Whether you're talking about a single play, a game or a season, Seahawks coach Pete Carroll will always come back to the importance of finishing. It's common to hear Carroll or his players say things like, "It's not how you start, it's how you finish," or preach the importance of "doing it right, longer than your opponent."
And as the Seahawks kick off the second half of their season with a game against the Arizona Cardinals Sunday night, they do so knowing that all of that talk about finishing has been backed up by their on-field results in recent years. Going back to the 2011 season, the Seahawks have a good, but not overly impressive 18-14 record in the first halves of seasons, and are 25-7 in second halves. Their Super Bowl-winning 2013 season is the only one in which the Seahawks haven't been better in the second half, but that has more to do with how good they were all year than it does a lack of finishing. Those second-half surges include the five-game winning streak in 2012 that propelled the Seahawks to a playoff berth and saw them win three straight by a margin of 150-30, and a six-game winning streak to win the NFC West and earn the NFC's No. 1 seed last season.
"I think it goes to our philosophy of being able to finish, of being able to get the season going the right way at the right time," middle linebacker and defensive captain Bobby Wagner said. "There's been a lot of teams that have gone 9-0 or whatever the case may be, but they fall off towards the end. We always have a way of sticking around, finding our way to the playoffs and creating a splash."
But what's interesting about the Seahawks' ability to finish strong is that players, and even the man preaching the "it's not how you start, it's how you finish" philosophy aren't sure what makes the Seahawks such a good second-half team.
"I'm asked that a lot," Carroll said. "In all humility, I don't know. I don't really know what it is, other than we have always emphasized it greatly. It's always been a big battle cry for us in everything that we do about finishing. Finishing to us is doing things right and outlasting your opponent, and doing it right longer than they can do it, so you're there, available for the wins."
While Carroll isn't sure of why his teams both at USC and now in Seattle have been good down the stretch, he has one theory that dates back to his college days. By throwing young players into the fire before some coaches might be comfortable doing so, Carroll's teams build depth that can contribute later in the year while also allowing other players to stay fresh.
"I do think over the years I've tried to figure it out—because it happened at SC for a long time too—it might be the fact that we play young guys so much early, and our depth," Carroll said. "We're very healthy right now and we have a lot of guys that have played a lot of football, and our rookies are not rookies any more. They're veterans to us, and they're playing. We don't have any hesitation to them jumping on the field in crucial times and all that. That helps us and keeps the rotations alive for the other guys too. Maybe spreading out our numbers, but I don't know if that's it, but that's always been something I've thought it might be."
On Turnover Thursday of week 10, players and coaches were breaking in some of their Salute to Service gear for the upcoming Sunday Night Football game that will honor all service members.
The Seahawks strong finish in 2012 in particular backs up that line of thinking. While the Seahawks asked rookies to contribute heavily all season long, players like Russell Wilson, Wagner, Bruce Irvin and J.R. Sweezy all got better, helping turn the season around.
"Oh man, it was night and day," Sweezy said of his rookie year experience early in the season compared to late. "Playing for the first time as a young guy, I don't know how to put it into words really, everything's just so much faster and everybody is an athlete, everybody is good. It's hard, really. From the beginning to the end of the season, it really kind of slows down, not literally, but in your mind, your preparation, you learn how to become a pro."
Added Wagner: "It was a lot easier. When I first came here my rookie year, there was a lot of stuff to process, but with them throwing me in the fire and getting me out there, as the season progressed, I started to understand a lot more stuff than I did when I first came here."
The Seahawks have already gotten big contributions from rookie receiver Tyler Lockett, but he can always get better, and rookie running back Thomas Rawls has shown that the Seahawks can run the ball even without Marshawn Lynch. And Carroll has made no secret of the fact that he's hoping to get more out of defensive end Frank Clark in the second half of the season, something that could also help keep Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett fresh down the stretch.
Seahawks receiver Doug Baldwin echoes his coach when asked for an explanation, saying, "I have no idea. I've been asked that several times, and I have no clue why that is."
But pressed for a theory, Baldwin wonders if maybe it has to do with the way the Seahawks take care of players.
"I'd like to say we put more of an emphasis on taking care of our bodies," he said. "… I know we put a lot of emphasis on that, so I'd like to say that has something to do with it, but obviously I don't know what other teams do. I'd like to say that has something to do with it, but I don't know for sure."
Whatever the reason, Baldwin makes it clear that the Seahawks can't look at their past success and just assume another big finish is coming.
"I feel like that's a trap you fall into," he said. "You become complacent and expect that's going to happen, so for me, no, I don't feel comfortable leaning on that. I know the guys in this locker room are alpha males, they're fighters, they're underdogs for a reason, they continue to battle and be relentless for a reason, so I trust that more than I do what's happened in the past."
But if the Seahawks can continue to be relentless and battle and fight, another strong finish certainly seems within their reach. Seattle is healthy for the most part, an inexperienced offensive line that struggled at times early in the season continues to show signs of improvement, Wilson has a history of playing better in November and December than in the first two months of the season, and the defense has looked more like the 2013-2014 version of itself in recent weeks after some early-season miscues.
A lot of people want to make Sunday's game into a big statement game for both teams, but the Seahawks insist that their focus is where it always is—on taking advantage of this week's championship opportunity. But if the Seahawks can take care of that task this week, then do it again and again and again, then they'll have a chance, once again, to turn a season around with a strong second half.
"We don't got to make a statement," Wagner said. "I feel like the way we play out there on Sunday is going to be a big enough statement for us. We keep winning, keep putting these games together, I think at the end of the season, our statement will be loud and clear."