ATLANTA — In 2013 or 2014, what happened to the Seattle Seahawks on Saturday would have been unimaginable. In 2015, it would have still been hard to conceive.
But in 2016, this is the new normal for the Seahawks.
The Legion of Boom is no more. It was slain by the Atlanta Falcons, and the very moment it happened was obvious and easy to define. At a time when the Seahawks should have been ready to take control of the game, Atlanta not only flipped the script, it ended an era.
With 3:48 remaining in the first half, Seattle had Atlanta pinned at its 1-yard line. The Seahawks were down 12-10 in large part because of some self-inflicted wounds caused by penalties. In the previous three seasons, this would have been the perfect time to come up with a big play or, at the very least, make a quick stop and give quarterback Russell Wilson a short field to drive.
Instead, what happened next is something that had never happened to Seattle's vaunted defense. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the last time Seattle gave up a 99-yard drive was Oct. 14, 2002, long before any members of the Legion were even in the league.
And it wasn't just any 99-yard drive that led to a 19-10 halftime lead for Atlanta. It was 99 yards completely through the air. Nine passes called by the Falcons. Seven completed. Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan not only proved his status as a Most Valuable Player candidate, he also beat the Seahawks at the thing they pride themselves on.
"We wanted to stay aggressive," Atlanta running back Devonta Freeman said. "To do that, that meant a lot. You definitely take them down. It breaks a defense down mentally and physically when you take it to them like that."
Or as Falcons right tackle Ryan Schraeder put it: "You grind them up and they break. I think we got to that point right then."
Getting to this point has been a process of erosion by Seattle. Some observers have viewed Seattle's inconsistencies over the past two years as partially due to boredom. This is a great team that has turned it on at crucial times, such as the short-week win at New England earlier this season.
But the truth is part of an immutable reality of football since the beginning of real free agency in 1993.
Great defenses still win championships. But they usually win only one before they are split up, grow old or get hurt. Seattle has done its best to keep the Legion together, signing players such as Michael Bennett, Kam Chancellor, Richard Sherman, Earl Thomas, Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright to long-term deals.
But the teams that win consistently in this era are the ones built around a franchise quarterback, and the jury is still out on Wilson. While great quarterbacks are expensive, the cost of paying one quarterback is easier than the aggregate cost of paying five or six defensive players, particularly when you factor in injury and decline.
Seattle's decline in the past four years has been measurable. In 2013, the Seahawks led the league by allowing only 4.8 net yards per pass attempt. They slipped to a tie for third in 2014 with 5.5 net yards per attempt and then tied for fifth with 5.8 net yards per attempt in 2015.
This year, Seattle fell to a pedestrian 11th-place tie in the league at 6.2 net yards per attempt.
As one general manager put it this season: "They have some excuses. Bennett and Thomas were hurt for a lot of the year. I'll give them that. But they don't scare you the same way they did [in 2013]. … I remember watching Peyton [Manning] in that Super Bowl. He had no idea how to attack them. None. They took everything away. It was complete domination."
On Saturday, Ryan and Atlanta showed absolutely no fear. In fact, the Falcons lined up in shotgun formation from their own 1 on the first play as Ryan flicked a pass to Julio Jones for eight yards. Three plays later, Ryan and offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan thought so little of challenging the Seahawks that they made the same call on back-to-back plays against Seattle after it didn't work the first time.
Against a team as smart as Seattle, that would normally be an affront, and the Seahawks would have made the opposition pay for it. Instead, the Falcons just chewed them up.
"When you're in that position, changing field position is the first goal," Ryan said. "But once you get rolling, hey, let's keep it up. … I had no idea [we passed on every play]. I thought we ran a few. That's kind of cool."
Kind of cool? Against once-mighty Seattle, that was way beyond cool.
It was defining.
Of course, the Seahawks wouldn't admit that after the game. They bickered with each other during the game, argued with reporters afterward and tilted against the very notion of a decline.
"The connection and leadership within, we are in the middle of it," head coach Pete Carroll said after the game to his players in discussing Seattle's run of success. "Right in the middle of it. We are just still in the process. And that is what this feels like. The beginning and middle of it. And not the end of it."
Carroll is a man who doesn't believe in doubt. He is ruled by the power of positivity to the point of near Pollyanna.
The truth, however, was quite evident. At a time when the Seahawks should have been ruling the roost, they were instead no more.