Seahawks players packed up their belongings while exchanging hugs, autographs and jerseys with each other Sunday, one day after their season ended with a Divisional Round loss in Atlanta.
And while the disappointment from the previous day's loss still hung over the locker room, there was also a sense of optimism about what lies ahead for a franchise that just wrapped up its fifth straight season of advancing to at least the Divisional Round of the postseason.
"Our potential to be great is at an all-time high," said defensive end Cliff Avril. "Being able to experience the Super Bowl and being able to experience not making it there, we know what it takes to get there. With our core foundation of guys on defense and offense, the sky's the limit for us as long we continue to keep getting better."
To some players, there will be a period of reflection on the past season and how it ended, while for others, the time to be upset about what happened at the Georgia Dome had already passed.
"I don't look at it as a disappointment, I look at it as a step towards the right direction, a next step towards the final destination," quarterback Russell Wilson said. "I'm excited about what's coming up next, I'm excited about this organization, I'm excited about the 12s."
Prior to cleaning out their lockers, players had one final team meeting Sunday, with head coach Pete Carroll delivering a similar message to the one he gave after the game, which was that this team, for all it has accomplished, is still right in the middle of its window for success.
"(The message was) that this isn't the end," receiver Doug Baldwin said. "The season obviously ended yesterday, but this window of opportunity that we have didn't end yesterday. We have a lot of young guys on this team, this core is coming back, and we still have opportunities. All of us have to take it seriously in the offseason, making sure we're staying connected with each other, because we feed off of one another when we do that, and come back in the offseason ready to go."
Knowing the future is bright does not, however, take away the sting of getting as far as the Seahawks did only to fall short of the ultimate goal. Even if the window is still open, every missed chance at a championship hurts, especially for veterans who can fully appreciate how hard it is to stay on top in the NFL.
"This is my sixth season now, I'm getting older and realizing that this is not forever," Baldwin said. "These opportunities you get, they're few and far between. I've been blessed enough to be on a great team, gone to the Divisional Round five years in a row, that's special, not everybody gets an opportunity to do that. You've got to cherish these moments when you get them, so realizing we're done now, that it's going to all start over, it's more difficult realizing that later in my career.
"I think for the team in general, because we've been here so many times—and for the older guys, we all feel it now—it's like, all right, yeah, we've been successful in terms of getting ourselves in a position to compete, but it's so hard to do that. It's going to be difficult for fans and media to understand that how difficult that is, but for us in here, it's an overwhelming, unbelievable emotional part that goes into it to get to this point, and I think all of us felt it this time, just the gravity of not being able to finish."
Still, the Seahawks remain optimistic about their future, and for good reason, but that doesn't mean they don't still have work to do between now and the star to of the 2017 season. Yes, some of that has to do with personnel decisions made in free agency and the draft, but the Seahawks can also get better by making sure they are as connected to each other as possible.
"It comes down to the emotional part of it," Baldwin said. "Are you connected as you need to be to the guy next to you? That's a question that I'm going to ask my teammates this offseason and I hope they ask themselves, and not in a negative way, but just for us to reach that next level to go a step beyond. Because I know what it felt like when we won that Super Bowl. We were all so connected, we truly had a genuine appreciation and love for each other, and it was because we had never been there before. We knew the only way we were going to get there is if we did it together, so I'm hoping our guys realize we can't do it unless we do it together."
And even in an offseason marked by optimism, a new season also means inevitable turnover, which makes this day difficult because not every player knows for certain whether or not he will be back. The Seahawks are in unusually good shape in terms of having key players under contract into the future have signed several core players to extensions in recent years, but they do have some players heading into unrestricted free agency, including tight end Luke Willson.
Willson, who came to Seattle as a fifth-round pick in the 2013 draft, said he hopes to be back in Seattle next year, and got a little bit emotional talking about what his time as a Seahawk has meant to him.
"It seems like there's a shot I'll be back, which is what I'm hoping for, but you never know," he said. "… I've been doing football for a while, and you're here for four years, and this is all I know. It'd be very weird for me to leave and go somewhere else, especially with the bonds, obviously with the players, but even just the staff around here.
"I'm going into an unknown period. I wouldn't say I'm afraid—I'm thankful that I'm pretty sure I'll have a lot of opportunities, but again, I hope it's here, because this is really my family. I'm not just saying that. I love these guys. It'd be tough to leave."
Following their 36-20 season-ending loss to the Atlanta Falcons in the Divisional Round of the playoffs, the Seahawks cleaned out their lockers at Renton's Virginia Mason Athletic Center.