NEW YORK -- Malcolm Smith had been glancing at the shiny, silver football on a pedestal Monday morning. He took the keys to a new truck, answered a few questions, joked about being dressed for a trip to Disney World -- all in an early day's work for the newest Super Bowl MVP. But as Smith walked out, the wide-eyed wonder of what had befallen him and the Seattle Seahawks in the previous 12 hours finally took hold.
"So, do I really get to keep that football?" he asked a league official.
Yes, Smith gets to keep the Pete Rozelle Trophy, awarded to the title game's MVP, and the Seattle Seahawks get to keep something much more in the wake of their 43-8 rout of the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XLVIII: not just the world championship, but the knowledge that they are perfectly poised to do something even rarer than shutting down the best offense the NFL has ever seen. The 'Hawks could win a few additional Super Bowls, with a young, deep and relatively inexpensive roster whose window of opportunity was only just starting to open when the defense kicked it in Sunday night.
Smith is merely the poster child -- "child" being the operative word -- for the Seahawks right now. At 24, he has blossomed in the past few months into a ballhawk after being a backup for most of the season, after being plucked in the seventh round of the 2011 NFL Draft, after not being invited to the NFL Scouting Combine, after being overlooked -- by coach Pete Carroll's own admission -- at USC because he played behind one of the most impressive linebacking crews to be cobbled together. Smith had an interception in four of the Seahawks' last five contests, including the corralling of Richard Sherman's tipped ball that ended the NFC Championship Game and the pick six that was the result of Cliff Avril bashing into Peyton Manning's arm Sunday night.
The linebacker was one of a number of Seattle defenders who could have been named MVP -- I voted for him, but I was considering Avril, Kam Chancellor and Chris Clemons for at least parts of the evening -- a fact that provoked a rush to place this defense among the best to have ever won a Super Bowl. The 1985 Chicago Bears smothered a New England Patriots team quarterbacked by Steve Grogan and Tony Eason in Super Bowl XX. The 2000 Baltimore Ravens overwhelmed Kerry Collins' New York Giants in Super Bowl XXXV. But the Seahawks destroyed a legendary quarterback who was coming off the best season of his -- or anybody else's -- career. That, then, places Seattle firmly in the pantheon of defensive mythology, with the terrifying promise that there might be even better results to come as the team grows together.
Carroll declined to compare his squad to those legendary, historical units. With good reason: The 'Hawks might be at the very beginning of their reign.
"I think you look back years down the road and you assess what you accomplished with the group and you can take account of it then," Carroll said. "I think when you're in the middle of it, it's not time to talk that way. We've put together a couple of good seasons, back to back, really big-time seasons in scoring and playing good, solid defense in a similar fashion. And that's pretty cool. But when the names of the teams and the years of those guys come up and you bring up the big-time defenses that have played -- we'll see. You've got to look back, I think, and evaluate that. I wouldn't try to call it right now."
Much blame is being heaped on Manning for the Broncos' fate, and there is little doubt this will be remembered as perhaps the worst game of his career. But it is hard to imagine any quarterback who would've beaten this defense -- which is so big, so fast, so excellent at pressing the pocket and closing on receivers -- on Sunday night. Eric Decker never shook free. Demaryius Thomas had 13 receptions -- a hollow Super Bowl record, to be sure -- while gaining just 9.1 yards per catch, his second-lowest such figure this season.
What has to alarm the rest of the league -- and certainly the Seahawks' competition in the NFC West -- is that there is vast room for improvement. As much as this playoff run became a star turn for preternaturally poised quarterback Russell Wilson, the passing offense ranked just 26th this season, making it the lowest-ranked aerial attack to win a Super Bowl. Surely, an earlier return to health by Percy Harvin, who validated the trade the Seahawks made to acquire him by scoring on a kickoff return in his third appearance of an injury-interrupted season, would have helped the passing game. But even with Harvin, the receiving corps is not complete, as Seattle could stand to add a big, physical receiver in the mold of former Seahawk Mike Williams.
The fun-loving Carroll, who endorsed the closing of Seattle schools as part of the city's celebration, was already prepared to rub the sleep from his bleary eyes and turn the page on the season Monday morning.
Most coaches, even in their Super Bowl glee at the day-after press conference, stress how difficult it is to repeat and begin the process of lowering expectations. Others know that ahead of them lie momentous roster decisions that could tear asunder a championship team.
But as the snow began to fall on New York and the Seahawks packed for the long flight home, Carroll chose to channel the sunny optimism that has made his tenure in Seattle such a standout. It is the 62-year-old Carroll's youthful enthusiasm -- along with the youth of his roster -- that defines this team. As with Smith and the shiny football he gets to keep, the Seahawks have a lot to be excited about.
"The first meeting that we'll have will be tomorrow," Carroll said Monday. "And so that starts tomorrow, really. Our guys would be surprised if we didn't. We really have an eye on what's coming. We don't dwell on what just happened. So we take this in stride, and we'll have a big celebration on Wednesday in town and enjoy the heck out of it. We won't miss the fun part of it. But that doesn't mean we can't also set our sights on how this is gonna go. I think we are in a very fortunate situation."
Holding one Lombardi trophy -- and poised to grab more.