John McGrath

Thank Steelers coach Mike Tomlin for turning Seahawks season around

Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll, left, greets Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin, right, after Seattle defeated Pittsburgh, 39-30, at CenturyLink Field on Nov. 29.
Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll, left, greets Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin, right, after Seattle defeated Pittsburgh, 39-30, at CenturyLink Field on Nov. 29. The Associated Press

The transformation of the 2015 Seahawks from mid-season mediocrity into playoff-bound powerhouse might represent the best work of Pete Carroll’s career. Which is saying something, because Carroll, historically accomplished as a college coach, has put himself on track for the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

But jump-starts require assistance, sometimes from strangers. An invaluable contributor to Seattle’s jump-start was a head coach on the opposite sideline.

Through the first 15 minutes of a Nov. 29 game at CenturyLink Field, Mike Tomlin’s Pittsburgh Steelers appeared primed to beat the sleepy, sloppy Seahawks. Although the Steelers’ lead was only 3-0, they were in position to begin the second quarter with a field-goal attempt of 44 yards, routine by NFL standards.

Then came the break between quarters, allowing for 5 minutes of TV commercials and Tomlin an opportunity to hold a strategic summit with his assistants. While I wasn’t privy to the discussion, I suspect somebody under the influence of industrial-strength medication convinced Tomlin to call off the field goal and attempt a pass from the kick formation.

Backup quarterback Landry Jones, posing as the holder, took the snap and looked for his first-read target. Not open. Jones settled for Plan B, a pass to tackle-eligible “receiver” Alejandro Villanueva.

Cornerback Jeremy Lane jumped the route — alerted that Jones was on the field, Lane presumed the Steelers were “up to something fishy“ — and picked off the pass in full stride.

Although Lane’s unforced stumble cost him a chance to score a touchdown, his 54-yard return to the Pittsburgh 24 invigorated a restless crowd that had watched the Seahawks punt twice in two possessions.

Quarterback Russell Wilson was 1-for-4 for 11 yards, reflecting an out-of-synch offense underperforming for three months. Between an absence of dynamic playmakers, a defense incapable of holding late leads and the sense the two-time defending NFC champs were dealing with post-Super Bowl burnout, the Seahawks’ worst enemy, it seemed, was themselves.

And then Tomlin dialed up the worst play-call imaginable — well, OK, the second-worst play-call imaginable — and everything changed. Snapped out of their lethargy, the Hawks soon were celebrating in the Steelers’ end zone. Wilson went on to complete 20 of his next 26 passes, five for touchdowns, in a 39-30 victory that finally pushed them over .500.

It might be a stretch to identify Lane’s interception of a doomed-from-the-snap pass as the turning point of a seemingly doomed-from-the-start season. Then again, it might not be a stretch.

Successful football teams — as teams in any sport — rely on the momentum swings that create what’s called “good chemistry.”

Good chemistry is the most vague of intangibles, difficult to define and impossible to explain. But it’s not some Dr. Phil bromide. Good chemistry is an essential component in building the confidence associated with winners.

“Coaches will tell you different things about it,” Carroll said Monday. “There’s a sense sometimes it’s just an incident, or a game, or a challenge. It’s something you overcome or don’t overcome. It can come in all different shapes and sizes and forms.”

A case could be made the Seahawks turned around their season a week before beating Pittsburgh. On Nov. 22, thanks to Thomas Rawls’ 209 rushing yards and Wilson’s virtuoso passing performance — 24-of-29 for 260 yards and three touchdowns — they jumped to a 20-0 lead over San Francisco before putting things on cruise control in a 29-13 victory.

But beating the 49ers was more an inevitability than an accomplishment. Beating the Steelers, surviving a 69-point shootout widely described as a thriller, was an accomplishment.

And to think: The Seahawks’ offense didn’t show up for the first quarter. Fans at the Clink weren’t so much quiet as edgy, frustrated by indifferent possessions that concluded with punts. The Steelers were in an all-systems-go mode to begin the second quarter with the field goal that would give them a 6-0 lead.

A perfect time, in other words, to be given a gift, and how do you describe a backup quarterback’s ill-fated pass to a tackle-eligible receiver as anything but a gift?

If the Seahawks manage to return to the Super Bowl, the contribution Mike Tomlin made to their late-season comeback won’t be touted. But his approval of a trick play last month was a contribution, and a substantial one.

It provided good chemistry to a team that had no chemistry at all.

John McGrath: jmcgrath@thenewstribune.com

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