Why Pete Carroll’s Plan is Working

Rick Mirer, Tom Flores, Brian Bosworth, Deion Branch-over the years the Seattle Seahawks have pegged their hopes to a savior, only to be disappointed when one high-profile move delivered low-profile results.

And for those who’ve suffered as I have since the inception of this organization, Pete Carroll’s hiring was akin to a lifelong alcoholic telling his family this time will be different. You want to believe it, but something inside says you can’t.

But something felt different about Carroll. I wanted to hate him. I didn’t like his swagger with the Pats and the Jets, and I despised it even more when he brought the Trojans to the Northwest. But because my sick and twisted love for the Seahawks transcended any love I felt for the Huskies, Cougs, Ducks and Beavers, I had to let go and look into Carroll a bit deeper.

What I found was a winner. A tireless worker with a passion for the game. An eternal optimist. A great football mind. And most importantly, a coach with a vision.

I loved Dennis Erickson because of his Northwest ties. Same with Jim Mora, Jr. But neither possessed what Carroll brought to Qwest Field (I refuse to call it C-Link): a plan. It was this same quality that delivered Seattle’s only Superbowl appearance, and if you are a true Hawk, I don’t need to point out the similarities. But this article is not for fanatics, it’s for all the haters out there ready to write Carroll off and send him packing back to college. Take note, haters.

When Mike Holmgren came to Seattle, he inherited an aging team with a slightly better than mediocre quarterback in John Kitna. For years the Seahawks fumbled through seasons by signing or drafting a player that was interesting or talented enough to keep us watching. But year after year, this patchwork strategy failed to get the Seahawks back into the play-offs.

So, like Carroll, Holmgren spent the first year of his tenure working with what he had in an effort to assess the strengths and weaknesses of the tools at his disposal. He gave Kitna a chance, and despite some strong performances, determined he wasn’t a long-term fit. So he went out and found his guy in Green Bay, Matt Hasselbeck. Let us not forget that like Carroll’s 2009 team, Holmgren’s 1999 team made the play-offs. And unlike Carroll’s team, they didn’t win their wild-card game against the Dolphins. Yet despite Carroll’s success in pulling off an unexpected victory over the Saints, he, like Holmgren, stuck to his original plan, and began dismantling the team, starting with the QB.

Beyond the flurry of transactions Carroll and John Schneider have combined to execute, none has received the scrutiny and criticism of letting Hasselbeck go. The only move that even compares was his decision to let the team’s second most popular (and perhaps important) player go: Lofa Tatupu. These moves say more about Carroll than any other. More than resurrecting Mike Williams or sending Kelly Jennings packing. More than signing Sidney Rice or drafting Earl Thomas. More than the seismic rumblings created by trading for Beast-mode. Because in these two moves, Carroll exposed himself completely to the ridicule of the press and the city of Seattle. Hasselbeck and Lofa were icons and the brains of their respective sides of the ball. And Carroll let them go knowing he would take heat.

And today, after a much maligned loss to our rivals in the Bay area, the chatter is dominated about a lost season. How Carroll’s plan isn’t working. How Tavaris is a bust. How our defense will be shredded by Big Ben. Five wins. Maybe six at most. But true Hawk fans know the difference. They can feel it.

I watched every painful minute of last week’s loss to the Niners. But unlike years past, I didn’t lose interest after each sack. I didn’t lose heart when Ted Ginn, Jr. broke the game open. I didn’t stop caring until the next game. I’ve stayed tuned. I continue to eat up every bit of news I can digest out of the V-Mac. Why? Because Carroll’s plan is working.

Unless you’ve lived and breathed the Seahawks, you can’t understand what I know. I expected the like of Art Thiel and Jerry Brewer, to pick up on this as well after spending the bulk of their careers covering the Hawks, but they have somehow fallen into the trap of piling on the Hawks with their East-coast brethren. No doubt they are afraid of looking foolish. If they said anything positive about this year’s team, they would cast as myopic, biased homers. Being a hater poses no risk to their credibility. If the Hawks struggle, they were right. If they succeed, it will be to everyone’s surprise.

