The Seahawks were down, their chances seemed slim, the hole they dug themselves was too deep to overcome. But then came the furious comeback from a team that has built a reputation for having unusual resilience, and suddenly the Seahawks looked unstoppable and anything, no matter how unlikely it seemed early, was possible.
That was both the story of the Seahawks' 2015 season, and also the game that ended it, their divisional-round playoff loss at Carolina.
The Seahawks came into the 2015 season with a chance to become the first team in the free-agency era to play in three straight Super Bowls, but after losing their first two games and four of their first six, missing the playoffs was a more likely scenario than a trip to Super Bowl 50. Pro Bowl safety Kam Chancellor sat out the first two games of the season in a contract dispute, and just as was the case when the Seahawks won Super Bowl XLVIII, losing Super Bowl XLIX caused some unique challenges that carried over into the following season.
"We had to get through last year," Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said at the end of the regular season. "We had to get through the finish of the season—there was no question it had a big impact—and we did, we made it. It was, as we said when we first realized what we were into, that it was probably going to be different for everybody. Everybody's going to have to deal with it on their own, and we were going to try to be extraordinarily patient, and understanding and caring, as we worked our way through it. But it had an impact. There was a lot of stuff that happened in this offseason that had an impact. It's no different than what happened the year before when we won the whole thing… We had similar issues. Every season it's something. It could be personnel losses, coaches, players, quarterbacks leave, whatever. Things happen, you have to deal with it. That's just a microcosm of life. You have to deal with stuff and then you move ahead."
So yes, there were challenges, but as Carroll said, the Seahawks got through them, they found, as Carroll put it, "a marvelous chemistry" and they won five of their last six regular-season games to earn a wild-card berth in the playoffs, securing a fourth straight season with double-digit victories—a first in franchise history—and a fifth playoff appearance in six seasons under Carroll and general manager John Schneider.
Because of their slow start to the season, the Seahawks found themselves on the road in the postseason for the first time since 2012, but they didn't see that has a big issue, not after winning five straight road games to close out the season. In a wild-card game at Minnesota that was the third coldest game in NFL history, both offenses struggled, but the Seahawks made enough big plays late in all three phases of the game to take a fourth-quarter lead, then held on for an unlikely victory when the Vikings missed a short field goals at the end of regulation.
A week later in Carolina, however, the Seahawks' run of strong play on the road came to a shockingly abrupt halt. Panthers running back Jonathan Stewart opened the game with a 59-yard run, a big play aided by Earl Thomas losing his footing, the Panthers were in the end zone three plays later, and thanks to a Luke Kuechly pick-six on the ensuing Seahawks possession, Seattle was down 14-0 less than four minutes into the game. Had the Seahawks limited the damage to that, they might have have been OK, but the Panthers continued to move the ball on offense and take the ball away on defense, and led 31-0 before halftime.
The Seahawks would eventually right the ship and go on an impressive second-half run, scoring 24 unanswered points, but ultimately, just like their entire season, the game would end in disappointment despite an impressive comeback from an early deficit.
"We look at this game as kind of a microcosm of the season," Carroll said after that season-ending loss at Bank of America Stadium. "We struggled so much early in the year to get going, it took us a long time, then when we finally did, we caught fire and we got rolling. Everybody in here just feels like we just ran out of time. There wasn't quite enough time to get this thing done. I couldn't be more proud of the way everybody hung and fought, and not just for today, but how this team plays, how we've been all season long. The message was very clear about what they're all about, they proved it today. Unfortunately it was just a terrible start and we didn't have enough time to overcome it."
Yet as much as disappointed as the Seahawks were with the way their season ended, they head into the offseason full of optimism about what lies ahead.
"It was definitely a journey," quarterback Russell Wilson said. "It was a year that you battle and every year is going to be like that. It's one of those things that I thought we had a great year. We had an opportunity to do something really special. We came up just a little bit short. It's a little bit disappointing, but at the same time you look forward to the next opportunity. You smile about that. There's no way I can be upset because of the adversity that we faced and the overcomers that we have on our football team, the challenges that we were able to defeat. It's been a great year. Like I said to you guys last night in Charlotte, it was one of my most fun years because of the hard work that we put into it, the preparation and growth as a player and as a teammate. It's been a fun, fun journey. You use that as an acceleration, as a catalyst into the next year."
Unlike the past two seasons when the Seahawks had a shortened offseason and had to recover from the physical and emotional toll that a Super Bowl run can take on a team, the 2015 team feeling more like they did after the 2012 season that ended in the divisional round against Atlanta, a loss players said was a catalyst for their 2013 season.
