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What happened to the Seahawks’ magic?

The supernatural or superstitious forces that gave Seattle an extra edge for so long appear in short supply lately, but will they ever come back?

Arizona Cardinals v Seattle Seahawks Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

You can tell Russell Wilson still believes in Seattle Seahawks magic. With 5:17 left in the fourth quarter Saturday, Wilson faked an option give to Alex Collins and started running to his right. It was fourth and one from the Seahawks’ 30-yard line, with Seattle down 28-18 to the Arizona Cardinals, and Wilson read Markus Golden crashing down the line of scrimmage toward Collins. Unfortunately for Wilson, Golden wasn’t reading the play; he was on a run blitz with linebacker Sio Moore rotating into Golden’s end to contain the edge.

Isolated against Moore, Wilson tried a juke inside but Moore stayed disciplined and wrapped up the quarterback, spinning him to the ground. Sensing his position behind the line to gain, and while flopping belly up in the defender’s grasp, Wilson made a last-ditch effort to convert the fourth down by flicking the football with his wrist into the air. It looked like a soda can hook-shot toward a trash barrel from the passenger window of a car that had unexpectedly turned left. The ball arced wobbling downfield in the direction of Jimmy Graham, but Graham was still blocking for the run and didn’t react soon enough to get to the toss before it bounced harmlessly out of reach.

Even though it was fourth down and the cost of an interception was minimal compared to the turnover on downs, it still seemed like an unnecessarily risky move to lob such a fungo up for grabs without seeing where he was aiming—indeed had safety Harlan Miller initially broken toward Graham rather than toward Wilson he might have returned it for a touchdown. But what makes it an especially crazy throw is that you can tell by the blocking actions of the other receivers that the play was zone read run all the way—with no designed pass option. Doug Baldwin steps back like for a decoy screen the opposite way, but Wilson never looks for him. Instead his desperation heave was pure improvisation, trying to wring the last possibility of conversion out of the play.

Which means by throwing a jump ball where no receivers were running routes, when nobody was looking for him to throw, Wilson expected something magical to happen. And why not? The Seattle quarterback has seen plays just as improbable and ridiculous-looking turn into key conversions before.

What would have been more Seahawky than Graham telepathically releasing from his lunge after J.D. Swearinger to track the ball in the air like Jon Ryan clutching at his own live fumble? We’ve seen weirder stuff happen.

Indeed, we’ve learned to accept that for these golden age Seahawks, as John Fraley calls them, anything is possible. Since 2012 they’ve come back from late deficits of 16, 17, 18, 20, 21 points, beat some of the most fearsome teams in the league over that period, and made stupefying, chaotic plays look routine. Indeed, even after Arizona capitalized on the field position from that failed fourth down to take a 13-point lead with four minutes to go, the Seahawks still managed to score two touchdowns to tie the game in a way that felt in the moment eerily like that NFC championship victory over the Green Bay Packers that included the loopy two-point conversion above.

However, when Stephen Hauschka missed an extra point that would have given Seattle the lead and then the Cardinals advanced the ball 50 yards in 33 seconds and kicked a field goal to hand the Seahawks their third loss in five games, it was easy to remember that Seattle lost the next game after that miracle ending against Green Bay. It was easy to remember they failed to complete a comeback in the playoffs last year, after struggling to finish games throughout 2015, to remember Earl Thomas and now Tyler Lockett were done for the year, that a playoff bye week was looking that much more unlikely—and wonder if maybe that classic Seahawks magic had run out.

That is a heavy charge, and big if true. I mean, Seattle is a talented team and capable of winning without supernatural intervention. I’d never try to say that one cockeyed incompletion in a regular-season loss means the Seahawks are now doomed. But for the last few years there was that extra comfort that comes from rooting for a team that had not just an advantage in nearly every area on the field, but also an intangible, almost otherworldly knack for digging out miracles in the crunchiest of crunch times.

Maybe for you it started in another game against the Packers—the Monday-nighter early in 2012, Russell Wilson’s rookie year. That ending definitely had a charmed feeling to it (I wish I could say I remember it, but I remember the feeling of gliding through the news stories and blog posts while piecing together my own hectic social circumstances the following morning). Or perhaps it came earlier—with the Beast Quake run, that incredible second-down-conversion-turned-playoff-game-winner that defied the limits of human belief as it continued one broken tackle after another. I remember riding my bicycle home in the Brooklyn night after that one, feeling like I should get the date tattooed on my arm.

Those are both already so well replayed and remembered I don’t need to include the clips here. They’re definitely founding episodes in recent Seattle folklore. But I know I pretty much felt something spooky was up when Richard Sherman returned an interception for a touchdown to tie the game against the Houston Texans:

The Texans were awful that season, 2-14, but had entered the game 2-1 and coming off their best season in franchise history. Houston has even won nine games each of the three years since (without getting overwhelming performance from its subsequent first-overall draft pick) so it seems evident the Texans were a talented team in 2013 too—they were just snakebit, and Sherman was the snake that bit them.

