The Seahawks I fell in love with over the last eight years officially died today. They had been aging terribly, to be sure, but that swaggering squad gave up the ghost for good in the only place they could have, really. Arizona’s stadium has been the site of the worst moments in modern Seahawks history. Super Bowl 49 happened there, so did the final plays of Kam Chancellor’s and Richard Sherman’s incredible Seattle careers. And today, the greatest of them all, the most legendary of the Legionnaires, likely saw his Seattle career die in that God-forsaken plot of dirt.
The scoreboard says the Seahawks won, but did they really? For years, you’ve seen me defend the team after losses because the franchise spent five glorious years stockpiling benefit of the doubt. And I stand by it, to be honest. The Seahawks went 2010 through 2014 making enough goodwill deposits to more than cover a few withdrawals. But the deposits have gotten smaller, and the withdrawals have become more frequent. There was some flat out bad luck, too. Their margin for error has grown smaller with each passing decision, and superstar after superstar left on bad terms with the franchise.
Earl was the last one. For as great as Russell Wilson and Doug Baldwin have been, the identity of these Seahawks at their peak was their fearsome defense. A defense led by the greatest secondary ever assembled. A secondary full of Hall of Fame talent led by the descendant of an alien warrior king and a lioness. No player has experienced the epic highs and devastating lows of this era more fully than Thomas. A first round pick in Pete Carroll’s and John Schneider’s first draft, he was the most immediately impactful player of this front office’s entire career.
Earl watched the mighty Seahawks rise around him, almost at his behest, like some kind of Night King. He helped elevate a defense from competitive to great, from great to one of the best ever. But he’s also been here as it’s slowly crumbled around him. The brash culture of competition created an orchard of greatness, but as the seasons turned, so did the ripeness of the fruit therein. Marshawn left with hard feelings, as did Sherman, Golden Tate, and Michael Bennett. Kam and Cliff Avril suffered career-ending injuries. Trades for square pegs were never properly Bevelled into round holes, and the kingdom began to fall.
The Seahawks went from good to great to prohibitive favorites to great to good to now, which is average at best and very bad at worst. It got here under a recent cloud of animosity between Thomas and the only NFL team he’s ever known. Both sides could have kept it from getting where it did. Earl, an emotional weirdo, has been emotional and weird. But the team could have extended or traded him before the season, and Earl could have shown up for camp. It didn’t have to be like this.
But now, after all of the triumph and tumult, here we are. A moderately talented team with a few All Pros and a senile gameplan, playing amid a constant swirl of talk about the fractured relationship between the team and their otherworldly free safety. Now the talk switches to the fractured relationship between Earl’s leg and the rest of Earl’s leg. Through it all, Thomas stayed odd and excellent. He’s played as well as he ever has, leading the team in tackles and the league in interceptions. He’s been everywhere, in every sense of the word.
Until he wasn’t. Earl Thomas broke his leg near the end of today’s game, leaving the field in the worst way imaginable: in an air cast, on a cart, with his middle finger extended, presumably, towards his own team. And in wolf grey, no less. Earl Thomas is my favorite football player in the world, who just so happens to have played for my favorite team in the world. To see it end like this is heartbreaking.
To the game, I guess. The Seahawks came into this one fresh off their first win of the season and looked to carry that momentum against arguably the worst team in the league. Seattle won last week on the back of Chris Carson’s 34 touches, so it was assumed that Carson would see a similar workload against what’s been a permissive Arizona run defense. Then he showed up on the injury report midweek, never progressed, and was a late scratch. Rashaad Penny time, right? Not quite.
Instead of starting the team’s controversial first round draft pick, it was yeoman Mike Davis who drew the first team reps in warmups. And they put him right to work. He carried the ball on the game’s first three plays, tallying 23 yards in the process. It was clear from the jump that even without it’s lead actor, the Seahawks performance would be unaffected by the presence of an understudy. They’d end up punting, of course, but a Jarran Reed sack on third down forced the Cardinals to kick it back from deep in their own end. Tyler Lockett, gracious as ever, then took the punt and ran backwards a bunch of yards so the Cards wouldn’t feel so bad.
The next drive featured some good ol’ fashioned, shotgun cleanin’, cable news watchin’, salt of the earth football. They continued to hammer away with Mike Davis; around the end for 7 then right up the pipe for 7 more. Then Wilson hit Will Dissly for 5, though it came at the cost of the latter leaving with what appeared to be a serious injury. That was followed by welcome back Doug Baldwin picking up 18 yards after Wilson shimmied away from pressure in the pocket. A 5-yard shovel pass to Davis then set up a handoff to the heavy-lifting RB.
