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Against the odds: Can Seahawks buck history, repeat as champions?

Against the odds: Can Seahawks buck history, repeat as champions? Photo: Heinz Kluetmeier/SI

SEATTLE -- Two Seahawks stars huddled in a corner of the White House. Not a white house. The White House.

One was quarterback Russell Wilson; the other, safety Earl Thomas. They were there, along with the rest of their teammates from last season, to celebrate the Super Bowl championship they secured in February. Most wanted to shake hands with President Barack Obama, take a tour, pose for a selfie on the lawn, you know, things that people do when they visit the White House.

Wilson and Thomas did some of that, but eventually they settled into a corner, in a room separate from everyone else, the President included. That day, back in May, was supposed to be about the last Super Bowl. They made it about the next Super Bowl. They make everything about that.

“We have to get here again,” Wilson said.

Thomas nodded. “Whatever it takes,” he said.

It’s not that the Seahawks eschewed all celebrations. They did revel. A little. They paraded through downtown Seattle, the streets choked with millions of fans that had last witnessed a major professional sports championship in 1979, when the since-departed Supersonics won the NBA title. Running back Marshawn Lynch took a slug from a bottle of Fireball whiskey handed to him by a fan. The Seahawks later held a ceremony to receive their rings. They should not be worn in sunlight. Too blinding. A sign also went up at team headquarters.

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But that was about it. Wilson dropped an “I can’t wait until next year” to Seahawks general manager John Schneider, and that was not months, or even weeks, after the Super Bowl, but on the field, hours after the game concluded. That is Schneider’s quarterback. He attended Michael Jordan’s celebrity golf tournament this summer, and when he met Jordan, he didn’t ask His Airness about free shoes or life as a basketball executive. Wilson asked Jordan how to repeat.

Wilson’s recollection: “He said the hardest thing is to gather everybody else around you, when you have that in yourself, that drive. That’s what he had to do. Keep those guys motivated. Keep pushing. Bring them with him.”

That’s how Wilson spent his offseason. He sought answers to one of the more befuddling trends in the NFL over the last decade. He wanted to figure out the riddle that no team since the 2003-04 New England Patriots has solved. For some reason, for many reasons, teams win the Super Bowl and stumble the next year, whether they’re loaded or flawed, young or old, free of distractions or bombarded by them. The last champion to even record a playoff victory the next season was the Patriots, and that was in 2005.

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So Wilson consulted everyone but the psychic who told a local television station that the Seahawks would repeat. The psychic was certain. It is, he told the station, in the cards.

History, the recent kind anyway, suggests otherwise.

*** 

Rodney Harrison repeated. He played safety for those Patriots. He served as a leader in those locker rooms. He’s not surprised that no team since has won consecutive Super Bowls. It’s not easy, he said. It’s not easy even to explain.

“I know you’re trying to write a story,” Harrison said over the telephone, “but certain things cannot be easily described. That group of guys was so special. We had veteran leaders. But it goes deeper than that.”

In 2004, New England opened its Super Bowl defense with six victories. The Patriots didn’t lose until Halloween, at Pittsburgh. The seeds for that run, Harrison said, were sown long before that, throughout the offseason. Where the natural instinct is to relax, to hit the celebrity circuit and pound champagne and make it rain back home, the Patriots instead pushed themselves through workouts. They pushed each other.

They weren’t special. Their coach told them that, and he told them that repeatedly. That’s Bill Belichick. It’s hard to confirm he has smiled in recent years.

Harrison said Belichick told the Patriots they could not talk about the Super Bowl. Not the one they won. Or the one they wanted to win. Belichick’s mantra was fuggedaboutit, but delivered in the usual monotone. “He programmed us that year to forget about everything,” Harrison said. “It was all next. Next game. Move on. Next play. Move on. That carried over.”

The Patriots had a rising star in quarterback Tom Brady. They had a coach in Belichick considered an expert in defensive football. They had a dominant, if not older, defense, filled with leaders, like Harrison and linebacker Tedy Bruschi and defensive end Richard Seymour. They also had underrated skill position players on offense, guys like running back Corey Dillon (1,635 rushing yards in 2004), wide receiver David Givens (874 receiving yards) and tight end Daniel Graham (seven touchdown grabs).

