"We want to win out. You always want to win. I watch Sunday games, I hope those teams that we need to lose can lose, but it's out of our hands. All we can do is win." Brandon Browner via Seahawks.com.
If six weeks ago, a stranger walked up to you on the street and said, "the Seahawks will be 6-7 heading into Chicago, still ‘in' the playoff race, solidifying an identity and potentially gearing up for big finish," my guess is that most of us would've written this hypothetical person off as a crazy man - mostly just for the walking up to a stranger and talking nonsense about the Seahawks on the street part.
Maybe you've already mistaken me for a crazy person for bringing up the ‘P'- word in that list; presently, most to all of those statements, even the ‘P'-word part, are fact. But don't worry, that's not where this is going. Thinking playoffs is a distraction. I'll stop the distraction (a distraction is what Lovie Smith is determined to not let the Sam Hurd situation become).
What seemed like a lost season not too long ago, now has an added element of intrigue because we are witnessing (not just projecting) the upside of this team. The Seahawks have been playing a new style of football. Fresh is the feeling of winning at home, in an atmosphere Brock Huard called "an incredible picture for the country to watch." In response, Pete Carroll called it the normal "standard of the love and following for the team" that is set by the fans.
Coming off of three in a row in front of the fans, this is a big week for the Seahawks: heading on the road and playing an early game at a stadium they played at twice in 2010 - not to mention Jackson visited yearly in his prior job, even if it was as a backup (he did win a start at Chicago in 2007). This team could be .500 for the first time this season, and this is their first chance to get to .500 since the Cleveland debacle. Then (Cleveland) and now are separated by a 4-4 record and a shift in mentality.
Lately the focus isn't on re-creating and re-capturing momentum; it's on furthering the it's-no-secret-we're-about-to-pound-it-at-you rushing attack and enjoying the consequences. The Seahawks have previously been thought of as soft, but as I mentioned on Tuesday I think that label is going away. A major reason for that is because of the identity created through the smash-mouth running game.
The image associated with running back Marshawn Lynch, full back Michael Robinson and the ‘Hawks is anything but soft - in fact, it's beastmode. I wrote about the totem in connection with the Seahawks heading into the home stand, the thinking being the team is trying to represent their style to the fullest and change the "meaning" of the Seahawk logo, their totem. Additionally, the fans can play a role in the identity change, in the sense that their collective zeal and practices as a "society" are also represented through the logo. The stronger the connection between the fans and organization, the more potential for a powerful, wide-spread identity shift.
Interestingly enough, Mike Salk brought up the "the cool relationship between the fans and Marshawn Lynch" to Carroll, and asked why Lynch is connecting with the fan base. The response; "He is a unique, unique person with a style and flair to the way he plays, he's just so engaging...he has a tremendous heart...and he's just himself. He's been exemplary in his effort and style of play, there is no one we'd rather be handing the ball to in the NFL." Carroll has spoke of being unique plenty of times before, as it's no secret he doesn't want to be "normal" - hence the choice to become a run-heavy team during a time of philosophical change towards becoming a passing league.
But most importantly, Carroll again praised and spoke of Lynch as a key cog to this operation. Not only is he producing on the field, but he's also engaging the fans and his teammates on a new level. He represents what this team wants to be about and we all can't get enough of it. Everyone loves how Lynch is ‘reppin the ‘Hawks. He's making it easier for those who are yet to buy in, to buy in.
Carroll continued that the "formula" is "really obvious;" the whole football team starts with the commitment to the run and that affects everything. It's allowed them "to blossom our attitude." The success in the running game has opened up the passing game. The style as a whole on offense is complementary to the defense, a unit we've seen play average at worst for pretty much the entire season. If anything, the defense has been waiting for the offense to catch up. Consequently, the stylistic change on offense has helped facilitate growth on defense.
We know Tom Cable was brought here to help change the culture of the organization, but the Seahawks made some sizable changes on the defensive side of the ball too. New defensive line coach Todd Wash has played with, worked for or even succeeded Gus Bradley at nearly every stop for the past 20-plus years. Secondary coach Kris Richard played for Carroll at USC, who then told Richard to look him up when he was done playing in the NFL. Not to mention assistant secondary coach Rocky Seto was brought up through the ranks at USC. While these changes didn't get nearly the press that the hiring of Cable and Darrell Bevell did, they intrigued me from the beginning because of the potential for defensive continuity.
