The last straw might have been the iPad. Pete Carroll, bundled from head to toe in Seahawks blue, had just stood for three hours in 10-degree wind chills, coaxing and imploring, and nothing seemed to work. And now the damned iPad didn't, either. Maybe it was for the best. Carroll was spared from watching game tape of what had just happened. He sat on a bus with his late lunch, some Gates Bar-B-Q, as the Seattle Seahawks slowly rumbled through November's dying brown landscape to Kansas City International Airport.
His team had lost another game it shouldn't have, falling 24-20 to the Chiefs, getting stuffed three times on fourth down in the fourth quarter, and the obituaries on the 2014 season were already being typed upstairs in the press box before they left the stadium. Here lie the defending Super Bowl champions, 6-4 and three games behind Arizona in the NFC West with the teeth of the schedule still looming. Here lie the talented, young and once-cocky.
If Carroll had a bubble above his head, it might have read, "Ugh," or "This stinks," and that, in itself, would be shocking. Carroll is a cross between Tony Robbins and Pollyanna; he never has a bad day. But the Seahawks were battered and seemingly worn out by controversy, from the Percy Harvin trade to reports of infighting. In a few days, a simple walkthrough would lead to a massive blowup over -- sunflower seeds.
The critics say this is what happens when a team is young and unfamiliar with the trappings of success. For two years, it was them against the world. Then they made it to the top, and there were no more slights or ammunition to fuel their brotherly fight. Of course they were doomed to fail.
In the back of another bus, defensive backs Richard Sherman and Earl Thomas quietly sat together, breaking down what went wrong against Kansas City. They've sat next to each other in the same spots on the bus for nearly three years now. Their conversation ended, and Sherman did what he does after every game. He slipped on his headphones, closed his eyes and listened to "Candy Rain," an old, slow jam by Soul for Real, a song that relaxes him.
It was Nov. 16, and their season appeared to be over.
Their season was just beginning.
The Seahawks did not lose again after that miserable day in Kansas City, ripping off six straight victories to secure their third straight playoff bid. They are the No. 1 seed in the NFC, have allowed just 39 points in those six games, and, as they prepare to host the Carolina Panthers on Saturday in the divisional playoffs, look every bit as dominating as last year.
There are a couple of theories as to why this turnaround happened, and one of them isn't particularly profound. It's that the Seahawks are finally healthy, with two of their most significant players -- Kam Chancellor and Bobby Wagner -- back at full speed. Chancellor, a bone-rattling safety, inspires the whole team with his hits. Without him, Sherman said, the defense "is kind of like half of us, you know? I don't know how to explain it. We're not a complete defense." Wagner returned to the lineup right when the winning streak started. The linebacker had missed five games with a torn ligament in his foot but has been so good in the past month that he still managed to make All-Pro.
The second theory is that the Seahawks had a Kumbaya moment after the trip to Kansas City. With tensions bubbling, Carroll called a meeting with the team's leaders, at least 10 players. Carroll didn't do much of the talking; he likes to empower his players to take charge.
They gathered in the defensive meeting room, and Carroll asked the questions that had been nagging them for months.
What was missing? Who were they fighting?
Why was this year so different from last year?
Carroll didn't change things at all. Training camp opened in late July, and there was the normal stream of celebrities and motivational speakers and very little talk about what Seattle had done five months earlier.
Oh, Carroll talked about repeating as Super Bowl champions. But he did it in the middle of the 2013 season, before they had won anything. That's how much confidence he had in his guys. While most coaches steer their teams away from rankings and expectations, Carroll tells them to embrace it. People know you are the best, Carroll would tell them. Isn't that cool?
He had a Navy SEAL come in during training camp to talk to the team about brotherhood. He had Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr in to watch practice for a few days, and Kerr and receiver Bryan Walters engaged in a free throw shooting contest before a team meeting in camp. It was fun; it was competitive; and it was totally Pete Carroll. Nothing had changed.
But the Seahawks' lives were different. Carroll built this team with a collection of hard-nosed misfits, guys who were snubbed in the draft, and now some of them were superstars and national pitchmen.
"This is a young football team, the youngest team to ever win a Super Bowl," said Hall of Fame quarterback Warren Moon, who does commentary for the Seahawks. "I think they really had a problem with a lot of the guys as far as [how] they handled the prosperity, how they handled all the endorsements and the attention they got.
