Tuesday, December 3rd, 2019

Bringin’ back the BOOM?

Matthew Sherry


Bringin’ back the BOOM?

Matthew Sherry NFL

At the Sheraton Hotel, a Russell Wilson pass from Times Square, Pete Carroll strolled into a conference room the morning after the night before. Bleary eyes betrayed the party that followed the Seattle Seahawks’ complete and utter domination of the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XLVIII, a performance so complete the D-word was already being used liberally.

And Carroll, standing in front of the assembled media, wasn’t shirking. “The first meeting that we’ll have will be tomorrow. So it starts tomorrow. Our guys would be surprised if we didn’t [repeat]. We really have an eye on what’s coming. And that we don’t dwell on what just happened, so we’ll take this in stride, and we’ll have a big celebration on Wednesday in town, and enjoy the heck out of it. We won’t miss the fun part of it, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t also set our sights on how this thing can go… I think we are in a very fortunate situation.”

Most considered his suggestions understandable. Seattle boasted an electrifying quarterback entering his third year on an incredibly cheap contract, the second-youngest roster in football and a defense already being mentioned in the same breath as the all-time greats, bequeathed with an enduring moniker. And, of course, the Legion of Boom had just overcome the betting odds to beat Peyton Manning and the statistically greatest offense of all-time so thoroughly that the quarterback’s historical campaign was already fading from memory.

Twelve months later, Wilson et al were backing up their head coach’s words. Down 28-24 in Arizona’s University of Phoenix, they stood on the New England Patriots’ one-yard line, facing second-and-goal with 26 seconds remaining. Wilson took the ball from shotgun and, to the surprise of everybody, Marshawn Lynch ran a passing pattern to the left. On the other side, where Wilson’s eyes moved, Ricardo Lockette was coming underneath on a slant, ready to seal a repeat and etch his name into Seahawks folklore.

And then, in the blink of an eye, everything changed.

Months after Malcom Butler’s interception – a by-product of either the worst playcall in history or some Patriots ingenuity depending on your perspective – many of Seattle’s players took a chartered 737 to Hawaii in an attempt to overcome it. The tension and growing chasm between defense and offense needed addressing, as did palpable frustration among those who believed Seattle’s coaches had outsmarted themselves in an effort to ensure Wilson – an alleged Carroll favourite – was the player to score the winning touchdown.

The end result meant nuance went out of the window, at least among those scarred by being denied a second ring in the cruellest fashion. That Carroll could explain away throwing simply by pointing to New England’s jumbo package didn’t register, nor did the fact that the Patriots deployed a personnel grouping they hadn’t used all year; one that boasted enough big bodies to stuff the run, but also the requisite number of defensive backs to counter a passing play they had specifically practiced against leading into the game. All of the arguments are valid, yet the counter is simple. “You got Beast Mode,” says former Seattle defensive end Cliff Avril to Gridiron Annual Bookazine.

Marshawn Lynch was the best short-yardage running back in football; they had to run, didn’t they? “Even to this day, I’ve never questioned Coach Carroll,” adds Avril. “If [Lockette] catches it, nobody even thinks about the run. It was a Catch-22.”

There were many questioning Carroll’s decision atop a hill looking down at Maui’s Wailea Beach, but Seattle’s 2015 offseason trip didn’t have the desired result. Over the coming years, as Wilson ascended to the status of top-five NFL quarterback and the defense continued to play at a high level, the Seahawks looked better than ever… on paper.

For, suddenly, a missing piece existed, one that will seemingly forever remain at University of Phoenix Stadium, on the turf where Seattle and their Legion of Boom nearly cemented their all-time status by taking down Manning and Tom Brady in back-to-back Super Bowls. “When I was going through it, I didn’t think nothing of it,” says Avril. “I thought we could get back to the Super Bowl. But, being removed from it for four years, I can see that that second Super Bowl played a big role in why we didn’t get back again.”