Houston had gone up 20-3 in the first half, and I had gone to some trouble to acquire cigarettes at halftime. I don’t usually like to smoke cigarettes but my smoke bone is connected to my frustration bone—probably because it puts in my hand something I don’t mind throwing away angrily. And yet, during that game, every time I smoked a cigarette something good happened for the Seahawks—capped by the Sherman interception.

It began to feel like a real magical power, and it became my tradition. Every Seattle game I’ve watched in real time since, except for Super Bowl XLVIII and the preseason game when Cliff Avril broke Tony Romo’s back, I watched at that same bar, Lil Woodrow’s in Austin, Texas, and if the Seahawks look like they need an extra boost I’ll ask somebody for a smoke and head to the same spot on the patio.

It’s where I watched Seattle come back from 21 points down to beat the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and where I saw the Seahawks outduel the Denver Broncos in overtime in a Super Bowl rematch. It’s where I saw a winning goal-line stand against the St. Louis Rams.

It’s the spot where I witnessed this happen:

And also the two-point conversion in the 2014 NFC Championship Game, and the onside kick, and most of the events in the second half of that game. And that same superstitious zone was where I saw Jermaine Kearse catch a ball off his leg, while on his back, to set Seattle up for first and goal at the end of Super Bowl XLIX. That was ludicrous. And I’m telling you it was magic.

But of course I knew all along the magic was never in my cigarettes. The magic was in the Seahawks, and it was just a mental conditioning that helped me frame my belief in action. Just like a caller I heard tell Tom Wassell, on the radio after the Green Bay NFC title comeback, that he had driven from his own house to his father’s house at halftime of that game to “change the venue”. Yet the scenery of the game hadn’t changed. The second half was still in Seattle, in the same stadium where Wilson had thrown all those interceptions. The move had helped the caller change his mood—reframe his mind with positivity, with family. But the magic that won the game was always in the Seahawks.

Except when it wasn’t.

Naturally Seattle isn’t undefeated since I started smoking emergency cigarettes at Lil Woodrow’s. In fact I’ve smoked right through plenty of heartbreaking losses, including last-second losses like Saturday’s and even losses that ended the Seahawks’ famous streaks of “close” losses until there were no more such streaks. Until now I mainly don’t bother to light the magic cigarettes anymore, because they don’t seem to have any more connection to the events on the field or the outcomes of the games than simply hoping. It hasn’t felt lately like a supernatural comfort. It felt like an unnecessary stress.

So that feeling—the lack of comfort—is what would lead one to ask if Seattle’s magic had run out. But since the actual magic, the Seahawks’ special edge, is as I’ve said in the team itself, how could we know if it’s disappeared?

Well we could look at the Seahawks and try to trace when it went missing. For example, Seattle was eliminated in the playoffs last year by the Carolina Panthers. The Seahawks were down 31-0 at halftime and came back to within a touchdown eventually, 31-24, but it was a field goal with about a minute left that drew the score that close and Seattle never held the ball again. Like the Cardinals game Saturday, the Seahawks offense started executing in the second half but the failed comeback bid owes itself to the one drive in the third quarter when Seattle failed to score:

Russell Wilson scrambles for no gain on first down, then takes a huge 14-yard sack on second down. He tries to hurry the offense up to the line of scrimmage to recapture these lost yards in the form of time, but ends up instead calling a timeout after letting the play clock run nearly to zero. This—the use of the timeout plus a whole play clock—was almost as costly to the comeback as the punt after Marshawn Lynch gains back a chunk of the yards on third down but not enough. If the Seahawks magic was going to happen that day, it needed to happen there.

But that sequence is nearly identical to a drive occurring in Seattle’s first game against Carolina in 2015. The situation was different—the Seahawks held the lead 23-20—but with the Panthers having scored two second-half touchdowns to close a wider gap Seattle needed to advance the ball and secure the game. After a 20-yard catch by Graham on the first play, a holding penalty put the Seahawks in first and long. A string of incomplete pass, short completion to Lynch and a sack ended the series, but not before Fox put this graphic on display during a timeout:

Cam Newton and Greg Olsen added to that figure with 30 seconds left, as you remember. Seattle had no magic on its last desperation drive. At the time this fourth-quarter issue was the story of season. The defense had let some curious leads slip away, but I remember thinking Wilson and the offensive line had been ragged and ineffective when previously the ball in the Seahawks hands late in a game meant something exciting was bound to happen.

That was the first game I noticed something absent, but since Seattle was already 2-4 you could obviously go even further back. We already established there was magic in the 2014 NFC Championship game, and we even pinpointed it right up to Kearse’s dramatic catch in the Super Bowl. Is it possible this search for the missing magic is leading to the same place that all the conversation about team conflict and offensive playcalling on the goal line went last week? Did the Super Bowl interception really kill some intangible spark within the Seahawks, or did that immaculate bounce off Kearse’s knee just exhaust their supply of miracles?

