Two years ago, the earth shook in Seattle, and Pete Carroll stood at the epicenter, harboring no illusions about his football team's flimsy foundation.
In the first season of his third stint as an NFL head coach, after having restored USC to national prominence during a wildly successful nine-year run, Carroll watched excitedly as his Seattle Seahawks surged to a stunning first-round upset of the defending Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints. So energized was the crowd at CenturyLink Field that during the night's most scintillating sequence, Marshawn Lynch's epic, 67-yard, game-clinching touchdown run, a seismic event literally took place.
Yet even amid the madness of that Saturday night, and certainly in the aftermath of the Seahawks' 35-24 divisional-round defeat to the Chicago Bears the following weekend, Carroll and his closest confidante, rookie general manager John Schneider, stood their ground and stuck to their plan.
Instead of viewing the team's unlikely postseason success as a sign that Seattle was close to contending for a championship, and making go-for-broke moves designed to maximize that window – a trap into which so many NFL executives have fallen, before and since – Carroll and Schneider stayed realistic about their roster. The Seahawks, after all, had gone just 7-9 in winning the NFC West, marking the first time an NFL team with a losing record had reached the playoffs in a non-strike season.
The coach and general manager, who'd been responsible for a league-high 284 transactions during Year One of the Carroll/Schneider regime, weren't about to stop rebuilding just because of the seductive powers of an indelible playoff victory.
"We don't think like that," Carroll said last month, an hour after the Seahawks had clinched the second postseason berth of his three-year tenure with a resounding 42-13 thumping of the San Francisco 49ers, their chief NFC West rivals. "And we're not gonna think like that this next year, either – regardless of how it finishes. I've already talked about that with John. We won't say, 'If we just get one more guy …' We're building from within."
As the fifth-seeded Seahawks prepare for Sunday's first-round playoff game against the NFC East champion Washington Redskins at FedEx Field, they are a far more solid enterprise than the upstart outfit that rocked Seattle two years ago. These Seahawks are bigger, stronger, faster, tougher and more versed in Carroll's system than their 2010 counterparts, and over the final month of the regular season they looked as formidable as any team in the NFL.
Yet there is very little that is orthodox about the way Carroll and Schneider have constructed their roster, evident by the reggae music that fills their "war room" during the draft to allowing a 5-10½, third-round draft pick to compete for the starting quarterback job with a high-priced free-agent signee.
Now Russell Wilson is in a three-way race with top overall picks Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III for offensive rookie of the year honors. He's also the poster child for Carroll's coaching style, which melds an upbeat, collegiate atmosphere with an edgy lack of entitlement, along with a sense that conventional wisdom is fragile and that every position must be earned.
"He's different than a lot of other coaches, because he's so positive," Schneider, a leading candidate for NFL executive of the year, says of Carroll. "Some may say that can come off as sort of being soft, but he's not. He's a very passionate, outside-the-box thinker. He's very open to all ideas. Everything's challengeable. His philosophy fits our scouting model. We never feel like we have all the answers."
The professional union between Carroll and the low-key Schneider has been particularly noteworthy given that it was very nearly the NFL's equivalent of an arranged marriage. In January of 2010, Schneider, then the Green Bay Packers' director of football operations, was with the team in Arizona before its wild, 51-45 overtime playoff defeat to the Cardinals. Schneider was preparing to interview for Seattle's vacant GM job and figured that if he were to get it, his first major decision would be to find a coach to replace Jim Mora, who'd been fired after a single season on the job.
As Schneider prepared his list of prospective coaches, he received word that the Seahawks had pulled off a stunning coup, luring Carroll from USC with a reported five-year, $33-million contract – five months, it turned out, before the school would be hit with NCAA sanctions for various violations under Carroll's watch. At that point Carroll became part of the interview process for Schneider and the other GM candidates. Ultimately, Seahawks CEO Tod Leiweke played matchmaker, concluding that Carroll and Schneider had hit it off during their interview and would work well together.
Carroll had a definite vision for how he wanted to approach his third NFL coaching opportunity, as his prior stints in the league had helped shape his philosophy. Fired after a single 6-10 season with the 1994 Jets because 80-year-old owner Leon Hess felt he could gear up for an immediate championship run with Rich Kotite (file that one under 'Most Laughable Decisions of the Modern Era'), Carroll got a second shot with the Patriots in 1997. Following Bill Parcells, who had just taken the franchise to its second Super Bowl, Carroll led the Pats to the playoffs in his first two seasons. However, after New England lost six of its last eight games to finish 8-8 in 1999, owner Robert Kraft grew impatient, firing Carroll and replacing him with Bill Belichick.
