After the Seahawks beat the Cleveland Browns for a fifth straight victory, one that clinched another playoff berth, Pete Carroll talked about the "marvelous chemistry" his team had found to help turn the season around. Carroll also noted that it can be a little frustrated waiting for a team to hit its stride and play up to its potential.
When it comes to identifying the difference between a mediocre football season and a great one, sometimes it's something far more subtle that talent or even coaching. When it comes to maximizing the production of a group of 53 players, plus a 10-man practice squad, something as seemingly simple, yet maddeningly hard to capture as chemistry can make all the difference in the world.
"There's a lot of stuff that goes into that, a lot of different people, a lot of different feelings and leadership on the team, the leadership by the coaches," Carroll said. "A lot of things have to come together and get right. You have to get rid of the problems and the issues. People are trying to achieve. Everybody's working hard, everybody wants to do well. Nobody's trying to hold back or anything. It has to find a balance and there's a harmony to it that's finally tuned. It's like tuning in on the radio dial. You've got to get it right. It's a big challenge. It's what everybody's seeking as they go through these seasons. You can see it. Look what happened to Kansas City, look how they've turned it around and got going, and put together a great year and a great run. It finally hits, and you try to hold on to it as long as you can."
It might seem like a team that finished last season as strongly as the Seahawks did, winning six in a row to close out the regular season, then two more in the playoffs to get back to the Super Bowl, should be able to simply pick up where it left off. After all, the head coach leading the team's messaging is the same, as are most of the team's core players and leaders. But a similar roster and coaching staff doesn't insure a team will begin a season with the same chemistry it had to end the previous one.
Sometimes it's roster turnover, sometimes it's changes in the lives of players, ranging from new contracts to family situations, and other times it's simply properly dealing with the successes and failures of the previous season, but regardless of the reason behind it, every new season brings a new challenge for a team
"The challenge is that every year you're going to have a different identity, every year, from the success or how bad you played the year before, you've got to overcome some different things through the summer time and things like that," said defensive end Cliff Avril. "Sometimes it takes time. Even though we have the majority of the same guys for the last few years, everybody's not feeling the same. There's different things going on, different things in people's lives, things like that. There's a lot that plays into it, but fortunately the last few years we've been able to somehow find our identity at either the beginning, middle or end of the season, but we've been able to finish strong."
The Seahawks' ability to capture that "marvelous chemistry" and so dramatically turn things around is a reminder of just how fine the line can be in the NFL between losing five close games on the way to a 4-5 start and looking again like one of the best teams in the league. Early in the season when the Seahawks were losing more often than they were winning, quarterback Russell Wilson kept saying his team was really close to being where it needed to be. That might have sounded overly optimistic at the time, but it turns out Wilson was right. The Seahawks made a couple of personnel changes and tweaked a few things here and there with the offense, but for the most part they didn't dramatically overhaul anything as much as they just evolved and grew together as a team.
"I felt like each game it got better," middle linebacker Bobby Wagner said. "I can't tell a pinpoint time where I felt like (the chemistry) was great, but I definitely feel like over these last couple games we've really been clicking. Offense, defense, special teams, I feel like each game we're getting better, and when we don't think we can top what we did last week, we top it. So I think us just growing each week is going to be good for the playoffs."
As for how a team can turn things around midseason, the cause for improvement can be as elusive as identifying the problem was in the first place. Sometimes it's obvious right away, such as last season when a confrontation in a walkthrough practice—sparked by Earl Thomas and his opinions on sunflower seeds at practice, of all things—led to meeting between Carroll some of the team's leaders that helped the Seahawks find a level of trust that hadn't been there up to that point. Other times, the cause for the turn is only evident well after the fact.
"Sometimes you have to look back and try to figure it out and sometimes it's very defined," Carroll said. "It was very defined the last couple of years. I think coaches would tell you different things about that, but there's a sense. Sometimes it's an incidence, a game, it's a challenge, something you overcome or something you didn't overcome. It could come in all different shapes and sizes and forms and all that. Hopefully you can turn it to the positive and turn it to the benefit of everybody."
Few players have a better feel for the mental state of the Seahawks than Thomas—one game into last year's season-changing six-game winning streak, Thomas said, "Don't be surprised, man. I don't want to start talking, but be ready, bro, we're going to shock you. We're going to shock you."—and just as Thomas admitted things weren't quite right with the team early in the season, he now sees things going in the right direction.
"When you're talking about chemistry, I just feel like that connection is so real," Thomas said. "Early on in the season, it was in bits and pieces of position groups, but everybody didn't have it. Just to see everybody generate that has been powerful to see.
"Every year, you go through adversity. It's going to happen differently, but just the opportunity to still be in it—all you want to do is keep giving yourself a chance and see what happens—I'm just excited that everybody's connected right now, everybody's clicking, everybody's having fun, everybody's heart is in it, and that's why we're getting these results that we want."
In a perfect world, the Seahawks would have found this chemistry sooner and still be in contention for the NFC West or perhaps a first-round bye, but that's not always how things work in the NFL. Instead, they'll go on the road still feeling like everything is still there for the taking now that they have found that elusive missing ingredient.
"This whole season," Thomas said, "has led us to where we're at right now."