CHARLOTTE, N.C. – The last time the Seahawks lost a playoff game like this, it took two days in free agency to address the team’s biggest shortcoming.
It’s not going to be that easy this time around for two reasons.
First, Seattle doesn’t have the spending room to buy a solution to the most glaring need.
Second, the most glaring need is not so readily apparent as Seattle’s need for a pass rush was three years ago.
Unless you can buy first-half offense in the playoffs. If that’s available, the Seahawks would be well-advised to fork over whatever it takes. As amazing as it is that Seattle under Pete Carroll has rallied to win five of the eight playoff games in which it has trailed by nine or more points, it’s worth noting that it would be better off, you know, not trailing by nine or more points to begin with.
In Carroll’s 12 playoff games in Seattle, the Seahawks have been outscored 159-106 in the first half. Sunday was the worst it has ever been, Seattle trailing Carolina 31-0 at halftime.
It was a postseason beating reminiscent of the one Seattle absorbed in Green Bay during the Divisional Playoffs of the 2007 season. The Seahawks took a 14-0 lead that game only to allow 42 unanswered points in a defeat that was wrongly dismissed as a snow-induced aberration.
It was a loss that revealed the dry rot in Seattle’s roster, and the first half of Sunday’s game felt similarly dispiriting.
At least it did until the Seahawks went out and played an inspired second half that showed the steel-toed resilience that’s now hard-wired into Pete Carroll’s roster.
But just as the 31 straight points Seattle allowed shouldn’t convince you the Seahawks are broken beyond repair, the 24 consecutive points the Seahawks scored in that second-half rally shouldn’t eliminate all concerns.
In fact, two realities were reinforced in Sunday’s loss.
1) The Seahawks couldn’t create turnovers.
That was the biggest difference in Seattle’s defense this season. While the Seahawks allowed the fewest points in the league for the fourth successive season, they forced only 23 turnovers, their fewest in any season since 2010. Sure enough, the Seahawks couldn’t take the ball away from Carolina on Sunday, failing to recover a first-half fumble by the Panthers. Meanwhile, Carolina turned two Seattle turnovers into 10 points in a game the Panthers won by seven, and that math is so easy even a Washington State Cougar can do it.
2) The Seahawks offensive line was occasionally manhandled.
Happened often the first half of the season. Happened in the loss to St. Louis in the second-to-last regular-season game. Happened on the first play of Sunday’s game when the Panthers’ mountain of a defensive tackle Star Lotulelei was toe-to-toe with Marshawn Lynch in Seattle’s backfield when he took the handoff. To write off all of Seattle’s offensive shortcomings to the line is unfair, but the fact Seattle was held to fewer than 100 yards rushing twice in the past four weeks is jarring especially when you consider it happened only once all of last season.
Diagnosing the problems is easier than fixing them, however.
The solutions were more straightforward three years ago when Seattle was coming off that nearly miraculous comeback in Atlanta. The Seahawks needed pass rushers, plural. They got pass rushers, plural, signing first Cliff Avril and then Michael Bennett as free agents.
Seattle doesn’t have as much spending room this time around with it now paying Pro Bowl salaries for its Pro Bowl players like Russell Wilson, Richard Sherman and Earl Thomas.
Seattle may not be a team that’s declining, but it is one in transition. The Seahawks will undergo the most significant change in personnel since before the 2011 season, and that’s more than just wishing Lynch well in his future endeavors and waving goodbye instead of paying his $9 million salary next season.
Any spending room would come from sacrificing from its nucleus either in letting go of existing players or declining to re-sign significant starters who will be unrestricted free agents. Strong safety Kam Chancellor and Michael Bennett both wanted raises in 2015. Neither request was granted. Both will have two years remaining on their respective contracts so there’s no easy solution there.
Then there’s the uncertainty along both lines. Guard J.R. Sweezy and left tackle Russell Okung are both scheduled to be unrestricted free agents. So are defensive tackles Brandon Mebane and Ahtyba Rubin, who anchored Seattle’s league-leading rush defense.
Throw in cornerback Jeremy Lane, linebacker Bruce Irvin and receiver Jermaine Kearse among the players whose contracts are expiring and it’s unlikely Seattle can afford to retain everyone even if that was the course it chooses.
And the reality is that Seattle must do more than stand still this offseason. For the first time since that 2012 season it will enter the offseason knowing that it needs upgrades on both sides of the ball.