Note: I haven’t been commenting much on the Seattle Seahawks so far this season. With the year ending injuries to key defensive stars Cliff Avril, Richard Sherman and Kam Chancellor, plus the problems with the offensive line and the running game, I have been, more or less, in “wait and see” mode as regards this […]Read the Rest →
We have been privileged here in Seattle over the last couple of years to be able to watch an incredible NFL football team do some absolutely incredible things. As part of that, within the last 365 days we have witnessed at CenturyLink Field two of the most remarkable NFC Championship games ever played. Last season’s title game against the 49ers, played exactly one year ago, was so taught, so tense and so dramatic that I never thought I would see its equal. And then, last Sunday, our Seahawks played the Green Bay Packers in this year’s NFC Championship game; and I find myself sitting here at my keyboard days after the game has concluded, still stunned by what we saw on the CenturyLink gridiron. The best word I can find to describe it is so overused that it may sound trite, but it is also entirely appropriate; and that word is “unbelievable.”
To me, what we saw the Seahawks do on Sunday against the Packers was unbelievable; and if you are a “Twelve” I imagine it is the same with you. It was unbelievable because what the Hawks did in this game defied all reasonable logic, expectation and explanation; not to mention some of the physical universe laws of time and motion. (And in saying that I exaggerate only a little) In pulling out this stunning, overtime, championship 28-22 victory over Green Bay on nearly the biggest of NFL stages, these Seahawks players not only stretched our credulity—they shattered it!
Initially, as the Hawks gave up turnover after turnover through the first half and on into the 2nd half, this game was unbelievable for all of the wrong reasons. Could that be our team making all of those errors? It was as if a bunch of imposters were out there, suited up in Seahawks uniforms and doing everything the Packers wanted them to do. By halftime Seattle had turned the ball over 4 times, was being shut out 16-0, and the Packers were dominating. The Seahawks finally established a glimmer of hope with about 5 minutes left in the 3rd quarter when Pete Carroll called for a fake field goal, which was perfectly executed by Seattle punter Jon Ryan (who also holds for field goals) and reserve tackle Gary Gilliam. On the play Ryan took the snap, held the ball to the ground for a second, then picked it up and busted out to his left as if he was going to run. The Green Bay defender to that side, A.J. Hawk, was forced to commit to stopping him, which allowed Gilliam to sneak behind the defender and catch a pass from Ryan for a touchdown.
It was a beautiful play, but the hope it instilled was short lived. When Russell Wilson threw his 4th interception of the game (all 4 coming on passes to Jermaine Kearse, 2 of which bounced right off his hands) with 5 minutes and 8 seconds left in the 4th quarter and Seattle trailing 19-7, it was a dagger to the Seahawks heart. Another interception? Now? Unbelievable!
Truth be told, all of our hearts were pierced at that point, because it was so unbelievable that everything in this game that could go wrong, was going wrong.
The emotional devastation surrounding that pick obscured for most “Twelves” what was an incredible mistake by Green Bay safety Morgan Burnett, the man who made the interception for the Packers. The ball had caromed off the hands of Seattle’s Jermaine Kearse at about the Packers 42 yard line and Burnett grabbed it at about the 38 and began running back the other way. In front of him were yards and yards of green field and a long return, possibly even a pick 6, were in the offing. Instead Burnett saw one of his teammates, Julius Peppers, motioning to him to go down and, untouched by any Hawks player, he promptly did at his own 43 yard line. Peppers and Burnett thought that with 5 minutes left in the game and a 12 point lead for their team, that interception had sealed up the NFC Championship for Green Bay. But, on this most unbelievable of days, they could not have been more wrong. Not wanting to risk an interception or a fumble and to run the clock, in the following series Packers head coach Mike McCarthy played conservative and had his team run the ball on 3 consecutive plays. On the first two the Seattle defense rose up and threw Packers running back Eddie Lacy for losses; and then held him for a minimal gain on the 3rd to force a Green Bay punt, and a bad one at that. With 3 minutes and 52 seconds left in the game Seattle had life—and the ball—at its own 31 yard line.
