The Seahawks have been just about everywhere the last half-dozen years.
They’ve been thrown together and remade. They’ve been to two Super Bowls, winning the Pacific Northwest’s first NFL championship. They’ve scrapped to earn jobs, bragged to all when they got them, then got hugely rich. And they kept winning, to five consecutive playoff appearances.
But they’ve never been where they are now: broken down on defense with three Pro Bowl starters on injured reserve and two more coming off injuries, on offense with a malfunctioned running game and offensive line, fissuring in the locker room with Bobby Wagner sniping on Twitter at Earl Thomas—and on the brink of playoff elimination with two games left in the regular season.
“We have never really had to face adversity in the season like this,” said top wide receiver Doug Baldwin, who in his seventh season is the Seahawks’ longest-tenured player on offense.
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“This” is Seattle (8-6) coming off getting boat-raced 42-7 at home last weekend in what was essentially the NFC West championship game. It was the largest margin of defeat in the Pete Carroll coaching era that began in Seattle with the 2010 season.
Now the Seahawks must slow down 2016 NFL rushing champion Ezekiel Elliott and the Dallas Cowboys (8-6). Elliott is returning Sunday from a six-game NFL suspension to play this Christmas Eve elimination game at AT&T Stadium.
“There is a great sense of urgency,” said quarterback Russell Wilson.
They needed to be last weekend. And the one before that.
Wilson has gone from a NFL MVP candidate after this month’s upset of then-10-1 Philadelphia to being asked what’s wrong. He has four turnovers and taken a safety in the two consecutive losses since that Eagles game, at Jacksonville and to the Rams.
Seattle is getting key outside linebacker K.J. Wright back Sunday from the concussion that caused him to miss last weekend’s game and end a streak of 61 consecutive starts. All-Pro middle linebacker Bobby Wagner will also start after the strained hamstring he dragged through the Rams game while noticeably slowed has gotten better. Since Wagner and Wright got hurt in the third quarter of their loss at Jacksonville, the Seahawks have allowed Jaguars rookie Leonard Fournette to romp for 105 yards and Rams star Todd Gurley to zoom to a career-high 153 yards with four touchdowns in just 2½ quarters against them. In the five-plus quarters since Wagner and Wright got hurt, Seattle has allowed 67 points.
So, yes, having those two back at least semi-healthy will be a huge help in the Seahawks’ attempt to keep this holiday trip from being a cause more lost than this team’s been since Jim Mora was their coach. That was 2009. That was the last time they lost a game by as many as they did last week to the Rams. That was the season before Carroll arrived to install his championship program.
The loser on Sunday is out of the playoff race with one game left in the regular season, on New Year’s Eve. Even with a win, both the Seahawks and Cowboys need Santa, all his reindeer and the entire North Pole worth of the holiday luck from combinations of other contenders losing to make the postseason.
“Yeah, you know that the circumstances are what they are,” Wilson said. “If anybody likes adversity, this football team does, in the sense that we can handle adversity.
“We can handle the circumstances that we are in.”
The Seahawks need wins at Dallas and on New Year’s Eve at home over Arizona, plus two losses by either Atlanta (9-5 and at New Orleans Sunday, home to Carolina on New Year’s Eve), Carolina (10-4; versus Tampa Bay, at Atlanta) or New Orleans (10-4; versus Atlanta, at Tampa Bay). Perhaps most problematic of all, Seattle also needs Detroit to lose once. The Lions (8-6) play at Cincinnati (5-9) Sunday and next weekend at home against Green Bay (7-7), which is eliminated from playoff contention and just put quarterback Aaron Rodgers on injured reserve.
It’s not only possible but perhaps likely a 10-6 team will miss the playoffs in the NFC—and that the team could be the Seahawks. FiveThirtyEight.com says Seattle has a 10-percent chance to make the postseason. The Seahawks’ chances had they beaten the Rams last weekend would now be 79 percent.
“This is not easy at all,” Carroll said of this task at Dallas. “Two 8-6 teams battling for it and there’s a lot at stake. Everything is on the line, for both of us.”