"Some guys got paid very big in the offseason; other guys probably thought they wanted to get paid. All those things started to creep in. Guys started playing not for one another but playing for themselves."
But Sherman insists they didn't change. Not deep down in their hearts. Members of the "Legion of Boom," the vaunted Seahawks secondary, still made their annual trip to Lake Chelan in July, talking about everything besides football on the water.
This was a team that built its chemistry on brutal honesty, being able to say anything to anyone, and people could still hold each other accountable. Late in the summer, Earl Thomas pulled aside rookie safety Dion Bailey and told him he had to catch on faster. It was the second day of camp. But Bailey took it as a compliment, that the star safety saw something in him to speak up.
"There is no hierarchy," Sherman said. "Every player looks at each other eye to eye and speaks to each other eye to eye. A rookie can come up to me and give me the same criticism that Earl Thomas can give to a rookie if it's warranted. Now if he's just talking out of his ass, it's not going to work that well.
"Nobody takes the criticism personally because you understand how much the guy next to you cares for you and cares about you getting better as a player and as a person."
But when the season started and the losses piled up, the honesty -- and the talking -- seemed to stop. The Seahawks will say that in 2013, they faced plenty of adversity. Five of their first eight games in '13 were decided by a touchdown or less. But the breaks went their way, and they won 11 of their first 12.
And then nothing seemed to break right in the first half of 2014. Dallas scored 30 on the Seahawks and outmuscled them on their home turf in October. A week later, in St. Louis, the Rams used a couple of trick plays on special teams to help take a 28-26 victory.
"It felt like [there] was a lot of tension," Bailey said. "Nobody really spoke up to address how the defense was playing because they weren't used to it. They played so lights-out last year. It was like, 'Are we playing bad, or are things just not falling our way?'"
The tension was palpable even before that game at St. Louis. As the Seahawks boarded the buses for the airport, they learned that Harvin was being traded to the New York Jets. A week earlier, against Dallas, Harvin, according to The Seattle Times, refused to go back into the game when called upon in the fourth quarter. The enigmatic receiver had become a destructive force in the locker room. There were stories of him engaging in physical confrontations with his teammates. A Bleacher Report story said that Harvin was leading a faction of the team against quarterback Russell Wilson and that some players didn't think Wilson was "black enough."
Harvin couldn't be reached through his agent for this story, and the Seahawks are either mum or diplomatic when his name is mentioned. But Moon said Harvin's departure was crucial. Not only did it help chemistry but it allowed the Seahawks to get back to their offensive identity of pounding the ball to Marshawn Lynch.
"They had to get rid of Percy," Moon said. "It was brewing last year, believe it or not. And it probably would've been that way last year if he would've been there every day. But he was on injured reserve most of the year and wasn't around every day. But when the Super Bowl came around, when he was around, you could see it happen then.
"He never felt like he was accepted when he came here. He had a lot of trust issues."
Harvin wasn't the only one who had trouble relating to Wilson. Moon said there were natural jealousy issues among teammates at the start of the season because of all the endorsements Wilson picked up in the offseason. Wilson is well-spoken; he's photogenic; and he's everywhere. Moon believes the comments about him not being black enough came from teammates who were angry that Wilson didn't spend enough time with them.
Moon mentors Wilson, and he warned him about this as early as last year. Wilson spent so much time with his game preparations, his charity work and his personal life that he had little room for his teammates. Moon encouraged the quarterback to occasionally get a beer with the linemen (or watch the linemen get a beer, rather, because he doesn't drink). He told Wilson he needed to occasionally hang out with various position groups so they know he's one of the guys.
"They're a very, very close-knit unit," Moon said. "But it's like brothers. They're going to argue sometimes, they're going to get jealous of each other sometimes. That's what kind of happened to them for a stretch there in the season until they got it all ironed out or talked out."
Carroll encourages this team dynamic of brotherhood. He lets his players be who they are. If Doug Baldwin wants to go on a profanity-laced rant on the sideline and light into Wilson, as he did in October during the Dallas game, it's OK. It means he's passionate and cares. And family always tends to work things out.