And then, as terrible as the Seahawks offense had been, Wilson and co. flicked the miracle switch, and suddenly became that hot; and it was unbelievable to watch. Marshawn Lynch was suddenly gashing the Packers with runs, and Wilson was suddenly hitting his receivers. The Hawks took the ball down field and in less than two minutes scored a touchdown on a short, Wilson zone-read run. With 2 minutes and 9 seconds left in the game it was now 19-14, and for us “Twelves” hope began to stir. We hadn’t fully realized it yet, but magic was afoot at the Clink.
On the kickoff after Wilson’s touchdown, Seattle kicker Steven Hauschka and the Hawks special team lined up for what the Packers knew would be an on-sides kick. With the Green Bay special “hands” team on the field, Hauschka executed a perfect kick, with his foot topping the ball into the turf directly in front of him, causing it to bounce high in the air towards the left side of the Green Bay line. As good as the kick was, the Packers were prepared to handle it, with wide receiver Jordy Nelson’s outstretched arms in perfect position to field the ball as it was descending. Before he could, however, Brandon Bostick, a player designated to block for Nelson to give him room to catch the ball, fatefully decided that he needed to make the play instead. Bostick then leaped into the air and tried to grasp the ball with his hands, but succeeded only in deflecting it off his helmet and right into the waiting arms of Seattle’s Chris Mathews, who instantly secured it and fell to the ground. Unbelievably, with almost no time passing since their last score, the Seahawks again had possession, just 50 yards away from the go-ahead touchdown.
The Hawks started their possession at mid field with 2 minutes and 7 seconds left in the game and only 1 time out left (having used 2 to stop the clock on the prior Packers possession). They didn’t even need it, however, because they used only 4 plays and 42 seconds to score the go-ahead TD, the last 24 yards coming when Marshawn Lynch slithered through a thin hole on the left side of the line and, looking more like Barry Sanders than Beast Mode, took it to the house with some brilliant broken field running. Unbelievable!
Now, having their first lead of the game at 20-19, and knowing that an extra point kick, though automatic, would leave the door open for the Packers to win with a field goal, Seattle went for the 2 point conversion after the TD. On that 2 point conversion attempt Wilson took the snap and rolled to his right to throw, came immediately under pressure, had to scramble deeper and further to his right, all the way back to the 20 yard line on the far right side of the field; and there, just before being sacked, planted his foot and got off a high, arcing throw all the way back to the left side of the field. On the other side of the field, way down by the goal line and waiting for the ball to descend, were Seattle tight end Luke Willson and, just to the right of him and a bit deeper in the end zone, Green Bay safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix; who was in good position to either intercept the ball or knock it down. As if subject to some magic spell, however, the ball had just enough on it to get past Clinton-Dix, thus allowing Willson to make the catch unimpeded and simply step into the end zone for the 2 point conversion, and a 3 point Hawks lead. Unbelievable!
As I was watching these miraculous events unfold on the TV screen before me, I knew that the Hawks had not seen the last of Green Bay’s marvelous quarterback Aaron Rodgers and his dynamic Packers playmakers. The Seahawks had scored too quickly, leaving 1 minute and 25 seconds on the clock, an eternity to a quarterback like Rodgers; and he immediately set about proving me correct. (I hate being right all the time.) The Packers started their drive at their 22 yard line with all 3 time outs available. On the first play Rodgers hit Jordy Nelson on a slant over the middle for 14 yards to the Packers 36. Running a hurry up offense, he then hit Randall Cobb over the middle for 16 more yards to the Seahawks 48. Unable to find a receiver on the next play, Rodgers scrambled out of the pocket and, torn calf muscle and all, gimped his way for 12 yards to the Seattle 36 and got out of bounds to stop the clock. With 35 seconds still on the clock, not even a minute had passed since the start of the drive, and the Packers were already within long field goal range.
