Players were frustrated, coaches were shaking their heads, and fans were sulking in front of their televisions. Not everyone expected the Seahawks to win, but everyone expected them to be competitive.
Everything that could've gone wrong in the Seahawks' Divisional Round matchup with the Panthers was going wrong though, and it all began on the very first play.
The run defense was leaving gaping holes. Russell Wilson was throwing picks. The offensive line was leaking like a sieve. Special teams were under-delivering. Everything was going wrong. All of it. On the other side of the ball, the Panthers were firing on all cylinders. Carolina benefited from a quick start -- and showed no signs of stepping off the gas pedal. The game was getting out of hand quickly, and all fans could hope for at this point was a respectable effort in the second half.
Still, it was 31-0.
In many ways, the first half of the Carolina divisional game was representative of the Seahawks' season. After the tragedy of Super Bowl 49, most fans expected the team to rebound in victorious fashion and march on to a dominating Super Bowl win in Santa Clara. However, no one had any clue about the level of adversity the Seahawks would encounter in the 2015 season, and after looking like one of the hottest teams in the second half of the season, Seattle faltered badly in Carolina early on.
Throughout the first half of the year, Seattle suffered heartbreaking losses, saw horrific injuries, went through controversies, accusations. You name it, this team endured it. These players watched one of their best friends in Ricardo Lockette almost die on the football field. Football is just a sport - but the bond these players share goes much further than football, and it has truly created a brotherhood. You heard the team talk about it many times. It's one thing to encounter these struggles, but it's another thing to endure them. And they don't just encounter these struggles alone - they endure them together. They fight for each other. They lean on each other. And they win for each other.
One of the most powerful qualities that this brotherhood (and team) possesses is the ability to turn circumstances around when everything appears lost. You can never count Seattle out. Their ability to rally around each other, diagnose problem issues, and push each other to succeed is fairly unique in pro sports, as evidenced by their no-blowout streak going back years.
The second half of the Carolina game was a different story than the first. The Seahawks fought for each other. They played for each other. They leaned on each other. They protected each other. Coming out of halftime, the Hawks' offense started clicking. The offensive line held up, Wilson threw dimes, receivers made toe-tapping catches, the defense was stiff, and Cam Newton was melting under the pressure.
Despite the adversity faced in the first half of the season, and the first half of that game, the Seahawks eventually found their identity in both. That game was truly a tale of two halves - and representative of the entire Seahawks' season as a whole. The offense was explosive despite missing many playmakers, the defense tightened up, and Russell Wilson again proved why he's one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL.
After the loss, Pete Carroll expanded on the team's early struggles:
"We look at this game as a microcosm of the season. We struggled so much early in the season to get going, and it took us a long time. When we finally did, we caught fire and got rolling. Everyone in here just feels like we ran out of time."
Now, after a disappointingly short end to the 2015 campaign, the Seahawks find themselves reloading. Reloading for another run, another chance, and another opportunity to prove the doubters wrong. The chip on their shoulder seems to be back.
Furthermore, the team finds themselves in a significantly more focused state heading towards the season. There are no nerve-wracking and divisive Russell Wilson negotiations, Marshawn Lynch doesn’t want a contract modification, Kam Chancellor won’t be holding out, and there’s no Super Bowl interception hanging over their heads and permeating the building. They don't need a come-to-Jesus retreat in Hawaii. They can just get back to work.
The immense psychological hurdles the Seahawks faced going into 2015 are mostly gone. For the first time in two years, Seattle heads into the season under the radar, relatively.
Also important is the fact that this is Russell Wilson’s offense now, and that represents a major shift over the last couple of years. Any claims against his abilities and leadership have now been silenced. A fully healthy Thomas Rawls, another year of explosive development from Tyler Lockett, and a rapidly developing franchise quarterback will give the Seattle offense a chance to make another big jump forward, even with major question marks on the offensive line.
Bottom line, even after staying relatively quiet in free agency, the Seahawks will continue to be one of the most intimidating teams in the league in 2016, and will enter the year with a relatively clean slate, psychologically. In 2016, these brothers will enter the season with their playmakers prepared and able, ready to reach new heights. Watch out.