After 13 games played over three months, all I knew about the NFC West champion Seahawks was their absence of an identity.
The searching-for-an identity issue frustrated me, because friends were often beginning conversations by asking for my thoughts on the team’s potential to return to the Super Bowl.
I’d offer a brief reply: “They’ve got as good a chance as anybody else,” hoping the discussion soon would turn to a topic more easily grasped. The origin of the cosmos, for instance.
A team capable of scoring 31 points in an upset road victory at New England should not be held, two weeks later, to five points at Tampa Bay. Who are these guys? What’s their deal?
And then the baffling season explained itself in one play last Thursday night, when Jon Ryan took a snap in punt formation deep in Seattle territory. The Hawks owned a 24-3 lead over Los Angeles with 5:22 remaining. There was no chance the Rams were going to make up a three-touchdown deficit.
Punt the ball, slog through a few minutes of garbage time, then thaw out in a warm locker room. There was nothing complicated about any of this.
Except Ryan didn’t punt. He took off for a first down and kept on running for a 26-yard gain, which would have been longer had Ryan not bobbled the ball. Afterward, Ryan wasn’t able to explain the cause of his unforced gaffe. He had been taken to the hospital, victim of a fumble-scrum collision that knocked him woozy.
The crazy sequence had nothing to do with the final score, and yet it epitomized the 2016 Seahawks. You’re certain they’ll punt, because there’s no way coach Pete Carroll wastes a trick play during the late stage of a blowout. And then they pull off a trick play that works beautifully, until it doesn’t.
Definition of a mixed-bag trick play: When the person key to the trick play ends up in the hospital.
Turns out the blow to Ryan’s head wasn’t the season-ending injury it appeared to be. His status for the Christmas Eve home finale against Arizona is day-to-day, much like the Seahawks.
One day there’s bickering on the sideline, sparks supplied by the spontaneous-combustion fury of Richard Sherman, the star cornerback who has appointed himself as a co-head coach. The next day, after Sherman and Carroll talk, everybody is back on the same page, whatever that is.
When Carroll was hired six years ago, he brought a long-term vision of how the Seahawks would be built: A defense predicated on pass-rushing speed at the edges and a secondary with the size to intimidate. An offense dedicated to ground control.
The formula has produced two NFC titles and one Super Bowl trophy, but for whatever reasons — Marshawn Lynch’s retirement? Russell Wilson’s injuries? Lines on both sides in perpetual flux? — the 2016 Seahawks are struggling to click.
Good luck deciphering their season stats. The defense has given up 272 first downs, the offense has accumulated 271. The defense has intercepted 11 passes and recovered five fumbles, the offense has thrown 12 interceptions and lost five fumbles.
With a minus-one in overall turnovers, a minus-two in quarterback sacks and a running game powered by the team-leading 469 rushing yards of Christine Michael — a roster cut picked up by Green Bay — it’s a wonder the Seahawks are heading to the playoffs.
But their record is 9-4-1, and with two very winnable games remaining (Cardinals at home; at the 49ers), it will be a surprise if they don’t finish 11-4-1.
A third Super Bowl appearance in four years won’t be a surprise, either. It likely would require beating Dallas on the road for the NFC championship, but that’s not an unreasonable scenario.
The Hawks’ roster is packed with veterans steeled for the playoffs. The Cowboys are, well, the Cowboys, dealing with a quarterback conundrum — keeping faith in rookie Dak Prescott, or putting the ball back in the hands of Tony Romo? — that has the story line of a soap opera.
But Dallas is down the road. The more immediate concern for the Seahawks is to rediscover who they are, and what they’re about.
I hope they’re not about trick-punt plays executed during the fourth quarter of 24-3 victories. The last one put the punter in the hospital.