But this is silly, because I can also find plenty of magic since then. In midseason 2015 Seattle was in another match against Arizona. It was Sunday Night Football but I had got stuck working during the game, was hoping to be able to catch even a few minutes at the end if it was close. Instead, the Cardinals went up 19-0 and then 22-7—all in the second quarter. And yet, an unfortunate injury to Mike Iupati delayed the game, and suddenly the Seahawks were crawling back.

They were within a touchdown, 25-17, when I left work and I tell you: Every stoplight was green on my bike ride to Lil Woodrow’s. I’d never seen anything like it. And then the moment I walked into the bar Cliff Avril came careening off the right edge and twisted the ball loose from Carson Palmer, where K.J. Wright came bounding in to scoop it up. Seattle punched in the score and then seconds later Wright was stripping Palmer again, with Bobby Wagner sprinting it in for another touchdown this time to give Seattle the lead.

This was a lightning strike. This was—even though the game turned again and Arizona ended up winning—this series of sack-fumbles was unmistakably Seahawks magic.

Or what about this play—from the opening-round playoff win against the Minnesota Vikings in sub-zero temperatures after the offense had mounted nothing all day?

If we’re being scientific about it (and I realize there’s nothing scientific about a discussion of magic in football)—but if we’re being scientific about it we can’t say the magic was present in these plays and assume it had gone missing earlier in that season. Like it just came back temporarily. We can’t say, just because Seattle didn’t win the Super Bowl at the end of the year, that these plays didn’t count as magic, or the offense didn’t seem to perform with magical comfort during Wilson’s fabulous close to the season. Indeed, even in the loss to Carolina, even in the very drive I said earlier was evidence of no magic because it was the only one on which the Seahawks didn’t score in their comeback, you can find magic.

This was a fake punt in which DeShawn Shead—Shead who once made a planned proposal to his fiancée on the field in Seattle after the overtime win over the Broncos—took a direct snap in Seahawks territory for a 17-yard conversion. Of any play in that game it was probably the most magical. In a playoff game when the score was 31-14 on the side of a 15-1 team, it caused Troy Aikman to say, “The Seattle offense has Carolina on their heels”—and everyone believed him, even though the next sequence of downs yielded a loss of yards and a for-real punt.

The kind of magic I’m talking about doesn’t disappear just because something else happens you don’t like. And the presence of Seahawks magic definitely doesn’t mean nothing bad will ever happen. Shoot, the defense gave up a field-goal drive to Aaron Rodgers to force overtime after all the miracle moments in 2014. Even the Richard Sherman interception-touchdown against Houston came almost immediately on the back of a terrible Wilson pick

—which is why I was out there smoking to begin with.

In fact, now that we recognize the fact the Seahawks are magic doesn’t mean they will automatically win a championship, let’s look at one of the most magical events in team history:

Seattle coming all the way back to take the lead in the final minute against the Atlanta Falcons in 2012 was probably the peak of my experience of magic as a Seahawks fan. What happened afterward was devastating, but it didn’t alter the levels of gratitude and amazement I had felt however briefly—even greater than the Super Bowl win, although those feelings are obviously more consequential and sustained. This was a game in which Seattle lost and was eliminated from the playoffs, and yet Seahawks magic was in evidence all over the field for the whole second half.

When you look at it that way, removed from direct connection to rewards and triumphs of individual games or seasons, you might think the value of football magic would be even less. Because it’s harder to read, harder to interpret. Not as comfortable. But I choose to imagine it instead as if it were some kind of secret beauty buried underground by jealous gods, but it’s a beauty so abundant that it keeps leaking out anyway.

After all, my earliest introduction to Seahawks magic came in an era that had nothing to do with Super Bowl expectations or even playoff appearances, before even the perpetual disappointments of the Holmgren period. In 1995, living far away from Seattle, there was nothing I could do but watch the scores of games scroll by on occasional updates at the bottom of the television screen, but I remember NBC breaking into the broadcast of the incredible comeback from 20-0 against John Elway and the Broncos in Mile High that bound me forever into a belief that there was something powerfully special, even somehow peacefully right, about this football team.

About a year later it was the same situation, agonizing as the score updates came across the bottom showing the Seahawks trading field goals with the Houston Oilers, 3-3, then 6-6 and 9-9 before having to come back from 16-9 to tie it at 16 with three minutes left. But I watched in terror as the scroll showed the Oilers—Jeff Fisher’s Oilers—now at midfield, now on the Seattle 30, now at the 20… and on fourth down all I could do was make a wish. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one.

This is not to privilege these experiences over those of younger, newer Seahawks fans, but to show that the magic has always flowed and will keep flowing even after these talented players are gone, even if you stop believing. And we all get to enjoy an even-more magical intervention that happened in between those two miracles—in the 1996 offseason when the franchise almost moved to Los Angeles but Paul Allen stepped in to preserve pro football in Seattle. The magic isn’t in Allen either.

It’s in the Seahawks, or in a reservoir somewhere below Puget Sound, or in your frame of thinking. I don’t know if Seattle is going to win another Super Bowl this year. Maybe it will, but I can tell you some magical plays will spring out on the way, and I bet it will have nothing to do with our comfort or our expectations.