SUNDAY'S SEASON OPENER for the Seattle Seahawks was billed as Military Appreciation Day, as though such a sentiment isnt somewhat forced and superfluous, given that Americans have been appreciating their military just about every day and way and doing so without any coaxing by the National Football League. One imagines, though, that a patently war-related tie-in was supposed to put a special charge into a club that hadnt won a season opener at home since 1986. Hence, it was only too appropriate that the Seahawks Defense Department provided most of the heroes during a 27-10 win over New Orleans, leaving the team tied with San Francisco for the division lead.
Perhaps some who have helped make Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them (Al Frankens latest lib-rant) a best seller wonder whether there was another agenda associated with Military Appreciation Day. Was it a quid pro quo, a setup, a fix, as they say in sports? Hadnt President Bush extended a regular-guy hidy-ho to football fans last Thursday, when his televised pre-NFL-opener remarks explained for the beer bubbas the oft-cited similarities (one guesses the prez has been listening to those old George Carlin routines again) between football and the military? Was Sundays appreciation day nothing more than a planned segue for the American TV viewers who, presumably, would tune in Bushs hat-in-hand Iraq War speech minutes after getting their Sunday NFL warm and fuzzies?
The answers no doubt will be revealed in Frankens next volume. In the meantime, what was clear on Sunday, other than new war-related taxpayer obligations sure to put a strain on a familys football-ticket budget, is that the Seahawks have the makings of the defense theyve needed for 10 years or more. Without getting too chesty here (the Saints, after all, bested the Hawks in most offensive categories, including 359-270 in total yards), game highlights show a tough up-the-middle defense with capable pass coverage and some hits (Bob Melvin, take note) we havent seen since Kenny Easley last roamed the Earth in anger. Sunday, it was the new Kens turn. Rookie safety Ken Hamlin answered the challenge by smacking the Saints Dante Stallworth so hard that the ball, the receiver, and his helmet wound up 5 yards apart in three directions at midfield. Hamlin and first-round draft pick Marcus Trufant, the Tacoma-bred cornerback phenom, have been pressed into early service, and each responded much of the time like seasoned-vet teammates (appliance-sized Norman Hand plugged the D-line; linebacker Anthony Simmons had 10 tackles).
The O was slow to join in the fun, going three-and-out its first two possessions and leaving the Saints with statistical ownership of the first quarter and a 3-0 lead. But the increasingly confident-seeming quarterback, Matt Hasselbeck, shrugged off some of his teammates dropped balls and, with gutty north-south ground work from reliable runner Shaun Alexander (he had 108 yards for the game), the Hawks turned three consecutive second-quarter possessions into a 21-3 halftime lead. After the game, Seahawks wide receiver Darrell Jackson alluded to what could be a theme this season when he said of the offense: With the defense playing that well, all we need is a couple of scores while the defenders hold the opposition down. The re-energized defense is being credited to coordinator Ray Rhodes, a gladless man of suitably military bearing who flashes such flaming intensity that he seemed to singe the beard stubble of sportswriters as he passed the press box elevator at halftime.
SOME IN THE VICTORS' locker room seemed as aware as management of the imperative of putting more butts on seats (the game drew 52,250, about 15,000 short of a sellout). Several spoke of the teams need to get local games televised. Such has been the lament for years, but strict league broadcasting regulations, of course, dictate local TV blackouts as punishment for anything less than games that are at least nominal sellouts. Hiding the product from potential buyers has been thought by some to be a stupid marketing approach, but so, increasingly, is trying to mine fan support with maudlin military appeals. (In fairness, the Huskies preceded the weekends home opener with a military fly-by, and the Mariners have been shameless with their flag-wrapped pregame ceremonies.)
As for the larger picture (the pro-football season, that is, not the $87 billion Iraq tab), its easy to see how Mike Holmgrens latest collection of blue-clad legions could make the playoffs for the first time since the last budget surplus. The 49ers (49-7 over the Bears last week) present a formidable obstacle to a division championship. But the St. Loser Rams and Arizona Cardinals (next Sundays Seattle opponent) are as bad or worse than last year, and it could just be, given the schedule, that Seattle would be 11-5 when the playoffs beckon. All that would remain unanswered is whether anybody could afford playoff tix after paying the average Americans share of appreciating the military.