Then the Hawks defense stiffened, as Rodgers missed on his next two throws. A short 5 yard, 3rd down completion to Jordy Nelson, who was tackled by the one armed Richard Sherman (The Seattle cornerback hyper-extended his elbow at the beginning of the 4th quarter and would not come out of the game, instead playing the whole period literally one armed to protect his injured elbow), left the Packers with a 4th down and 5 at the Seattle 31 yard line. With 19 seconds left in the game Green Bay field goal kicker Mason Crosby then entered the contest, nailed the 48 yard field goal attempt, his 5th of the day, and the Packers and Seahawks were tied at 22.
Unbelievably, this NFC Championship game would be decided in overtime!
At that point I, most of the people I was watching the game with, and the “Twelves” at the stadium and all over the Northwest, were close to some sort of apoplexy. The Seahawks had played so poorly all day, and then in the last 3 minutes and 52 seconds of regulation had done the impossible, completely turning the game around to take a 3 point lead; only to have Rodgers and the Packers come back and tie it up in the closing seconds. During the commercial break before the overtime period started I calmed myself down, and thought back to the game Seattle played against the Denver Broncos in week 3 earlier this season. In that game it was Denver that had played poorly for most of the game as the Seahawks took a big lead, only to have the Peyton Manning led Broncos come storming back to send the game to overtime. I remembered that the Seahawks had won the coin flip starting the overtime period in that game, and that Russell Wilson, Marshawn Lynch and the Hawks offense took their opening possession and drove the length of the field for a touchdown, never giving Manning and his crew even a chance to touch the ball. (In NFL overtime rules the first team to score a TD wins the game, whereas if the team to possess the ball first kicks only a field goal then the other team must be granted a possession as well.) I knew that the Seahawks needed to win this overtime coin toss as well and simply drive down the field and win it. No way could Aaron Rodgers even be allowed to touch the ball, let alone throw it.
So you can add to the list of unbelievable things that happened in this game the fact that Seattle won the coin toss to start the overtime period. After a poor kickoff return by Doug Baldwin the Hawks started their possession at their own 13 yard line and four plays later had a 3rd down and 6 at their 30 yard line. With the NFC Championship and the right to go to the Super Bowl for a second consecutive season in the balance, Russell Wilson brought his team to the line of scrimmage in a “trips right” formation (3 receivers split to the right, “trips” meaning “triple”) with Doug Baldwin in the slot between Jermaine Kearse on the inside and Ricardo Lockette on the outside. Wilson called the signals from the shotgun, and with the snap of the ball the receivers went into their pass routes. Baldwin, covered one on one by Packers cornerback Casey Hayward, took off straight up field, and after about 5 yards faked a break to the inside and then broke back to the outside, fading down field toward the right sideline as he went. The move gave Baldwin about a yard worth of separation from Hayward, which was more than enough for Russell Wilson to drop a gorgeous, rainbow pass right over Baldwin’s inside shoulder for a 35 yard gain to the Packers 35.
Baldwin’s reception gave the Seahawks a 1st down and set the stage for what would be the most unbelievable moment of this most unbelievable of games. During the break before the overtime period started Russell Wilson had commented to Seattle offensive coordinator Darrell Bevel that at some point in the overtime he would check off (change the called play) at the line of scrimmage and throw a touchdown pass to Jermaine Kearse to win the game. I have no way of knowing what Bevel thought of Wilson’s prediction, but, considering the day Wilson and Kearse had experienced to that point, he could be forgiven if he thought it was a stretch. (As noted earlier, all 4 of Wilson’s interceptions had come on throws to Kearse.) But…all of that was about to change.
This time when Wilson came to the line of scrimmage he found himself staring at a Packers “cover zero” defensive alignment. In “cover zero” both safeties are brought much closer to the line of scrimmage, usually linebacker depth, or closer. It is used in blitz situations or to help stop the run on obvious running plays. In such instances you can get an appreciation of what Marshawn Lynch means to the Seahawks. The Seattle running back had been killing the Packers with over 150 yards rushing to that point; and with 1st down at the Packers 35 being a clear “running down”, likely the Packers were gearing up to stop him. With that understood, the liability of “cover zero” is that it leaves the cornerbacks in one on one coverage against the pass receivers of the offense, and should they get beat they have no help from the safeties, as they simply aren’t there.
