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Cigar Thoughts, Game 14: Bad calls, bad offense, bad vibes put an end to Seahawks’ playoff hopes

The Seattle Seahawks’ uncomfortable season continued with a beleaguered 20-10 loss to the Los Angeles Rams. At 5-9, they are all but officially out of the playoff hunt and face some big questions moving forward.

Seattle Seahawks v Los Angeles Rams Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images

***This has been an exciting year for Cigar Thoughts, even if the Seahawks’ season hasn’t exactly gone according to plan. One of the coolest developments is that now you can LISTEN to the articles if you prefer, including this one, right here:

Subscribe to the Cigar Thoughts podcast wherever you get them to ensure you get every article and episode, hosted by yours truly and featuring guests like Mina Kimes, Gregg Rosenthal, and Danny Kelly among others. Cheers!

Y’all know I’m not a conspiracy guy and rarely spend time in this column discussing perceptions that the NFL wants certain teams to win through lopsided officiating or disciplinary action. And I say that writing about a team on the wrong side of the biggest penalty discrepancy in the NFL over the last five years combined. See psychologically, slights against our favorite team are much stickier in our brains than slights against their opponents, and we’re much more likely to fixate on them. This makes us feel like our team is being targeted when in reality, it’s probably not nearly as one-sided as it feels. That being said— that opinion was put through a massive stress test in this one.

I know there’s a lot of frustration surrounding this game being moved from Sunday to Tuesday after it was revealed that the Rams had 25 positive tests vs the Seahawks’ two. In the days since, the Los Angeles cleared superstars Jalen Ramsey, Odell Beckham Jr, and Von Miller while Seattle’s positive test count grew, including two of their most important players in Tyler Lockett and DJ Reed. I’m all for the NFL wanting to make it easier for teams to be closer to full strength when they play but if that’s the ethos, why were the Broncos forced to play a game with no quarterbacks last season?

I dunno; I’m not sure what the best solution is but I am disappointed that after all this time, the NFL doesn’t either. Still, this is the highest level of football and these guys are all professionals so I resolved not to let the COVID situation be the main focus of this divisional matchup— there just cannot be any honest assessment of the game without acknowledging it.

Now, to the real reason we’re all here...

This game, like so many others in this season of unparalleled parity, carried with it substantial playoff implications for both teams. A win for the Rams gives them a coin flip’s chance at the NFC West while a loss all but ensures a playoffs spent on the road. For Seattle a win not only expands their slim postseason hopes, it lends legitimacy to them with a big upset on the road. A loss, however, effectively snuffs out the flame that’s been burning low and blue for months.

After a shifty return on the opening kick set them up on the plus side of their own 30, the Rams offense took the field and began to inch their way forward. A few medium-length runs and short completions resulted in a couple of first downs and likely more if two Rams penalties hadn’t called back a couple long completions. They’d eventually end up with a 3rd & 10 at Seattle’s 42 and, curiously enough, called a draw play that was swallowed whole by LJ Collier.

That forced the Rams to punt, but Alton Robinson ran into Johnny Hekker’s follow-through. The resultant five-yard penalty gave Matt Gay, the NFL’s most accurate kicker this season, a chance to try a 55-yard field goal and it was an opportunity he made the most of. The Rams only went 29 yards on their opening drive but they used nine plays and nearly seven minutes of game time to do it. It was another crucial special teams penalty for this team and just an overall bummer after a nice job of the Seahawks defense to get off the field. It also kinda felt like “yeah, that’s this team this season” which not only sucks, it would be far from the last time that feeling would pop up today.

Seattle got the ball back down 3-0 and immediately gave it to the star of last week’s win, Rashaad Penny, who darted up the middle for 11 yards and a quick first down. A slick completion to Gerald Everett for 6 and a Penny run for 2 set up a short 3rd down that Russell Wilson converted with a sharp out route to DK Metcalf for seven. The drive would stall after that but it was fun to see the Seahawks using some rhythm and no-huddle to keep things moving in the right direction early.

Things would remain stagnant for a long time after that. Both offenses curdled like spilt yogurt on a summer sidewalk, as the game remained scoreless until there were just 14 seconds left in the first half. During this dearth of scoring, we saw some great plays by both defenses. The Rams, consistent with their identity, were excellent up front, able to create pressure with four lineman and dropping seven guys into coverage against five receivers. The Seahawks, for their part, generated uncharacteristic pressure along the D-line and covered their asses off behind that.

