If you ask a coach or player about the concept of a "moral victory" after a loss, chances are the response you receive will be augmented with rolling eyes and the occasional expletive. But there are times, as uselessly "feel-good" as it sounds, when a loss isn't a total defeat - when such events reveal layers of improvement as much as timestamps of overall performance value.
So it was in the Seahawks' 34-19 loss to the New Orleans Saints at the Superdome. In hanging around with the Super Bowl champs for a half of football, Seattle showed that certain aspects of its overall game have come forward in a big way. Matt Hasselbeck(notes) threw for over 300 yards for the second straight game - the first time he'd accomplished that since mid-November last year. He finished with 32 completions in 44 attempts for 366 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions.
Despite two broken bones in his wrist, Hasselbeck looked better and better through a week of practice in which he knew he'd have to go toe-to-toe with New Orleans' Drew Brees(notes), one of the league's most efficient and productive passers in the league. Fortunately, head coach Pete Carroll and offensive coordinator Jeremy Bates have developed enough faith in, and familiarity with, the veteran quarterback to take the top off the offense and let the supposedly average-armed quarterback throw downfield multiple times for the second straight game.
"He was throwing some picks early in the season, and he had to get through that and understand how careful he needed to be with the football," Carroll said after the game. "We almost had to take a couple steps backward. We were very conservative with him for a while, and then we stopped turning the ball over and the protection started getting better and we decided, Jeremy Bates and the offensive coaches, let's go now."
Hasselbeck had three pass plays of 20 yards or more, including a 68-yarder to Mike Williams and a 42-yard rope to Ben Obomanu(notes) in the first quarter alone. But Williams later suffered a foot sprain that took him out of the game, and New Orleans' top-ranked pass defense eventually limited Hasselbeck's deep options. Conversely, Brees hit seven pass plays of 20 yards or more, and two were for touchdowns. That's what happens when you face an offense which forces you to play catch-up; any troubles in that department tend to multiply the impact of other issues. And on offense, the Seahawks had other issues to spare.
Marshawn Lynch(notes) dropped two early passes and fumbled twice. And Seattle's rushing attack continued to struggle even with the presence of left tackle Russell Okung(notes); the team amassed just 58 yards on 17 carries. On the other side of the ball, Saints running back Chris Ivory, pressed into service when Reggie Bush(notes) couldn't go with the fractured fibula that has kept him away from the field since Week 2, gained 99 yards on 23 carries.
More disturbing was the way in which Ivory amassed his yards - he gained more and more after first contact, showing once again just how much this defense misses defensive end Red Bryant(notes) when it comes to stopping power running. And Seattle's pass defense had few answers for New Orleans' big receivers - Marques Colston(notes) caught eight passes on 11 targets for 113 yards and two touchdowns, and rookie tight end Jimmie Graham put up the best game of his young NFL career with five catches for 72 yards. Losing cornerback Marcus Trufant(notes) to a head injury didn't help.
"He got us in everything," Carroll said of Brees' efforts against the Seattle defense. We pressured him, we played two-deep zone, we played man-to-man. He was fantastic in avoiding any pressure that was there - you remember that one time (with 11 minutes left in the third quarter) when Lofa (Tatupu) came free on him? He was able to shove him on by ... he was just really on the money today. If we weren't going to knock him down, we were in trouble. We needed to get him, and we didn't get him today."
The Seahawks didn't just beat themselves, though - as is generally the case when the verbose Mike Carey runs an officiating crew, there were a few head-scratchers form the zebras. The most controversial call, and the one that affected the game more than any other, came with 1:39 left in the first half, Down 21-13, the Seahawks stopped the Saints on third-and-2 at the New Orleans 32-yard line. But end Raheem Brock(notes) was called for a fishy roughing the passer call in which the helmet-to-helmet contact needed to make that call was in Carey's mind -- replays showed that Brock hit Brees chest-to-chest on the play.
"They said I hit the quarterback in the head, but I basically had my hands up; just trying to stop his arm from going forward," Brock said after the game. The Seahawks went from getting the ball back with an offense that was humming, and the possibility of turning the game into a one-score affair, to a 27-13 halftime score, as the Saints added another touchdown with the drive extension.
And fair or foul, no matter how a team like the Saints is given extra chances, their opponents wind up paying for them. The Seahawks added to the toll with more iffy play-calling in short-yardage and goal-line situations, turning five different drives that ended at the Saints' 25-yard-line or closer into just one touchdown and four field goals. That's a trend that has to stop before this team can hope to take the next step.
"It's really been a problem for us, and we're getting stuck on the one-yard line too many times," Carroll said. "We did try and do a couple of things differently - we did have a couple of nice calls we wanted to get - but not enough to match (the Saints). They outdid us there, too."
Still, and perhaps most importantly, new and different players stood out. Linebacker David Hawthorne(notes) led the team in tackles with 10 solo and 12 total, adding an interception to his fine day. Safety Earl Thomas(notes) picked up his fifth interception of the year, tying Michael Boulware's(notes) rookie record, and added two passes defensed. Defensive tackle Junior Siavii(notes) continued his excellent play in relief of the injured Colin Cole(notes), using his long frame to defend two passes of his own. And Ben Obomanu once again validated the team's increased belief in his potential by bringing in five passes for 87 yards and a touchdown. Add that to Brandon Stokely's effective return from a calf injury (six catches, 76 yards), and it's easy to see how Seattle's passing game is coming together.
"We felt comfortable with the game plan, and I think we executed it pretty well," Obomanu said. "The biggest thing is that we're still trying to get some touchdowns, and that's what you have to realize - when you play a team like the Saints, they're going to score points. We fell a little short. At the same time, we've got a lot of things we can build on, and a lot of things we can look at positively from this game."
Of course, the problem is that while win-one-lose-one teams like the Seahawks struggle to keep every aspect of the game above a certain level, championship teams have strong foundations that allow victory, even when everything isn't at its level best. That's what the Saints have, and that's what the Seahawks are striving for.
And in a meaningful loss like this (believe it or not), Pete Carroll's team got the perfect barometer, indicating where they are, and how far they still have to go.