Shane Roper, USA Today Sports

Shane Roper, USA Today Sports

The 49ers’ Next Opponent: Will the Seahawks’ traveling sideshow be coming back to town?

Don Atkinson
Jan 3, 2020 at 8:20 PM0

It's been covered like the last minute of no other matchup this year, this last standoff of the final game of the NFL's 100th season. With both playoff seeding and an NFC West crown on the line, the San Francisco 49ers faced off against their bitterest of rivals, the Seattle Seahawks, in a Sunday night showdown that had all the nation watching. At the conclusion of the game, the 49ers took the division title, Number 1 seed in the NFC playoffs, and a solidified confidence about playing at CenturyLink Field and rolled on out of town to start a two-week break.

What they left behind was the proverbial monkey that had been on the back of the team since 2011, the last time the 49ers won in Seattle, and a gridiron of trampled Skittles.

It was a finish few might have predicted. But in a way it wasn't shocking that the end to Seattle's regular season play would fly in on the wings of the absurd.

Racked by nearly the same level of injuries the 49ers had suffered all year, Seattle two weeks ago suddenly found itself without the services of some key players, including receiver Josh Gordon, suspended by the NFL for substance use violations, and all three of its top running backs, including starters Chris Carson and Rashaad Penny. Left with rookie running back Travis Homer and a few low-charted backups, Seattle went looking for help.

Rather than seek out a solution among their existing reserves, or possibly a free agent that had been training and playing this season with another team, Seahawks Head Coach Pete Carroll and his front office rolled up a sleeve and plunged their figurative arm into the football pickle barrel. They came out with two stars from the Seahawks' past in Marshawn Lynch and Robert Turbin.

The media subsequently went crazy.

Resurrections of Lynch in his prime and his "Beast Mode" persona abounded, fueled by Seahawks fans and Lynch himself, who mugged for cameras exiting an Escalade packed to the headrests with rainbow Skittles, Lynch's signature prop. Turbin brought less fanfare, but as with Lynch, it was supposed to be Seattle's demonstration that it was reviving its former glory --- the second coming of the team's infamous "Legion of Boom." It was to be an earth-shaking lift to the team.

Except it sort of wasn't.

As predicted, football fans ingested Lynch-mania as fast as the media could serve it up. The rest of the Seahawks players, to their credit, seemed to go out and do their jobs on Sunday, unaffected much by Lynch's limited role in the game. Lynch had just 12 carries for 34 yards.

On a play that ended Seattle's last drive of the first half, and a move that surprised no one, least of all the 49ers defense, Lynch was given the ball on fourth-and-one and was soundly stuffed at the line of scrimmage. The Seahawks left the field with nothing.

That was the tone for much of the game. Lynch had one good run for 15 yards in the third quarter, and a one-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter but finished with a modest 2.8 yards per carry. None of that was outside the range of Homer's ability had he been given the chance. But to the disregard of Homer, and ultimately the Seahawks' playoff position, winning that way wasn't in Pete Carroll's script.

Always resilient under magic-producing quarterback Russell Wilson, the Seahawks played hard and stayed close, and were helped by a 49ers defense that seemed destined not to close out strong, and they found themselves on the verge of picking up a go-ahead touchdown with almost no time remaining in the game.

With the clock running and a first-and-goal from the 49ers' 1-yard-line, Wilson spiked the ball, stopping the game clock and setting up a second-and-goal. Everyone, including both sets of fans, the broadcasting crew and the 49ers, expected Marshawn Lynch to lumber on the field, and in fact he did come out. But he seemed confused, along with both Wilson and Carroll, and as the play clock wound down, they all, inexplicably, stood there without running a play.

Moved back five yards by the delay of game penalty, Lynch jogged back off and the Seahawks were forced back into a more obvious passing situation. Wilson burned another down on an incompletion, leading up to a third and goal in which he threw past Seattle tight end Jacob Hollister, who had locked up with 49ers linebacker Fred Warner in coverage. Hollister was looking for a flag against Warner almost before the pass touched down outside the end zone. None was thrown.

On the ensuing play, a fourth-and-goal pass to Hollister again, 49ers linebacker Dre Greenlaw, in what instantly became part of 49ers game legend, slammed into him, dropping him two inches from the goal line, turning the ball over on downs and effectively ending the game with only a few seconds on the clock.

In comments after the game, Carroll made it clear he thought the third down contact in the end zone between Hollister and Warner was defensive pass interference, though the officiating crew did not see it that way. Many media commentators clamored to support Carroll's position, though what NFL officials saw in reviewing the play at the time was convincing enough to dismiss the idea.

What wasn't talked about in the media was that Hollister, eyes up and running his route straight into Warner's chest pads and tangling with him there, seemed far less like a victim of pass interference than a receiver who had been sent on a clear flag-drawing mission by his coach. That may not have been the case, but it had every appearance of that plan, and it fits in with the quirky moves of coaches like Carroll and the Saints' Sean Payton.

Regardless, rather than spending post-game time picking apart the calls (or non-calls) made by game officials, Carroll might have been better served spending some pre-game time practicing both clock management and effective play calling.

Just when he had started to put some distance between himself and an utterly mind-boggling goal line call for a pass which resulted in an interception by Patriots defensive back Malcolm Butler and ensured a Seahawks loss in Super Bowl XLIX five years earlier, Carroll went down the same odd path last Sunday.

