Perhaps the most improbable invention in Tom Wolfe's novel A Man in Full is that a college-football player wrestles a ball from an opponent at a critical juncture and runs the pigskin back to win the big game.
At least it seemed improbable until witnessing (and seeing many times on replay) the key performance of the Seattle Seahawks' 41-36 playoff victory against New Orleans at Qwest Field Saturday (Jan. 8). The play may forever be known in local Hawk lore as The Run (with multiple exclamation marks). With three and a half minutes left in a game many believed Seattle didn't even deserve to play, Marshawn Lynch took a third-down hand-off from resurrected quarterback Matt Hasselbeck and started running . . . and running . . .
When he was through, the mid-season pickup seemed to have been touched at least once by every member of the Saints defense before he made it 67 yards to the end zone and backward-somersaulted the Hawks into the second round of the National Football League playoffs. As this is written, their road opponent next week either will be Atlanta or Chicago.
It was a remarkable achievement if only for the fact that Seattle really needed just a few yards for a first down. Lynch managed that and then extended the run with such determination that he seemed to be daring the reigning world-champ Saints to find a way to stop him. Hours later NBC analyst Tony Dungy was still marveling at the effort, estimating that Lynch had broken not six or seven or eight tackles but possibly nine.
Seattle sports historians scrambling to find comparisons with the feat were harking back to the oft-referenced time in 1961 when former Husky immortal Hugh McElhenny, playing for the Minnesota Vikings, broke at least seven tackles and eluded nine San Francisco defenders during a 32-yard punt return.
Here’s one humble vote for Lynch's achievement being the best considering what was on the line. Certainly it's the play that situates the Seahawks into their position as the nascent decade's oddity of pro sports: a 7-9 division champ that actually has a chance to host the National Football Conference championship and go to a Super Bowl.
With the victory the Hawks would play indoors at Atlanta or in the probable chill of outdoor Chicago next week, depending on whether Green Bay beats Philadelphia Sunday (Jan. 9). If the Packers were to win and go on to defeat Atlanta and if the Hawks were to beat the Bears (as they did in Chicago already this season), it would be the Pack visiting Seattle for the right to go to the Super Bowl.
It's all pretty daunting for a widely laughed-at franchise that was behind by 10 early and left by many for dead. But Hasselbeck got past an early tipped-ball interception and went on to toss four touchdown passes, two of them spectacular. Much was made of John Carlson's pair of scoring receptions but the Hawks also benefited from the deft work of possession receiver Brandon Stokley, a 12-year veteran.
Coach Pete Carroll was his effervescent self in the aftermath, reasserting the value of game preparation and the obvious notion that, no matter what the odds, the score is 0-0 until the game starts. As for the next challenge, the first-year mentor said to reporters after the victory: "I couldn't care less. I don't even know the scenarios. And I know you think that's crazy, but I don't know what’s going on. And it doesn't matter. I just know that we show up on Monday and we'll figure out where we’re going."
Not knowing "the scenarios" may indeed seem a little crazy to fans. Tom Wolfe might even call it a "novel" approach to coaching.