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Sunday, November 4, 2012 - Page updated at 07:00 p.m.
The art of crunch time: How the Seahawks handle so many close games
By Danny O'Neil
Seattle Times staff reporter
You must hurry, but you can't be frantic.
Play with a sense of urgency, but don't get anxious.
Embrace the moment, but don't be overwhelmed by it.
If you're having trouble navigating those apparent contradictions, imagine trying to play through them at the end of an NFL game when the clock is ticking down, the score is thisclose and everyone is waiting to see if the next play will be the decisive one.
"You can't help but to feel the pressure and the anxiety," said receiver Golden Tate. "This is the last few seconds. If I catch or drop this ball, it's going to determine the outcome of the game."
Welcome to crunch time in the NFL. Of the 119 games played so far this season, 67 have been decided by eight points or fewer, which amounts to one possession. Seattle has been involved in seven of them, tied for most in the NFL.
That's a product of the way these Seahawks are built — from the emphasis on running the ball, to the fact they are the second-to-last rated passing offense, to their unyielding defense counted on to keep every game close and often uncomfortable.
Pressure makes diamonds, but it also busts pipes, and the way a player responds in those moments is a defining trait in this league.
"It's one of my favorite parts of the coaching part of this business," coach Pete Carroll said. "Teaching guys how to feel confident enough to believe in what they've been prepared to do and believe in what they can do."
Composure. Poise. Clutch. They are buzz words we use for the ability to come through when the stakes are highest, but the truth is that in football, success in those moments often comes down to something no more mysterious than practice, patience and a resolute determination to treat the final play of a close game the same as the first.
"There's a peace to it, I think," said Russell Wilson, Seattle's rookie quarterback. "You have to bring that peace to the game when everybody else is kind of getting frantic and getting nervous."
Practicing to be perfect
Seattle has rehearsed the situation more than a thousand times.
That's not a figure of speech. It's an actual estimate for the number of times Seattle has practiced its two-minute drill. Carroll counted. For a while anyway.
"I lost count after when we got around 700," he said last month.
When 2011 ended, the Seahawks looked back and counted six games they had a chance to win at the end. They went 0-6, so they headed toward this season with an eye toward improving that part.
They added quarterbacks, first signing Matt Flynn and then choosing Wilson in the third round. They changed their practice schedule, with an emphasis toward end-of-the-game situations.
"The idea is you prepare and you practice at your highest clip, as much as you possibly can, and then you hold onto that," Carroll said.
Sounds like an assembly-line formula to manufacture results? Well, that's the idea.
"I don't think really a lot changes," center Max Unger said. "You kind of get a little bit more of a sense of urgency, but what does that mean? You can't get all freaked out."
The biggest thing that changes at the end of a close game is the pace. The offense can't afford to waste time, but how fast a team goes from one play to the next will depend on the situation. End-of-the-game offense comes in two flavors: four-minute and two-minute.
With four minutes remaining there's time to both huddle and to run the ball. In fact, the goal isn't to burn rubber down the field, but move methodically. You want to consume as much of that clock as possible before scoring, leaving the opponent too little time to respond.
With two minutes left, the quarterback stands on the accelerator. Huddles occur when the clock is stopped, plays get sent in with substitutions and the quarterback is given two, even three plays in advance.
The challenge is to communicate clearly in the midst of the escalating pressure. Plays are shuttled in from the sideline or given over the quarterback's headset, which is wired to a coach for the first 25 seconds of the play clock. That makes Seattle offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell the equivalent of air traffic controller.
"I try to pride myself on staying flatline," Bevell said in a monotone, "if you can't tell."
No need to shout. The offense tends to get quiet. No one wants to distract the quarterback. For the offense, the game comes down not to a single play so much as the ability to string multiple plays together. There's no time for inspirational speeches, let alone jokes.
"Usually, when you're in that situation, you don't even want to break it with humor," guard John Moffitt said. "You want to get it done, focus in."
If an offense tries to remain consistent, the defense tries to build to a crescendo.
This is it. Closing time.
"We cherish that moment," rookie linebacker Bobby Wagner said. "We can't wait. There's kind of an excitement to the challenge."
A challenge that Seattle's defense has met in the final minutes of two different games this year, stripping the ball from Carolina's Cam Newton on the road in Week 5 and forcing New England's Tom Brady to turn the ball over on downs a week later.
"You've got to kind of enjoy the moment," cornerback Richard Sherman said. "Because you don't get those moments all the time."
But sometimes, those moments can avalanche out of control. That was the case last week when the Seahawks defense was on the field for five minutes to end the game as Detroit ran 16 plays — 15 of them passes — and drove 80 yards for the game-winning touchdown.
It was the NFL equivalent of a blown save.
"It was in our hands defensively," said defensive coordinator Gus Bradley. "We didn't come through."
That was clear to anyone who watched the game, and that transparency is the other side of playing in a tight game. In a league where players speak in generalities and coaches have to watch the tape, coming up short in a close game puts a microscope on accountability.
And in those critical moments, it's not about rising to the occasion as much as a staring contest to see who blinks.
"You don't have to play over the top," Carroll said. "You just need to do what you're capable of doing, and most of the time — because of what's going on, the elements that are added up — teams make mistakes."
It was 30 years ago that Joe Montana saw comedian John Candy in the crowd at the Super Bowl. It was during a television timeout in the fourth quarter, Montana's 49ers trailing the Bengals by three points when Montana pointed Candy out to teammate Harris Barton before leading the team to the go-ahead score.
The moment came to symbolize Joe Cool, Montana a quarterback so unfazed that even on the biggest of stages, he not only remained calm but was able to say the one thing that would defuse the tension among his teammates.
Wilson has not pointed out a comedian yet. He has not given a speech that's worthy of a movie script. But eight games into his NFL career, perhaps the most remarkable thing about this rookie quarterback is the fact that he has been so utterly unremarkable even as the clock has ticked down.
"He's the same guy every single play," Tate said. "He's the same person."
That's important because the quarterback is not only the team's rudder at the end of the game, but he also must serve as the keel in those critical moments.
"That's when you have to be razor sharp and just focused in on what you have to do to excel," Wilson said. "I like those moments. I wait for those. That's what this game is about, and that's the National Football League, every single week comes down to the last minute."
That's especially true in Seattle this season as no NFL team is playing more close games.
Danny O'Neil: 206-464-2364 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @dannyoneil.
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