Is there a more frightening sight in the NFL than the dark, piercing eyes of Kam Chancellor — one of the league’s hardest hitters — as he is bearing down on you?
How about being the kicker and facing that?
That’s what Carolina Panthers kicker Graham Gano had to do — twice — in last weekend’s NFC divisional playoff game at CenturyLink Field. Chancellor went superhero, leaping the Panthers’ long snapper with a single bound and bearing in on Gano two times for one field-goal try.
The second time, (a do-over after a penalty) the spooked Gano kicked the ball so far left it nearly landed in Bellevue. Chancellor was close to blocking it but got a running-into-the-kicker foul instead. The Seahawks protested, thinking he absolutely must have partially blocked the kick for it to veer that far left; touching the ball would have absolved Chancellor of the penalty.
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“Nah, he just missed it,” Chancellor said after the Seahawks’ 31-17 win put them in Sunday’s NFC Championship game at home against the Green Bay Packers (12:05 p.m., Ch. 13). “Once he saw me, he just shanked it. It went far left. I couldn’t have gotten it — at all.”
Chancellor then chuckled dastardly and said: “It’s scary.”
So is this: Chancellor is back.
After months of playing on a surgically repaired hip not fully right and bone spurs in both ankles, Seattle’s Pro Bowl strong safety is rearranging ball carriers and changing games with plays like his astounding field-goal leap, and then his team postseason-record 90-yard interception return in the fourth quarter for the clinching touchdown.
This could be scary for the Packers, too:
Asked what is different from last season’s Seahawks that won the franchise’s first Super Bowl and this team that’s one win away from becoming the first since the 2003-04 New England Patriots to get back to the biggest game, Chancellor spoke like he plays. With conviction.
“The trust is even stronger. The love is even stronger,” he said. “Because, I mean, guys are believing. And it’s happening; everything is panning out like you want it to. To do the work, to be as prepared, you are just believing. The guys are just believing in one another.
“It is stronger .”
He’s a large reason why.
Bobby Wagner’s return to health has gotten a ton of credit for Seattle’s late-season revitalization, and rightly so. The middle linebacker missed five games with a broken bone in a foot tendon and a torn foot ligament. The All-Pro’s return in late November started the seven-game winning streak the Seahawks are taking into the conference championship.
But Chancellor getting well has been just as decisive.
It happened at the same time as Wagner’s return. The Seahawks knew the games they really needed to win at full strength were not Nov. 2 and 9 against the Oakland Raiders and the New York Giants, so they shut down Chancellor for those two home games.
Seattle won, as expected. And Chancellor finally got past dragging his legs through games.
Early in the season, he sometimes could barely walk on the field. At San Diego, in September, the Chargers kept throwing screen passes and sending blockers at Chancellor. He didn’t have the support to take on the blocks let alone the ball carrier. Multiple times, his legs buckled when he tried to spring off them.
It stayed like that on and off into October. People began to wonder, what’s wrong with Chancellor — and, when they were 3-3, what’s wrong with the Seahawks?
“From a rest standpoint, anytime you sitting out the game and not banging your body it’s going to help,” he said. “I guess it was a time for me to get my hip a little better. At that time I was still battling issues from that hip surgery I had in the offseason. I was still having little kinks here and there, and battling. Those extra weeks helped it out.
“It felt a whole lot healthier. It felt a whole lot stronger. It felt a whole lot quicker.”
And Seattle’s already top-ranked defense became a whole lot better.
He came back for the Nov. 16 game at the Kansas City Chiefs, but as coach Pete Carroll said it took a bit for Chancellor to get back to himself.
“The idea was to make sure that we got him healthy enough to play safely,” Carroll said. “But like I said, it took him a few weeks to get going again, to where he felt the confidence and his play-making started to come back to life. He was kind of surviving out there for a while.”
As with all of Carroll’s program, it’s not about November. It’s about finishing.
Chancellor is absolutely doing that now.
A new leader emerged minutes before kickoff of Nov. 23’s crucial game against the Arizona Cardinals. Seattle was 6-4. Any chance to catch the Cardinals atop the NFC West hinged on beating them that day, and the Seahawks winning most of their final six regular-season games.
Seattle’s defensive players had what outside linebacker K.J. Wright later termed “an argument” on the field during practice that week. No-nonsense All-Pro safety Earl Thomas berated some teammates for chewing sunflower seeds and not being focused enough during drills. High-volume bickering and bellowing followed.
The defense simmered for days. Then minutes before the Seahawks ran onto CenturyLink Field to play Arizona, defensive end Michael Bennett asked Chancellor to address the team. Bennett and quarterback Russell Wilson usually do that before kickoffs. But Bennett sensed the thudding strong safety, finally healthy after 21/2 months of playing through pain, was the man for this job after all the tumult of the week and season.
Chancellor didn’t just speak to his teammates. He went man to man around the locker room. He looked into each of their eyes. He roared at them. That fire from within came out in a torrent of motivation and demand for brotherhood.
“Yeah, my first time right before a game,” Chancellor said. “Mike B. asked me to do it. I said everything that I’ve felt and always wanted to say. And I just said it from my heart.
“It was about trusting one another.”
Chancellor’s pregame scorcher of a speech did more than inspire his teammates to throttle formerly 9-1 Arizona to its season lows of 204 yards and three points. Chancellor moved better than he had all season and became the NFC’s defensive player of the week.
His speech transformed teammates. They haven’t lost since. Now they are a game away from doing what everyone said they couldn’t: getting back to the Super Bowl.
“That’s probably one of the best ones I’ve ever heard in my life,” Wright said. “I just felt it. Usually guys talk and it’s just talk. I actually felt him. He just spoke from the heart.
“We needed that. With the little thing, the little argument we had, we needed that just to get over whatever that was we were going through.
“That’s why we voted him captain.”
As intense as the fifth-year safety is, was Chancellor kicking and screaming at the Seahawks forcing him to sit out those two games in November?
“No,” Carroll said. “He understood that he was not right. He was not well. He got back to playing speed but he wasn’t at his best. He fought his way back into the lineup, but he knew he wasn’t right. So we waited that one out a little bit.”
To get exactly what the Seahawks are getting now, right?
“Yeah,” Carroll said with a grin that suggested he’s not that much of a savant. “I guess you are right.”
Chancellor said what he pulled on Carolina was the result of film study that showed the Panthers’ snapper never lifted up after delivering the ball, leaving a lane for him to leap.
He also says soaring is nothing new for him.
“Oh, I can ball. I can get up there, now,” he said. “Yeah, ask about me. Ask about me. Ask about my high jump. I can windmill for you, get up there.”
Yet believe it or not there is one thing he says he can’t do.
“I can’t dunk from the free-throw line.”