For those familiar with the Seahawks, much of that should sound familiar. They have a rising star in Wilson at quarterback, a defensive guru in coach Pete Carroll and a dominant defense. The difference is their defense is younger and more dominant and mostly locked into long-term contracts, and their offensive skill position players appear to be more explosive.

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What Harrison wonders is how the Seahawks will approach their title defense. Will they utilize the same mindset? Can they, even if they want to? Harrison said it never left him. Even now, as an analyst for NBC, he will finish a show and think about the point he did not make, or the argument he failed to detail the way he wanted. The Patriots won 14 regular-season games in 2004 with that exact approach. Belichick only pointed out their miscues, as they racked up double-digit wins. They were terrible inside the team facility and awesome outside of it.

Those Patriots, Harrison notes, were also lucky. They didn’t suffer too many injuries, especially major ones. Their older defensive players held up, played well.

But that’s the point. So many factors go into a title defense. A tougher schedule. Injuries. Egos. Distractions. Contracts. Departures. That’s why a decade has passed since the Patriots’ back-to-back triumphs. Too many unknowns. So much out of the champion’s control.

“I don’t think it’ll be 30 years before someone else does it,” Harrison said. “If I had to put my $10 on it, Seattle is capable.”

He pauses. “You never know.”

***

The Seahawks sound like Harrison. At the first team meeting of the season, Carroll did not mention the Super Bowl. He did not address the offseason. He wanted his players to look forward instead of back. “The Super Bowl is in the past,” safety Kam Chancellor said, already in midseason on-message form. “That’s something we don’t even think about right now.”

Of course, every team that has won a championship since the 2004 Patriots has said roughly the same thing. None of those teams has repeated. It’s one thing to espouse such sentiments in August; another to fulfill them as the long NFL season stretches into December and beyond.

Wilson actively practices trying to forget what happened last February, even if what happened last February was the single greatest event that has taken place in his young life. “I try to trick my mind into the idea that I’ve never won,” he says. “Like the next one is the first one.”

He sits inside the coaches’ locker room at CenturyLink Field, between takes for a commercial shoot for Bose. He says he plans to approach the 2014 season like he has a pair of those headphones permanently affixed to his head -- all noise, canceled. It’s almost like acting, he says. “It’s mindset,” he says. “It’s mindfulness. You have to dive into the role of, I haven’t done anything yet.”

Wilson is full of slogans. He likes to say the Seahawks have a “championship mindset,” that they will be a “dynasty one week at a time.” He speaks in slogans. “That’s my goal,” he says. “Play better. Be better.”

The 2013 title, Wilson says, should feel less like an impediment and more like a confidence booster. The Seahawks know what to expect. Their team returns largely intact, including a defense that was historically good last season. No projected offensive or defensive starter has turned 30. Most teams with that type of resume would enjoy throwing around the “d” word. Not the Seahawks.

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Instead, Wilson receives videos from Trevor Moawad, a mental coach and vice president for a company called EXOS. Moawad shared one video with Sports Illustrated. There’s Jordan and Derek Jeter and Warren Sapp, sitting on couches while Ahmad Rashad interviews them. The subject: how hard it is to repeat. Jeter did. So did Jordan. Sapp did not, and in the video, he acknowledged how after the Tampa Bay Buccaneers captured the 2002 Super Bowl, they relaxed, how they let all the distractions overwhelm them. Jordan sat there, stone faced.  He could not relate. The video then transitions to clips of Wilson throwing touchdown passes and evading defenders and generally making NFL defenses look like high school ones. The clips are set to music from The Matrix. It’s hard to watch the video and not want to run out of a tunnel at the nearest football stadium.

“That’s how you win another championship,” Moawad said.

***

Warren Moon repeated. He actually won five straight Grey Cups, the Canadian Football League’s version of the Super Bowl, with the Edmonton Eskimos from 1978 to ‘82. The second one, he said, was the hardest.

Moon faced the same challenges as Harrison and the Patriots: teams that circled their date with Edmonton before the season started, fans who treated the Eskimos like celebrities, players who came into camp with both egos and bellies inflated. Moon said he pushed himself harder that offseason after his first title, but he had no idea what to expect. “I saw with that second one how tough it really was,” he said.

