This season hasn’t started, yet these Seahawks have already dealt with the unfathomable: Kam Chancellor’s holdout, 44 days and counting.
They’ve gotten the ideal: franchise cornerstones Russell Wilson and Bobby Wagner signed to $130.6 million in extensions over 39 hours to begin August.
Now, for its first game since February’s crushing Super Bowl loss, Seattle gets — the surreal?
That’s what nose tackle Brandon Mebane, a veteran of eight Seahawks-Rams games in St. Louis, calls the dark, usually half-empty Edward Jones Dome.
“It’s like you are in a twilight zone,” Mebane said of the atmosphere he expects for Sunday’s 10 a.m. Seattle-time kickoff to the season.
Mebane is a native of Southern California. His words unintentionally support the very real possibility the Rams, who haven’t had a winning season since 2003, could leave St. Louis for Los Angeles perhaps as early as 2016. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch is reporting maybe 40,000 people will be inside the 66,000-seat cavern on Sunday to watch the two-time defending NFC champions play the hometown team. The Rams went winless in the preseason and have a season-ticket base of below 37,000. That’s less than half of Seattle’s.
Sunday’s could be the smallest crowd for a home opener in the history of pro football in St. Louis. That dates to when the Cardinals moved here from Chicago in 1960, then played in old Busch Stadium through 1987 before moving to Arizona.
“It’s just kind of hard to describe,” Mebane said of the Edward Jones “Tomb.” “The lights are dim. There’s not a lot of people there.”
The big guy looked up to the bright, television-studio lights above him at a podium inside Seahawks’ headquarters.
“We gotta find a generator and turn the lights up bright like they are right now,” he said, smiling.
This snoozer atmosphere must be real. How else to explain the problems the Seahawks have had here during what’s otherwise been their franchise heyday of back-to-back Super Bowls and the team’s first league championship?
Seattle fell behind early, 21-3, and lost 28-26 last October to a Rams team that ended up 6-10. That was the road trip that began with some more surreal: top wide receiver and wage earner Percy Harvin getting traded as the players were boarding their buses to SeaTac Airport.
In their 2013 Super Bowl championship season, the Seahawks won 14-9 at St. Louis on an ugly Monday night when the Rams out-gained them 339 yards to 135.
In 2012 Seattle lost at St. Louis 19-13.
“If you don’t watch it, they can lull you to sleep,” Seahawks safety Earl Thomas said, “and before you know it, it’s the fourth quarter and the score is 3-3 or something like that.”
Seattle knows it has to supply its own energy in this one. Much of it will be coming from Thomas. The All-Pro is hyper — and hyperintense — in games anyway. But this will be his first start since the Super Bowl and then shoulder surgery Feb. 24; he watched all of the four preseason games from the sideline in a sweatshirt.
Thomas will make his 91st consecutive start to begin his career. But for only the fourth time in their 94 games together Thomas won’t have Chancellor, his safety partner since 2010, lining up next to him.
Expect the Rams to turn new ex-Eagles quarterback Nick Foles’ debut into a day-long targeting of Chancellor’s fill-in, Dion Bailey. Even Bailey expects it — and expects to shine because of it.
“I hope they plan to come at me,” said Bailey, the 2014 practice squad player who is making his first career start. “I mean, it would make my coming-out party a lot more exciting.”
Rams coach Jeff Fisher said his top draft choice, Todd Gurley, won’t play as the runner recovers from reconstructive knee surgery last year at the University of Georgia. Gurley’s backup, second-year runner Tre Mason, is going to try to play on a recently bad hamstring. The Rams will likely be more pass-oriented than usual with Foles, rather than relying on Mason or third-stringer Benny Cunningham running the ball.
That’s where rookie Frank Clark continuing his zooming summer would help Seattle. Unblockable at times in the preseason, the second-round draft choice is likely to be lined up on obvious passing downs inside at tackle next to fellow usual end Michael Bennett, with Cliff Avril and Bruce Irvin outside. That will be the debut of the fastest Seahawks pass rush in years.
But it’s the Rams pass rush that will be the key to this game.
For all the hoopla over Jimmy Graham, the league’s most prolific receiving tight end since 2011, arriving from New Orleans in March, he will be of little use to Seattle if its rebuilt line doesn’t give quarterback Russell Wilson time.
Wilson was pressured on 43 percent of his drop backs last season according to Pro Football Focus. That was the most often in the NFL. And that was with two-time Pro Bowl pick Max Unger at center.
Now Unger is in New Orleans as the price to acquire Graham. And Wilson is behind a line that has three guys in new spots as of three weeks ago: center Drew Nowak, a defensive tackle in college; right tackle Garry Gilliam, a college tight end; and left guard Justin Britt, the Seahawks’ 2014 rookie right tackle.
St. Louis’ 4-3 defense has five first-round draft choices among its aggressive, bullish front seven. That includes Avril’s good buddy Chris Long, the Rams end with whom Avril has been exchanging text messages this past week. It also includes two-time Pro Bowl end Robert Quinn — the 2013 All-Pro has eight sacks in eight career games against Seattle — plus Aaron Donald. Donald had nine sacks last season as a rookie, the most by a defensive tackle in the NFC. He dumped Wilson twice.
Quinn and Long will be testing Russell Okung, the left tackle who is entering the final year of his Seahawks contract, and Gilliam. Gilliam has played the position only one other time before this first pro start there: two years ago at Penn State. The undrafted rookie from 2014 spent his first three college seasons as a tight end.
“All I got to do is move my feet and keep my man in front of me,” Gilliam said. “Like basketball.”
Oh, then there’s the usual special-teams tricks from Fisher and assistant John Fassel. They ran a fake punt return for a touchdown against Seattle here last October by sending 10 men the opposite side of the field away from the lonely returner, and the Seahawks all followed those 10. Plus they pulled off a fake-punt pass inside their own 20 late in that game while up by two.
No wonder coach Pete Carroll says his Seahawks are “up against it” to begin their quest to become the first team since the 1990-93 Bills to make three straight Super Bowls.
“Anytime you’re on the road, you’ve got to bring your defense and special teams,” Thomas said.
“We understand this team. They are bringing out all the tricks to try to keep momentum on their side.”
The league’s official transactions for Saturday showed the Seahawks have added to their practice squad former San Francisco linebacker Nick Moody. Moody, 25, played inside linebacker in the 49ers’ 3-4 defense after they drafted him in the sixth round out of Florida State in 2012. He also played on multiple special-teams units for San Francisco. … Seattle released defensive back Brandon Dixon from the practice squad.