ATLANTA — Bobby Wagner sat motionless, a towel draped over his head. Next to him K.J. Wright was bent over in a chair, his face buried in a towel.
Walking into the Seahawks’ locker room after Sunday’s unimaginably painful 30-28 playoff loss to Atlanta, reporters felt like intruders who’d accidentally encountered a family in the midst of its mourning.
In the locker room there were questions to ask, about the bad first-half decisions that cost the Seahawks points and the soft defense at the end of the game that allowed the Falcons their comeback, after the Seahawks had taken an improbable lead with 31 seconds to play. But there were no answers in this room.
John Moffitt was slumped in a chair, practically motionless, his chin resting in his hands. Kam Chancellor, arms folded, stared at the floor. And Richard Sherman sat in a chair in front of his locker in the far corner of the room. All of the flamboyance drained out of him.
This is how a playoff defeat looks.
But in the row of lockers, where the linebackers dress, Seahawks linebacker Leroy Hill turned to his teammates Wagner and Wright and quietly put the season in perspective.
“Man,” he told them, “y’all made this season fun for me.”
There is no masking a loss like this. No wait-till-next-week rah rah. No hope left in this season. This was a loss so painful Sherman wasn’t talking. That’s a lot of pain.
“This is going to be a tough one to get over,” center Max Unger said. “It’s a long offseason to think about this stuff.”
Eventually the pain will subside and this young team will begin to remember all of the good from this season. And, as they gather for offseason workouts and begin the long preparations for next September, they will look back on this 11-win year and tell themselves this was just the start of something big.
“Next year will be my ninth,” Hill said, about a half-hour after Bryant’s field goal, “and it’s been a fun ride. You don’t get many teams as good as this. And it’s only the beginning, man. A lot of young guys, a lot of pieces in place around here. I’m ready to go. I’m ready to shake.”
Look around this locker-room-in-mourning and all you see are possibilities.
“We felt like this was our year,” fullback Michael Robinson said, “and we’ll feel like next year is our year. That’s one thing about a Pete Carroll-coached team, we won’t lack for confidence and we’re going to come to fight you. We need to bring as many of these players back as possible and keep our core group together.”
The young Seahawks defense made mistakes against the Falcons, but it is growing into something enduring. And the secondary will learn from its mistakes, tamp down its braggadocio and mature into a unit that will be celebrated and decorated for most of the rest of this decade. This team is as relentless as Lynch.
Sure, the Seahawks still need pieces, another deep-threat wide receiver, more help on the offensive line. But there is an indefatigable spirit about this team. A belief that never was more obvious than in the fourth quarter, when rookie Russell Wilson practically toyed with the Falcons’ defense.
“He’s got the ‘It Factor,’ man,” Atlanta safety William Moore said. “You can’t control a guy like that.”
Wilson completed 24 of 36 passes for 385 yards and two touchdowns. In the noisy desperation of a fourth quarter in the playoffs, on the road, in a dome, he marched the Hawks on touchdown drives of 80, 62 and 61 yards to take an improbable one-point lead.
It was the stuff of Tom Brady and the Mannings, Brett Favre and John Elway.
And Wilson is just getting started.
“I think you saw, with Russell Wilson’s development, how far he can take us,” said tight end Zach Miller. “Obviously, he’s a franchise quarterback. He’s a guy who wins games for you. We saw that today. He should have been credited with a comeback win and he wasn’t. I think we wanted to win a little extra for him, just because it’s his rookie year and he’s played so well.”
By 5 o’clock, the Hawks locker room nearly was empty. Wilson was fielding questions with his usual aplomb in the adjoining interview room.
But Sherman and his defensive backfield partner Earl Thomas, still were not dressed. They remained silent in front of their stalls.
The pain of this loss will linger. But the payback will come.