They held the Rams offense in check pretty much all game but certainly so in the first half. After allowing a few first downs on LA’s next drive, Matthew Stafford was goaded into his only turnover of the day. It was all set up by immaculate coverage, as Seattle blanketed every receiver with the small exception of an opening to the inside of Cooper Kupp as he ran up the left hashmarks towards the end zone. I really think this was intentional and if it was, it’s just perfect defense.

While Kupp raced up the seam, Diggs drifted to his left giving the impression that the inside throw had a chance. And as soon as Stafford looked that way, Diggs started sprinting back to his right. He got where he was going to long before he needed to get there, grabbing a quick espresso while he waited for the pass to reach him. When it did, he calmly finished his doppio and picked it off for the fifth time this season.

Sadly, Seattle couldn’t do anything with the turnover and punted it back after three short downs. The defense continued their exceptionally weird habit of allowing the highest plays-to-points ratio in the history of the sport, as they somehow let the Rams bleed out 11 snaps before punting— courtesy of a Carlos Dunlap sack on 3rd down. The Seahawks would go three-and-out again— a sentence I feel like I’ve written 20 times this season— having gained a grand total of -6 yards in two drives since the interception. They came really close to busting out on one occasion but Jalen Ramsey gambled underneath on a slot fade to tip a pass that DK Metcalf would have otherwise hauled in for a long TD. Just an example of a great player trusting himself to make a great play.

The Rams then spent seven more plays sucking the life out of the game clock like poorly dressed vampires before Jordyn Brooks put an end to things. He expertly broke up a pass to Kupp on 4th & 2 to give his team one last chance to score before the break and for the first time all game, the offense would answer the call.

Stringing together first downs for the first time in over 20 minutes, the Seahawks began to move the ball with purpose and intention. Wilson finally found some rhythm, hitting Everett for 11, Penny for nine and Everett again for 34 on a deep ball intended for DK Metcalf. On this one, Metcalf got loose deep down the right sideline but Wilson got hit as he threw and the ball wobbled perilously over the middle. Fortunately, Gerald was their to outleap his former teammates and haul it in. The drive stalled there but the big completion got Seattle close enough for Jason Myers to bang home a field goal to send the teams to the locker rooms at 3-3.

Fortunately, the forcefield protecting both end zones was lifted during the break. The Seahawks got the ball to start the third quarter and immediately put their boots to the Rams’ faces. It started with Penny sprinting up the middle for seven yards and was followed by Penny charging through a defender for seven more and a first down. Then, after a 13-yard Penny sweep was called back for holding, Wilson immediately hit Metcalf for a quick nine against soft coverage that saw Seattle’s Herculean receiver obliterate the cornerback after the catch before tripping on the rubble.

Continuing their newfound mojo, Wilson hit Freddie Swain in the left flat and Swain weaved his way up the sideline for 25. That was followed by consecutive Deejay Dallas runs that totaled 13 yards and a swift completion to Everett. The next two plays only gained one yard but Wilson came through on 3rd down with a dart to the best athlete on the field for 12 more. You know, the things we love are often defined by their minutiae and for all of the cool stuff that DK Metcalf does, maybe my favorite is when his forward momentum is finally stopped and he just stands there while full-speed defenders bounce off of him like a vertical trampoline.

After that, it was a whole lot of Dallas, as Seattle’s energetic running back eventually crashed through the line from four yards out to give his squad the upper hand. On this possession, Seattle’s accomplished what they’ve spent all season watching their opponents do, as they went 75 yards on 11 plays to take a 10-3 lead. Sadly, that was the end of the joy in Whoville.

The Rams came out and counter-punched with a devastating combination of Sony Michel and Cooper Kupp, needing just six plays to go 86 yards, with Stafford hitting Kupp at the goal line as he squatted in front of Seattle’s dropping linebackers. It took SO much effort for Seattle to get a lead in this game and it was gone in a blink.

