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Larry Stone: NFL reaffirms it knows how to fire up the hype machine by putting Russell Wilson's return to Seattle up first

By Larry Stone

SEATTLE — The feat of promotional sleight of hand performed by the NFL regarding its scheduling rollout Thursday once again leaves me in awe.

Somehow, they have managed to take a slate of 17 games for which the opponent and even the site was already known, and fostered a feverish anticipation for its revelation of the date. In other words, we had known for weeks the "who" and the "where," yet they created a daylong Event, capital E, out of the "when."

On a day in which the NBA and NHL featured crucial playoff games, and the MLB had nearly a full slate of action, the focus of most of the sports world was on learning the order of already-determined games. If you wonder why the NFL is the No. 1 American sport with a bullet, here is an essential illustration of their genius in meting out its news in such a fashion as to sustain interest in virtually every month of the year.

The date of the Broncos-Seahawks game was probably the marquee reveal leaguewide Thursday, because everyone around the NFL wanted to know when Drew Lock would face his old team. The hype and mystique over that reunion is already off the charts.

Pardon me — I'm being told that Lock might not even be the starting quarterback for the Seahawks in 2022. Apparently, there's another angle to that game that warrants attention — Russell Wilson making his long-anticipated return to Seattle (if you consider two months since his trade to Denver qualifies as a long time).

There were enough leaks throughout the day to make the official announcement at 3 p.m. anti-climactic. By then, it was fairly common knowledge that the Seahawks and Broncos will square off at Lumen Field on Monday Night Football in Week 1, Sept. 12. It is the Seahawks' first prime-time opener since they played the Packers in 2014 and just the second in team history.

It is a satisfying tableau for a season of transition in Seattle. Rather than having the intrigue of Wilson's pending return linger for potentially weeks or even months, it will be resolved immediately. Of course, we now have precisely four months before the season to stoke the hype, during which time every angle of Wilson's departure and potential reception will be explored, ad nauseam.

It was an astute move by the league to get the game out of the way early, beyond just being a compelling matchup that will draw millions of eyes to the broadcast. After all, everyone loves the storyline of "franchise icon who left town returns for the first time." That was proved last year when Tom Brady went back to New England to face Bill Belichick and the Patriots, amid intense, over-the-top scrutiny. The most recent local example of this phenomenon occurred in 2007, when Ken Griffey Jr. made his first return to Seattle while a member of the Cincinnati Reds (and received a rapturous reception).

But by putting Seahawks-Broncos out there from the jump, the league avoids two potential pitfalls. The first is that the more weeks that go by, the greater the possibility that Wilson might be injured and miss the game, thus negating the primary lure. Yes, Wilson has been an iron man, missing just three games in his 10-year career. But those all occurred last year as the result of a finger injury. Better to raise the odds of a healthy Wilson by playing in Week 1.

Perhaps of greater import from the league's point of view is the mitigation of risk that one or both teams could, well, suck this year. The Seahawks, after all, were 7-10 last year and sent their franchise quarterback to Denver. The Broncos also went 7-10 and are counting on said franchise quarterback to turn around their fortunes, but that's no guarantee.

By midseason, one or both of those teams may have had their hopes and dreams already dashed, reducing the allure of this game exponentially. But in the season opener, everyone is undefeated, everyone is a potential champion, and every storyline is an empty page ready to be written upon.

Will Wilson be booed or cheered? Will Seattle fete him with some sort of tribute to recognize his vast contribution to the Seahawks? Will Wilson and Pete Carroll embrace? Will Wilson's style of play be demonstrably different with a new organization and coaching staff, behind a new offensive line? Will he rise to the moment and show the Seahawks what they could have had? Will Lock, whom the Seahawks believe has far more to offer than he showed in Denver, make his own statement (provided he beats out Geno Smith and any other late-arriving QBs for the starting job)? Are the Seahawks about to embark on a painful rebuilding season, or will they display signs of exceeding those expectations?

All that and more will be on the docket Sept. 12. The rest of the schedule unveiling had far less intrigue. We already knew that the Seahawks would be facing Brady and the Bucs in Munich on Nov. 13. We learned that their other major reunion, with linebacker Bobby Wagner, won't take place until Week 13, when the Seahawks play the Rams in Los Angeles, Dec. 4. Wagner's return to Seattle will happen Week 18, in the final regular-season game of the year on either Jan 7 or 8.

The Seahawks have just one other prime-time matchup (Thursday, Dec. 15, vs. San Francisco), an indication that the league is not bullish on Seattle's curb appeal. The Seahawks' other game with San Francisco is Week 2 in Santa Clara, while the two games with their other NFC foe, the Arizona Cardinals, will take place Oct. 6 (at home) and Nov. 6 (at Arizona).

So now we know the who, when and where of the Seahawks' 2022 season. All that remains is the "how" — the best part of all, because it happens on the field, beyond the reach of the NFL hype machine.

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