After a year off Carroll would return to the college ranks, launching an alarmingly successful stretch at USC. First, however, he reevaluated everything about his coaching approach, a process that would prove valuable nearly a decade later when he arrived in Seattle.
"I'm very different than I was," Carroll told SportspressNW.com's Doug Farrar (now of Y! Sports) shortly after that playoff victory over the Saints two years ago. "I know more what's important to me, and what's important to teach. I know how to represent what's important to me as the head coach. That's truly been the change. It took a lot of years in coaching before I kicked myself in the butt and got my act together and figured it out. I thought I knew, but I didn't really know until the year I was out between New England and going to USC. That was the time when things changed."
It quickly became clear to Schneider that Carroll, 61, dances to a different beat than almost any of his NFL peers, something evidenced by the deejay who blasts hip-hop and rock music at training-camp practices.
"I joke with him all the time that I look at him like my older brother, but he's actually more hip than I am," Schneider says. "He knows all the rappers. They invite him to their concerts when they come to town."
Schneider, 41, chooses to keep things a bit more mellow during the draft, turning down the volume on the large TVs in the war room and replacing the cocksure assessments of Mel Kiper Jr. and Mike Mayock with the soulful strains of Bob Marley, Steel Pulse, Yellowman and the like.
Everything was irie last April: The Seahawks' draft haul netted a productive pass rusher (first-round pick Bruce Irvin); an active middle linebacker who is a defensive rookie of the year candidate (second-rounder Bobby Wagner); a quarterback of the present and future (Wilson); a solid, powerful backup to Lynch (fourth-rounder Robert Turbin); and a North Carolina defensive end who now starts at guard (seventh-rounder J.R. Sweezy).
That's not a misprint. The Seahawks' powerful offensive line includes a pair of Pro Bowl starters, left tackle Russell Okung, and center Max Unger – and the starting right guard is a seventh-round rookie who played defense in college. Welcome to Carroll and Schneider's wonder emporium.
Owner Paul Allen, to his credit, has allowed his coach and general manager the leeway to take risks, such as trading for Lynch, a Buffalo Bills castoff (the former first-rounder cost Seattle only fourth- and fifth-round picks, partly because of his involvement in several off-the-field incidents). And not every owner would be so supportive of a coach and GM who traded for one quarterback (Charlie Whitehurst) as a potential replacement for veteran Matt Hasselbeck, ended up signing another (Tarvaris Jackson) via free agency in 2011 and then gave $10 million in guaranteed money to a third (former Packers backup Matt Flynn) at the start of free agency last March – only to draft Wilson and settle on the undersized rookie as their starter.
Thus far, the true genius of this regime has been the ability to construct a suffocating defense that fits Carroll's philosophy without having to rely on players of high pedigree. As Sports Illustrated's Jim Trotter noted in a recent column, Seattle's starting defense includes just one first-round pick, rangy Pro Bowl safety Earl Thomas; two players drafted in each of the second, third, fourth and fifth rounds; and two who went undrafted.
"You know that Christmas movie Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, which has that 'Island of Misfit Toys?' " asks Hugh Millen, an NFL quarterback for 11 seasons who is now a radio analyst for Seattle's KJR. "That, to me, is this defense."
Carroll, one of the game's most savvy defensive strategists, knows exactly what he wants, beginning with the Seahawks' pair of large, physically imposing cornerbacks, Brandon Browner and Richard Sherman. Browner, a 2012 Pro Bowl selection, signed with the 'Hawks before last season after having spent four years in Canadian Football League. Sherman, who played wide receiver during the first half of his collegiate career, was a fifth-round selection in 2011.
"A lot of people liked to call USC Linebacker U,' " Carroll told me earlier this season. "Well, I'd rather be 'Corner U.' Because when you have dominant corners, it allows you to do so much with your scheme."
With the league's fourth-ranked defense (in terms of yards allowed) – and stingiest when it comes to points – Seattle has the potential to be a postseason force.
