SEATTLE — Of course this came down to the final seconds.
How could Russell Wilson not in his return to Lumen Field? How could the reunion of a Super Bowl champion quarterback and the only franchise he’s known for a decade not end in dramatic style?
How could it not for Pete Carroll and for the raucous Seattle crowd that watched Wilson orchestrate so much late-game magic over 157 starts and 10 seasons and faced being on the defensive end for the first time?
Certainly as Wilson led the Broncos to a pair of third-down conversions and out to midfield, behind near a point late in the fourth quarter, many in the building regardless of sideline or jersey color or allegiance had to believe he would author another. storybook ending, this one as the villain rather than the hero.
Instead, a twist.
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Denver’s Nathaniel Hackett in his head coaching debut opted to send Brandon McManus out for a 64-yard field goal attempt on fourth-and-5 with 20 seconds left rather than give Wilson and the offense a do-or-die chance at converting and making. McManus’ job easier.
McManus told the staff before the game that his range extended to the 46-yard line on the left hash. Denver got to that spot exactly, the edge of the veteran kicker’s range but close enough that Hackett decided it was the Broncos’ best chance at points.
“We were right on the line, but he had a lot of distance,” Hackett said. “Brandon gave it his best shot. That’s a long field goal to hit. I think he’s totally capable of that, but obviously I wish we could get a lot closer. It put us in that weird spot there because we were in field goal range but in that fourth down situation.”
There is no gray area in that spot for a rookie head coach. It is the offense or the field goal unit.
“Fourth and six, for me during that time, we moved it just a little bit. We didn’t move it in big chunks. I think we just gave up a sack right before that,” Hackett said, although the only negative play on the drive was a 4-yard loss on a completion to the flat. “I wanted to make sure we took a chance (at points) when we had a chance and we felt confident in (McManus).”
McManus’ career-long is 61 yards and he entered Monday 1-of-4 from 60-plus. Longest field goal made at Lumen Field: 56 yards.
“I knew there was a good chance we could kick it,” McManus said. I have to do them. I told them I could make that kick.”
Wilson, who earlier this month signed a five-year, $245 million extension that will keep him under contract with the Broncos until 2028, stood by his head coach’s decision.
“Any time you can find a way to try to make a play on fourth-and-5, that’s great too, but I don’t think it was the wrong decision either,” Wilson said.
Carroll, the 70-year-old Seattle head coach, said he thought Wilson would have the ball in his hands.
“I was surprised they took Russ out there at the end,” he said. “We weren’t thinking about a field goal there. We thought it was fourth down and they kept going.”
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While Hackett’s claim that Denver moved the ball in only fits and spurts during the final drive, it showed the kind of explosiveness in the middle of the field that an offensive head coach could easily have rationalized as reason enough to put the offense in place. the field for a potential game-deciding play.
Denver amassed 433 offensive yards at a 6.8-per-snap clip in its first outing with this lead and Wilson 29-of-42 for 340 and a touchdown.
“Finally: Switches, penalties, red zone. Bad deal,” Hackett said.
The final drive — 10 laborious plays for 32 yards over 3:47 — was just the latest of several chances Denver squandered to start its year as a postseason hopeful in the vaunted AFC West with a win. Instead, a team that focused intensely on two-minute and red-zone situations throughout training camp and didn’t do any live tackling or play many of its starters in the preseason struggled in those departments almost universally.
Two-minute drives resulted in one field goal and saw the offense use the entire clock, but get questionable production and efficiency for it before halftime and at the end. Big five trips into the red zone resulted in just a trio of field goals plus a goal line fumble each for the talented backcourt pair of Javonte Williams and Melvin Gordon.
“We have to be better in the red zone and that starts with me,” Hackett said. “That starts with me. I’ve got to make sure we have a better plan and we can get physical down there and get touchdowns instead of field goals or nothing at all.”
Denver’s defense missed tackles and racked up penalty yardage early before stiffening up in the second half. Even still, a dozen penalties for 106 total yards kept Seattle drives alive and also hindered Denver’s progress. Denver’s defense committed seven violations, while a fourth-quarter false start by Courtland Sutton took a go-ahead touchdown off the board and the Broncos had to settle for a field goal to go within 17-16.
Wilson was flagged for delay of game twice on Denver’s opening drive of the third quarter, a long march that ended when Melvin Gordon fumbled to reach the goal line on fourth-and-goal. Several other times, the game clock wound down to zero or very close as the Seattle crowd roared and made life difficult for the Broncos offense.
“Humanitarian noise definitely played a factor,” center Lloyd Cushenberry said. “We just have to get out of the crowd faster. Not really sure what it was, but we’ll talk about it when we get back in the office and fix it next week.”
An emotional comeback
All those mistakes — and an opportunistic Seahawks group — conspired to be more than enough to keep Wilson from winning in his emotional comeback here.
“They may cheer for you, they may boo, they may love you one day and hate you the next,” Wilson said. “That’s sports. At the end of the day, I’m going to keep competing, keep fighting.”
About two and a half hours before kickoff, he emerged from the Southeast tunnel in warmups, walking up and down the field, throwing a ball in his hands as cameras circled him and chronicled his every step. He had brief conversations with former Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch and current starting quarterback Geno Smith.
Wilson made his way to midfield and spread his arms wide as he made a slow circle on the Seattle logo, looking up and taking in the empty stadium from under a large pair of headphones.
Ringed around the stadium, signs outlined all aspects of Wilson’s offseason trade to Denver. One read, “Let’s Cook Russ,” a review of the popular “Let Russ Cook,” from his days in this city. Also, “Seahawks Fans Still Love Russ,” “Russ Can Finly Cook, Let’s Ride” and “Dude Turned Diva, Went Hollywood on Us.” A strong contingent of Denver fans made their way to Lumen Field, but that didn’t stop water from raining down on Wilson throughout the evening.
“It didn’t bother me. This is a hostile environment. It always was,” Wilson said. “I didn’t expect them to applaud.”
Let Gene cook
The quarterback on the other side, Seattle veteran Geno Smith, torched Denver in the first half.
He completed 17-of-18 for 164 yards and a pair of touchdowns – 38-yarder to tight end Will Dissly on a broken coverage and 25-yarder up the seam to tight end Colby Parkinson – in helping the Seahawks build a 17-13 lead.
The Seahawks’ production slowed in the second half — Denver threw a shutout and Seattle managed just 47 yards and five first downs — but the Lumen Field crowd chanted, “GE-NE, GE-NE” after every positive play by the quarterback during he. and the Seahawks played mostly from before.
Smith, starting his 35th career game at the start of his ninth professional season, got the nod for Seattle in the three games last fall when Wilson was out with a finger injury.
On Monday night, he came away with a win over his former teammate.
“They removed me,” he told ESPN’s Lisa Salters moments after he bled the final seconds off the clock with a trio of knees. “I’m not writing back though.”