Leon Washington is back. So is the “12th Man” at Qwest Field.
The Seattle Seahawks are back, too — not all the way or even most of the way, but enough of the way to win home games and contend for the NFC West title in a flawed division that nonetheless went 3-1 Sunday.
The hard part after the Seahawks’ 27-20 victory over the San Diego Chargers was finding players in the winning locker room with enough roster tenure to remember what it was like the last time this team was good enough to make its crowd a decisive factor.
Quarterback Matt Hasselbeck remembers. He was there when Seattle was going 7-1 at home in 2007 and 8-0 there in 2005. Those teams were better, but this team doesn’t need to be as good.
“For years we have dominated at home and people hated to come up here,” Hasselbeck said after Washington’s two return touchdowns helped deliver Seattle’s second victory in three games this season. “Because we weren’t a very good team for two years, we sort of lost that. It’s going to be real important to get that back.”
It might be back already.
The Seahawks have beaten two division favorites in two home games thus far in 2010. The San Francisco 49ers fell first, committing delay penalties and generally imploding on offense amid the noise. The Chargers succumbed Sunday, their offense jumping early and failing to beat the play clock in critical situations.
“I heard all kinds of glowing comments about what it’s like to play here,” first-year Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said. “Then I was surprised on the first time out against the Niners. This game goes beyond expectation.”
Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers takes more delay penalties than any quarterback in the league. The one he took on third-and-10 from the Seattle 12-yard line with 21 seconds left diminished the Chargers’ chances. San Diego’s previous drive ended with a fourth-and-15 incomplete pass after officials flagged right tackle Jeromey Clary and left tackle Brandyn Dombrowski for a false-start penalties on consecutive plays.
“That is good to see,” said Seahawks safety Jordan Babineaux, who has been with the team since 2004.
Babineaux didn’t need his Southern Arkansas University education to do the math.
“You sweep home, you could split on the road and that is a 12-4 season,” he said. “That’s a good year. The biggest challenge for us now is playing the way we play at home on the road. We have to.”
Not necessarily. Not in this division.
The preseason favorite 49ers are 0-3 heading into a Week 4 game against Atlanta, their third road trip in four games this season. The Arizona Cardinals are tied with Seattle atop the division, but they barely beat St. Louis and Oakland in getting to 2-1. And in listening to the Cardinals-Raiders broadcast Sunday, there were times when fans supporting the Raiders seemed to make the most noise.
Hasselbeck complained of seeing Chargers jerseys in the stands Sunday.
“Our fans are still amazing,” he said. “It’s probably that stupid ticket-exchange commercial.”
If San Diego fans made any noise of consequence, I couldn’t hear it. While Hasselbeck’s voice resonated during his postgame news conference, Rivers sounded hoarse.
“Most of the screaming is in the huddle and at the line of scrimmage because it’s’ definitely loud,” he said. “It’s like most road games.”
Like most road games, times two. Seattle opponents had committed 96 false-start penalties at Qwest Field since 2005. Minnesota’s Metrodome was second at 86, followed by stadiums in Tennessee (78) and Chicago (70).
Babineaux was at least partly right when he said the Seahawks need to figure out a way to win on the road. Beating the 1-2 St. Louis Rams at the Edward Jones Dome in Week 4 would give Seattle one of the precious road victories it might need to post a winning season for the first time since 2007.
Crowds cannot win games by themselves. The home crowd matters again in Seattle because the Seahawks have improved almost across the board. Their draft-day trade with the New York Jets for Washington paid for itself, and then some, when Washington returned kickoffs 101 and 99 yards against the Chargers. He nearly had another return touchdown, but he slipped while trying to elude the last defender.
Washington’s team-record two kickoff returns for touchdowns were the difference. Those returns left Seattle’s defense on the field and the Chargers finished with 518 yards, but with rookie safety Earl Thomas picking off two passes, including one at the Seattle 5 with 6 seconds remaining, it felt like old times at Qwest Field.
“When you have a returner that has faith in the guys in front of him, he can hit it hard and fast and like I did in New York,” Washington said.
A player from another NFL team asked Hasselbeck about Washington during the week.
“I talked about how great he’s been and how we love him and he’s going to break out here,” Hasselbeck said. “I don’t think anyone imagined that it could have been like that.”
Washington now has six kickoff returns for touchdowns during his career, tied for second in league history with Ollie Matson, Gale Sayers, Travis Williams, Mel Gray and Dante Hall. Only Josh Cribbs has more, with eight. Washington’s 101- and 99-yarders rank first and second in Seahawks history.
Seattle turned over its roster more than any team during the 2010 offseason.
The changes produced questions. We’re starting to get some answers.
The Seahawks’ special-teams units are hitting harder than they have in my memory covering the team (since 1998). That reflects improved personnel. Rookie fifth-round choice Kam Chancellor forced a fumble during a Chargers return. Rookie seventh-rounder Dexter Davis recovered. Rookie second-rounder Golden Tate, chosen 60th overall with a pick acquired from San Diego, had a 31-yard punt return and caught all four passes thrown his way.
Most improbably to me, the Seahawks are playing well enough on their offensive line to give Hasselbeck a chance — even with rookie first-round left tackle Russell Okung sidelined by injury for the first three games.
The offense remains in its formative stages, sometimes appearing lost. But Seattle was very close to scoring at least two more touchdowns. The Chargers forced Deion Branch to fumble at the 1 after a 41-yard gain. The Seahawks inexplicably let the game clock expire after driving to the San Diego 2 right before halftime.
“I’m not going to overlook that,” Carroll said of how close Seattle came to a first-half rout.
There can be no more overlooking the Seahawks at Qwest, either. Their remaining home opponents — Arizona, the New York Giants, Kansas City, Carolina, Atlanta and St. Louis — will have a hard time winning here.
That’s what we’ve learned about Seattle in the first three weeks.