Pete Carroll, Seattle Seahawks spurred on by special approach
- By Albert Breer
- Updated: Dec. 27, 2012 at 09:48 p.m.
Almost three full seasons in, and Sunday night showed the program Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll and general manager John Schneider have built in full bloom.
Seattle was fast. It was sleek. It was overwhelming.
But ask Carroll if his team's 42-13 whitewashing of the mighty San Francisco 49ers was the culmination of a painstaking reimagining of the franchise, and he'll stop you dead in your tracks.
"Absolutely not," he responded Wednesday over his cell phone, as he was heading out to practice. "That's just one more stepping stone along the way. We have a long way to go, here. Don't get me wrong, that was a terrific win, because we respect those guys so much. But because of that, this game here in a few days is much bigger than that game."
There's the other thing Carroll has made the Seahawks: relentless.
Whether the coach sees it or not, the win over San Francisco on a national stage did serve as a wake-up call to anyone who hadn't been paying attention. It also was a reminder as to why, when the coaching carousel gets spinning next week, college coaches will be in demand.
The hope for owners poaching from that level is that teams can construct something with as strong an identity as what Carroll has.
When it comes to guys from the college ranks, the buzz term around the league is "program builder." It perfectly encapsulates what the Seahawks' coach and GM, who work in a sort of consortium with their coaching and personnel staffs to identify and cultivate the right talent, have done in the Pacific Northwest.
You have abnormally big cornerbacks (Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner). You have an unusually diminutive quarterback (Russell Wilson). You have supposed draft reaches (Bruce Irvin) and traded-for reclamation projects (Marshawn Lynch and Chris Clemons).
You have, in short, a roster whose beauty lies in how different it is. This also makes the Seahawks one difficult team to prepare for on Sundays.
"If you wanna point to the height of the corners or the quarterback, it goes to what we've looked for, and that really goes back to SC," said Carroll, who coached the USC Trojans for nine years. "We're looking for uniqueness in our players -- the quality that separates them."
That plays out in how the scouts and coaches are trained to think by the Seahawks. They're told to break the football man's natural inclination to find what a player can't do well, rather than what he can or does do well. It's born there, in the Seahawks' goal of identifying players by thinking outside the box -- for instance, while Irvin's troubled teenage years raised a fire-engine red flag for some teams, the Seahawks were amazed that he'd found his way out -- and it's nurtured in a system that accentuates the strengths of the incoming guys.
The key is the malleability of the program.
One example is Red Bryant, a 6-foot-4, 323-pound behemoth miscast as an interior tackle during his first two years in the NFL. The Seahawks saw him as a lineman who played too high and wasn't active enough with his hands inside, so they moved him outside, and he became, in Carroll's words, "a monster."
Clemons had been a journeyman, seen as expendable by the Philadelphia Eagles to such a degree that they packaged a fourth-round pick with him to get Darryl Tapp from Seattle in return. Carroll and Schneider saw a player who fit, very specifically, as the "Leo" in their defense -- and Clemons' sack total (33.5) in the three seasons since he arrived shows they were correct. With regard to others, like Lynch, Seattle has seen that something as simple as a change in environment can help a player realize his explosive potential.
And then there's Wilson, the ultimate case study in Seattle's philosophy. The Seahawks focused on areas in which the prospect was special (quick eyes, decision-making skills, feet, anticipation, playmaking, poise, confidence) rather than on the one in which he wasn't (height).
"I've always thought the same way in what you're trying to find: We're looking for what a guy has, not what he hasn't," Carroll said. "You try and develop those qualities, make that your way of looking at the world. We're a developmental staff, and that is a guideline to our overall approach and philosophy."
In a way, Carroll says, the experience of building in this manner has been liberating.
"Paul Allen gave us the chance to do it the way we wanted to do it, to see what would happen, and develop who we were at SC," he said. "I've never felt like guys trust that way of doing it (in the NFL) like this place does."
And that's the best part for Carroll: Everyone is buying in. Schneider has been the perfect match for his coach; it seems as if competing agendas simply don't exist.
This might be best illustrated at draft time, when the personnel department solicits the coaching staff's feelings on players. They have one full day with the offensive staff to review prospects and another with the defensive staff. Position coaches and coordinators are asked to grade each prospect on a scale of 1 to 5. There's open discussion and banter, and everyone has a voice in the decision making.
