Last season, the Seattle Seahawks’ run to the Super Bowl was fueled by belief.
This repeat trip has been more a matter of suspending disbelief.
Last season, they rode the thrill of exploring new territory and were steadily adrenalized by the joy of discovering the strength of their unity and common purpose.
Playing for their brothers, they called it. “We all we got; we all we need,” they chanted, while quarterback Russell Wilson frequently asked: “Why not us?”
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This season, skeptics frequently offered an answer to Wilson’s question. It can’t be you because follow-up seasons always amount to greased chutes toward disappointment.
You can’t make it back to the Super Bowl because nobody else has, not in the past 10 seasons, and only once since the turn of the millennium.
So it was written. So it was told.
And yet the Seahawks ignored it all as irrelevant, as if such things don’t apply to them.
“It was our mindset — we weren’t defending the championship, we weren’t defending anything,” tackle Russell Okung said. “That’s because we weren’t the same team. We were different players in a whole new season. We were just starting the chase like everybody else. That’s what we talked about: Being in the chase.”
That was the approach from Day One. No, wait, this compulsion started well before Day One of the season.
Wilson claims his focus on the 2014 season started “… as soon as I started lowering the (Lombardi) trophy” after it was handed to them immediately following the win over Denver in the Super Bowl.
Wilson conceded that some would find him a “buzzkill” for starting thinking about the next challenge before he had even showered off the sweat from earning the first title.
“It’s just the way I think: How can I get prepared for the next opportunity? How do I get back there? How do we get prepared?”
Wilson said he didn’t think in terms of a “repeat,” because that is a long-term context that minimizes the daily struggle. Instead, he sought ways “to be the best in the game of football, again, as a team.”
That kind of focus, it seems, is not always shared by defending champs.
For an analysis story during training camp, I interviewed a number of players and coaches familiar with the challenge of earning back-to-back trips to the Super Bowl.
One of the main pitfalls, all agreed, was complacency. Human nature insists that we work harder to attain something than we do to keep it. Seattle linebackers coach Ken Norton laughed at the notion.
“You have to understand that these guys are always trying to improve themselves,” Norton said. “They’re always fighting back. If you’re a true competitor, at your heart, it doesn’t matter what the external forces are.”
Teams that win the Super Bowl are faced with the inevitable staff loss and player defection via free agency. It’s the best chance to cash in.
But the Seahawks kept their key staffers and limited their talent losses.
Starters Golden Tate, Red Bryant, Chris Clemens, Brandon Browner and Breno Giacomini were lost or not resigned. But landing veteran defensive lineman Kevin Williams and drafting receiver Paul Richardson helped in the replacement, while other incumbents assumed larger roles.
The injury contagion that often strikes teams that extend their previous seasons into February struck the Seahawks, as 17 players ended up on the injured-reserve list, including stars such as tight end Zach Miller and nose tackle Brandon Mebane.
“We lost so many different guys along the way,” defensive lineman Michael Bennett said. “Being able to come back and have the new guys come in and play at a high level and still sustain the kind of defense we had last year, or even better, is a great challenge, and we stepped up.”
Super Bowl-winning teams are beset by swelling egos. How could they not be, with all the attention, endorsements and praise?
“If egos were a problem, guys kept it pretty well hidden, and eventually got rid of it,” defensive end Cliff Avril said. “Football is the ultimate team sport. People have to understand, for me to be good, my (defensive backs) have to be good, and vice versa. We know that. If there were any egos, I think all that got put aside once we got into the season.”
Without question, a world championship causes opponents to take note, and to approach games against the Seahawks as the ultimate challenge even if the rest of their season is without highlight.
Cornerback Byron Maxwell didn’t see any difference, from the Seahawks’ perspective, as they went from the hunter to the hunted. “I never felt like that,” Maxwell said. “You’re always trying to eat, so you’re always the hunter.”
Okung noted that if opponents are bringing greater energy to games against the Seahawks than any other week, “they’ve got an issue bigger than us.”
“That’s why we always talk about having a championship mentality,” Okung said. “And a big part of that is going out every day and giving it your best. We talk about that all the time, going out every day, every week, and giving it your best. Regardless who we’re playing against, we’re going to go out there and play hard.”
The season was not without distraction, though, as expected star Percy Harvin was traded to the New York Jets five games into the season. The offense had been shaped to meld his receiving talents with the core strength of the Marshawn Lynch-led rushing attack.
But when he was traded, it came to light that Harvin had locker-room issues with teammates, and was not a fit that promoted team success. It contributed to a slump in the early season, and threatened the kind of unraveling that has derailed other hopeful repeaters.
To maintain the status quo at that point likely would have assured a middling season.
But the offense was retooled in his absence, and Carroll brought in a core of team leaders to urge a reunification. It sparked the six-game winning streak that led to the NFC West Division title and the top seeding heading into the postseason.
“We went through a lot of changes as the season went on,” Bennett said. “But with good leadership, we stood the test of time. Everybody expected us not to be in the championship game, but we were always expecting to get back where we were supposed to be.”
Getting this far as a defending champ was more common in the pre-free agency era, as 11 teams have been to back-to-back Super Bowls. From an historical perspective, the good news for the Seahawks is that once a champ returns, it generally wins. Eight of the 11 have repeated.
Asked about the recent curse of the defending champ, Avril discounted it.
“Most of us never even listened to that kind of stuff so we didn’t know it was impossible to get back,” he said. “For most of us, it was just about improving as a team, and that starts by looking in the mirror and improving ourselves as individuals, improving what you can bring to the team. That’s what makes anything possible.”
The experience of having been through the demands of a championship season helps the second time, Maxwell said. “You understand you can get stronger as the season goes on … the mentality we’ve got around here helps.”
But it didn’t make it easier, Maxwell stressed. “It felt like, at certain times last year, nobody could mess with us. This year, it was definitely harder.”
Either way, though, is fine with Maxwell because “once you get in, and the confetti is falling, it’s all the same.”