“It’s a touchy subject,” said Earl Thomas to Gridiron last year. “If you look at the magnitude of it, back-to-back championships, you can see why guys are still frustrated. It was a dramatic finish and it touched guys as it should; it was a crazy end.”

Seattle were still a good team over the ensuing years, and their championship mettle would sometimes show itself. In the ensuring campaign’s divisional round, they came within a whisker of overturning a 31-0 halftime deficit in a loss to the 15-1 Carolina Panthers, while the 2016 campaign brought a thrilling 31-24 revenge victory over New England at Gillette Stadium.

Yet the Patriots ended that campaign clutching another Lombardi Trophy, continuing Part II of their own dynasty, and Seattle were brushed aside by the Atlanta Falcons team New England so famously came back to beat in Super Bowl LI; one coached by the Boom’s brilliant former defensive coordinator Dan Quinn. “We were the blueprint and teams emulated us,” adds Thomas.

Although clubs were successfully following Seattle’s strategy, the originals were facing their new reality. As a good-but-not-great team capable of reaching the postseason yet unable to scale their previous heights. Following their failure to reach the playoffs for the first time since 2012 in 2017, Carroll and general manager John Schneider seemingly began the process of taking a clean break. Richard Sherman departed for San Francisco and Michael Bennett was traded to the Philadelphia Eagles, while Avril and Kam Chancellor were forced into retirement. Remnants of past glories remained – Thomas, Wilson, Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright, for example – but there was an unmistakeable sense of turning the page.

Only the unedifying exit of Thomas – featuring a middle-finger salute in the direction of his own bench after suffering a season-ending broken leg against Arizona, on the same field as Butler’s pick – offered a reminder of the tension that ensconced the building.

The star safety is now with the Baltimore Ravens, the last leftover of the great Legion of Boom to depart. It’s time for the Seahawks to look forward.

It was Sherman, newly minted as a 49ers cornerback, who best got to the crux of the issues that afflicted Seattle. As well as the play, head coach Pete Carroll’s ever-positive, competition-everyday message, he claimed, wears on some veteran players. It was a point backed up by Thomas in conversation with Gridiron last year, and perhaps explains why Seattle are where they are entering the 2019 campaign.

Their roster, following a draft class featuring 11 selections, is again among the youngest in football. “We’ve had a great run of some terrific football players,” says Carroll. “There’s just a cycle of things that there comes a time when you have to make transitions and that’s what’s happened. It feels fresh and it feels like it did four or five years ago, when we were finding Bobby Wagner, Russell was coming to the front, Richard, Kam and all those guys were surfacing and we really built the programme around those guys with clear intent.

“I think you’re going to see the same kind of connection with the players that we have now. It’s a wonderful group of guys, who are really talented and very deep competitively throughout the roster, with really clear leadership on all sides of the football.”

That leadership comes from those who remain. On defense, potential future Hall-of-Famer Wagner is the heartbeat, forming a devastating linebacking duo with Wright – who re-signed in free agency. Wagner, unlike some of the former teammates he may reside with in Canton one day, still enjoys being in Carroll’s programme. “It’s fun, man,” he says. “He brings a very fun atmosphere. He allows you to be loose, allows you to come in and be yourself. I think that’s the biggest thing – he allows you to be yourself, he allows you to grow and find yourself. He’s a very, very positive guy and he brings a lot of energy. You would never know that he’s the oldest coach in the league by the way he moves and runs – he pretends he’s a quarterback out here.

“It feels like it wasn’t too long ago I was a rookie and I had guys like Kam and others to look up to – you try to follow them. Now it’s roles reversed with guys doing the same to me. But I feel like, when you get here, there’s a professionalism and pride that you should play with, because you’re not just playing for yourself. You’re playing for your family, your friends, your kids, your wife and people of that nature. It’s bigger than you and I feel like, when you play for somebody other than yourself, that’s when you become great.”

