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Updated Thursday, December 6, 2012 at 02:16 PM

Brandon Browner's suspension triggers greatest challenge of Pete Carroll era

By Jerry Brewer
Seattle Times staff columnist

RENTON — The inevitable suspension yielded inevitable denial.

It didn't come from cornerback Brandon Browner, who realized he couldn't beat a positive test result for performance-enhancing drugs and took an unavoidable four-game suspension Wednesday. It came from the Seahawks, who stand to also lose their other starting corner, Richard Sherman, to the same suspension soon and need to convince themselves, if not the rest of the NFL, that they can manage without two of their most influential players.

The NFL punished Browner. Then, the Seahawks dismissed him — or, rather, the notion that he's irreplaceable. That's how it works in a volatile sport with constant turnover. You're essential until you're not available, and then you're minimized. There's only one absolute in football, really — attrition.

And so the Seahawks must attempt to believe that life without Browner, which is probably a prelude to life without Browner and Sherman, is tolerable. It's no different from losing a player to injury, they say. This is why you have depth. And they love their depth at cornerback, even though they don't use it because Browner and Sherman are so special. But replaceable.

"On we go," Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said.

Not buying it.

"I've been disappointed about the whole situation, that it is something that he had to deal with it, and we had to deal with it," Carroll said when pressed about Browner's suspension. "But there is nothing we can do at this point."

If you were delusional enough to invent a conspiracy theory that would save Browner and Sherman from punishment, now you're left rationalizing how everything will be just fine.

Browner is gone, banished for the remainder of the Seahawks' playoff push. If the Seahawks (7-5) can qualify for the postseason without him, he will be eligible to return. Sherman reportedly will have his appeal heard next Friday. He will play against Arizona on Sunday, and he'll likely be available against Buffalo the next week.

But then his judgment will come down, and if his appeal doesn't sway the NFL, his four-game clock would start. It means that he could miss the final two regular-season games and up to two playoff games if the Seahawks advance that far. If they don't, Sherman's suspension could spill over into the 2013 season.

Looking at it purely from the Seahawks' playoff chances, it helps that Browner dropped his appeal. The Seahawks would be without both of their dynamic starting cornerbacks for just two games in this staggered setup. If both had been suspended at the same time, it would've been devastating. The Seahawks can survive for a month without one. They can't survive that long without both.

As a talented young team with a low margin for error, the Seahawks have struggled to separate from opponents all season. Nine of their 12 games have come down to the final possession. Every little thing matters to this team. That's why you can't dismiss the loss of Browner. That's why you must fear what happens if Sherman is suspended, too.

The next two games are unofficial must-win games because the Seahawks will have Sherman, but they won't be easy. And even if the Seahawks do take care of Arizona and Buffalo, their final two games against San Francisco and St. Louis at home will be the greatest tests of the season, assuming Sherman is gone, too.

Because the Seahawks' run defense has slipped, their pass defense has become their greatest strength. They're fifth in the league in passing yards allowed, but teams do most of the damage with short passes to the middle of the field. On the outside, where Sherman and Browner dominate, quarterbacks have a difficult time finding receivers.

The Seahawks will put talented-but-oft-injured cornerback Walter Thurmond in Browner's spot. Two years ago, the expectation was that Thurmond would play a bigger role than Browner. But now Browner is the Pro Bowler, and Thurmond, who played his first game in more than a year last week, is the unknown.

If Thurmond hasn't lost much skill through all his injuries, he could be an adequate replacement. But it's wishful thinking to predict there won't be struggles.

Another thing that complicates the situation: Veteran corner Marcus Trufant is out with a hamstring injury. It means that untested rookie Jeremy Lane is the new nickel back. And if Trufant doesn't heal quickly, it's possible that the Seahawks could be without their top three cornerbacks soon.

Carroll and defensive coordinator Gus Bradley can mask a lot of things. The Seahawks' defense can be functional, but now that the PED suspensions are coming, they aren't fine.

The Seahawks can deny it. They must deny it. But this is the stiffest challenge of the Carroll era.

Jerry Brewer: 206-464-2277 or jbrewer@seattletimes.com.

On Twitter @JerryBrewer


BRIAN BAHR / GETTY IMAGES
Browner, shown after his second interception of the season against San Francisco, would return from his suspension in time to play in the first round of the playoffs if the Seahawks qualify for the postseason.





Richard Sherman may miss games soon, too.




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