But it’s time that someone with the perspective point out to the rest of the world what’s working and why. So here goes:

1. Attitude: I start with the most unquantifiable area of improvement. The stat sheet doesn’t show it, but the attitude–especially on defense–played into every tackle, reception and block. This youth on this team just might be it’s strength. They don’t know that they’re supposed to lose. They don’t know that they suck. They are starting to believe because they see the talent around them. They are flying around the ball with reckless abandon. They are yakking at the other team. They are, like their leader, a bunch of cocky SOB’s. Carroll’s greatest challenge will be finding ways to keep them up during a very hard season, to show the improvement when the scoreboard doesn’t reflect it. No matter what happens in Blitzburgh, these kids have got to find little victories in each series and carry that energy into the coming seasons as they mature as a unit and bring critical pieces into the puzzle. Which brings me to…

2. Quarterback: I’m going to say it loud and say it proud. Tavaris Jackson is a tremendous upgrade over Matt Hasselbeck. I say this as a guy who loves Matt. I loved what he brought to the Seahawks and how he ended his career with the team. But if you know the team as a true fan, you know there was no reason to invest in keeping him around as the starter. And given there was no talent behind him to groom (e.g. Jake Locker), there was no reason to pay him big money. He’s old, slow and would only hinder the development of the new team chemistry. It was Matt’s team and would have continued to be the focus if he stayed in Seattle. To form a new identity, the Hawks needed to put the spotlight on Carroll and his chemistry, not any one player. And I see that happening. Tavaris is new to Seattle. He’s a fighter. And he’s a pretty darn good quarterback. He’s mobile and he’s tough. When he’s had time to throw the ball, he’s hit his guys more often than not. No, he’s not as savvy as Hasselbeck. He can’t audible his way out of jams or fool the likes of Urlacher and Willis. But he’s a better athlete and as the season goes, and the offensive line gels, Tavaris will get more comfortable taking chances. He’ll realize he doesn’t have to be perfect, just good enough. A lot like a guy brought in to do the same in 1999. Some guy named Dilfer. I remember liking that guy–a lot. Not because he brought the Hawks back to glory, but because he was a key part of the rebuilding effort. A humble, tough competitor that didn’t complain when he was asked to play pinata behind a young offensive line centered around two cornerstone draft picks (sound familiar–see Moffitt, Carpentner, Okung and Unger). And who is to say that Tavaris won’t surprise us. He’s young and played behind Brett Favre. Same resume as the guy he just replaced.

3. Linebacker: WIthout question, Lofa Tatupu was the QB of Seattle’s defense. Like Hasselbeck, I loved what Lofa brought to the Hawks and what he delivered, but, once again, if you’re a true, in Lofa you saw the same thing we saw in Hasselbeck’s final year with the team: an aging star living off reputation, not results. And to compound the sacrilege of my claim that T-Jack is an upgrade over Hasselbeck, I will say the same of the middle linebacker position, with a twist: K.J. Wright, not David Hawthorne, is an upgrade over Tatupu. That’s right, Wright! The kid plays with intelligence, speed and sure tackling. Hawthorne is big hitter. He’s got heart. But I question his head. Wright has the instincts of a true field general. Watching him against the Niners, I saw a kid making adjustments and earning the trust of more seasoned veterans. Couple this with a highly motivated Curry, playing for a future pay-day and a resurgent Leroy Hill and Seattle has more potential at the linebacker position than it’s seen since Petersen, Tatupu and Hill played together.

4. Offensive Line: Not much can be said that hasn’t been said before about the new look offensive line. The investment in the future sits squarely on this group. And like the investment in Walter Jones and Steve Hutchinson, the investment in Okung, Moffit and Carpenter will reap dividends–assuming injury doesn’t play a factor. Whatever the investment the front office makes in a quarterback or running back, no significant return on investment will be realized until this group is seasoned, and this season’s schedule will leave all the clues we need to gauge Carroll’s talent for picking talent.

