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Seahawks-Falcons flashback: The day fans clamored for Charlie Whitehurst

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Atlanta Falcons v Seattle Seahawks Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

Saturday afternoon, the Seattle Seahawks will be at the soon-to-be shuttered Georgia Dome, where the two-seed Atlanta Falcons aim to once again knock the Seahawks out in the NFC Divisional Round. It will be the sixth meeting between these teams since Pete Carroll was hired as Seattle head coach, and a seventh will happen next regular season back at CenturyLink Field.

All eyes are understandably focused on Saturday’s game, which represents the 14th postseason game under Carroll. It’s been a tremendous run that, quite frankly, has spoiled us. Five straight 10+ win seasons, four division titles, two Super Bowl appearances, and one Super Bowl win in the span of seven seasons is a level of success that surpasses every other era of Seahawks football ...

... but it certainly didn’t get off to the smoothest of starts. Perhaps the prime example of this is the very first matchup between Carroll’s Seahawks and the Falcons, on December 18th, 2010.

At 6-7, Seattle had just experienced a humiliating 40-21 mauling at Candlestick Park against the San Francisco 49ers. Matt Hasselbeck threw four interceptions, lost a fumble, and looked every bit the part of a faded QB who needed to be replaced. On one ghastly pick to Dashon Goldson, FOX analyst Brian Billick wasn’t sure if the throw was Hasselbeck being “stubborn or stupid.” Deon Butler broke his leg catching a garbage time touchdown, although Billick was hoping it was just a cramp. On the plus side, by kickoff of the Atlanta game, they were assured no worse than a tie for first place with the St. Louis Rams, who’d lost to Kansas City.

Meanwhile, Atlanta had rolled into Seattle on an impressive seven-game winning streak, an NFC-leading 11-2 record, the fifth-ranked offense by DVOA, powered by Matt Ryan, Roddy White (who would catch 115 passes that year), Tony Gonzalez, and Michael Turner, whose body composition at the time was 90% thighs.

Every major advanced statistic metric apart from special teams favored the Falcons, so the only crutch the Seahawks had was a 4-2 home record against a team playing its third consecutive road game. Of course, all of Seattle’s losses were by at least 15 points, so if they were going to lose, chances are it was going to be a rout.

The first half was surprisingly competitive. The Seahawks marched down the field on its opening drive and took a 7-0 lead off a 1-yard plunge by Lynch, but then didn’t record another 1st down until after halftime. Atlanta went into the break with a 17-10 lead after Ryan found Michael Jenkins, who zoomed past the extremely incapable backup DB Kennard Cox and rookie safety Kam Chancellor for a 24-yard score.

Down by just 7 against one of the best teams in the league despite another anemic offensive showing? Not too bad. All the offense needed to do was get out of its rut and an upset could be in the cards. Instead, we got a complete implosion that seemingly was the final nail in the coffin for a Seahawks legend.

Seattle’s first three offensive possessions in the 3rd quarter were as follows: Lost fumble for a TD, interception, interception. Atlanta literally doubled their 1st half point total in a gruesome nine-minute stretch, accumulating only 71 yards of offense in the process, assuring Seahawks fans of another lopsided defeat.

At this stage, with only 18:12 of game time remaining, Hasselbeck was 10/17 for 71 yards, with a trio of horrific turnovers against an otherwise slightly above-average defense. Through his last eleven quarters of play, Hasselbeck had committed an unsightly ten turnovers. Carroll had seen enough, and inserted Charlie Whitehurst to play out the remainder of the contest.

Whitehurst finished just 8/16 for 83 yards, a rushing touchdown, and a two-point conversion fade pass to Ben Obomanu to make the game’s final score 34-18 Atlanta. It was a statistically unimpressive showing, but when compared with a bad, rapidly deteriorating Hasselbeck, Whitehurst might as well have looked like Frank Reich leading Buffalo’s famous playoff comeback against Houston. He showed the mobility and zip on his passes that Hasselbeck no longer had.

The lasting memory I have from this game was the reaction when Charlie scored his garbage time touchdown. “Charlie! Charlie! Charlie!” emanated through the whole of Qwest Field (as it was then known). In hindsight, that was pretty sad. Not so much because Whitehurst ultimately proved to be a bad quarterback, but that the fanbase had had enough of the franchise quarterback that led the team to four straight NFC West titles and an NFC Championship. It was reminiscent of the 2007 season, when a plodding, broken down Shaun Alexander kept getting booed with each failed run in Seattle’s embarrassing primetime home loss to the then-winless New Orleans Saints. The decline of Hasselbeck, which followed the respective declines of Alexander and Walter Jones, effectively brought any remnants of the Mike Holmgren era to an end.

Despite Hasselbeck’s turnover binge, which brought into question whether or not the would-be free agent should cede his starting spot to the newly acquired Whitehurst, Carroll stuck with Matt.

“Matt has been our quarterback. He has been the guy that has given us a chance all throughout, and gives us our best chance to finish off right,” said Carroll at the time.

Whitehurst cost the Seahawks a 2011 3rd round pick, and they also traded their 2010 2nd round draft pick to the Chargers, dropping from pick 40 to 60 (which they would use to select Golden Tate).

"[Whitehurst] got a big future ahead of him," Carroll said. "We're hoping he'll be with us for a long time."

This plan obviously never panned out as Carroll or Schneider had hoped. Whitehurst did start earlier in the year for an injured Hasselbeck, and the 41-7 ass-kicking vs. the New York Giants is the worst home loss in franchise history. His high point as a Seahawk came in the regular season finale, again filling in for a hurt Hasselbeck, as he threw for 190 yards, rushed for 30 more, and threw an opening drive touchdown to Big Mike Williams en route to an NFC West-clinching 16-6 win over the St. Louis Rams. You know what happened the following week against the New Orleans Saints.

If you were to play the “what-if?” game (as I am right now), not winning against the Rams would’ve meant no Beastquake, a top-15 draft pick, and no nostalgia-stirring four-touchdown masterclass for Hasselbeck in his last home start. The final moments of Hasselbeck in a Seattle home uniform would’ve been him watching and hearing the fans who so loudly supported him enthusiastically cheer on the backup. His final snap as a Seahawk would’ve been a season-ending hip injury sustained on an uncontested rushing touchdown.

Six years and one month later, Seattle enters their next game vs. Atlanta as a team no longer going through a massive reconstruction with major questions at the quarterback position. They have one of the most talented rosters in the NFL, led by one of the best quarterbacks in the league, and they’ve transformed from one of the league’s worst teams into a perennial contender.

You can’t fully appreciate the way the team is now without first acknowledging how it all started. Six years and one month ago, the fans were chanting “CHARLIE! CHARLIE! CHARLIE!” as the team plunged to 6-8, while the Falcons enjoyed (then immediately wasted) the top seed in the NFC. Now, they’re one win in Atlanta and one Dallas loss away from filling up CenturyLink Field to watch the Seahawks play in the NFC Championship Game for the third time in four years.

“Carroll! Carroll! Carroll!”