Because Wash and Bradley have played and coached together for so long, my thinking was the front seven could have greater continuity this year. The common understanding of each other's philosophies and language, especially coming out of the lockout, I thought was a positive. Not until I went back and read that piece from last February (the one linked in the last paragraph) did it dawn on me; are the variations we've seen lately on defense - the 3-4/5-2, 6-1 and other wrinkles we've seen among the front seven and in the box - partly occurring because of their familiarity?
Furthermore, the secondary play has improved this season as well. Something I find unique about these improvements are that Carroll's fingerprints are all over this secondary: Carroll remembered Browner from USC camps, Sherman he wanted coming out of highschool, Chancellor is a uniquely sized and sadistic safety, and we all know about the potential of Earl Thomas. Carroll was a defensive backs coach for his first six years of NFL experience. He admitted to Brock and Salk "these guys are driving me crazy" because of the penalties (presumably meaning Browner and Sherman, Chancellor to a lesser extent), but he loves their potential and they have a long way to go. It's clear there is a very high ceiling for the secondary and defense as a whole.
The point; it's all connected. This running game isn't possible without a correctly built defense to back it up. If the idea is to have the philosophies line up across the board, then the correct coaches must be in place to get it done. While we've seemingly moved a bit away from the initial idea I started at, the change of identity through the running game, my goal here was to try and connect the dots. Of course it's possible I'm over-connecting here, but the changes in 2011 go far beyond just an improved rushing attack. This is a re-tooled team built around effort and commitment to the scheme and mentality. In recent weeks the operation as a whole has seemingly taken a step forward. It's great to relish. But remember, we started this meandering journey of thoughts thinking about winning. And that's where we will go in closing.
Bluntly, I think this is a must win game for the Seahawks. Not because of how it will affect the ‘P'- word race, but because it could potentially be short-term validation for the optimism that has arisen from this 4-1 stretch. Furthermore, this re-born team needs a win in a legitimately hostile environment (not to say the win in New York doesn't qualify, but that's too far in the past for me at the moment).
Part of seizing the opportunity of three in a row at home, with the two in the national spotlight, was sending a message that portrays the mentality of this team and what they want to represent on the field; tough, tenacious, nasty. The connection between Lynch, the team and the fans is the epitome of this, the combined effects trickling into the play on the other side of the ball.
Danny and Davis did a fantastic job highlighting John Schneider earlier in the week, and in that there was mention of an identity currently being formed and solidified for this ball club. Though the results of the home stand weren't perfect as desired, this team definitely gained something. But as we learned earlier in the year, figuring whether or not they turned "the" corner allows for a little too much optimism to enter the equation when it's potentially not warranted, so we won't go there.
But, did the Seahawks seize the opportunity created by the homestand? Maybe. I think it may be more appropriate to say they've extended the opportunity. Those three games isn't necessarily the picture that matters. This team is looking forward to what's next and that's where I'm looking, too. Not what did the home stand mean, rather what was learned that can help progress their identity in this next challenge?
Brad Briggs of the Chicago Tribune revealed on a Thursday Sportcenter: after the Denver loss "the locker room was floored...like I haven't seen it like that in 11 years of covering the team."
That was before the Sam Hurd scandal. The Bears are down their starting quarterback and running back, reeling and lacking a true identity without their stars. A loss to Seattle will nearly crush their playoff hopes, as the Seahawks would leapfrog them in the standings.
Focusing on what's next and trying to win out is a formula for Seattle to reach 7-7. Admittedly, all of this talk of having found an identity creates an uneasy feeling for me. The optimism and hope reminds me of the lead up to the game that shall not be named - not to mention the similar circumstance of trying to win three in a row for the first time ever in the Pete Carroll era rings a bell, too.
Here's to hoping this team knows exactly who they are when they step on the plane to Chicago, and realize they can do what they've been doing the past few weeks on the road, too. And more importantly, hopefully they have confidence they can return on Sunday no longer talking about their identity and ready to focus strictly on what's next.