The games were eerily similar. As the last seconds of the game wound down, the win was there for the taking. And Greenlaw's brick-wall stuff of Hollister was the reincarnation of Butler's pick that lost the Super Bowl for Seattle.

In the end, Carroll and the Seahawks did it to themselves. No one in Seattle would likely ever admit to it, but it became apparent to most everyone else that having Lynch score that touchdown had suddenly taken precedence over ensuring that the touchdown was simply scored. That's not football. That's television drama. And in that way, Greenlaw and the 49ers, much like Butler and the Patriots five years ago, became pro football's answer to the Seahawks' frivolous theatrics.

To be clear, it's not an indictment of Carroll as a leader in Seattle. He's a skilled, experienced and well-tested football coach who has benefited from some great players and a uniquely gifted quarterback in Russell Wilson. He will undoubtedly, and justifiably, join many of the game's greatest coaches in the Hall of Fame one day. But at times he makes thick-headed decisions, and historically, these mental glitches happen for the Seahawks at the most inopportune times.

And it's hard not to believe, after this latest chapter with Lynch, that Carroll's indecision at that critical moment was not influenced by more of that same institutional silliness.

Marshawn Lynch isn't now, nor will he ever be, the player he was six or seven years ago. At the peak of his career, he was one of the best in the league. But that was at least five seasons ago, and in the NFL, that's a significant span of time. No amount of wishing is going to roll back the years. There are reasons players, most particularly running backs, don't hop in and out of the NFL on a whim. It's a fast and brutal game and only the most fit of athletes generally remain on any active roster for long. Pulling Lynch from his Barcalounger may provide a temporary emotional boost to the team, but as a tool for turning football plays into touchdowns, it's largely an aberrant move.

The best decision the Seahawks could have made, there at the one-yard line last Sunday night, was to run for the touchdown with their one truly game-ready back in Travis Homer. Homer showed speed and agility throughout the game, and he could have easily flipped the outcome and the 49ers would have been eating Wild Card Weekend dinner in Philadelphia. Instead, Carroll opted to go for the television-crafted option with Lynch who, almost painfully, wasn't at all ready to go.

When it all washes out by the end of the month, perhaps Lynch will have had a truly positive effect, helping to get the Seahawks through the three games needed to reach the Super Bowl. Stranger things have happened. Carroll this week declared Lynch had the "whole game plan" down against the Eagles this weekend. Whether that's the truth or just more fluff from Carroll remains to be seen.

Either way, the media and fans love hype and excitement. The gods of football, not so much. Commitment, technique, strategy, study, execution --- these are the things that win football games. Emotion is always a strong factor, but when emotion carries over into unwarranted delirium, things can go south, and fast.

Lynch was a remarkable athlete and deserves enormous credit for a spectacular career. That said, there's little doubt to most objective observers of football that he will be not be on Seattle's roster much past Groundhog Day.

There's every possibility that Carroll and the Seahawks beat the Philadelphia Eagles this weekend, and perhaps live to see another game against the 49ers, this time in Santa Clara. There's even a chance they can win that game, end the 49ers' season and move on. But it doesn't take a visionary to see that the Seahawks' hopes in that regard may be starting to tank.

Despite the burden of having to play through substantial injuries, the 49ers are now getting healthy, and the Seahawks are headed in the opposite direction physically. Marshawn Lynch does little to change that fact.

Make no mistake: The Seahawks are an excellent football team, one of the best in the league on the road. They are well coached and play every game out at full effort. Russell Wilson is a phenomenal player and is deserving of MVP consideration. But he can't do it on his own, even with a few talented receivers. With team health failing, paired with the Seahawks' predisposition to put drama over smart football, it's a bad circumstance that even the brilliant Wilson may not be able to overcome.

If Seattle makes it past the equally beat-up Eagles, and the Saints beat the Vikings this weekend, the Seahawks will get a rematch with the 49ers and another chance to push the Beast Mode agenda. While that may cause concern for San Francisco fans wary of the Marshawn of old, the 49ers themselves seem focused on the task at hand and the escapades created by Seattle seem to have little effect on them.

As a team, the 49ers have battled the "big dogs" in the NFC and have beaten each of them. They have taken on what many consider as the NFL's best team (with its pre-ordained MVP quarterback) and nearly beat them in their own house. Their three losses came down to last second plays, and they were never dominated by anyone, ever, at any point in the season. Despite being doubted by the world, the team and its often-maligned quarterback went toe-to-toe with every opponent and have arrived here in the post-season as a cohesive, confident and now battle-tested unit.

These 49ers aren't going to stand down to anyone they face in the playoffs, nor will they if they earn their pass to Florida in February --- whether the Seahawks, the Eagles, the Vikings, the Saints, the Packers, and perhaps later the Ravens, Chiefs or Patriots. To this 49ers team, it's all the same process: Do your homework, execute your game plan, adjust to your opponent, play hard every down, and find your path to victory. It is football played by very committed professionals, both veteran and rookie, with a singular goal in mind: Winning.

The 49ers respect their opponents, but fear none of them. It's what they have done all season long. And at this stage, it's unlikely that any obstacle of potential MVP quarterbacks, or even some Skittles and a little cheap theater, is going to alter them from their course.
The views within this article are those of the writer and, while just as important, are not necessarily those of the site as a whole.


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