The recipe was so good, the Seattle Seahawks went back for seconds.
They feasted on a main course of teeth-rattling defense with a smashmouth running game on the side. Dessert was the Skittles thrown after a Marshawn Lynch touchdown.
For the past two seasons, that hearty dish has fueled the Seahawks to the Super Bowl.
But is there room for thirds?
Never mind the bad taste left in their mouths after coming up one yard short against New England. For the Seahawks to win a third straight NFC championship, they might have to sample a different cuisine.
Seattle’s offense, especially Russell Wilson, must shoulder more of the load.
In paying him $87.6 million over four years, the Seahawks have bet the franchise’s future on Wilson.
And the salary-cap flexibility Wilson’s cheap rookie deal afforded the Seahawks is now gone.
While they could, the Seahawks signed several of their stars to lucrative contract extensions, especially on defense. But the shelf-life of most elite defenses is short.
Over the past two seasons, Seattle’s defense was as good as the NFL has seen in decades. But the jarring style that has made that unit great is hard to maintain health-wise.
Already the cracks are showing, especially in the defensive backfield.
Earl Thomas, Seattle’s best defender, is still recovering from offseason shoulder surgery to repair a torn labrum suffered in the NFC Championship.
Richard Sherman opted not to have surgery on the elbow he hurt in that same game. Whether that injury will affect his play remains to be seen.
Kam Chancellor spent the first half of last season shaking off injuries before finally hitting his stride in the playoffs. But the strong safety is unhappy with his contract and is holding out of training camp.
Byron Maxwell left in free agency and Jeremy Lane is still recovering from the torn ACL and broken arm he suffered on the same play in the Super Bowl. Tharold Simon is also recovering from a knee injury.
With so many questions, the Legion of Boom is more like the Legion of Hmmmm…
Seattle is also on its third defensive coordinator in four years after Gus Bradley and, most recently, Dan Quinn snagged head-coaching jobs elsewhere. Linebackers coach Ken Norton Jr. also left for Oakland’s defensive coordinator job. So the defense’s ability to adjust to new leadership will be tested.
No big deal, you say. Seattle still returns a rushing attack that averaged 25 more yards per game than any other team. But there are questions beyond how well Lynch will withstand another bruising season on nearly 30-year-old legs.
Seattle must replace two-fifths of its starting offensive line after guard James Carpenter left in free agency and center Max Unger was traded to New Orleans.
If Seattle’s defense and running game each take a step backward, we’ll quickly find out whether Wilson is an elite NFL quarterback.
To this point in his career, Wilson has rarely had to push the issue. Seattle’s defense and its grind-you-down running game meant he rarely needed to force throws into tight spaces.
Last season, Seattle attempted 454 passes, the fewest in the NFL. The punt-and-play-field-position game suited Seattle better.
Seattle might not have that luxury this season. That’s why it made sense to trade for Jimmy Graham, who offers Wilson an elite downfield target.
Wilson is now paid like an elite quarterback. Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers is the only signal-caller paid more.
He has shown flashes when he can take the team on his shoulders for a game-winning drive. Last season’s regular-season wins over Denver and Carolina were prime examples.
There was also his overtime heroics in the NFC Championship.
But he also threw four interceptions in that game. The Seahawks won only because the defense kept it close. The defense has also allowed Wilson to weather mini-slumps each of the past two seasons relatively unscathed.
For Wilson and the Seahawks, the era of having the league’s best defense and running game might be ticking down.
That’s why for Seattle to stay atop the NFC, Wilson must play like he’s one of the game’s best.