The Seahawks would get one more first down on their next drive via a couple Dallas runs before retreating to the shell of ineffectiveness they’ve spent so much of this season inside of. It would be the first of three straight three-and-outs for these two teams, and frankly it should have been four. Unfortunately, this is where the game stopped coming down to who the better team was.

After Carlos Dunlap somersaulted his way through a sack deep inside of Rams territory, and Darrell Henderson was stuffed on the ensuing draw, Los Angeles faced a 3rd & 11 in the shadow of their own goalposts. As Stafford took the snap, he looked Kupp’s way— and why shouldn’t he? Cooper has been the best receiver on the planet this season and there was every reason to get him the ball in this situation. But Kupp wasn’t available, so Stafford reluctantly peeled his eyes off his breakfast buddy and frantically searched the field before dumping it off to Kirkland Signature Cooper Kupp Ben Skowronek, who was tackled well short of the line to gain.

But alas, what is this? A penalty? Hm, the Rams must have been lined up illegally or something. Never mind all that, let’s just decline it and let them kick it away. If only. No, on this particular occasion it was deemed that fill-in RCB Bless Austin “held” Kupp on his release. Replay showed Austin expertly engaging with Kupp inside of his shoulders and then extending his arms to knock the receiver off his route— doing all of this well within the allotted five yards. Unfortunately— and I say this not just in regards to the Seahawks but for the sport as a whole— that was interpreted as a hold and the Rams were given an unwarranted first down. You literally can’t guard the route Kupp was trying to run any better than this kid did and he was assessed a spinal tap penalty as a result. Just a horrendous call. Man.

The Rams did what good teams do in that situation and immediately began capitalizing on their ill-gotten gains. A swing pass to Michel gained 24, followed by Van Jefferson for five, then Henderson for six, then Kupp for 11. The next play was the crescendo that ended this offensive display of stolen fireworks. In most games Matthew Stafford plays, he makes one or two throws that defy even the most suspended disbelief.

On this one, he dropped back and, under pressure, let a ball rip over the middle. At the moment he started his throwing motion, Cooper Kupp had just passed Bobby Wagner in zone coverage along the right hashes. Quandre Diggs awaited him over the top, sitting inside of the route with his eyes keyed on the quarterback. If you froze the frame on the SkyCam replay as he lets go of the ball, all you can see is disaster for LA— with an incompletion the best remaining option. Instead, Stafford’s spiral whistled over the middle and Kupp snapped his route to the inside accordingly. There was no margin for error on this throw but it didn’t matter, as Kupp soared in front of the safeties to snag the pass as it screamed over his head and got down in time to squeeze into the end zone. It was a remarkable play by the best QB-WR combo in the NFL this season and had a crippling effect on the Seahawks.

Seattle used a real pass interference penalty against LA to get a first down on their next drive but stalled out after that and punted it back. Once again they had a chance to hit Metcalf for a monster play as he vaporized Ramsey on a go route down the left side. With more distance between him and the game’s best cornerback than any receiver ever gets, Wilson was presented his best opportunity of the evening. Instead of capitalizing on it, however, he floated the pass woefully short, causing Metcalf to stop and Ramsey to close the distance between them and bat it away. As bad a missed opportunity from Russ as I can remember. Sigh.

Seattle’s defense, backed into a corner yet again, held firm, getting a three and out thanks to another Dunlap sack. This gave Wilson and the offense one last chance to tie the game up or, if Pete Carroll was feeling especially saucy, the lead.

The defense couldn’t have put them in a much better position, as Hekker’s punt was fair-caught at Seattle’s 46 yard line. With five and a half minutes left, I think everyone knew this would be Seattle’s last best chance. Penny started the drive with a four-yard jaunt up the middle, chasing it with a five-yarder to make it 3rd & 1. This brought us to the highest-leverage junction of the game and, perhaps the season.

If there was going to be any magic this year— just one single spark, this would be the time. And even though that mystical drug that this team always seems to take when it matters has been in short supply this season, I really thought we might see it in this moment. The orchestral momentum was building for the Seahawks to call upon the true nature of their franchise: an undeniable combination of grit and focus when the stakes are highest. Now was, finally, their time.

