A full hour after it happened, Richard Sherman, Earl Thomas, Kam Chancellor and Cary Williams stood in various stages of dress and disbelief along a wall of the Seahawks’ locker room.
Meanwhile, in the other locker room, Carolina’s Cam Newton was singing gleefully.
How did this happen? How was Seattle’s All-Pro cornerback in one, red-zone specific coverage on Sunday’s decisive play with 32 seconds left — while its All-Pro safety and the rest of a once-vaunted secondary were in a different, base, middle-of-the-field zone coverage?
How could the two-time defending NFC champions blow a lead in the fourth quarter for the sixth time in eight games? How can these Seahawks be 2-4 after going from 23-14 up to 27-23 way, way down in their latest loss?
Premium content for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
This stunning one, to undefeated Carolina, left Panthers coaches hollering and whooping it up in the press box on their way down to that jubilant visitors’ locker room. That place has housed only three victors in the last 27 Seahawks games at CenturyLink Field.
“Right now, bro, I want to say a lot of things,” Thomas said. “But I can’t.”
Seattle’s “Legion of Gloom” allowed two, 80-yard drives by Carolina for touchdowns in the final 8:08. The second score came with 32 seconds left.
On that one, tight end Greg Olsen ran free down the hash marks into the end zone while splitting Thomas and Sherman. It was remarkably similar to how Cincinnati tight end Tyler Eifert ran free behind shorter, diversion routes for two touchdown catches in the Bengals’ late 20-point rally that beat Seattle in overtime the previous weekend.
Cam Newton, who had a meager, 4.7 passer rating before his fourth-quarter revival, threw a strike that hit Olsen in stride from 26 yards out for the winning score. The puzzled Thomas and Sherman stood in the end zone gesturing toward each other with palms facing the gray sky above.
“It just was confusion about what call we were in. There were a couple calls being signaled in that were different,” Sherman said. “And the game’s at a fast pace, so you have to make a decision.”
Sherman was the only one who got the correct coverage call from the sideline: a scheme the Seahawks call “L.A.” and use inside the red zone. It called for Sherman to take any short, “spot” routes closer to the line of scrimmage. In the cornerback’s mind, he was releasing any deep routes to Thomas behind him.
But Sherman didn’t have time to relay the “L.A.” call to Thomas or anyone else. Thomas stayed in “cover three,” the Seahawks’ base set. In that, Thomas is the single safety deep and Sherman has deeper coverage in his third of the field nearer the left sideline.
“It was so close to the snap, I just had to assume they got it,” Sherman said of the “L.A.” call.
It appears the coverage call from defensive coordinator Kris Richard and his staff came late, adding to the confusion.
“I don’t know, bro,” Thomas said.
“I’m a loss for words, bro. Man, this game is so beautiful. But it’s so ugly.”
This ugly: Seattle has been outscored 48-9 in the fourth quarters of its last five games. It was outscored 13-3 on Sunday.
Up 20-7 in the third quarter and 23-14 with five minutes left, the Seahawks still couldn’t finish. So now, are the 2-4 Seahawks finished?
According to STATS, via the Associated Press, since 1990 only 14 of 168 teams to have started 2-4 reached the playoffs. That’s 8 percent.
Put another, opposite-Pete Carroll way, history says there stands a 92 percent chance that the Seahawks will miss the playoffs.
Not exactly short odds for Seattle following two consecutive Super Bowl appearances.
“With all the history that we’ve had,” Carroll said with a shrug, “ain’t nothin’ done. Ain’t nothing over.
“It’s just been really hard. And we have to see if our play can make it better.”
The Seahawks wasted new tight end Jimmy Graham, who set his Seahawks high with 140 yards on eight receptions in a season-high 12 targets. They wasted Marshawn Lynch, who returned from missing two games with a strained hamstring to run for 54 yards on 17 carries, with his first touchdown since February’s Super Bowl.
Seattle got two more interceptions, by Thomas and Chancellor, after their bad game at Cincinnati. Another edge in turnovers, 2-0, wasted.
For the second consecutive game, the offense failed to get the late first downs it needed to put a victory away. After going up 23-14 on a 43-yard field goal by Steven Hauschka with 11:46 remaining, Seattle produced 15 net yards and just one first down on its next two drives, which ended in punts — while Carolina rolled to 167 yards and two touchdowns.
“On offense, we’ve got to be better,” quarterback Russell Wilson said. “We’ve got to be better on third downs (Seattle was 4 for 14, and is 9 for 27 on third downs in its last two losses). We’ve got to be better in the red zone (one touchdown in three trips inside the 20).
“We’ve got to find a way.”
Wilson was 18 for 30 passing with 239 yards and a touchdown throw on a trick, toss-back play from Lynch to Wilson to Ricardo Lockett for 40 yards. That put the Seahawks ahead 17-7 early in the third quarter.
Wilson rushed eight times for 53 yards. His two scramble runs for 28 yards sparked the 80-yard drive that led to Lynch’s 1-yard TD run. That made it 10-7 midway through the second quarter.
When this collapse ended, with Doug Baldwin hopelessly pitching back a lateral after a catch, futilely trying to move the ball out of his own end as time expired, many in the record crowd of 69,020 at CenturyLink Field booed.
It all made the Seahawks glad to be playing again in four days, at San Francisco, also 2-4.
“We’re going to find a way. We are going to keep believing,” Wilson said.
“Our attitude is still, we believe in each other. We choose to believe.”
Now if they can only choose to finish.