Way before the Seahawks landed home at 3 a.m. with no more games to play, the debate was raging through the Pacific Northwest like its weekend wind storm.
Heck, it was roaring even before Seattle’s season-ending playoff loss at Dallas was over Saturday night.
Why in the name of Russell Wilson didn’t Seahawks play caller Brian Schottenheimer and ultimately head coach Pete Carroll have their record-setting quarterback throw the ball more down the field earlier in the game? Especially when the Cowboys’ defense was brick-walling 1,100-yard rusher Chris Carson into a Texas four-step of fruitless drives: run, run, pass, punt?
Wilson had thrown a team-record 35 touchdown passes this season. Then he hit on three deep throws, two to Tyler Lockett and one to Ed Dickson, to set up Seattle’s only scoring chances until two minutes remained in third quarter Saturday night in Arlington, Texas.
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During locker clean out day at team headquarters on Sunday, Wilson was asked if there was any part of him that wishes he got to throw it more in the 24-22 loss at Dallas.
“When you reflect back on it, we were throwing it pretty well in the game. I think we could have been doing that, some more,” Wilson said. “But also, you want to stay true to running the ball, too. ... this game was kind of similar to the Carolina game, I felt like a little bit. They did a pretty good job of stopping us on the run and in that game we had to throw the ball and make some plays.
“I think this game was kind of similar in that sense... But we could have been better. We could have been better on some of the runs and some of the things we were doing. That’s part of the game.”
That is absolutely part of it. Play calls look fantastic, as Schottenheimer’s did for almost three months, when players execute blocking their man out of the assigned holes, runners run hard through the designed lanes, linemen pass block to give quarterbacks time to throw and receivers run crisp routes then catch the ball.
In other words: execution wins.
Dallas’ defensive players executed far better than Seattle’s offensive players did over the totality of Saturday’s game.
Don’t forget the 14 points and 121 yards the Seahawks’ defense allowed Dallas in the fourth quarter, that finishing time upon which Carroll prides his system. Don’t forget Dak Prescott’s 16-yard run on a quarterback draw through the heart of Seattle’s out-of-place defense to the 1-yard line. And the two crushing and obvious pass-interference penalties, by linebacker K.J. Wright then nickel defensive back Justin Coleman, on third downs. Those extended the Cowboys’ 11-play drive and TD that made it a two-score game with two minutes left.
If none of those breakdowns and gifts occur, we may be talking about Wilson’s latest wondrous comeback win and a second-round playoff game for the Seahawks right now.
“We didn’t do our job,” defensive end Frank Clark said bluntly.
The offense didn’t do its, either. Thus, season over.
Seattle’s No. 1-ranked rushing offense (160 yards per game) gained just 73 against the Cowboys on 24 carries. That was the Seahawks’ second-lowest rushing total this season; they ran for 64 yards while mostly throwing it in the opening-game loss at Denver.
Carson and fellow running backs Rashaad Penny and Mike Davis had only 59 yards on 21 carries (2.8 yards per carry). Wilson gained the other 14 on scrambles and three read-option keepers around the ends. One was for touchdown that put the Seahawks ahead 14-10 with two minutes left in the third quarter.
At times, Dallas sold out to stop Carson’s inside runs, shooting gaps and scraping linebackers Leighton Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith hard into the line. Vander Esch and Smith had 17 tackles between them.
That devotion to the line of scrimmage to stop Seattle’s run left four and sometimes three Cowboys to cover the back two-thirds of the defense’s field. But instead of exploiting that space on early downs, Schottenheimer’s calls stayed true to how the Seahawks won 10 of its final 14 regular-season games to return to the playoffs for the sixth time in seven years. He ran it. Ran it on first downs and on second downs, not only to gain yards but to establish the run in the minds of Dallas’ defenders and thus slow their rush on Wilson.
As it was, the Cowboys swarmed Wilson from the Seahawks’ first possession anyway. They did it again on third down on the second drive, and again on the third. The Seahawks went run, run, harried pass, punt on the first drive; swing pass to Carson minus-8, run, scramble from pressure, punt on the second drive; then run, run, sack, punt on the third drive of the game.
That Cowboys’ pressure on Wilson early in the game rekindled Schottenheimer’s and Carroll’s season-long and justified fears in their offensive line’s inability to pass protect consistently without a run game established first. So they kept running it. And they kept punting it.
“We weren’t expecting to run the ball as bad as we did,” Carson said.
Because the runs were so uncharacteristically ineffective on early downs, the Seahawks were in third-and-13, third-and-6, third-and-7, third-and-17, third-and-20, and so on. No wonder they were 1-for-7 on third downs into the third quarter.
The lone conversion came at the end of the first half when Dallas let Mike Davis run 3 yards in the final seconds, sliding down to give Sebastian Janikowski time to try a 57-yard field goal. The 40-year-old kicker severely injured his hamstring kicking that as hard as he could and missed, wide.
For the game, Seattle was 2-for-13 (15 percent) on third downs. The offense finished with a season-low 11 first downs.
Carroll seized on that when asked why his offense kept choosing to run into a brick wall.
“This game didn’t go the way we had anticipated and most of our games have been different from this one,” Carroll said. “It was a different game for us to play and not being able to move the ball like we want to really is a product of the third down issues that we had. It just didn’t come out the way we had planned and so we had to adjust, do some things.”
But the Seahawks didn’t adjust.
That is, not until their final drive when they were in no-huddle, desperation mode down 24-14 with 2:08 left. Wilson winged it around AT&T Stadium like it was his personal playground. A 53-yard down-field heave to Tyler Lockett led to a 9-yard touchdown throw to J.D. McKissic on fourth down with 1:22 left. Wilson drove the Seahawks 75 yards in 46 seconds with no time outs.
Michael Dickson lofted the ensuing drop-kick onside kick way harder and farther than designed. Dallas’ Cole Beasley caught it to seal the end of Seattle’s season.
Wilson finished 18 of 27 passing for 233 yards and the touchdown. It was his 11th time in 17 games he threw it fewer than 30 times. No NFL full-time starter threw it less than Wilson did this season.
Carroll, late Saturday night in Arlington, Texas, stayed true to his belief that running and solid defense was the right strategy, even though the Cowboys were stopping them.
“You can start (rushing well) any time. What happened in the first quarter doesn’t mean it’s going to happen all day long. You can get started at any time,” Carroll said. “The crux of the matter was third down. You don’t get the third-down conversions you don’t get your next shot to call all your stuff. The game plan gets left in the bag a little bit, so that’s just how it always has gone.
“We just had a hard time on third down... You can’t tell how the game plan’s going to go.”
Of course, that’s a chicken-and-the-egg argument. The Seahawks didn’t convert enough third downs to run effectively—but they didn’t run effective enough on first and second downs to give themselves an opportunity to convert on third down.
When asked specifically whether the challenges of the running game made Wilson’s throwing down the field something the Seahawks should have done more of, Carroll said: “I don’t know. Yeah, we would have liked to. The protection was good on play-passes. He threw some strikes and… yeah.”
The debate can go on for the next eight months. The Seahawks don’t play their next real game until then.
“It was a special season, just with the growth of our guys and how young we were, and how much fun we had,” Wilson said. “We had a lot of fun.
“To wake up (Sunday) morning makes you a little bit sick. Just to wake up this morning and realize you don’t get to compete with your guys today.”