The Seahawks made the most public acknowledgment there can be that there were problems with their defense in 2021, firing coordinator Ken Norton Jr. this week.
Firing Norton comes an apparent desire to get back to being more aggressive after a season in which the Seahawks forced just 18 turnovers, more than just seven other teams, and had just 34 sacks, more than only eight other teams.
Within about eight hours of the news of the firing of Norton came reports that the Seahawks had requested to interview Broncos defensive coordinator Ed Donatell and Bears defensive coordinator Sean Desai. On Wednesday, it was also reported the Seahawks have asked to interview Dallas passing-game coordinator and secondary coach Joe Whitt Jr.
Sources have said the Seahawks also could look to promote defensive line coach and assistant head coach Clint Hurtt.
But will fixing the defense be as easy as changing coordinators?
This will be the seventh time the Seahawks have changed an offensive or defensive coordinator in Carroll’s 12 years.
How have those changes worked?
Let’s take a look.
2011: Offensive coordinator Jeremy Bates fired, Darrell Bevell hired.
Comment: After Carroll’s first year, when the Seahawks finished 28th in yards and 25th in points — and maybe most important, 31st in rushing offense — Carroll jettisoned Bates, who had come with him from USC. Echoing what he would later say about most changes, Carroll said the firing was “really a philosophical issue. We needed to move into a different direction.”
Carroll didn’t wait long to find a replacement, hiring Bevell three days later. Bevell had never worked with Carroll but had been with the Packers when GM John Schneider was there. He was hired to improve the running game, having been the OC the previous five years with the Vikings when Minnesota had one of the best running attacks (OK, having Adrian Peterson helped a lot). Carroll also hired Tom Cable as offensive-line coach, and the Bevell/Cable duo did indeed transform the running game into one of the best in the NFL, particularly once Russell Wilson and a heavy dose of the zone read arrived.
2013: Defensive coordinator Gus Bradley leaves to become head coach at Jacksonville, Dan Quinn hired.
Comment: With Seattle emerging as the best defense in the NFL in 2012, Carroll wanted as seamless of a transition at DC as he could find once Bradley moved on, and got it by bringing back Quinn. In fact, the hiring of Quinn was announced roughly three hours after it was announced Bradley had left. Quinn had good relationships with many players already having been defensive line and assistant head coach in 2009-10 — he’d left to become the DC at Florida — and proved the perfect choice to keep the train rolling.
2015: Quinn leaves to become head coach of the Falcons, Kris Richard promoted.
Comment: After Quinn left following the Seahawks’ second straight Super Bowl appearance, Carroll kept it in house, promoting Richard, who was the defensive backs coach and had the vocal endorsement of all of the key members of the Legion of Boom secondary. Norton appeared to be the only other candidate, but a couple days before Richard’s hiring was announced, Norton was hired as DC of the Raiders, making it clear the job was going to Richard, then 35.
2018: Bevell, Richard fired. Seahawks hire Brian Schottenheimer as OC, Norton as DC.
Comment: In the wake of a 9-7 and playoff-less season in 2017, Carroll cleaned house (also firing Cable).
Any objective view of Bevell’s tenure is that it was a success — the 2015 and 2014 teams remain 1-2 in team history in yards gained and average yards per play despite the perception that the Seahawks just rode their defense.
And after six years of the defense ranking in the top five in fewest points and yards allowed, the 2017 unit fell out of the top 10 in each. Injuries to Richard Sherman, Kam Chancellor and Cliff Avril contributed heavily.
“We felt that it was time,” Carroll said then. “It really comes back to competing and finding ways to get a little bit better. That’s why we made those choices.”
On defense, Carroll brought back Norton, while reaching outside to try to fix the offense hiring Schottenheimer, with whom he had no significant prior relationship. Mike Solari, whom Carroll had worked alongside with the 49ers, was brought in to replace Cable.
2021: Schottenheimer fired as OC, Shane Waldron hired.
Comment: Schottenheimer initially did what he was supposed to do — revive the rushing attack. Due in part to injuries ravaging the running-backs corps, the Seahawks had just one rushing TD in 2017 from someone other than Russell Wilson. They improved from 23rd in rushing in 2017 to first in 2018.
But the season ended in the disappointment of a wild-card playoff loss at Dallas in which many felt the Seahawks stuck to the run too long. Still, they finished in the top nine in scoring each of Schottenheimer’s three years. But Schottenheimer was fired following yet another playoff disappointment, the wild-card home loss to the Rams a year ago with Carroll echoing what he’d said after the firing of Bates, attributing it to “philosophical differences” without specifying what those were.
For the third time in his Seahawks career, Carroll hired an OC he had no real prior relationship with in Waldron, who’d been an assistant with the Rams. They had struggles on offense this year ranking 16th in points scored, second lowest of the last 10 years.
But Wilson’s injury obviously makes it difficult to really judge the impact of the coordinator change, and Waldron will get at least another season in 2022 to show what he can do.
2022: Norton fired.
Comment: There are all kinds of numbers you can cite for the demise of the defense of late. But here’s a simple one — after ranking no worse than 11th in yards allowed from 2011-17 the Seahawks have been 16th or lower each of the past four years.
So, Carroll is again on the search for a coordinator to fix things.
And is there a lesson to be learned in what Carroll might do now from reviewing the past?
Most apparent is that Carroll, a defensive-minded coach who is often perceived as running that side of the ball, usually brings in a DC he already knows well (which might point to promoting Hurtt or hiring old friend Donatell) while being far more willing to look at an outsider on offense.
Also apparent is that while coordinators can make a difference, it may be personnel that matters most.
The offense got a lot better once Wilson arrived in 2012, and its two worst years during his time as QB also came in the seasons in which he had significant injuries (2016 and 2021).
And the defense, regardless of coordinators, got a lot better once the LOB arrived and worse once they moved on.
But as the saying goes, the LOB isn’t walking through that door anytime soon, so Carroll will hope again that changing coordinators does the trick.