In any conversation with or around the Seahawks, one word remains constant. “We have a real culture about us and we’ve worked hard to develop it,” says the coach. “There’s a real closeness here and there’s a belonging in our organisation. We really reach out to new people as they come to us and we make them feel comfortable. We want them to feel at home, so it starts right there. There’s a lot of trust in this organisation. They know that we have a really good system, they know that we look out for the players, they know that it’s really vital that we take care of our guys and help them to be the best they can be.

“It’s exciting to know that we’re always in the hunt. This is a very successful organisation too. We’ve had a lot of winning here, a lot of championships and stuff like that in our past. It’s given us a real good purpose. But I think, probably, the bottom line is, when you come to this place, you know that we are working for everyone to do their best within certain guidelines.”

Carroll’s excellence as a coach is that he dares to do it a little differently. “I’ve never, in all my years in football, seen anybody do it like Coach Carroll,” reveals Avril. “People talk about competition and you think of something hard, but it’s fun as well. You’re competing at everything: who can get to meetings first or shoot more hoops in 30 seconds. It’s fun.”

Players, as Wagner suggests, are allowed to find themselves. Critics might argue that same approach indirectly led to the team’s downfall, with players too outspoken, but Carroll disagrees. “We really look to find the weaknesses and special qualities in our players and hopefully bring that to the surface,” adds the coach. “We champion who they are as best we can. But there’s always the mentality that you belong to something bigger than yourself, so there’s a real discipline about them. It might seem like we’ve had some very spirited players over the years and that they’ve been somewhat outspoken at times, but they’ve always been really good team guys.

“That’s where we draw the line. It’s about maintaining the awareness and conscience that you’re part of something bigger than yourself and having the opportunity to express in the way that you see fit. This is something that we’ve been able to work at. Not everybody sees that you can handle it that way. But I feel like you can and I think it helps us really develop the kind of relationship and connectiveness with the players that allows them to be really at their best.”

When the 2019 Seahawks report to training camp, the message will be clear. The cast of characters may be different, but everything is as it has been from the day Carroll arrived in 2010 and, most pertinently, the likes of Wilson and Wagner joined the programme two years later. “There’s a lot that’s changed,” says Wilson, who signed a four-year extension that made him the NFL’s highest-paid signal-caller in the offseason. “But, with professional sport – or professional anything – there’s always ‘new’ and there’s always constant change and all that, so we have to adjust.”

Wilson and Wagner entered the fray at the same time, as third and second-round picks in the 2012 NFL Draft respectively. Their first season saw the Seahawks reach the playoffs, only to lose by two points in a nail-biter on the road that left fans wondering what might have been. Sound familiar? It should, because the same happened to the 2018 group, whose 24-22 loss to the Dallas Cowboys feels eerily similar to their 2012 30-28 reverse to Atlanta.

“We knew we had a lot of young guys last year,” says Wagner, “but it was reminiscent of the 2012 season when me, Russell and all those guys came in. We grew a lot and many of the young guys stepped up. I think we’ll take a lot from that and take another big step forward next year. I see the similarities.”

From that loss against the Falcons, Seattle ascended to new heights, becoming the toast of football by collecting the club’s first championship. Could history repeat itself? “It’s going to be very difficult for them to replicate something like that,” says Avril. “We had so much talent on that defense, and we brought the best out of each other. Nobody wanted to be the weakest link. What we had was very special. Overall, the run was amazing as far as what we were able to do as a defense and as a team. That kind of stuff doesn’t happen very often.” Yet those on the current team believe. “I feel like we have all the talent and the pieces to be a great team,” counters Wagner.

The dynasty may not have materialised but, with Wilson still just 30 years old, Seattle know their window isn’t closed yet. It may come several years after Carroll’s initial prediction, but the feeling in Seattle is that a second championship is in their future. “The goals stay the same,” adds Wilson. “We’re out here to win the Super Bowl.”

This article originally appeared in the 2019 edition of the Gridiron Annual Bookazine – for individual editions or subscriptions, click HERE

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