Instead of sprinting headlong into glory, however, the ‘Hawks slipped in some dog shit and broke their tailbone, reaching painfully into their pocket to retrieve a cell phone with zero bars. With everything hanging in the balance on that 3rd & barely 1, Seattle did the following:

*False start
*Draw play for no gain
*The inexplicable use of an infinitely precious timeout, just to draw up a...
*Broken play
*Personal foul, giving the Rams the ball in scoring position

Now, the overbearing storyline of this game will be what the officials deemed a clean play on that decisive 4th & 6 and make no mistake, it was one of the worst calls the league will have to answer for all season. On that play, Wilson dropped back and found no one open. Flushed to his left and about to get sacked, he lobbed a ball down the left side towards a streaking Deejay Dallas. Given the angle and the pressure, Wilson was unable to lead his receiver and, as a result, Dallas stopped his route as linebacker Ernest Jones crashed into him. We’ve seen versions of this play a thousand times and a thousand times it’s been called pass interference. As Dallas reached back for the ball, Jones chopped his arms down while the ball was still at least a yard away, and did so without looking back or establishing position. It was such a uniquely shocking officiating blunder that the normally collected Dallas booted the ball in disbelief.

That, of course, forced the official that just abstained from his previous duties to fulfill this one, and he flagged Dallas for unsportsmanlike conduct. The sheer lopsidedness of two egregiously bad calls in extremely high-leverage situations would be hilarious if it wasn’t so tragic. A criminal dereliction of duty, and I say that as someone with a profound level of patience and understanding for referees.

And look, the Seahawks weren’t going to make the playoffs this year anyway but to yank them around so the Rams could clear protocol and then hit them with not one but two catastrophic miscarriages of justice is downright demeaning. Anyway...

That confluence of events put the Rams into position to kick a game-sealing field goal with two minutes left and after completing enough short passes to take a shot at the end zone, Russell Wilson threw an interception to Taylor Rapp. It was the most fitting punctuation to one of the worst games we’ve seen from Wilson and extinguished their playoff hopes for good.

SMOKE RINGS

~It took 10 years, but Russell Wilson will finally play his first game sans playoff implications. And for as incredible as that statement is, make no mistake— he was awful tonight. I wish there was another way to put it but I can’t think of one. He held the ball forever, never threw anyone open, took drive-killing sacks, and dramatically underthrew a wide open DK Metcalf on a monumental 3rd down pass in the 4th quarter. He has been the biggest reason for Seattle’s success for at least seven years now but he was very bad today.

Wilson dropped back 34 times in this one, completing just 17 of 31 passes for only 156 yards, no TDs, and an interception while losing 22 yards on three sacks. That makes for 134 net yards on those 34 plays— an unconscionable return on investment. He’s looked really, really good during the two games before this but they needed him to be much better than he was tonight. Hell, they didn’t even need him to be that good cuz the defense probably played their best game of the season. He just had to not suck so hard.

And herein lies the biggest of the myriad problems with a season like this. It’s easy to look at tonight’s game, even though it was played without arguably his best receiver, and wonder if Wilson is the right guy to move forward with. Shit, you can even zoom out a couple of months and make the same case.

The level of import that every NFL game carries, and the outsized reaction to each, tends to give people a very short memory. There are a lot of Seahawks fans ready to move on from Russ because of what they saw tonight, or since his return from the IR, but while those feelings are very genuine in the moment— hell, I feel ‘em too— they should absolutely not be acted upon from an organizational standpoint.

See the thing is, if you keep zooming out, Russell Wilson was the highest rated passer in the NFL this season prior to his injury. The Seahawks were top 10 in points per drive, Tyler Lockett was competing for the league lead in receiving yards, and DK Metcalf was scoring every time you blinked. Any inkling to move on from the most important player in franchise history in the immediate aftermath of a traumatic but short-term injury to his throwing hand is woefully misguided.

This is a lost season, he is not a lost player. Still, I really wish he didn’t suck so goddamn hard today.

~The running game, while not particularly explosive, wasn’t bad. Rashaad Penny got the start and looked to build on the considerable momentum from his performance last week. He got off to a great start on the opening drive but he slowed down a bit as the game wore on. Sounds like he was dealing with some cramping.

