The old guy has still got it.
In a division filled with slick young coaches who have been bringing new wrinkles to the X’s and O’s — and fewer wrinkles everywhere else — just look who is sitting at the top, looking down at the whippersnappers.
Why, that would be Pete Carroll, who by his birth certificate is 69, but by his demeanor, energy and outlook is a couple of decades shy of that.
On Sunday at Lumen Field, in a showdown for the NFC West title, Carroll thoroughly outfoxed Rams coach Sean McVay, the 34-year-old wunderkind who supposedly had his number, his letter and a few symbols to be named later.
The Seahawks won 20-9, holding the Rams without a touchdown for the first time this season. As the once-vulnerable but suddenly impenetrable Seahawks’ defense continues its stunning turnaround, Seattle’s championship aspirations are looking more realistic by the game.
Jamal Adams lit up a cigar at the end of his postgame Zoom conference, but Carroll conveyed the same celebratory vibe by means of tone and visible excitement. You could practically see the metaphorical smoke being exhaled.
“This was a great Seahawks day,’’ began Carroll, who has presided over many of them in his 11 seasons in Seattle.
This was Carroll’s fifth division title, matching Mike Holmgren’s total over the exact same span. But in many ways, this one equaled or surpassed any of them. Certainly, the challenges were uniquely daunting.
For one thing, Seattle prevailed in a division that all year has been touted as the toughest, top to bottom, in football. The Rams brought in the top-ranked defense in the NFL, led by the incomparable pass rusher, Aaron Donald. The Cardinals augmented their breakout quarterback, Kyler Murray, with an elite wide receiver, DeAndre Hopkins. The 49ers represented the NFC in the Super Bowl last year, though their season was wrecked by injuries.
“We all knew that the division was as tough as it gets,’’ Carroll said.
McVay, Arizona’s 41-year-old Kliff Kingsbury and San Francisco’s Kyle Shanahan, also 41, have all been lauded as part of a new wave of bright football minds, even innovators. But the job Carroll and his staff have done on the fly in reshaping the Seahawks defense deserves its own special category of innovation.
Once it was viewed as their fatal flaw; the 44 points the Seahawks gave up against Buffalo was the most in the Carroll era, and for half the year they were headed for some of the worst defensive statistics in NFL history. But somehow it was possible Sunday for Adams to call Seattle’s defense the best in the NFL without inducing laughter or even eye rolls.
Because for several weeks, they’ve indeed been right up there among the best, by every statistical measure. You could question the level of competition in recent weeks, but holding the Rams out of the end zone was the piece de resistance so far.
You could also point out that the broken thumb Rams quarterback Jarred Goff suffered in the third quarter no doubt played some role in his struggles. But by no means all of them. Certainly, it shouldn’t minimize the goal-line stand Carroll cited as the epitome of how far the Seattle defense has come.
“There was never a more heroic opportunity than down there on the goal line. It’s on the 2, first down,’’ Carroll said. “And the guys did not let it happen. The goal-line stand was a famous one I’ll never forget.”
The Seahawks’ defensive reformation has been predicated on overall improvement throughout the lineup, on shrewd acquisitions by general manager John Schneider, and the return to health of key players during the course of the season. But a nod must be given to defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr., whom Carroll staunchly stood behind when the heat was at its most scorching, and who figured out a way to get his players across the board to elevate their game.
“Everybody out there, they got to start putting respect on this defense’s name, because this defense is playing lights out,’’ Adams said. “And to me, we’re the best defense in the league, and you can quote that. You can do what you want with it. But at the end of the day, I believe in these guys, and I believe in this coaching staff.”
This is now shaping up as the Seahawks formula Carroll most covets — a stout defense complemented by a run-oriented, ball-control offense that minimizes mistakes and is capable of the big strike when called for. On Sunday, Russell Wilson had his third straight game without a turnover, and if he’s stopped “cooking” to the extent he did earlier in the year, Carroll believes the overall concept is more conducive to winning. The truth of that will be determined in January.
“There were times during the season here when everybody had enough statistics to go ahead and blow us out, like we weren’t worth anything on defense,’’ Carroll said. “This defense is good, and they’ve shown it, and they’ve declared. This the kind of defense that we played in years past when we really had a good team down the end of the stretch.”
The end of the stretch is looming ahead of the Seahawks, but Carroll took a moment to reflect on how the COVID-19 challenges made this such a difficult year to navigate. And thus a division championship to covet.
“There’s no denying it — this is not something we just rolled through,’’ he said. “It’s been constant for months before we ever started. … Our guys have been so committed to it.”
And now here Carroll and the Seahawks stand — at the top of the mountain in the NFC West, eager to continue their climb.