For the first half of the Seahawks’ season there was no more criticized or scrutinized figure than defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr.
As the Seahawks gave up points in quantities rarely seen during the Pete Carroll era and yards that were on pace to set NFL records, the heat on Norton turned up enough that some on social media and elsewhere wondered if Seattle might even consider an in-season change.
But in the wake of the team’s best defensive performance of the season — Thursday’s 28-21 win over Arizona that got Seattle back in the driver’s seat in the NFC West — it is Norton who is receiving much of the internal praise.
Seattle held the Cardinals — who lead the NFL in offense at 414 yards per game — to just 314 yards, only the third time all season they have been held below 400 and the fewest yards allowed by the Seahawks this season.
Afterward, the players and Carroll each pointed to an “accountability meeting” Norton held the night before the game with the team’s defense as pivotal.
Meetings are always held the night before the game, so the meeting itself wasn’t unusual.
But Norton structured this one a little different, quizzing each player in front of each other about his role and responsibilities.
The day after the game, Carroll said it was “the best (meeting) I’ve ever seen.”
Middle linebacker Bobby Wagner said via Zoom on Wednesday that the meeting seemed to resonate more than others in helping the players understand that they each had each other’s back.
“I think sometimes it’s good to hear the guys around you talk about their assignments, talk about what they have, because it lets you trust the guys around you,” Wagner said. “I think the biggest thing from all of this, with the coronavirus and everything, is we haven’t been able to really be around each other as much as we would normally have been in a normal season. So a lot of that camaraderie, a lot of that trust is built in the offseason, built in the OTAs, built in training camp, has been limited a lot. …
“So I think it was just important, coach Norton felt it was important, to have the guys that you’re playing around to just listen to them, speak the game and listen to them talk and let them know how much you know the game and you know what you’re doing.”
As he long ago learned to do with criticism, Norton on Wednesday downplayed the importance of his role in the meeting and the defensive turnaround.
“Oh man, a lot has been made of that meeting,’’ Norton said during a Zoom call with reporters. “We have meetings every week. There’s game-plan meetings, there’s meetings of the mind, there’s meetings of the heart. Every time there are things going on. Just so happens that we won that week and we played well. But at the same time, all the meetings are important.”
Still, should the defensive resurgence continue — and going against the Eagles, Giants, Jets and Washington the next few weeks means there’s a good chance it will — the Norton-led meeting likely will be viewed as a turning point.
Norton said changing up the meeting structure, and letting the players do the talking instead of coaches telling the players the same information, was an attempt “to find different ways to do the same thing … just kind of a different approach to do a similar exercise that we usually do.”
Carroll said such a meeting might not have worked earlier in the season, when players on a defense that has undergone much change due to injury and personnel moves weren’t as familiar with each other and their roles.
But the Arizona game was obviously as important as any all season — with a loss, the Seahawks effectively would have been two games behind the Cardinals in the standings — so there was no time to wait.
“I think that people were free to express their feelings, free to understand what their roles are, understand what everybody else is doing and kind of bring it all together,” Norton said. “And guys were just able to look at each other and commit, look at each other and be accountable, and play in such a connected way that the good teams play together.”
Norton knows about good defenses, having played on three consecutive Super Bowl winners with Dallas and the 49ers from 1992-94. As a coach he groomed Seattle’s linebacking corps of Wagner and K.J. Wright in his first stint as an assistant with the Seahawks from 2010-14.
Norton left to become Oakland’s defensive coordinator in 2015 when the Seahawks promoted Kris Richard to replace the departed Dan Quinn. Norton was fired by the Raiders late in the 2017 season and returned to Seattle as DC in 2018 to replace the departed Richard.
Though what happened in Oakland and Seattle’s struggles this year caused some on the outside to question Norton, Wagner insists players never did.
“We have huge confidence in him,” Wagner said. “We believe in him. We don’t necessarily listen to the noise, because the noise is going to be the noise. There’s noise every season. Whether it’s the offense, defense, it’s always, you know, you have to talk about something. You can’t talk positive about everything. Obviously we haven’t played as well on defense, so they’re going to try to figure out how to single one person out, but it’s not really one person. It’s a collective group. Everybody that’s part of the defense has a hand in that so, you know, you can’t just pin it on one person.”
The focus on Norton also can obscure that Carroll’s background is on defense, and that he has a heavy say in all that happens on that side of the ball, and basically veto power on calls on game day.
Norton, though, also insists the criticism doesn’t bother him.
As the son of the former boxer Ken Norton — who had three famous bouts with Muhammad Ali in the 1970s — Norton said he has long has understood the harsh realities of the sporting limelight.
“I don’t really hear it,” Norton said of criticism. “I mean going back to, I was 6 years old, my father gets knocked out. So I’ve been dealing with criticism and family issues through my father’s career, through his friends’ career. So when it comes to me, I have a certain way to deal with it.
“I understand it, and I get it. Everybody loves a winner, and everybody has all the answers for the guys who aren’t playing well, so I totally understand that and I get it. So it’s a matter of us taking care of our business. And we take care of our business, we do our work, we play the way we are supposed to, and then, you know, you quiet the noise.”