"The defense is very fast and great at getting off blocks," Millen says. "I can't remember seeing a team that consistently has four or more defenders, off the block, ready to make a tackle on so many plays. And Earl Thomas covers as much ground as any safety I've seen in the league, though even he is undersized.
"Beyond him, look at who their principals are. Red Bryant, a fourth-rounder who was supposed to be a defensive tackle, and now he's a run-stopping end. (Defensive tackle) Brandon Mebane, a third-rounder – beast. They got (Chris) Clemons for a song. Browner is the most knock-kneed human being I've ever seen. He looks like a six-hour-old giraffe. Leroy Hill, legal trouble. Bobby Wagner went to Utah State – how many teams gave him a scholarship offer? Probably one. A 6-4 outside linebacker, KJ Wright. (2012 Pro Bowl safety) Kam Chancellor, fifth-rounder. Bruce Irvin, playing in that goofy, 3-3-5 scheme at West Virginia. It goes on and on.
"They've all been doubted. So, they all kind of play with a chip on their shoulder."
For much of the 2012 season Carroll smartly chose to rely on his team's defensive prowess, building a ball-control offense around the relentless Lynch, a 2013 Pro Bowl selection who ran for 1,590 yards, while employing Wilson in a manner that placed a premium on avoiding risks. Then, as Carroll told me late last month, the quarterback led the Seahawks on a pair of pivotal drives in the latter stages of a Dec. 2 overtime victory against the Bears in Chicago – and the coach decided to open up the attack.
"He was so good, and he was so phenomenally in control and command against a great defense on the road," Carroll said. "And so, that was really when I said, 'OK, I'm sold.' "
By the end of December, so was virtually everyone. The Seahawks scored 150 points in their next three games to clinch a playoff berth before closing the regular season with a 20-13 victory over the St. Louis Rams. After the blowout victory over the Niners, who would clinch their second consecutive NFC West title the following Sunday, Carroll considered the possibility that a professional version of his dominant USC teams might be possible in the Pacific Northwest.
"I had a vision for what we could become, cause I started it the first year I was at SC – and it happened. And I was pretty shocked that it happened, and by Year Two it was already starting and by Year Three it was on; we were rolling. We haven't done anything yet here, but the feeling of the games and the way these players are responding to it and what's asked of them and the standards that they're living to and then performing at – this is what we're trying to get done. This is what the vision is set out to create. It's pretty cool."
And to Carroll's credit, his professionals have remained perpetually fired up. Millen says he thought the Seahawks might come out flat a few times in Carroll's third season, reasoning that in the NFL the "rah-rah" approach loses its effectiveness after awhile. "But they do not have a 'no-show,' this year," Millen says. "They show up and they play hard. 'No-shows' don't happen with Pete Carroll."
Says Thomas of his coach: "He's a competitor. That's the bottom line. He's gonna find a way to get an edge, find every inch he can. That trickles down to the team. We stay late. We come in early. He's a powerful motivator."
Running back Leon Washington, a Pro Bowl kick returner, believes Carroll's sunny outlook has been essential to the Seahawks' success, both at the end of 2010 and throughout this season.
"One thing I like is he's the same guy every day," says Washington, who played for the New York Jets from 2006-09. "You've got to appreciate that from a head coach. I've had some situations where you lose a game and the head coach comes in dogging everybody out. Pete's always positive. We've known for awhile that you're not allowed to come into our building without a smile on your face. And that attitude trickles down.
"I saw that the year we went 7-9 and made the playoffs (in 2010). We got smashed by Tampa late in the season. I thought he might get down on us. This guy was so positive. And him sticking to his philosophy, I believe, was what allowed us to win the division and win that playoff game."
Schneider agrees, also citing Carroll's cheery, even-keeled demeanor after a disappointing defeat to the Miami Dolphins this past Nov. 25 as the Seahawks prepared to face the Bears in Chicago. "Those are the times when he's been at his best," Schneider says. "He's very determined."
While Carroll is determined not to get overly excited about the Seahawks' regular-season success – "We're not even into the playoffs yet," he says. "Who cares?" – he admits that the three-year process of building this operation with an untested general manager has been a fruitful one.
"Absolutely," Carroll says. "I'm proud of everything we've done. I'm proud of Johnny Schneider giving us a chance to formulate the plan and come together."
So far, in good times and bad, that plan has proven to be unshakeable.More NFL video from Yahoo! Sports
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