John McGrath

Beating the Rams in 2010 launched the Seahawks. Will a 2017 loss end this era?

Seattle Seahawk coach Pete Carroll celebrates with quarterback Charlie Whitehurst after the win over the Rams on January 2, 2011. The vicotry propelled the Seahawks to the first playoff berth of the Carroll era.
Seattle Seahawk coach Pete Carroll celebrates with quarterback Charlie Whitehurst after the win over the Rams on January 2, 2011. The vicotry propelled the Seahawks to the first playoff berth of the Carroll era. Staff file, 2011

The Seahawks had just clinched the NFC West title with a winner-goes-to-the-playoff victory, and the locker room was alive with the sound of Pete Carroll’s voice.

“How about your defense tonight!” the coach hollered.

A roar.

“How about your offense tonight!”

Another roar.

“And when it came right down to it, big Olindo gets his shot to ice it! How about your special teams tonight!”

A third roar.

Kicker Olindo Mare was an improbable candidate for a celebratory shout-out after a 10-point victory over the Rams, but then, the 2010 Seahawks were improbable candidates to participate in a three-roar salute.

The regular season pretty much had gone as expected — under the direction of their third head coach in three years, the Hawks finished 7-9, their third losing record in three years — but with a caveat: No team in the NFC West was better. By beating St. Louis in a Week 17 showdown, Seattle qualified as division champions.

Seven years later, the Seahawks and Rams are anticipating another significant game. The winners on Sunday won’t automatically advance to the playoffs, and the losers won’t face certain elimination, but the odds are stacked that way.

If the Hawks are beaten, it could signify the end of an era that produced four division championships and nine playoff victories between 2010 and 2016. I am reminded that the era began on the final night of Carroll’s first regular season in Seattle, when two flawed opponents slugged it out for NFC West supremacy.

“Check this out, here’s what’s really friggin’ cool,” Carroll told his players afterward. “This is a whole new thing starting now. We came at them for the NFC West and we nailed it the first time out. That’s great, but that’s just where it starts.

“Do you realize,” he continued, his voice booming into a bellow, “we’re coming right back here Saturday afternoon? We’ve got football to play!”

Carroll’s unfettered jubilation seems almost quaint. Silver anniversaries often lead to golden anniversaries, but nothing is recalled as fondly as the first kiss.

Once upon a time, the Seahawks were so thrilled to extend the season that they didn’t care if everybody outside the Pacific Northwest maligned them as playoff-unworthy. Today? Anything other than an extended playoff run is seen as a disappointment.

The 2010 Hawks were not particularly good — they were outscored by 99 points — but the historic quest to become the only NFL team to reach the playoffs with a losing record in a non-strike season found them easier to admire than some of Carroll’s more talented squads.

Take the victory over the Rams, an endeavor complicated by the Hawks’ uncertainty at quarterback. Starter Matt Hasselbeck had tweaked his back the previous week at Tampa Bay, and was willing to gut it out at less-than-full-speed in the finale. But Carroll turned to backup Charlie Whitehurst, owner of one career start.

Whitehurst understood his limitations and had the discipline to play within those limitations. Behind an offensive line that didn’t allow a sack, Whitehurst completed 22 passes in 36 attempts. His four-yard throw to Mike Williams capped a first-possession touchdown drive — remember those things? — and the Hawks led thereafter.

A bread-and-butter game plan called for running back Marshawn Lynch to wear down the Rams defense. When Lynch’s lost fumble was converted into a St. Louis field goal, his stat line resembled something resembling a 2017 Eddie Lacy stat line: Six carries, minus-one yard.

So much for game plans.

But the Seahawks stayed true to the scheme. Lynch ended up with 75 yards on 20 carries, which helped them dominate possession time, and the defense limited the Rams to 2 of 14 on third downs. The template was set for what would become Seattle’s version of a pro-sports dynasty.

“Just a first step for us,” Carroll told reporters afterward. “We’re a team that’s a work in progress.”

Progress would be achieved. Two years after beating the Rams for the NFC West title, the Seahawks, with rookie Russell Wilson at quarterback, went 11-5 and earned a wild-card berth. Their resolve in the playoffs — they beat Washington on the road, then traveled to Atlanta and came within a few seconds of upsetting the Falcons — presaged NFC Championships in 2013 and 2014.

On a Top 10 list of most meaningful victories in franchise history, the 2010 effort against the Rams deserves inclusion. For one, it ensured that Hasselbeck would play a final home game for the Seahawks. He threw for 272 yards and four touchdowns in an upset of the defending Super Bowl champion Saints.

For another, it gave Lynch an opportunity, a week later, to feel the world move under his feet by breaking nine tackles on a 67-yard touchdown run that got fans so jazzed they affected the seismograph meter.

Carroll’s promise about just getting started doesn’t resonate anymore with a team that sees itself as an annual Super Bowl contender. But some of his words, spoken seven years ago to a collection of overachievers gathered a giddy locker room, remain relevant.

“We’ve got football to play!”