When he first arrived in Seattle last winter, new Seahawks coach Pete Carroll sent a letter to his players ordering them to “Own the West.”
Considering the NFC West’s state of disrepair, it was a modest goal but one the Hawks, who had won just nine games total the previous two seasons, accomplished.
And winning the West made them believe they could win even more. They came this close to something wondrous.
But reality hit them Sunday with all the force of a Midwestern snowstorm.
This 35-24 loss to the Chicago Bears in the NFC divisional playoffs felt more like the truth than last week’s Qwest Field fantasy win over the New Orleans Saints.
All of the warts that were obvious in all of the Seahawks’ losses boldly were exposed again by the Bears. Seattle played like the team it is — a young, rebuilding group that isn’t ready to beat any other division champion.
This still is a team in the early stages of repairing the damage from the past two seasons. The Seahawks still have a long way to go.
“The hard thing is that I don’t know if everyone realizes how close we were to doing something special,” quarterback Matt Hasselbeck said in his postgame news conference. “We had everything there for us. We didn’t deserve it, but it was right there for us.”
If they had won this game, the Hawks would have hosted the NFC Championship Game on Sunday against Green Bay. They were this close to writing their own fairy tale.
But they were manhandled by the Bears at the line of scrimmage. They allowed Chicago quarterback Jay Cutler to loll in the pocket, waiting for receivers to spring open.
The Hawks lost both tight ends — John Carlson to a concussion and Cameron Morrah to turf toe — and the remaining receivers dropped too many balls.
Seattle couldn’t run the ball. It couldn’t stop the run. And it gave up big plays. The Bears secondary played as physically as the Blackhawks’ penalty killers, but the Seahawks’ receivers didn’t fight back.
That’s the reality of mid-January. The Hawks showed, without question, that they weren’t ready for a game this important in an environment this harsh.
The 12th Man, or even a 13th Man, wouldn’t have saved them on Sunday.
“We have to figure out a way to remain consistent,” linebacker Aaron Curry said. “When we’re playing at a high level, we’re hard to beat. I think there’s progress that still has to be made. If there wasn’t, we would have won, right?”
A thumping like this, however, following two thrilling home wins, makes it difficult to assess the Seahawks’ progress.
They won the NFC West. They advanced to the divisional playoff weekend. But they finished with a losing record, 8-10, their third losing season in a row. They were uncompetitive in all of those losses.
They rescued this season by beating the Rams and winning the division, then beating the Saints last weekend. They reset their mind-set and rediscovered a belief that they could win on do-or-die days.
They awoke a slumbering city with a couple weeks of magic. They probably saved their 2011 season-ticket sales and avoided the ugly specter of blacked-out home games, but they still haven’t found what they’re looking for.
“I feel like we’ve made a lot of progress,” Carroll said. “I think we’ve come together. It took us the whole season to get to the point where we really understood how hard the work needs to be to get yourself to play at a really high level. We dipped in and out of it at times this year.
“I think these guys understand where we’re going and what we are trying to get done. … We need to keep building on that. We will continue to compete to make that better in every way and to continue to upgrade anyway we can.”
The Seahawks need to draft another offensive lineman who can start like left tackle Russell Okung did this season. They need to improve at cornerback. They need more speed at wide receiver, and even if they re-sign Hasselbeck, they will soon have to look for their quarterback of the future.
Still, this trip to the playoffs was huge for the future. It gave the Hawks a confidence they haven’t had since 2007.
“Things started to turn over for us a little bit at the end of the season,” wide receiver Ben Obomanu said. “The last couple of seasons there’s been a lot of question marks at the end. You didn’t know who was going to be back. You didn’t know anything.
“After this game, a lot of guys have a lot of hopes. We’re just a couple of pieces away, a couple of plays away, some experience away from doing something special.”
The Seahawks reached their modest goal. They reclaimed the West. But the Bears exposed them on Sunday, a biting reminder of the hard work ahead.