On this play, the right side of Seattle’s OL absolutely collapsed the left side of Arizona’s DL, giving Davis room outside the hashmark. Instead of watching from afar, Wilson sprinted out ahead of his running back, and Davis set him up beautifully. Russ hit his block, Davis juked inside to set up another one, then skirted down the sideline for the score. It was the type of drive that gives Football Guy a priapism.
It’s also the type of drive that can seduce a coach into thinking it’s a sustainable way to play winning NFL football in the year of our Lord two thousand and eighteen. Which it most certainly has, and most certainly isn’t. Nevertheless.
On the next Arizona drive, the Seahawks kept their old school momentum flowing by ripping the ball out of David Johnson’s grip and recovering in field goal position. Their drive went nowhere, and Sebastian Janikowski trundled out to calmly yank the field goal attempt wide right. The last three seasons have featured three different kickers for Seattle, and each has struggled as mightily as the last. NFL kickers make over 80% of their kicks these days, but we’ve somehow reached a point where a Seahawks miss feels unsurprising. Another erosion. The Cardinals answered with a long, monotonous 13-play field goal drive that featured a couple of big near-misses down the left sideline and a huge goal line stop by Seattle.
The two teams continued to call plays like there was eight inches of mud, trading gelatinous possessions throughout most of the rest of the first half. The one exception, if you can call it that, was a boring 1-yard TD run by Johnson that was initially called down at the 1. The closest thing to excitement for Seattle was calling a draw play for 3 yards on 3rd & 23 to set up another Janikowski miss. Jason Myers is 7 for 7 this season, btw.
The Cardinals, for their part, returned the favor, missing a field goal of their own at the end of the second quarter, sending the teams to the locker room at 10-7 to think about what they’d done.
The second half got off to a more encouraging start for the ‘Hawks, as they forced a three-and-out before moving the ball steadily down the field. Their drive included a 4th & 1 that Seattle converted with a slick 15-yard carry by Rashaad Penny. Sadly, that was followed by Wilson getting his feet tangled on a toss play that cost them 9 yards. Then, on 3rd & 19, the 14th play of the drive, you’ll never guess what they called.
The draw is the world’s least threatening play and it garnered all of one yard. Fortunately, Janikowski partially redeemed himself by drilling the field goal to tie it up but it was such a depressing end to a promising possession.
No matter, after another three-and-out from Arizona, Seattle pushed it right back down the field, taking advantage of a Cardinals penalty and smashing it in from one-yard out with Davis. 17-10 Seattle. All in all, the Seahawks dominated the third quarter. They ran 19 plays for 104 yards and 10 points, while holding the Cardinals to 14 yards on 7 plays and shutting them out in the process.
The teams traded a couple more punts before the Cardinals found their rhythm. Josh Rosen hit Ricky Seals-Jones with a 31-yard dart up the right sideline to start the drive, then found Johnson on a nicely executed screen play that got 30 more. All of a sudden, he looked like a QB worthy of a first round pick instead of the overwhelmed rookie trying desperately to keep an inept offense above water. He zipped the Cardinals up the field, dissecting a defense that had theretofore stifled him.
Then disaster struck. I can only think of a few instances in my lifetime as a Seahawks fan that have hurt me as much as what happened next did. Rosen dropped back in a max protect and sort of hopped up and down until a receiver came open in the end zone. He fired a perfect pass for a score, one step ahead of a sprinting Earl Thomas. Thomas appeared to hit his shin on the sprawling receiver and fell to the ground. The pass catcher got up and celebrated. Earl stayed down and just sort of lay there with a vacant look in his eyes. It was like watching an android shut down. He just... kept laying there. He briefly touched his leg, and with as innocuous as the contact seemed at the time, I figured he was either winded or upset with himself for not getting there in time.
Then the teammates showed up. Then they formed a circle and took a knee. Prayers went up as the cart motored onto the field and an air cast was rushed to the scene. Cardinals worked their way over to Thomas as he continued to lay there. The sheer weight of this football tragedy began to set in as various players, warriors really, made their way over to pay their respects to one of the realest ones out there. There’s a lot I wish Earl would have done differently over the last calendar year or so, and I get the team’s frustration with him, but that somber ceremony cemented his place among those who strap on their armor at the highest level on Sundays. Everything about it was awful. Then it got worse.
As Earl was carted off the field, he looked across that LOB graveyard and flipped off, as far as we can tell, his own team. Or at least Pete Carroll. If that’s what happened, I can’t defend it. To have watched Earl Thomas play in a Seahawks uniform has been one of the great joys of my life as a fan but this was soul-rending on every level. I don’t know what comes next. All I know is I hate it.
