SEATTLE 34 CAROLINA 14
After laying the Panthers low, hard-hitting rookie linebacker Lofa Tatupu may be the man who brings the Seahawks their first Super Bowl trophy
The commotion had unnerved him, and Lofa Tatupu, the Seattle Seahawks' rookie middle linebacker, was bent on restoring order. "Shut up, Bailey!" Tatupu yelled, momentarily interrupting the incessant barking of the 15-pound fox terrier running around his Kirkland, Wash., town house last Friday night. Then, in an instant, Tatupu's angry stare turned sheepish. That's because Bailey, who belongs to Tatupu's girlfriend, Rachael Marcott, has grown on the Seahawks' leading tackler. "Come here, Bailey," he said, extending his right fist. "Give me some dap." ¬∂ Balancing on his hind legs, Bailey dutifully lifted his left paw and hit Tatupu's fist. "That's my dog," Tatupu said, beaming. At the sight of a little pooch turning the 23-year-old former USC star into a softie, you had to wonder: Does this 5'11", 226-pound linebacker sip soy lattes? Does Lofa use a loofah?
Two days later, to the delight of a Seattle fan base hoping to shed more than a quarter century's worth of postseason disappointment, Tatupu affirmed his machismo with a bang in the NFC Championship Game at Qwest Field. Deciphering the Carolina Panthers' offense like a savvy veteran, Tatupu quickly set the tone for the Seahawks' 34-14 victory. With 5:07 left in the first quarter, he stepped in front of All-Pro wideout Steve Smith to make an interception that led to a field goal. Little more than three minutes later, with Seattle on top 10-0, Tatupu correctly read a sweep around right end and closed hard on Carolina running back Nick Goings. Their head-on collision was as charged as a Pearl Jam gig at the nearby Crocodile Café, and both players slumped to the ground.
"I wasn't sure who had won that one," Seattle defensive end Bryce Fisher said later. "But their guy left the game, and ours shook off the cobwebs and kept playing. That was huge, because Lofa's our leader."
That a would-be college senior could help lead the Seahawks to their first Super Bowl spoke to the strangeness of a season few envisioned back last April, when Seattle drafted Tatupu in the second round and essentially allowed him to take charge of the defense. On Sunday, with the help of smelling salts and the urgings of 67,837 fans, Tatupu played three-plus quarters with what was later diagnosed as a mild concussion and helped the Seahawks complete a declawing of the Panthers that reverberated from Grungeville all the way to Motown.
When the Seahawks (15-3) face the Pittsburgh Steelers (14-5) in Super Bowl XL on Feb. 5 in Detroit, the latest version of the Steel Curtain won't be the only defense at Ford Field capable of controlling the game. "We come hard, and we're fighters," Tatupu said of a unit that limited Carolina to 109 total yards through three quarters and didn't allow the offense to score until 5:09 remained.
If the Panthers (13-6), fresh off impressive road playoff victories over the New York Giants and the Chicago Bears, didn't see it coming, Don Hasselbeck did-more than a decade ago. Back then Hasselbeck, a former NFL tight end, was coaching the Norfolk (Mass.) Vikings in a Pop Warner league the same time his former New England Patriots teammate, fullback Mosi Tatupu (Lofa's father), was coaching the King Philip Warriors. "My son Nathaniel was our quarterback, and Lofa, at 12, was all over him," Don recalled while standing in the Seahawks' locker room on Sunday night. "I had to run double reverses just to give us a chance." A few feet away Nathaniel's big brother, Matt, the Seahawks' quarterback, nodded in agreement. Matt had just demoralized the Carolina defense with his typically heady and efficient play-20 of 28 passing for 219 yards and two touchdowns-while league MVP Shaun Alexander had carried 34 times for 132 yards and a pair of TDs.
Keying Seattle's attack, as always, was the NFL's preeminent offensive line, a group that Hasselbeck's former backup, Cleveland Browns quarterback Trent Dilfer, affectionately calls "the grumpy old men." As much as the well-acquainted linemen-all the starters except second-year right tackle Sean Locklear have been with the team for at least five seasons-like to carp at one another off the field, their unspoken understanding of how to adjust to defensive alignments is what defines this unit. "If you're not making calls at the line, it confuses a defensive lineman," All-Pro left tackle Walter Jones said at lunch last Saturday at a Kirkland T.G.I. Friday's. "At that point he can only guess what you're cooking up."
The Seahawks' vastly improved chemistry this season was no accident. After last January's 27-20 wild-card playoff loss at home to the St. Louis Rams-extending the franchise's streak without a postseason victory to an NFL-worst 21 years-Seattle shook things up. Owner Paul Allen dismissed team president Bob Whitsitt, whose ongoing feud with coach Mike Holmgren escalated to the point that the two had stopped talking to each other. In Whitsitt's place, Allen hired Tim Ruskell, a former Tampa Bay Bucs and Atlanta Falcons executive. The front-office tension was eased, and Ruskell purged the roster of players perceived as selfish or divisive. Then he went after guys who, he says, "loved playing football, played hard and had all the intangibles." That's what compelled him to trade up in the draft (with the Panthers, of all teams), for the 45th pick, and take Tatupu.
At his first minicamp Tatupu showed the Seahawks they had gotten more than they'd bargained for. Recalls Fisher, "He pretty much stepped in the huddle and told everyone, 'Listen to me because I know what I'm doing.'" Tatupu started all 16 games, and as the season went on he became increasingly bold in practices-irking Holmgren by calling fake punts (Tatupu occasionally filled in as the up-back on the punt team) and switching pass coverages during two-minute drills. Yet against the Panthers he was a coach's dream, repeatedly identifying the plays Carolina was about to run and positioning his teammates accordingly. This was essential to Seattle's defensive game plan, which was designed to frustrate Smith with a variety of double coverages and required Seattle to stop the run with only seven men near the line of scrimmage. The plan worked beautifully. The only damage Smith (five catches, 33 yards) inflicted was a 59-yard punt return for a touchdown, and the Panthers' running backs gained all of 21 yards on nine carries.
"It's amazing that he can be that good in his first year," Carolina center Jeff Mitchell said of Tatupu after the game. "He always seems to know where the ball is going."
Added Fisher, "Most offenses are designed to fool the linebackers. Lofa was out there calling exactly what they were doing, so they didn't have a whole lot of options."
Sometimes Tatupu's signals weren't easy to hear, as the boisterous crowd celebrated a team it hopes can win Seattle's first major professional sports championship since the SuperSonics won the 1978-79 NBA title. "This is the craziest crowd I've ever seen in this town," said a man who should know, Pearl Jam bassist Jeff Ament, as he mingled on the field during the postgame trophy presentation. "There's been sort of a gloomy mentality in Seattle-because of the weather [27 consecutive days of rain, a streak that ended on Jan. 15], because there've been so many heartbreaks-but this is an enormous boost for the fans."
Tatupu was delirious, too, but in a different way. "My head hurts, and everything is really foggy," he said softly as he walked slowly toward the players' parking lot less than an hour after the game. "That play knocked me stupid, and I vaguely remember the rest of the game. Maybe it'll come back to me later. I'm just glad we won."
Tatupu managed a slight smile. In half an hour he would be home, where a small dog was waiting to give him some well-earned dap.