"This season was one that we didn't quite capture all of the opportunities that were there," Carroll said. "We know that there's a lot of future, and there's a big upside for us. I think (Richard Sherman) said some things to that effect when he was interviewed (after the Carolina game), that this is a very young club. We have leadership, and big time players, and leadership from the quarterback position, which is so hard to find. The connection of what these guys are like on defense really gives us a hope as we go into this offseason that we're going to do something really special in the future, and continue to work at that. So more than you might think, everybody left here with the thought of 'let's have a great offseason, and let's get this thing cranked up and let's go.' They were already thinking that way. They're ready to turn the page and want to get going.
"That's why I go back to Atlanta, I think it feels more like that season. We're very disappointed about the outcome, but yet knowing that we have a chance to be really good. That's really valuable going into the offseason, as well as being healthy, is a great asset."
And the Seahawks have plenty of reason for optimism going forward despite an ending to the season that left something to be desired. As Sherman said after the loss at Carolina, "We've got a young core. I think people have been astounded by what we've been able to do in our young careers, but we're far from done. Guys are just entering their primes, and we're going to be special for a long time."
That young core includes the nucleus of a defense that became the first in the Super Bowl era to lead the NFL in scoring defense for four straight seasons, an accomplishment Carroll said he "couldn't be more proud of." Part of why Carroll is proud of that is because it is an accomplishment that has to do with more than just the defense. To lead the league in scoring defense year after year, the offense needs to do its part by converting on third down to stay on the field, and by not turning the ball over; and kicker Steven Hauschka, punter Jon Ryan and the coverage units need to do the things they have consistently been doing to win the field position battle.
That strong play in all three phases didn't just help the Seahawks win 10 games or help them put up impressive stats on both sides of the ball, it also has led to a level of consistency that makes the Seahawks incredibly hard to beat, even on their worst days. Dating back to a Week 9 loss to Dallas in 2011, the Seahawks have not lost a game by more than 10 points, and from Week 17 of the 2011 season until their Week 16 loss to St. Louis, the Seahawks went an NFL record 62 games having a lead at some point in the game, a streak that lasted 69 games including the postseason.
While the 2015 season was in a lot of ways more of the same for the defense—and that's a very good thing—the offense showed big growth in the second half of the season that bodes well for the future. Wilson, who had already done a lot of great things in his career, turned into one of the game's best pocket passers in the second half of the season. At one point Wilson went five straight games throwing three or more touchdowns without an interception, making him the first quarterback in league history to accomplish that feat, he threw 24 touchdowns with one interception over the final seven games of the season, and he finished the year with an NFL-best 110.1 passer rating. Wilson did all of that with All-Pro running back Marshawn Lynch unavailable for the final seven games, and with tight end Jimmy Graham, the team's biggest offseason acquisition, sidelined by a knee injury for the final five games.
If Wilson was the most impressive player on Seattle's offense down the stretch, then receiver Doug Baldwin was a very close second. Baldwin finished the year with 78 catches for 1,069 yards and a league-high 14 touchdowns, a total that was also a franchise record, but those numbers don't show just how dominant he was after Seattle's bye. Baldwin had 12 of his 14 touchdown catches in the second half of the season, including 10 touchdowns in a four game stretch from Week 12 to Week 15. Wilson and Baldwin's big seasons, along with the emergence of rookie Tyler Lockett give the Seahawks cause for optimism in 2016 and beyond.
Even with Lynch injured, the running game was still one of the league's best, thanks in large part to the play of undrafted rookie Thomas Rawls, who set a franchise rookie record with 209 rushing yards against San Francisco in Week 11, and who eclipsed 100 yards in four of his first six starts (Rawls left his seventh start with an ankle injury after gaining 44 yards on the opening possession). Rawls' 5.6 yard-per-carry average led the NFL among qualified rushers.
With Lynch indicating on Twitter his plans to retire, the Seahawks can go into 2016 knowing they can still run the ball because they were able to do so without Lynch for much of the season. Lynch was one of the most important players during the most successful era in franchise history not just for his production, but because he helped the team establish an identity. And there was a time when the idea of the Seahawks winning without Lynch seemed impossible, but as much as he will be missed, the Seahawks can feel good about moving forward because of how well they played in his absence late in the season.
From a disappointing start to an impressive finish to the apparent end of an era for one of the most beloved players in franchise history, the 2015 season was an eventful one, to say the least. It was a year that didn't go quite according to plan, a year that ended short of the ultimate goal, but also one the Seahawks can appreciate for what they overcame and for what they believe will come next.
"I definitely feel like we appreciate that, because I feel like if it was any other team, I don't think any other team would've gotten through what we went through," Wagner said. "But me personally, I feel like we left some things out there. I feel like we could've started that game better and I feel like it would've had a different outcome. But it gives us something to reach for, something to play for. Definitely adds a chip to our shoulder, and you know, we're not a team that needs a chip on our shoulder."
After traveling with the Seahawks all season, team photographer Rod Mar selected his favorite and most memorable photos from the 2015 season Eye on the Hawks photo essays.