There was still a game to be played, technically. A tied one, at that. Seattle did nothing with their next drive, paving the way for Arizona to win it. Again they drove down the field, moving into field goal range with less than two minutes left. Seattle’s defense, which was phenomenal today, held one last time and forced Phil Dawson to come out and try and end it with his leg.
It was a 45-yard kick. A free throw. The first win of the season, the first win of Rosen’s career, was a simple swing of the leg away. And he pushed it right. Sometimes bad teams become self-fulfilling prophecies. Fine with it.
Seattle got the ball back one last time with 1:50 left. It was a game that couldn’t end soon enough, and thank God Wilson and Co obliged. Staying on brand, Seattle started their game-winning drive with a handoff. Then Lockett caught a pass for 9, Penny ran for 3, Baldwin for 6, then Penny for 0 before Wilson spiked it. I hate that they played for the 52-yard field goal there, but sometimes bad process leads to good results, and sometimes I’m just wrong about shit.
Janikowski was then wheeled onto the field like a giant sack of corn and proceeded to line up his kick. I was rooting for a win, of course, but I was also rooting for a swift conclusion to this gridiron nightmare. Sebastian delivered. His kick launched through the evening air, wiggling right, then left, keeping a low trajectory the whole way. Then the ball drifted back towards the center of the uprights, ripping between them and sending Seattle home with a life-support win.
~It was quite clear what the marching orders were for Seattle this week. After wearing a bad Dallas team down with a million three-yard runs, the Seahawks attempted to grind the Cardinals down the same way. The result was 171 yards on 34 carries, a healthy 5.0-per clip. Davis led the way with 101 yards and 2 TDs on 21 carries, while Penny chipped in 49 on 9.
I said this last week, and I’ll say it again: this is an approach that can work when you have a lead against a bad team. There is nothing about it that tells me they can beat a contender this way. The Seahawks are now averaging 4.8 yards per play, planting them firmly in the league’s bottom quadrant with a number less than half of what the game’s best offenses are producing. I want to believe that a paint-by-numbers run-centric approach can still work with this team, but I just don’t see it. I want to be wrong, but I also want the Seahawks to join the modern NFL.
~Russell Wilson was fine today. He completed a bunch of safe passes and missed a few tough ones. He stayed relatively calm in the pocket, and typically found an open man. He didn’t take any stupid sacks, and he even finally kept the ball on a read-option. The numbers were whelming: 19 of 26 (73.1%) for 172 yards (6.6 Y/A), with no TDs or turnovers. It was good enough to win today which, ultimately, is all that matters. Except Earl.
~Doug Baldwin didn’t blow anyone away in his return today but he had a few catches in key situations and his effect in terms of opening up the offense seemed evident. He finished with 5 catches for 41 yards on 7 targets, and I do imagine it’ll only get better from there. He is very important.
In his absence, Tyler Lockett has proven himself a capable lead receiver. That said, he seems better in a complimentary role and he produced today, turning 6 targets into 5 catches for 53 yards.
~The defense was excellent again. They’ve been forced to just be so dang good all season and they have, for the most part, come through. They weren’t spectacular (one turnover, one sack), but they were solid enough to give their offense the chance to win. They allowed just 263 yards, and kept the game close when the scoring was more soccer than it was football. Bradley McDougald was excellent again, and Bobby Wagner looked as ubiquitous and tough as he did in that awful 6-6 game a couple years ago*.
*Still one of the best individual defensive performances I’ve ever seen.
~Sebastian Janikowski went from goat to hero in just over an hour. After missing his first two FGs, he kept his head enough to hit his final two. The 52-yarder to win it is a terrifically difficult kick, especially with a 50-yard miss still ringing clearly in your mind. I’m as frustrated with the misses as anyone, but I gotta hand it to him for shaking those off and going from pariah to pope.
~After being decent on third down last week, the Seahawks were terrible today. 0-10, actually. I don’t know how many times a team has gone 0-10+ on 3rd down and won but Seattle somehow did that today. It’s a quirky aberration when you win, but if they hadn’t, this would be pretty tough to stomach. It’s pretty tough to stomach anyway. Perhaps the most frustrating part of it was how they missed so many of them. Twice on 3rd & long they ran toothless draws. Five other times (by my count), Seattle came up one yard short— often the result of routes being run just shy of the sticks. Infuriating.
I’m happy the Seahawks won. You only get so many wins in your life as an NFL fan and none of them are worth taking for granted. That said, I can honestly say I’ve never enjoyed a win less. I lost my hero today, and very little about what won this game seems transferrable against good teams. We’ll find out next week against the Rams, I suppose. Until then, onward and upward.
This article was fueled by a stiff pour of Oban 14 and a smooth-as-hell Zocalo from CAO.