SEATTLE – Digging into a tricked-out salad at a trendy Lake Union restaurant, the only man to have played for two Pete Carroll-coached NFL teams pondered the difference between the late-'90s New England Patriots and this season's Seattle Seahawks. Perpetual motion was the first thing that came to veteran safety Lawyer Milloy's(notes) mind.
"He wasn't in charge of personnel in New England but here he has control, and that's why we have this much movement," Milloy said a few nights before Seattle's NFC West-clinching victory over the St. Louis Rams, pausing to polish off a forkful of field greens, avocado and fresh mozzarella. "The way it's been set up, everybody's expendable here. If you don't fit in, you're out, and he's constantly trying to make us better."
As the NFL's first under-.500 division winner (7-9) prepares to host the New Orleans Saints on Saturday in a first-round playoff game at Qwest Field, Carroll's unsettled creation will be on display for all the football world to see. Since franchise owner Paul Allen lured him to Seattle last January on the heels of a highly successful run at the University of Southern California, Carroll and the general manager he helped hire, John Schneider, have engaged in a dizzying succession of roster-tinkering moves that shows no signs of abating.
[Read more: Hasselbeck to start vs. Saints]
With 277 official transactions during the Carroll era, the Seahawks' turnstile effect has been unrivaled. Thirty-two of the players currently on Seattle's 53-man roster weren't there a year ago, and 13 arrived after the start of training camp.
"John and I work back and forth on this, and it's just kind of a balancing act," Carroll said earlier this week. "It's sometimes painful because you wanted to do things for the immediate [present], yet you've got to think long term. And sometimes you're thinking about the short term – we've gone the other way as well. It's a process, and we've still got tons of work to do."
Though it required membership in perhaps the weakest division in pro football history to pull it off, give Carroll credit for achieving the balance that allowed him to give the Seahawks a taste of postseason excitement while entering an obvious rebuilding mode. Even getting to 7-9 wasn't easy for a team hampered by instability and the repeated influx of newcomers who had to be indoctrinated into Carroll's system.
"You've got to respect what they're doing – they're trying to get the team better by any means necessary," said veteran middle linebacker Lofa Tatupu(notes), who starred for Carroll at USC. "With so many guys in and out of the building and in and out of lineups, to find that chemistry is really challenging. And it's showed.
"You look up in the locker room and say, 'Where is so-and-so? I just saw him yesterday.' It's crazy. But you've got to respect the fact that they're trying."
Added halfback Marshawn Lynch(notes), acquired in an October trade with the Buffalo Bills: "I have never seen anything like it. Two weeks ago, we were at practice and we saw this receiver and said, 'Who's that guy?' I just try to make sure I'm putting in the right amount of work so they ain't looking to replace '24.' "
Carroll concedes that "there were a couple of times where I called somebody the wrong name and all that." And he copped to causing another complication cited by several players: After they were taught the Carroll way in training camp, they perpetually had to give crash courses to newcomers who weren't down with the program.
"No question – I constantly made a point of trying to keep the philosophy going, and the new guys coming in are not nearly as sold on what we're about," Carroll says. "I was very repetitive. The message will be easier next year."
This is not to say that there haven't been some positive effects from a roster-tweaking process that included the departures of wideouts Deion Branch(notes) (traded to the Patriots in October) and T.J. Houshmandzadeh(notes) (cut in training camp) and the acquisitions of Lynch and offensive linemen Stacy Andrews(notes) (via a September trade with the Eagles) and Tyler Polumbus(notes) (via an August trade with the Lions), among others.
The sense that no one's job is safe has kept players on edge, and Carroll has successfully accentuated his mantra that competition is constant.
"Everything is about competing," said halfback Justin Forsett(notes), who lost his starting job to former college teammate and close friend Lynch after the trade. "He tells us, 'You're gonna compete on the field and I'm gonna compete [with the rest of the league] in getting guys in.' "
To say Carroll puts the "Pete" in compete is an understatement. He says the team's somewhat surprising trade last March for quarterback Charlie Whitehurst(notes), a largely anonymous Chargers third-stringer, was designed to drive home the point to incumbent Matt Hasselbeck(notes) – and everyone else – that the head coach was serious about what he preaches.
