By Scoop Jackson
Page 2

The question has been asked about the Seahawks: "Why are they here?"

Not that they don't deserve to be in XL 2006, but the question is a legitimate one. Especially if you've been riding and dying with them between the Jim Zorn and Lofa Tatupu years.

Lofa Tatupu
AP
Seattle proves that it's the Year of the Seahawks.

But what changed? What is the difference between this year's team and last season's 9-7 squad that many fans called "psychotic"?

On the surface, nothing. At least nothing major. The team that will take the field Sunday is basically the same core unit that had me on the bandwagon last season, prophesying that they were going to be in Super Bowl XXXIX.

Not true.

It's the Philadelphia Eagles' story in reverse. It's the difference in two seasons. One team. And the uncommon denominator that every team in professional sports prays for, but gets acknowledged only when you're playing in the last game of the season.

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They say it's the chemistry. They keep it simple like that.

Shaun Alexander: "It's been an unbelievable chemistry, just a couple of changes in personnel and a couple of changes in the front office. All of a sudden everybody understands their role. Everybody believes what their role is, and we've just been having fun enjoying each and every day playing every game one at a time. We ended up in Detroit, and that's what our goal was."

Mack Strong: "We're more of a team this year. We're more unselfish, we play for each other, we like each other. The energy is different. There's not a sense of 'I'm trying to get mine' on this team."

Grant Wistrom: "We have better chemistry. We eliminated a lot of the distractions. I think we had some guys that weren't real good team players, but when [team president] Mr. [Tim] Ruskell came in this year, that was the main thing that he wanted to address: to make sure that the 53 guys that we kept might not be the 53 best athletes, but that they were the 53 best football players."

Matt Hasselbeck (when asked specifically if too much is made of the chemistry change): "Heck, no. I think more ought to be made about it."

But inside of those comments you can see how the change didn't come from nowhere.

It came from the Week 4 meltdown in a game last season against the Rams, when the Seahawks blew a 17-point lead with five minutes left and lost in overtime -- which began the downfall of last year's regular season after a 3-0 start.

It came from the indirect personnel changes of eight players: Tatupu indirectly replacing Anthony Simmons, Joe Jurevicius indirectly replacing Koren Robinson, Bryce Fisher for Chad Brown and LeRoy Hill for Chike Okeafor.

It came from Rams wide receiver Torry Holt publicly questioning the Seahawks' mental toughness during the draft, a quote that Mike Holmgren posted in the locker room and made sure his team saw almost every day this season.

It came from the sacrifice an offensive line made to make sure that 2 yards didn't separate the best running back in the game from getting the rushing title (and MVP) that he should have had last season.

From this development of chemistry came degrees of focus and professionalism that has never been a part of any team in Seattle Seahawks history. From this chemistry came kinship and kindred spirit. From the chemistry they talk of came an elevated level of preparation, desire, competitiveness and belief in self.

Remember, this is the team that was not supposed to be here. Still three days away from the Bowl, there are those who think Seattle is a fluke.

"They're still doing it with smoke and mirrors," one host on radio row said. "They're still not for real."

"Even if they win, you still won't be convinced?" I asked the unnamed jock on radio row.

"Unless they blow Pittsburgh out, that's the only way I'll be convinced that they're a legit team."

The funny thing about chemistry is that it often doesn't travel outside of the team it's resurrecting. It's not tangible, so people tend to dismiss it. The same way so many have been dismissing the Seahawks all season long.

But is that the only difference? Is "chemistry" the only difference between the 9-7 out-in-the-first-round Seahawks and the team that's already made organizational history?

What about the other words the Seahawks used? "Energy," "fun," "unselfish."

What about the ones they didn't, but say silently: Professionalism, focus, maturity, accountability.

Or do all those define chemistry?

Or are they all parts of the development of a belief that has turned "chemistry" into the most overused term in sports when explaining why a team succeeds and why it ultimately fails?

Ever hear of a team with the worst record in the NFL talk about how great the chemistry was? The Lions will not be heard talking about their team's chemistry. Neither will the Panthers or the Bears, two other teams that were supposed to have better chemistry than the Seahawks.

Never heard the Seahawks use the term after losing to the Rams in the playoffs last season.

Yet here they are now. Still standing. Trying to make "ignoramuses" out of all of us who don't believe that one small invisible intangible can be the Judas and Jesus difference in a football team.

Or are the Seahawks simply trying to play us? Sell us that corporate, feel-good line so that we don't discover the real difference from 2004? Or the year before that, or the year before that.

Is the difference getting rid of those four players ... or the emergence of the four who indirectly replaced them?

Is it the Michael Boulware factor? Or the Darrell Jackson factor?

Couldn't the difference simply be Tatupu being as good a rookie at linebacker as Roethlisberger was as at quarterback last year? Maybe better?

Couldn't it be, as Bill Cowher even admits, that with Walter Jones and Steve Hutchinson, the Seahawks have the best offensive line in football?

Or that Hasselbeck, at 30, is just entering his prime years? And might be the best QB in the NFC.

Couldn't the difference have nothing to do with chemistry and more about the 53 guys who put on that Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle blue/green jersey being on a mission to prove that last season was the fluke, not this year?

When asked if the Seahawks simply underachieved in 2004 and overachieved this season, Bobby Engram said the opposite of Wistrom. While the defensive end said both, the wide receiver said neither.

"I don't think we did either," he said. "I just think last year didn't turn out the way we wanted. We made the playoffs, we just didn't finish. This year, we finish games."

Even Torry Holt has reversed his thoughts about the Seahawks. "What I said about Seattle last year, now I can't say that," he said. "This is not the same team. The turning point with them came when they started beating the teams that they wanted to beat this year that they didn't beat [last year]. And not only did they beat those teams, they dominated them. That gave them confidence. They proved to themselves that they were a good football team."

Ah. Did you peep that? That other word? Confidence. Not chemistry.

But then again, maybe in the minds of the Seattle Seahawks, chemistry and confidence (and professionalism and accountability and unselfishness and focus and maturity) are actually all the same thing.

Scoop Jackson is an award-winning journalist who has covered sports and culture for more than 15 years. He is a former editor of Slam, XXL, Hoop and Inside Stuff magazines and the author of "Battlegrounds: America's Street Poets Called Ballers" and "LeBron James: the Chambers of Fear." He resides in Chicago with his wife and two kids. You can e-mail Scoop here. Sound off to Page 2 here.




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