Matt Hasselbeck’s day was three plays old when his pass tipped off the fingers of Ben Obomanu and into the grasp of Saints defensive back Jabari Greer.
Another opening, another pick.
The Qwest Field crowd had barely found its 12th Man voice Saturday when the Seahawks found themselves down 10 points to the defending Super Bowl champions. And Hasselbeck, whose inability to protect the football during the regular season almost cost him his starting role and irrevocably clouded his future, was at it again, cooking up turnovers.
On the Seattle sideline, as Drew Brees and the Saints were advancing toward the end zone in lockstep precision, coach Pete Carroll needed to make sure his 35-year-old quarterback wasn’t shell-shocked by the worst-of-all-scenarios start.
“We were down 10-0 to the world champs, and my third pass is intercepted,” Hasselbeck would recall a few hours later. “You could easily tank it right there. The crowd could easily have tanked it on me, too.
“But Pete came up to me and he said, ‘Hey, listen, there’s nothing you could’ve done about that first one … and even if they score here, there’s nothing you can do about that.’ He basically just showed some confidence, and I appreciated that. It allowed me to focus on what we needed to do, and what I knew we needed to do: We needed to get a score, so the game could still be balanced.”
Over the six possessions that followed, the Seahawks scored five times – four on Hasselbeck touchdown passes.
Against the NFL’s fourth-ranked passing defense – it surrendered only 13 touchdowns through the air in 2010 – Hasselbeck broke Dave Krieg’s Seahawks playoff record for most touchdown passes in a game. He broke the 27-year-old record, it should be pointed out, with 11:48 remaining in the third quarter.
“I think we got on a roll there,” Hasselbeck said. “We had a rhythm going. We had them on their toes just a little bit.”
When receiver Brandon Stokley popped open deep against busted coverage, Hasselbeck hit him in stride. When Mike Williams was double covered, Hasselbeck connected on one of those lobs that could’ve served as a dictionary definition of a touch pass.
Facing the sophisticated blitz and stunt schemes drawn up by Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, Hasselbeck was right with his reads and uncanny with his hunches.
“Matt Hasselbeck,” Carroll said after the Seahawks 41-36 victory, “was ridiculously good today.
“I’m so proud of him coming back like that and playing just incredible football,” added Carroll, who last week decided to start backup quarterback Charlie Whitehurst for the de facto playoff game against the Rams. Although Hasselbeck wasn’t fully recovered from a sore hip, he almost certainly would’ve drawn the assignment in any other year.
“I knew he was ready to play, and how well he plays coming off injuries,” said Hawks center Chris Spencer. “He hates sitting out.”
In the aftermath of a game that has to rank among the most surprising upsets in NFL playoff history, as Hasselbeck and Carroll shared a hug amid a thicket of TV cameras, it was impossible not to wonder if the quarterback was about to walk off Qwest Field for the last time.
His contract is about to expire, and for all of Carroll’s glowing endorsements of Hasselbeck’s work against the Saints, the front office has offered no indication that keeping him in a Seahawks uniform is a priority.
But there’s a time and place for melancholy reflection, and Saturday wasn’t the time for melancholy and Qwest Field wasn’t the place for reflection.
“As a football player, you never know when your last play is going to be. You really don’t,” Hasselbeck said in response to a question regarding his uncertain status for 2011 and beyond. “And it’s tough, but that’s just football. I know you’re talking about my contract being up this year and all that, but it’s football. I’m just sort of trained. It’s sort of my mentality. You never know. You just never know.”
Whatever happens, Hasselbeck has assured himself of at least one more opportunity to operate the Seahawks’ offense.
“Welcome back,” safety Lawyer Milloy said of his teammate. “He knew that the way we got into the playoffs kind of without him – on the sideline or whatever – he had to come in and do his part. All week, you saw how focused he was. He wanted to get on this ship with us.”