Edmonton opened that 1979 season with three victories, then tied their next two games. Moon said he called a team meeting, told everyone to refocus. “Mainly we just weren’t going out there with the same intensity and fire,” Moon said. “People were catching us.”

The meeting worked. The Eskimos rattled off nine wins in their final 11 games. But Moon learned a valuable lesson about what it took to stay on top. It reminded him of an old boxing quote attributed to various fighters throughout the years. It goes something like this: It’s hard to get up at 5 a.m. and run five miles when you’re wearing silk pajamas.

People don’t know what that’s like, he said, until they actually go through it.

***

The Seahawks are about to find out -- what it’s like to defend a championship, why it’s so difficult, whether they can reverse the trend. That starts on Sept. 4, when the Green Bay Packers come to town to kick off the NFL season.

Reasons for optimism abound. Start with the defense, which allowed 14.4 points per game last season, or nine points below the league average. The Seahawks’ figure is more impressive given the modern pass-happy NFL offenses that more resemble Madden video games than the football played by Vince Lombardi’s Packers. The Seahawks defense led the NFL in points and yards allowed, takeaways and opponent passer rating. They lost defensive tackle Red Bryant and defensive end Chris Clemons and cornerback Brandon Browner. But they also signed Thomas and cornerback Richard Sherman, two young stars, to long-term contract extensions.

On offense, it’s difficult to overstate the buzz at Seahawks headquarters about wide receiver Percy Harvin. He hardly played last year, but when he did play, he added an explosive dimension Seattle lacked. His kick return touchdown to start the second half of the Super Bowl all but cemented the Seahawks’ triumph. He says he’s healthy, and while Seattle lost wideout Golden Tate to free agency, they added Paul Richardson, a speedster cut in the Harvin mold, with their first selection in the draft.

Lynch held out but returned with a pay raise for this season. His backups, Christine Michael and Robert Turbin, should see additional work this season, anyway. Carroll recently called Turbin the most improved player on the roster.

Wilson, meanwhile, enters his third season, traditionally a year in which quarterbacks blossom. He recorded 30 pass attempts in only four games last season, and never more than 33. Moon thinks that will change, that the Seahawks will open up their offense. “He’s doing a great job of playing within the confines of what they’re asking him to do,” Moon said. “Last year, early in the season, he wanted a whole lot more. He never bitched about it. This year, he’ll take his game to another level. He can become a guy who throws for 300-plus yards.”

The Seahawks are not without their issues. The impact of Lynch’s holdout remains to be seen. Offensive line is a question mark, especially at right tackle, where the rookie Justin Britt is expected to start but where veteran Eric Winston was signed for insurance purposes. Then there are the unknowns familiar to any NFL team but acute to Super Bowl champions looking to repeat.

“I think we’re further ahead,” Wilson says. “I definitely believe we’re better than a year ago. I want to win again. Whatever it takes.”

If that happens, Wilson and Thomas can count on another trip to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Perhaps this time they will celebrate. Perhaps. But not likely.

***

Ty Law repeated. He played cornerback for the Patriots from 1995 to 2004, won three Super Bowls, played in another and starred for Carroll, who coached New England from 1997 to ’99. Law likes Carroll. He liked him then. “A lot of folks did,” he said. “If we had put a couple more wins together, people might not have seen Bill Belichick.”

Law said he can see why pundits want to compare these Seahawks to those Patriots, the ones that won consecutive Super Bowls a decade ago. He can see the comparison. But he doesn’t totally agree with it. “We weren’t as young,” he said. “We weren’t as brash. We were definitely full of confidence, but we didn’t exude that to the public. We were low-key.”

As an example, he pointed to Bryan Cox, the Pro Bowl linebacker who now coaches for Atlanta. Law described Cox as “loud” and “brash” and “damn near obnoxious at times,” but said that Cox arrived in New England and toned down his act and won a Super Bowl in 2001. That’s how it worked. The Seahawks, with so many young players and stars inked to long-term deals, are built to win, but not in that same way.

“The Seahawks have the best chance to repeat since we did,” Law said. “If they don’t do it this year, we’re not going to see it for a while. If they don’t do it this year, it’ll be another 10 years before we see a team this close again.”

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