"It's simply the philosophy of competing, just trying to help our program," Carroll said. "Sometimes you just bring guys in to make other guys better. That's part of why we brought Charlie in, to try to push Matt to have a great offseason and to send a message to him and everyone that we were serious about people competing."
Whitehurst's presence was validated last Sunday when – in his second career start – he performed well in a 16-6 Seattle victory, pushing the Seahawks past the Rams and into the playoffs. Hasselbeck is set to return for Saturday's game against the Saints. Given his age (35) and shaky 2010 performance, it could well be his last in a Seahawks uniform.
Then again, most people figured Milloy was done when he was relegated to backup duty by former Seahawks coach Jimmy Mora last season. When Mora was fired and replaced by Carroll, Milloy – who broke into the league with the Patriots in 1996 and played three seasons (1997-99) for Carroll before starring for Bill Belichick's first Super Bowl-winning team in '01 – was unsure whether he'd try to return for a 15th season.
"Pete said, 'Lawyer, if you come back, it's going to be an open competition,' " Milloy recalled. "That's all I could have asked for, and he was true to that."
"I love the guy," Carroll said of Milloy. "I think he's a great football player who has lasted way beyond what most people could ever get done. I told him, 'Let's do this, go forward and see how far we can take it.' With Earl Thomas coming in, it just made sense that he could help bring him along. He's also been a pretty good player for us. He's paid us back many times over with all that he's done for the program."
In time, Carroll hopes, the program will reward players with increased stability.
"I don't think it's a real ironclad plan for us because we haven't [accomplished] much yet," Carroll said. "Once we get people in who are comfortable with what we're doing and get our program to a point where we're more established, hopefully things will calm down some."
In the meantime, if Carroll's players can give the Saints some competition on Saturday, it will be another pleasant surprise.
TAKE IT TO THE ATM
A Darren Sharper(notes) interception for a touchdown will clinch the Saints' victory over the Seahawks on Saturday – prompting 88 percent of all television commentators to declare that New Orleans is a legitimate threat to defend its Super Bowl championship. … Darrelle Revis(notes) and LaDainian Tomlinson(notes) will make big plays in the Jets' victory over the Colts on Saturday night. … Yet another road team will prevail on Sunday as Ray Rice(notes) and the Ravens overpower the Chiefs in Kansas City.
PLEASE, BOSS, SEND ME TO …
Philadelphia, for a rematch of the game I covered to start the regular season – this time with Michael Vick(notes) starting for the Eagles in what should be a compelling duel with Aaron Rodgers(notes) and the Packers. The winner of this game is a threat to win it all, and I hope it's as wild as the last Eagles-Packers playoff game I covered at The Linc.
LIES, LIES, LIES
1) Talks broke down between the Dolphins and Jim Harbaugh when Miami general manager Jeff Ireland asked the Stanford coach if he, in fact, was a prostitute.
2) After watching the video of Giants coach Tom Coughlin telling critics to "kiss my ass," Jets coach Rex Ryan exclaimed, "Yeah, and everyone who questions my 11-win season can kiss my feet!"
3) In a last, desperate push to persuade Harbaugh to return to coach his alma mater, Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon offered to move the university to Palo Alto.
LET'S DO SOME DON JULIO SILVER SHOTS FOR …
My friend Ron Yank, who is coming out of retirement after a distinguished career as an employee-side labor lawyer to be the director of California's Department of Personnel Administration. I'm confident that Gov.-elect Jerry Brown will be proud of his appointment, that 180,000 state employees will receive fair and conscientious treatment from the agency and that no Coors beer or Stanford T-shirts will be purchased in Yank's presence.
THIS WEEK'S PROOF THAT CAL IS THE CENTER OF THE UNIVERSE
Cal's defending national champion rugby team opens its season next Wednesday at Sacramento State – and continues its campaign to have its varsity status rightfully restored. I hope you'll join me in supporting it.
I'd also like to welcome new Cal defensive backs coach and old friend Ashley Ambrose, with whom I had some great times dating back to the Captain Comeback Colts of the mid-'90s, and to bid farewell to freshman point guard Gary Franklin, who is leaving the program after only 13 games. Featured in my friend George Dohrmann's fantastic book, "Play Their Hearts Out," Franklin was a highly regarded recruit, and I certainly had high hopes when he arrived in Berkeley. But after watching him for part of a season, I believe he'd be more comfortable playing on a team for which he could take every single shot.
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