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GREEN BAY, Wis. – Seattle Seahawks defensive end Michael Bennett was given some simple math Sunday night, and he swatted at it. There was no place for it near his locker, under his nameplate or in his face. Within that space, statistics and historical record had another name.
He knows it's coming now – a firing squad of graphs, probabilities and data suggesting that an 0-2 start is the equivalent of finding your NFL season in a headlock. The media calls it research. Bennett calls it "the propaganda."
No matter how you want to frame it, it's still a dubious hole: Since playoff expansion in 1990, only 11.7 percent of teams that started the season 0-2 have ended up fighting into the postseason.
"We're a bunch of percentage beaters," Bennett said. "We're a bunch of guys who are low-round draft picks. We're a bunch of guys that [people said] can't do it. We're definitely percentage beaters. We're not really worried about the percentages that people make up."
That's actually a believable line about the players. The Seahawks are a collection of granite chins, arguably the toughest of all the NFL alpha male locker rooms. And in the most optimistic quarters, this might even be seen as a welcome pinch, a wake-up call similar to last season's 3-3 start. One year ago, Seattle reacted to being backed into a corner by displaying uncommon resiliency. But this isn't that same team, and it doesn't have the same problems. And at the very least, Sunday's 27-17 loss to the Green Bay Packers suggests the Seahawks should be worried about something before they simply sweep this one under the rug.
Start with Seattle's identity. For two years, the Seahawks have been known as the team that imposes its will upon teams – controls tempo, talks trash, backs it up, beats you down, runs all over you. These were the NFL bullies who were convinced nobody believed in them. The Seahawks wore that persona better than anyone in the league. But now? Some of the cracks in the façade are showing.
For two straight weeks, Seattle's offensive line has had its hands full with an opposing front. First with the St. Louis Rams in the Week 1 loss, and then again on Sunday with the Packers. Last week, running back Marshawn Lynch rushed for 73 tough yards but couldn't pick up a yard on fourth-and-1 in overtime, when it mattered most. And while you could question how that particular play went down, there was no denying that the Rams spent most the season-opener making Seattle's offensive line look uncharacteristically bad.
Part of it is youth, with offensive tackle Russell Okung and guard J.R. Sweezy the only real established veterans holding over from last season. Another part of it has been the sacrifice of two-time Pro Bowl center Max Unger in the deal to land tight end Jimmy Graham. While talented centers are replaceable, Unger's loss as the "glue guy" anchor has been felt in a softening interior line. Some of which was evident when Green Bay's penetration forced the Seahawks to alter their approach Sunday night, going with less pocket passing and more read-option running by quarterback Russell Wilson. And it worked for a while. But it also put Seattle in a spot where Wilson was taking hits – which isn't an identity this franchise wants.
"He's such a gifted athlete when he gets the ball in his hands on the outside," wideout Doug Baldwin said of Wilson's read-option looks. "He can do so much for our offense, but he's our quarterback. You've got to protect him at the same time. It's a give-and-take world."
He's not just the quarterback anymore. He's the $20 million-plus star who is the most indispensable piece on the roster. He's supposed to be more of a pocket guy now, accentuating his game with his feet only occasionally. Something like Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers. That's why Seattle went out and got Graham. And gave Lynch more money. And signed Fred Jackson. Because these were all pieces expected to cocoon Wilson from risk. But he's taking hits, and getting exposed to read-option plays, and watching Lynch (who had 41 yards on 15 carries Sunday) deal with similar ineffectiveness.
Nobody is saying the offense can't be tough. It just hasn't found the physical groove in that identity. Seattle faced a similar offensive identity problem in last season's 3-3 start. But the difference on that team was that the defense was fully loaded. This one? Let's not kid ourselves. Cornerback Byron Maxwell (left via free agency) and safety Kam Chancellor (contract dispute) are missed. There's a physical nature to that secondary, and one of the fists isn't there.
You can see it when a running back like James Starks carves up the field between the hashes. That's Chancellor's wheelhouse. He cleans it with authority. And you can see it when cornerback Richard Sherman is drawing pass interference flags and missing tackles. You can see it in the depth chart shuffling in the strong safety spot, which has seen different starters in both games this season.
Sure, guys like linebacker Bruce Irvin can say, "I think we've got all the right guys here," and "I'm not talking about the Kam situation." But don't get that confused. Not a player in that starting defensive huddle believes the unit is better without Chancellor. While he may not be the reason for the back-to-back losses, his absence hasn't helped.
"Everybody misses Kam, but that's not why we lost the game," Bennett said. "I know that's what everybody wants to point to. We had multiple chances of winning both games these last two weeks. We've just got to capitalize on them."
Bennett is right. The Week 1 loss to the Rams was one or two plays from being a win. And the loss to the Packers wasn't embarrassing in the least, because Green Bay looks like it's right up there with the NFC elites. But failing to capitalize now whittles away the margin for error later. And a game like Sunday night also emboldens a likely NFC playoff rival. You needed only to be in Rodgers' news conference to hear it, when he took a clear jab at Wilson. After beating Green Bay in last season's NFC championship game, Wilson credited God. To which Rodgers responded Sunday: "I think God was a Packers fan tonight."
In this matchup, that qualifies as a slap. And it's the type of thing you say when you feel like you've taken back a little flesh from the bully who ended your season eight months ago. And why not? Green Bay is on the right side of the ledger at 2-0.
Now Seattle is the one with some statistical drama to solve. And whatever you want to call it – myth … math … reality – the Seahawks are still grasping for the chemistry that defined them in the past two years. And finding it isn't as simple as wagging a finger at the media and saying everything will be fine.
"To everybody else, it's going to be like, 'Oh, the season is over,'" Bennett said. "It's such a long season. We still have so many games to play. The early games, they don't define us. We're still trying to define who we are as a team. We've bounced back. Last year, everybody counted us out. We bounced back and were in the big dance."
That's a fact. But this isn't that Seattle team. Not yet, anyway. You don't need math or propaganda to figure that out. The team of low draft picks has become a bunch of highly paid, roundly celebrated targets. They may still be percentage beaters. But right now, the percentages are beating back.