Meanwhile Deejay Dallas brought a bit of zing, scoring Seattle’s only touchdown and moving the pile forward on a couple of occasions to help keep drives alive. By the time it was all over, the two had combined for 80 yards and a score on 19 carries and five catches for 16 more. Dallas was a bit more effective, gaining 52 yards and a TD on 11 touches while Penny gained 44 on 13.

~With Tyler Lockett out, the need for excellence from (and a focus on) DK Metcalf became paramount. As I’ve said before, my single favorite matchup in the entire NFL is when Metcalf and Jalen Ramsey square off and while DK got the best of Jalen earlier this season, it was Ramsey’s team that left victorious. And even with extra attention from one of the best defenses in the NFL, Metcalf delivered.

The box score won’t tell the story of how DK exposed Jalen four times because Russ missed him for long touchdowns on two of them and Ramsey got flagged for PI on the other two. It will show a team-high six catches for 52 yards and while not all of that came against Ramsey (who is, I truly believe, the best corner in the world), his stat line belies the true genius of his performance. We were so close to seeing an absolutely monstrous game from DK but frankly his QB just missed some chances. That now makes six consecutive games without a score or more than 60 yards for Metcalf— a disturbing waste of his talents but not one I’m choosing to read into much, given the overall brokenness of this offense against decent defenses. I guess my point is, even if he cost you your fantasy matchup, DK played like a champion today.

~Gerald Everett got the opportunity to play his former team and he made the most of it. Pacing his squad with 60 receiving yards on four catches, he came up with some big receptions to jump-start the offense and bailed out Wilson on the hit-induced wobbler. Nice to see one of my favorite players on this team have a nice game against his old mates.

~At the outset of the game, FOX displayed Seattle’s defensive ranks as a team and it is absolutely bananas: 22nd against the run, last against the pass, last overall, and 5th in points allowed. I’m as impressed by this defense’s performance as anyone, but nothing about that screams sustainability, haha. Still, there they were again today, giving up a million first downs while guarding the end zone like Area 51.

They only allowed 20 points to an explosive Rams offense and honestly, it very easily could have been half that. Much has been said already about the two horrific officiating decisions late but without them, the Rams definitely don’t get their second touchdown and certainly don’t get their second field goal. The only thing I hate more than bad officiating is complaining about officiating but even I can’t look past the calamitous performance by the refs.

~Jordyn Brooks played his motherfucking ass off tonight. Leading the team with 11 tackles, he showed incredible range and tenacity in flying to ball carriers and even made two huge plays in the passing game. We’ve long known that Brooks is becoming an elite tackler, and you can see his instincts sharpening every week. The one knock against him has been coverage and while there’s no doubt he’s struggled at times, it’s usually when he— a 240-lb linebacker— is asked to carry a receiver on a long-developing route. Today, however, he sniffed out an otherwise beautifully set-up screen to Sony Michel in the first quarter and collapsed Cooper Kupp at the catch-point on a 4th down in the second. A great game from the future leader of this defense.

~Carlos Dunlap, who was a major catalyst for Seattle’s defensive turnaround last season, came into this game having been mostly invisible this year. With just 21 tackles and 1.5 sacks, Dunlap’s 2021 has been something of a microcosm for this team’s performance vs expectations. That all changed tonight, as he tormented a right tackle making his first career start en route to three sacks. He was a massively disruptive force and was one of the biggest reasons this team had a chance to win so late into the game.

Darrell Taylor is really good. The stat sheet only shows three tackles but he was flying around everywhere and consistently displays the best jump off the ball of any player on this team.

~Seattle was forced to play this game with a lot of backups in the secondary. In the absence of Jamal Adams, DJ Reed, and Tre Brown, even more onus was put on Quandre Diggs than normal— and did he ever deliver. Diggs, who played with Matthew Stafford in Detroit, picked him off at the goal line in the endzone, baiting him into a throw up the left seam and covering a tremendous amount of ground while the ball was in the air to corral the interception. On top of that, he recorded seven tackles while providing his usual vacuum seal across the top of the defense.

Ryan Neal and Sidney Jones were excellent today, which is super encouraging. They were good in coverage and great at tackling. These are young, inexpensive players that looked very much like they belong on an NFL field.

