RENTON, Wash. -- Seattle Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll may have been happy to have most of his players back on the field for the start of the team's 2013 series of voluntary OTAs, but that was not the first thing on his mind on Monday. Nor should it have been. Instead, when Carroll addressed the media after a spirited two-hour non-contact practice, his thoughts went immediately -- and comprehensively -- to the fact that six different Seahawks players have been suspended for violations of the NFL's substance abuse policies since 2010, and to the increasing perception that Carroll is leading a team that can't get out of its own way. Carroll was forced to address the situation this time because defensive end Bruce Irvin, the team's first-round pick in 2012, was recently suspended for the first four games of the 2013 season for reported Adderall use.
"This is a challenge -- it’s a challenge for us, and it’s a challenge for the league," Carroll said during a five-minute statement at the beginning of his press conference. "The league is doing everything they can to help guys make it through these young careers that they have, from teaching, to instructing, also the punitive side of it. They're doing a really good job and they’re in it for the right reasons, and we are too. We go beyond with what the league does. We go well past with what the guidelines ask us to do as far as working with our young guys trying to give them the direction, trying to give them the counseling. We have people on staff that are here specifically to work with our individual guys because I really see this as an individual challenge."
Right now, it's a collective challenge for the organization. Irvin's suspension followed the suspensions of cornerbacks Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner in 2012 (both for Adderall, though Sherman's was later overturned on appeal), and the earlier suspensions of guard John Moffitt, offensive tackle Allen Barbre, and defensive back Winston Guy. The NFL does not release the reasons for these suspensions, but Moffit admitted that he took Adderall before he knew he needed a medical exemption. Not even counting the overturned Sherman suspension, that still puts the Seahawks in the NFL lead when it comes to such suspensions since 2010.
And it's worth wondering, as some jokesters might, whether the Seahawks are now an Adderall team with a football problem.
Carroll is now saddled with the perception that he's lost control of the ship. Right or wrong, a team that many experts believe could represent the NFC in the Super Bowl has been pegged as a loose cannon. It's not something that he wants to deal with, especially when these perceptions are added to the scandals that contributed to his departure from USC in 2009. Can Carroll can maintain order in these more difficult circumstances? Can any NFL head coach, and how is that best done?
"We try to bring each kid as far along as we possibly can to make them available for the opportunity that they have," Carroll said. "Each one of them is a different story. Each one of them, there is a different road that they traveled. Even though we go together, they have to figure out how to do this right. [We want to see] why guys make choices and why guys will jeopardize their opportunity and their future. The league understands that, we understand it and have been working with it for years and years with young people, and we continue to still face issues that we want to try and deal with in a better way. It’s a very important opportunity in a sense for us to go ahead and figure it out, and then help these guys so that they can get what they deserve. Unfortunately if you go wrong, you get popped and that’s how this thing works, and I’m really disappointed that we have to deal with anything like this. But there are going to be other issues too, and we have to deal with them."
Irvin's suspension is particularly inexcusable, because he was in that locker room when Sherman and Browner were dealing with their suspensions last year, and it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that no matter how many concentration-based benefits one may derive from the drug, the NFL is clearly on the warpath when it comes to this particular substance. Irvin did not speak to the media on Monday, but Carroll certainly had a lot to say about him.
"We're going to try and help him along as best as we possibly can. He made a mistake, and he admitted to it, and he owned up to it to his teammates, and he owned up to it to the staff, and he owned up to it to everybody. He wants to do right and show that he can, and we’re going to see that through and see if we can get that done for him. It’s no different than I would do with my own son. I do everything I can to teach them, to prepare them, to let them understand what the pitfalls are that are out there, and you hope and pray that your kids make the right decision when they’re faced with options. And when they make a mistake, you take them back under and you try to lead them along again and show them and hope that they can learn from the issues that they had to face."
One would of course wonder if this sensitive approach is the best way to go -- perhaps the Seahawks need to implement a bit more "tough love" in ways that players will understand. For whatever reason, the message is not getting through. Veteran fullback Michael Robinson, a longtime player rep and one of the most respected voices in that young locker room, put the problem on two causes -- the players' own lack of sense, and the NFL's incomplete message when it comes to what's illegal and what the consequences are. Robinson didn't excuse Irvin's mistake, but he did say, as he's said to me before, that the league's communication on these issues is frustrating at best.
"I think that definitely in this part of the year, they need to come in and talk to us. Don't wait until training camp. We get tested year-round, why don't we get educated year-round? The league will say, 'Well, we put lists out there, and you guys are still responsible.' We have a hotline we can call, but my only problem with that is that when you call that hotline, they don't really tell you what you can and can't take. They just say, 'Nobody's failed for it.' What does that mean? I think they could do a better job of giving us definite answers."
Robinson said that while an NFLPA representative does come in every year around training camp time to explain banned substances, he and other players wish that the NFL would do the same. "The league hands down the suspensions; maybe the league should do more education."
In the end, it may be up to the players in that locker room -- the ultimate safe haven for all NFL players -- to implement enough peer pressure for everyone to understand just how serious this issue is.
"I'm an older guy on the team, and the younger guys come to me and talk to me about a lot of different things," Robinson said. "And you know that guys aren't perfect. They make mistakes. We're a very, very young team -- still. I know people are picking us to do this, that, and the third, but we're still a very young team. You can't crucify a guy for one mistake.
"You have to know that when you walk outside this building, people are going to try and paint a picture of what this locker room is. We know what it is, and guys know they can talk to anyone about anything."
The league has the option to take additional measures against the Seahawks and other teams with multiple violations. NFL Spokesman Greg Aiello told NFL.com's Steve Wyche on Monday that per the league's remittance program, teams can be fined a portion of the fines given to the players based on a specific formula.
"There are financial consequences for a team that has multiple players suspended in a season under those policies," Aiello said.
In the end, that's small potatoes. The real problem for the Seahawks is that they're losing this war of perception and discipline, and if something doesn't change quickly, a gradually increasing issue could spiral out of control. The 61-year-old Carroll may see it as a parent-child issue, and that's admirable on a certain level, but things don't always work with that approach. Mike Holmgren, who coached the Seahawks from 1999 through 2008, took the same sensitive but indulgent tack with problem kids like Koren Robinson and Jerramy Stevens, and the results were less than ideal. Both players (and other players under Holmgren) failed to fulfill their athletic potential, and proved to be huge distractions along the way.
Robinson clearly understands who needs to be more responsible. But the ideal method for making that responsibility a consistent team focus seems to elude the Seahawks organization.
"It comes down to the player at the end of the day, and the player's responsible for what he puts into his body. Guys have to be smarter."