No, these Seahawks have never been here: coming off a 35-point loss and having to win just to stay alive for a playoff spot. The Seahawks had until the face plant against the Rams considered a place in the postseason to be almost a birth right. They’ve been in the playoffs every January for the last five years, and six times in the seven previous seasons Carroll has been their coach.
“We’ve had our struggles. We’ve endured some pretty devastating losses before,” Baldwin said. “But I think just the time frame in which we are in, the situation which we are in, the state of our roster, age wise, so many different factors play into it.
“As humans, all of those have implications.
“It’s a different place for us. We are looking at it as just some more adversity. But, personally, I look forward to it because I know adversity only introduces you to who you really are.
“If we can get through this, we can really build on it for the long haul.”
But because they’ve never been through it, these Seahawks are not able to draw upon past experiences to guide their expectations for Sunday. They don’t truly know how they will react against the Cowboys.
“No,” Baldwin said, “but I have a good idea. We’ve been resilient before. Again, like I said, we’ve gone through our trials and tribulations. We’ve had our issues. But we’ve always been able to find a way.
“This is no different. It is just a different test. Guys are in different phases in their lives. Before, a lot of us were single and didn’t have a lot of outside distractions and other priorities. Now, a lot of us are married, have kids. So priorities change, and we look at the world differently.”
Pro Bowl defenders Cliff Avril, 31, and Kam Chancellor, who turns 30 in April, are staring down the possibilities of retirement after season-ending neck injuries. Both are married, Chancellor just this past offseason. Avril has young boys and philanthropic activities from here to Haiti.
Three-time All-Pro cornerback Richard Sherman is also out for the season. He was walking through the Seahawks’ locker room Thursday on crutches and wearing a walking boot over his repaired Achilles tendon, with blinking Christmas lights wrapped around the boot. He turns 30 in March. He and his fiancée Ashley Moss have a son that is almost 3 and a daughter 20 months old. Sherman’s contract ends after the 2018 season.
Thomas, the three-time All-Pro safety, turns 29 in May. He is the only member of the Seahawks’ famed “Legion of Boom” secondary from the 2013 and ’14 Super Bowl seasons still healthy and playing. His contract also ends after the 2018 season.
When asked this past week about his future, Thomas said: “I know whoever gets me, I’m balling. That’s it. I know I’m hot.”
Priorities have indeed changed. Thomas got married last year. He and his wife Nina, his high-school sweetheart in Orange, Texas, five hours southeast of Dallas, have a young daughter, Kaleigh Rose. He wants to know where his next—and perhaps final NFL—contract is coming from, plus when, and for how much.
With all this as a backdrop, here come the battered, routed Seahawks to play a win-or-be-done game against the Cowboys. Twenty-one hundred miles away from home and families on Christmas Eve.
How difficult is it for these older Seahawks to separate the worst loss of their Seattle careers, the possible end of Seahawks playoff era and needing to beat the Cowboys, with their families and Christmas and not being home?
“You have to ask my wife,” Baldwin said.
“I know for the significant others and families it’s got to be a challenge. Obviously players leaving and going to Dallas, playing on Christmas Eve, you don’t get the traditional family time during the holidays.
“So, yeah, it definitely plays a huge role--especially if you have a significant other who didn’t grow up with that interruption, who had that tradition and that consistency with the holidays.”
Of course millionaire football players don’t have it so terrible during the holidays, relatively speaking. Of course U.S. military servicemen and servicewomen have for more than a decade been deployed in war zones away from their loved ones with the threat of death at Christmas. Baldwin, a worldly Stanford man, also knows there are common working men and women who also have to be separated from families during the holidays.
Baldwin’s point is, on these older, absolutely changed Seahawks, this holiday road game is yet another example of something they’ve never faced.
“So it does play a role. It is a factor,” he said of Christmas Eve.
“But we are professionals. We have to figure out a way to handle it—and hope our wives still love us at the end of the day.”