With Neal, we’ve seen how much better the team was with him on the field as the third safety and he’s been nothing short of awesome since Adams went down. As for Jones, he’s looking like the spidery cover guy that Seattle football fans saw keep receivers in his web at the University of Washington. You cannot have too much secondary depth in the modern NFL and these guys, along with Adams, Reed, Brown, and hopefully Diggs, give the Seahawks a very bright future with regards to the back end of their defense.

Bless Austin was forced into action tonight and while much will be made about the three penalties he “committed”, that sells short his actual contribution. As has been discussed, his technique was flawless on the Cooper Kupp call and he covered pretty well overall. He might be at fault for a long completion to Kupp on 3rd & 17, since it was his side of the field, but zone schemes make that tough to decipher. Point is, most of the sentences that mention him today will carry a negative connotation and I just don’t think that’s an accurate representation of his performance.

~Absolutely incredible how bad this offense has been at 3rd downs this year. I mean they haven’t been great at them for years now but this season has plumbed new depths. In fact, the last time the Seahawks offense was better than 15th in conversion rate was 2015 and after going 3-11 tonight, they now rank 29th in the NFL. It’s just so frustrating to see an offense with such a good quarterback and exceptional weapons constantly find themselves with an average to-go distance well above the league-wide mean. You can’t have all that and be this bad for this long without bad process and it sucks to see that span offensive schemes.

Look, if we’re brave enough to be honest with ourselves, we’ve known for a long time that this season wasn’t it. There was no spark, no juice... none of the irreverent, goofy, never-say-die vibes that have sustained this team for so many improbable years on end. You guys know by now that I’m always honest with you and what’s been often deemed as unrelenting optimism from behind my keyboard has always been totally authentic. But so are the frustrations.

I’ve been hard on this team in this column and on the podcast a fair amount this season but it’s only because, for the first time in a decade, my honest assessment is that this team is deeply flawed and magical performances can only obscure that for so long. Ultimately, the NFL is too fast a learning organism and in a league where misdirection trumps intention, the Seahawks brand of football is falling short.

It sucks. I want to write this year off as an aberration but I simply can’t do that in good faith. This season meant too much to the direction of the franchise. The team has lived off the spice for a long time— that unique combination of determination and enthusiasm that has acted as an antidote to questionable process. But it seems the NFL eventually mutated to a point that that elixir is no longer effective.

Incredibly, the Seahawks still have three games to play. I know I told y’all like a month ago that the rest of the season was more about asset and systems analysis than it was about competing for a championship but that’s officially official now and I don’t like it.

At the core of it all, I just want this team to be in the best position to win championships and I’ve seen them slide further and further away from the highest tier of the NFL for years now. I know that change at the top means a heightened chance of failure but I also believe it represents a higher chance at the type of success we’ve craved since 2013. And that’s a trade I’ll make every time.

Anyhow, the Seahawks are 5-9. That’s really bad. They’re going to finish this season in the depths of their conference without even the comfort of an early draft pick to warm them. They are in the cold valley now. They don’t have to stay here long, but enormous decisions await. For the first time in a dozen years, the future is uncertain in Seattle. This team will press ever onward, here’s to it being upwards as well.

Tonight I lit up an Edicion Especial from La Aroma de Cuba— a fun little smoke that was a touch sharper than I expected. Still, a great stick and a coincidentally perfect match for the Alter Ego from Doc Swinson’s that I uncorked as well. Doc Swinson’s is from up here in Whatcom County and their shit is fuckin’ great. The Alter Ego has plenty of heat so it was nice to have a stogie that could keep up.

This is the 3rd year of our incredible partnership with Seattle Cigar Concierge. They have the plug on some of the most insane stogies on the market and they’re offering them to Cigar Thoughts readers for 20% off. These are extremely special sticks, and among the most enjoyable I’ve ever smoked. To get the hook-up, just email SeattleCigarConcierge@gmail.com. They are carrying over 70 cigar brands with many rare releases, including Davidoff, Opus X, and Padron. You can also hit them up on Twitter: @SeattleCigars. Just be sure to mention that you’re a Cigar Thoughts reader. Many of you have taken advantage of this incredible opportunity and for those who have always wondered what elite cigars are like, this is the best chance you’ll get to step into that world.

The 2021 season of Cigar Thoughts is also proud to be sponsored by Fairhaven Floors and Brandon Nelson Partners in Bellingham, WA.