What's interesting about the process is the central question, which is not "How does this guy fit with us?" but more often "How could we fit for him?" That's not to say the Seahawks don't have parameters -- Carroll and Schneider, for example, have fairly strict height, weight and speed requirements at corner. But being open-minded has paid dividends.
"What I've always looked for -- what are the special attributes that make the guys different as a player?" Carroll said. "And we try and coach with the same thought, to bring out those qualities. It's going to be tailored to them, what their strengths are. We're trying to find what's special about them, and adapt on our end."
That explains why the Seahawks' roster looks a little -- or maybe a lot -- different from most other rosters in the NFL. And why Seattle, especially most recently, has become such a pain in the neck for everyone else to handle.
Players on the spot
San Francisco 49ers RB Frank Gore: Here's a good stat highlighted by Cam Inman of the San Jose Mercury News this week: The tailback is averaging 4.0 yards per carry with Colin Kaepernick as the starting quarterback, much lower than the 5.4 mark he posted during Alex Smith's nine starts. Gore admitted that he's needed to learn to be more patient in the read-option looks. Either way, it's an example of how the change at QB wasn't made in a vacuum.
Washington Redskins CB DeAngelo Hall: Dallas Cowboys receiver Dez Bryant said this week that Hall won't be able to get into his head anymore. He has a 145-yard effort against Washington on Thanksgiving Day to back that up, part of a ridiculous six-game run in which he's notched 43 catches for 721 yards and nine scores. The 'Skins need Hall to find a way to slow Bryant down on Sunday and help force Tony Romo to look away from him and Jason Witten.
Dallas Cowboys OLB Anthony Spencer: He might not be worth the $8.8 million it took to franchise him, but Spencer's been important to an injury-ravaged Dallas defense. And this week is a big one for him against the Redskins' option attack. As one NFC personnel man put it, "It's important that he win his one-on-one battles in pass rush, and play physical against the run," playing into Dallas' need to hit Robert Griffin III.
Houston Texans QB Matt Schaub: After being very steady through the first three-quarters of the season, Schaub has turned in two stinkers in three weeks -- scuffling badly against the New England Patriots and failing to lead his offense to a single touchdown against the Minnesota Vikings at home. Houston is playing for the AFC's top playoff seed, but it feels like the Texans need more than just that (maybe some positive momentum?) going into January.
Coaches in the spotlight
Chicago Bears offensive coordinator Mike Tice: The Bears' plan last year in hiring general manager Phil Emery was to keep Lovie Smith for a year and allow Emery to re-evaluate after 2012. Still, if there are going to be changes in Chicago in 2013, and if the Bears do fail to make the playoffs, it seems more likely they'd do some staff shuffling rather than overhauling everything. A loss Sunday to the Detroit Lions could put Tice in the crosshairs.
Arizona Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt: Arizona would have to eat an expensive year on Whisenhunt's deal to fire him, so it's possible the Bidwills will be looking for a reason to keep him as the Cardinals take on the Niners, who'll be playing for the NFC West title on Sunday. There will be moves made in the desert; a bad loss could well lead to some significant changes. There are more than a few whispers that current Eagles coach Andy Reid could land here.
Something to spot on Sunday
Scoreboard watching. My feeling is that the spot the Baltimore Ravens and New England Patriots are in is fascinating. On balance, the Cincinnati Bengals look more dangerous than the Indianapolis Colts, and the Denver Broncos more imposing than the Texans. So if things go according to form Sunday, the fourth seed in the AFC might well be more enticing than the third seed, with the chance to play Indy and go to Houston rather than play Cincy and go to Denver. I'll be interested to see if Baltimore manages a banged-up roster in its game against the Bengals, and in doing so, avoids having to play a third game against a division rival. Similarly, if the Ravens win, it'll be worth watching Dolphins-Pats in the second batch of games to learn if Bill Belichick sees the fourth seed as preferable, and coaches as such -- something he actually did in 2005, manufacturing a playoff matchup with the Jacksonville Jaguars, avoiding the eventual world champion Pittsburgh Steelers.
The Indianapolis Colts' offensive line. The emotional aspect of this game is real -- you'll find few better stories out there than the one we've all followed about Chuck Pagano the past three months. But there's also the X's-and-O's element to this Texans-Colts battle. The biggest reason Houston beat Indy going away two weeks ago was that the Colts simply couldn't block, against either the Texans in general or J.J. Watt in particular. We'll see if that changes.