So maybe it's fitting that the turning point of the season actually happened a few hours before that big meeting in November, when a player decided he couldn't take it anymore and just cut loose. It was days after the loss to the Chiefs, and the Seahawks were having a walk-through practice at the start of the work week. Thomas, uber-intense, noticed that the defensive linemen were sharing sunflower seeds during the walk-through. This wasn't exactly new; the linemen had done this before, including last year. But Thomas, tired of losing, lost it. He ripped the linemen, all of whom have a considerable weight advantage over him. The workout erupted into a shouting match.
Finally, they were being brutal and honest with each other again.
"If it was somebody else, then I would be surprised and wouldn't believe he said it," Sherman said. "But when it's a guy who sits in the locker room from 8 o'clock in the morning 'til 9:30 at night every day, studying his behind off and [working] on the practice field, doing every extra thing he can to make sure he's prepared for a game, then you're not as surprised.
"They took it because they knew where it was coming from. It wasn't coming from a place where he was being disrespectful and 'F you, F you.' He was coming from a football place. He wants to win. Very badly. He's looking for any inch, any scratch he can get to help push us to another level."
Veteran defensive tackle Kevin Williams was taken aback a little by the outburst. He came to Seattle in the offseason after spending a decade in Minnesota. Williams played on some talented Vikings teams with chemistry issues, but he'd never seen a guy go off in front of everybody like that before. Veterans would get on each other sometimes, yes. But the younger players generally didn't get it.
Thomas' words, Williams said, brought everybody closer. He's never been on a team like this.
The outburst prompted Carroll to call the leadership meeting, which has also been termed in the locker room as "The airing of grievances." They vowed to play for each other.
"I think we were trying so hard that we were overcomplicating things," said Seahawks guard J.R. Sweezy. "We just had to bring it back down to basics and remember who we are. That's when we really took off."
Seattle played the NFC West-leading Arizona Cardinals that weekend. The Seahawks' defense was suffocating, their energy contagious. Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer was out with a knee injury, but the Seahawks didn't care. They felt as if they could beat anybody after that 19-3 victory.
Moon noticed that every time a player ran to the sideline, his teammates fist-bumped him. It was them against the world again.
Sherman answers the phone on Saturday, during the Seahawks' bye week, and seems relaxed and rested.
He has no smack talk to offer, nothing that's close to when he stared in the cameras after last year's NFC Championship Game and called the 49ers' Michael Crabtree a "sorry receiver." Sherman doesn't have to do that stuff anymore. Everyone knows who he is.
He was once snubbed in the draft but now has a $56 million contract extension. He makes the rookies fetch him meals sometimes, the No. 2 combo at McDonald's, but then again, he'd have no problem doing that before he was famous. Sherman doesn't have to say anything anymore, but he'll let you in on a little secret. He was never scared at all. Not on the ride from Kansas City, not ever.
"It would almost seem like that meeting was the sole contributor, but I think it was a coincidence," Sherman said.
"There was never a sense of panic, honestly. I think we always believed everything was still out in front of us and we knew we could go on a nice run and win a bunch of ballgames. It was almost an arrogant -- I don't want to call us arrogant -- but it was confident to the point of
"I guess people would call us arrogant if they were in our heads, in our locker room."
But depending on whom you talked to, it was dire. Ben Malcolmson, Carroll's special assistant, said at least one major news outlet went to Carolina to write the Seattle team's obit at the midway point of the season. Even Malcolmson, who's around Carroll's positivity all day, wondered how the Seahawks would make the playoffs after the Kansas City game. They'd need to go 5-1 to get a wild card, he thought. A road game at Philadelphia loomed, and they had to play the 49ers and Cardinals twice.
"I mean, after that [Chiefs] game," Malcolmson said, "all the media was talking about is how they're cooked, the season's over, you can't win five of six, let alone six of six.
"It would've been so easy to kind of write off the season at that point. But [Carroll] took it to another level. It's kind of a paradox. He allows in so much noise, and so many distractions. But then he's just so oblivious to them."
The routine doesn't change this week. There are guests and hoops and total honesty. On Wednesday, North Carolina women's soccer coach Anson Dorrance stopped by the Seahawks' practice. Dorrance could no doubt give them some advice on handling success; he has won 21 NCAA championships. Tampa Bay Rays outfielder Steven Souza was expected to visit Thursday. It's chaotic, loud and fun. It's back to normal in Seattle.