There generally are two routes a team can take to the Super Bowl.
One is on a back road illuminated by the stars, a trek that begins somewhere south of Respect and meanders through Gritty and Gut Check before the gravel turns to pavement at Momentous, where all signs point to Destiny.
It’s not an easy trip, merely easier than the alternative: a freeway lined with bright lights but fraught with traffic and the potential for blind-side mishaps at high speed.
Eight years ago, the Seattle Seahawks began the most successful season in franchise history by taking the back road to the Super Bowl. Amid forecasts calling for a middle-of-the-pack finish, the Seahawks lost their opener at Jacksonville, then regrouped to win 13 of their next 14. It was a three-month run of sheer dominance, and yet even after two decisive playoff victories at home culminated with the NFC championship, Mike Holmgren’s team was seen as outsiders.
The NFL Films treatment of the 2005 Seahawks was titled “Out of the Blue.” The highlight-recap video mentioned the 21-year drought between Seahawks’ playoff victories – the league’s longest at the time – and referred to Seattle as “home of the NFL’s most anonymous team.”
It had been six years since Holmgren rode into town, the narrator continued, and the coach was challenged to assimilate seven new defensive starters into the lineup of a team projected by many to finish third in the NFC West.
The narrator’s conclusion: “Nobody expected this to be the Seahawks’ greatest season.”
Punch fast-forward and it’s anybody’s guess what the NFL Films recap of the 2013 Seahawks will be called. Feel free to assume its title won’t be “Out of the Blue II.”
Taking their cue from coach Pete Carroll, the Seahawks are more prone to set trends than follow them. The roster is packed with talent and versatility and free-spirited athletes who bring brash to the bash.
While there’s an appealing upside to all this – the Seahawks, if for no other reason than dynamic second-year quarterback Russell Wilson, no longer are anonymous – it’s accompanied by expectations never put on the 2005 Super Bowl team.
Those Seahawks were coming off a 9-7 season that ended with a first-round playoff defeat to the St. Louis Rams. Matt Hasselbeck’s apparent touchdown pass fell out of the hands of receiver Bobby Engram in the end zone, but the last-minute heartbreak masked the fact the 2004 Seahawks were a mediocrity who went 6-7 after a 3-0 start. The defense gave up at least 30 points five times, which helps explain Seattle’s 371-373 scoring differential.
The fallout from the one-and-done playoff run was immediate and substantial. Owner Paul Allen fired general manager Bob Whitsitt and replaced him with Tim Ruskell, who purged the roster of such veterans as Chad Brown, Anthony Simmons, Orlando Huff, Chike Okeafor, Rashad Moore and Cedric Woodard.
And though the Seahawks were able to extend the contracts of Hasselbeck and All-Pro left tackle Walter Jones, and retained running back Shaun Alexander by tagging him as a franchise player, it required illogical optimism to follow that team in training camp and see it as a Super Bowl contender.
The preseason power rankings of longtime Sports Illustrated pro football writer Paul Zimmerman reflected the national media’s ambivalence about the Seahawks. “Dr. Z” ranked them No. 15, sandwiched between No. 14 St. Louis and No. 16 Green Bay.
Such lukewarm assessments no longer are made of the Seahawks. Peter King, Zimmerman’s successor at Sports Illustrated, has picked them to represent the NFC in the first outdoor Super Bowl potentially threatened by snow. King envisions the New England Patriots, more acclimated to severe winter weather than a team from Seattle, winning at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., home of New York’s Giants and Jets.
Some of King’s peers, such as the NFL Network’s Mike Silver and CBSSports.com NFL Insider Jason La Canfora, are offering even stronger endorsements.
“I see too much to like about the Seahawks not to ride that bandwagon,” La Canfora recently wrote. “It may be the best roster in the NFL, it has the best homefield advantage in the league, and they may get the best quarterbacking play in the NFL this season, or close to it.
“This team was fairly close a year ago, remains plenty young, and more new stars will emerge.”
The typical NFL coach might wince upon learning that pundits regard his team as superior. The typical NFL coach is suspicious of spotlights, especially those applied in August.
But Carroll is not typical. He confronts the pressure created by great expectations, and he thinks: Football is a contact sport, so bring it on.
Besides, while there are many routes toward metropolitan New York, none is on a gravel back road.