reliable than his eyes.
“I thought I heard the crowd cheer,” said Hasselbeck, “so I thought it was complete, and then … I don’t know. I’m not sure. I was confused when I came out.”
Hasselbeck’s dazed response to the pickoff that aborted a potential game-winning touchdown drive at the Tennessee Titans’ 27-yard line on Sunday was a fitting summation of the 2009 Seahawks, a team whose epitaph should read: “And Then … I Don’t Know.”
After a fourth straight defeat left the Hawks’ record at 5-11, the mood around the locker room wasn’t so much despair or frustration but, rather, a grudging acceptance that the end of the season means the beginning of the offseason.
What changes must the Seahawks make in order to compete again in the NFC West?
“That’s not my job to figure out,” said second-year tight end John Carlson, among the few Seattle players whose return in 2010 is assured. “I am sure the coaches and the front office guys are going to be on top of it. We’re all expecting big changes, so we’ll see what happens.”
The most dramatic change could involve head coach Jim Mora, once believed to be a shoo-in for at least one more year on the Seahawks sideline.
Then came the most wretched slump in franchise history – when the Texans, Buccaneers and Packers combined to outscore them 106-24 – and now even Mora sounds like somebody who’s got reason to be nervous about the direction of the general manager search.
“I’m trying to win every game that I ever go out and play,” Mora said, explaining his reluctance to embrace a go-for-broke-because-there’s-nothing-to-lose mentality against the Titans. “If I’m fortunate enough to continue coaching, then that’s what I will continue to do.”
Give Mora this much: At least his Seahawks on Sunday were able to put their three-game skid behind them and comport themselves as if they cared.
The defense gave up a touchdown on Tennessee’s first possession, but Chris Johnson’s march into the NFL record book never materialized beyond his becoming the sixth running back to gain 2,000 rushing yards in a season.
Johnson finished with 134 yards and two touchdowns, but the Hawks (with some help from the officials) prevented him from breaking any gain longer than 12 yards. Meanwhile, after two of Seattle’s first five plays found Hasselbeck thrown for a sack, the offense settled down and played well enough to keep the game in doubt until the pivotal turnover with 1:12 remaining.
“I can remember when we weren’t good,” said Hasselbeck, “and the coaching staff or veterans on the team would say to me, ‘Hey, listen, I’ve been on good teams, and we’re not that far away. If we all just tune it up, tighten it up, believe, buy in, we can get on the right side of winning and losing games.’ And we did it, we mastered it for a little bit.
“I’m trying to remember that advice from before, and just remember the recipe for success,” Hasselbeck went on. “Part of it is believing and buying in, and part of it is just straight-up hard work and execution. But there were moments today where it felt like us again. That was fun.”
Perhaps, though not as much fun as winning.
Since Mora was appointed Mike Holmgren’s successor-in-waiting before the 2008 season, the Seahawks are 9-23. It’s almost certain the next general manager’s “recipe for success” will entail a comprehensive roster shake-up.
On the offensive line, for instance, the only sure bet to return is rookie center Max Unger.
Running backs Julius Jones and Justin Forsett are serviceable as backups, but not exactly cornerstones of the future. It’s possible wide receiver Deion Branch has talked his way out of Seattle.
The defense also will be evaluated. It might be worth pointing out that the unit’s most reliable player in 2009, middle linebacker David Hawthorne, began the season as a backup to Lofa Tatupu. If nothing else, defensive end Patrick Kerney and strong safety Deon Grant likely will be asked to accept restructured contracts that may or may not be to their liking.
“When you’re out of the playoffs,” said reserve strong safety Lawyer Milloy, “you have to start building. You have to start seeing who you want to bring along with you, see what kind of guys fit your mode as a coach. You have a vision of what you want this team to be.
“I can honestly say, me being in my 14th year, I’m really happy and glad to be around this team. The attitude that we showed down the stretch was the heart of a champion.”
Yes, but the point-deferential Milloy’s team showed in its final four games down the stretch was Opponents 123, Seahawks 37. Given a disparity like that, nobody’s job is secure.
Still, it’s nice to know that Matt Hasselbeck thought he heard the sound of fans cheering after he threw his last interception of 2009.
Incapable of making much noise this season, the Seahawks must ponder the future with nothing left of their division-championship reign but the echoes.