5. D-Line: Again, stating the obvious here to true fans, but for what the mainstream media always overlooks is that this crew is bigger, stronger and faster than crew that ranked among the league’s elite in run defense and goal-line defense last year through week six, when a season ending injury to Red Bryant dismantled the heart and soul of the unit. Like Marcus Tubbs from Holmgren’s 2005 Superbowl team, Bryant, is the quiet difference maker. He doesn’t show up in the numbers, unless you count how many double-teams he requires to block him. Tubbs absence in 2006 was overshadowed by Hutchinson’s departure, but was nonetheless as significant as it completely transformed that team’s D-line into a subpar group. Bryant’s return and dominance makes the line one of the best in the game. Along with Mebane, Clemons and newcomer Alan Branch, the Hawks will be effective against the run, and let their young linebackers and DB’s get into the backfield with their blitz schemes.

6. Defensive Backs: Also garnering plenty of ink has been the stellar play of Earl Thomas. In short, he is electric. He is flying around the field and in him Seattle has an elite Pro-bowler for years to come. Much has also been written about his cellmate, Kam Chancellor. Chancellor has looked impressive against the run and time will tell if he has the smarts to be a factor against top-tier quarterbacks. On the corners, Marcus Trufant seems to have stepped up his game and accepted a leadership role. His is hitting harder and stabilizes the group. The biggest story is Brandon Browner. Carroll’s gamble on this oversized and overlooked free agent from the CFL is reminiscent of his gamble on big Mike Williams. Whether the rewards are as great remains to be seen, and will stand as another metric to judge whether his plan is working and his instincts are true.

Questions remain across the other positions. Running back feels unsettled. There is talent in the group, but it’s hard to imagine this group remaining intact long enough to run behind the offensive line once it matures. As for quarterback, I think Carroll is sincere when he says Tavaris is the man today and perhaps tomorrow, but that talk does not prevent him from keeping his eye sharply on Matt Barkley. Not Andrew Luck, mind you, but Barkley, one his hand-picked talents from his USC days. Barkley is every bit the QB Luck is without the notoriety and sky-high expectations. Expect Carroll to keep the attention on Luck until draft day when he steals Barkley. He will then let Barkley mature without the glare of a number one selection on his forehead, while Tavaris gets tot he team to the same place Dilfer did before he handed the reins to Hasselbeck.

In closing to the haters and hawk fans alike, fear not. Don’t believe the hype, this team is on the right track. Carroll has ushered in a new era in every way. The team is bigger. It is faster. It is stronger. It is more competitive.

The Niners game was only a blowout to those who caught Sportscenter highlights, but not to those who really studied the game. The re-match in Seattle will have a much different outcome. Seattle will inflict pain on Alex Smith, and the offense will do more than enough to win the day. This Sunday, I expect Pittsburgh to roll, but not by 14 points. Carroll will hype his crew up to defy the odds, to make a statement. No one expects this team to win the Superbowl this year, let alone make the playoffs. They said the same thing last year. But the record will be no indication of this team’s improvement this year. The yardstick will be hidden in less tangible factors, remaining healthy being the most critical.

I have been a die-hard hawk fan my whole life. It makes fall in the northwest bearable. When they lose it casts a shadow on my week. When they win, all is well. But last week’s loss was different. I know an egg when one is laid, and those kids did not lay an egg. They were fun to watch. That is something I could not say about the final days under Holmgren and Hasselbeck.

If Paul Allen gives Carroll and Schneider the time he gave Holmgren and Ruskell–and can keep his Vulcan talons out of Pete’s quaff–expect good things Seattle. In fact, I think fans across the entire NFC West should take heart. After years as the doormat of the NFL, the power will be shifted from the east to the west. Kolb, Bradford and Harbaugh have strengthened those teams, just as Carroll’s strengthened Seattle’s. For a man who love’s competition, Carroll has plenty coming his way, and that’s a great thing because nothing will make the Seahawks better than playing up to expectations rather than playing down to them. And the media has done a stellar job of setting the bar so low for the Seahawks and NFC West that we have sadly come to expect very little from our team.

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