Seeing the Packers “cover zero”, Russell Wilson must have known that his prediction to Darrell Bevel was about to become reality. While calling the signals from the shotgun, he “checked off” (changed the play) to a pass play to Jermaine Kearse, who was split wide to the right side of the formation. Upon the snap of the ball Kearse took off up field, running a pattern known in football as a “skinny post”, a route that is almost vertical but angles slightly toward the center of the field as the receiver progresses up the field. Almost immediately Kearse succeeded in establishing inside position on Tramon Williams, the Packers defensive back covering him, as he raced up field; vital because to the inside, with the safeties gone, Williams had no help. All Wilson had to do was throw the ball to the inside and let Kearse go get it; which, in unleashing another perfect, spiraling deep ball to the goal line, is exactly what he did.
After the game Jermaine Kearse commented that he wished all of the passes thrown to him on this most unbelievable of days were as easy to catch as this one. As he was crossing the goal line, with Williams in tight coverage and literally draped over his back, the Seattle receiver simply reached up and plucked the ball from the sky. A moment later, clutching the ball to his chest, he and Williams tumbled into the end zone, and this NFC Championship game was over. Improbably, impossibly, and unbelievably…the Seahawks had defeated the Green Bay Packers 28-22 to advance to the Super Bowl for a second consecutive season.
With his redemption at hand, for Jermaine Kearse had struggled epically in this game prior to his game winning catch, the Seattle receiver leaped to his feet and let all of his pent up emotion and frustration out; taking the football and throwing it wildly into the stands as Seahawks players, coaches, ball boys and fans mobbed him outside the end zone. For both he and Russell Wilson, the moments immediately following this game were cathartic, with tears flowing freely from both men. In his interview with Fox sideline reporter Erin Andrews (You remember her don’t you?) almost immediately after the game Wilson struggled to put what had just happened into some kind of perspective. As with Richard Sherman the year before, Andrews got to Wilson before the raw emotion of the game had receded. Amidst his tears about all he could do was thank God for putting him in this position; and talk about what an honor it was to be playing for this team, and the mutually shared belief and trust they had in one another.
It was an emotional moment, not just for Wilson and Kearse, but for all Seahawks fans everywhere. “Twelves” in living rooms, bars and watering holes all over Seattle and likely the country, hugged and cried with total strangers as if they were the closest of family and friends. We were all sharing a feeling that emanates only from what is the highest essence of team sports or group activity. It is rare, occurring only when a group of teammates coalesce around a common purpose and goal and are willing to and do sacrifice their personal egos in favor of the overall group, its survival, its members and its purpose. In accomplishing this they become a true team; something more than the sum of its parts. When this occurs a special dynamic is brought into play that is not quantifiable by any standard measure, which is why what we saw with the Seahawks on Sunday is so special. It is also why, starting within minutes after the game was over, writers and fans have struggled so to find the words to describe what they saw. As the factor they are struggling over is not a material thing, but instead is a compounding effect of the dynamics of that nebulous thing called “life”, they, in effect, are trying to describe the indescribable and quantify the unquantifiable….and that is difficult to do.
My advice, for what it is worth, is to just enjoy the hell out of what you are seeing with this team, try not to have a heart attack while seeing it; and to simply call them what they are—“unbelievable!”
That’s what I intend to do!
Copyright © 2015
By Mark Arnold
All Rights Reserved
 A “post pattern” in football is a pass receiver’s route in which he advances up field for a few yards (10 or so) and then breaks toward the center of the field at an angle, so that he is running diagonally across the field. With a “skinny post” the angle is much shallower, so that the receiver is running nearly vertically up the field. “Skinny posts” are often used to exploit the seams in a defense between the cornerbacks and safeties. The pattern is probably called a “post pattern” in reference to the goal posts, which the receiver is heading toward as he runs.