Among Pete Carroll’s most enduring traits are his unwavering optimism and a fierce sense of loyalty.
On the same day a contract extension that will keep him in Seattle until age 74 — at least — was revealed, Carroll dug deep into his reservoir of optimism after the Seahawks’ very troubling 44-34 loss to the Buffalo Bills.
After watching Seattle’s defense get carved up again — variations on a season-long theme — Carroll expressed another in a long line of assurances that it will, indeed get better.
“We’re going to make some really good moves here, we’re going to make some progress, and we’re going to get back on track like we need to and fit together with our offense like we need to,” Carroll said in a postgame Zoom call.
But the longer the Seahawks keep giving up yards at an NFL-record-breaking pace (420 more Sunday for a season average of 456 per game), and hemorrhaging points like they did Sunday (more than a Carroll team had allowed in his 10 years in Seattle), the more his loyalty is being tested.
Specifically, I’m talking about Carroll’s loyalty to defensive coordinator Ken Norton, who has borne growing criticism as Seattle’s inability to shut down teams threatens to undermine a Super Bowl-caliber offense.
For the record, I would be very surprised if Carroll makes a coordinator change before the season ends. A midyear coaching switch is something he’s never done, and Carroll’s long association with Norton will ensure that he gets every last opportunity to turn things around.
Norton was Carroll’s linebackers coach at USC from 2004 until 2010, when Carroll brought him to Seattle to do the same job with the Seahawks. He was bypassed for the defensive-coordinator job in 2013, when Gus Bradley left to become coach in Jacksonville and Carroll hired Dan Quinn, and again two years later when Quinn left to become coach of the Atlanta Falcons; this time, Carroll picked secondary coach Kris Richard, the architect of the Legion of Boom and a former USC player, over Norton.
But that was rectified after the 2017 season, when Carroll shook up his coaching staff — and showed that his loyalty is not limitless. Richard, offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell and offensive-line coach Tom Cable were all let go after the Seahawks missed the playoffs with a 9-7 record. Richard remains the only defensive coordinator he’s ever fired in his long coaching career. The coach said at the time he felt the team needed new energy, a new direction.
It was reported that Carroll made a run at bringing back Bradley, who instead remained on the staff of the Chargers, where he had landed as defensive coordinator after being fired by the Jaguars.
Carroll then tabbed Norton, who had been an All-Pro linebacker and three-time Super Bowl champion as a player for the 49ers and Cowboys, to replace Richard. Norton had left the Seahawks to become defensive coordinator of the Oakland Raiders after Richard was elevated, but Raiders coach Jack Del Rio fired him 10 games into his third season with Oakland in 2017. The Raiders were mired at 4-6 and stood 26th in the NFL in yards allowed per game (367.0) and 21st in points per game (24.7).
The 2020 Seahawks are worse in both categories — but they are also 6-2. In the big picture, it’s not a dire situation, though you could certainly argue that the defense is approaching dire status.
Norton, however, is very popular with the two veteran stalwarts of the Seattle defense, Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright, who bonded with him when he was their position coach and applauded his hire as coordinator. Bruce Irvin, out for the season with an injury, is in the Norton fan club as well. When Norton was fired by Oakland, Irvin — who was with the Raiders at the time — tweeted, “BULL****”
Carroll expressed hope Sunday that the Seahawks will improve by virtue of having their players get healthy and mesh. He noted that newly acquired defensive end Carlos Dunlap was playing in his first game with Seattle on Sunday, and safety Jamal Adams was playing for the first time in more than a month. Furthermore, cornerback Quinton Dunbar, exploited all day by Bills quarterback Josh Allen, was playing on a bad leg — and their other standout cornerback, Shaquill Griffin, missed his second game because of an injury, as did nickel corner Ugo Amadi.
But all NFL teams are dealing with injuries; this is a unit that desperately needs a jolt. Carroll would counter that the season is only halfway done and they can work out of this. To be fair, the Seahawks have risen up to make a handful of key, game-saving stops, and they flashed a strong throwback defensive effort for three quarters last week against San Francisco.
In the fourth quarter, however, the 49ers exploited the Seahawks’ aggressive blitzing to score three touchdowns. Then Sunday, the Bills made it look far too easy for all four quarters, either taking advantage of the expansive cushion the Seahawks left for Buffalo receivers, or burning Seattle’s blitz for big gains.
On the positive side, the Seahawks had seven sacks. But with the Bills essentially abandoning the run — which Carroll admitted took them by surprise — there were plenty of opportunities. It hardly dented Buffalo’s offensive onslaught.
Could Carroll take more of a hand in the defensive signal-calling? Many would say Carroll has always been the mastermind of the Seahawks’ defense, no matter who is defensive coordinator — and he’s had four of them in Seattle.
Carroll pointedly took the blame for making the defensive call on the third-and-16 play Sunday that resulted in a backbreaking 33-yard screen pass in the fourth quarter. He said that it’s not unusual for him to provide such input during games.
“For years, I’ve been involved,” he said. “It’s an ongoing conversation.”
Could the Seahawks try to get Quinn, who has been out of a job since the Falcons fired him Oct. 12, to help out the defense in some kind of advisory role? That seems more plausible than handing him the job outright in mid-campaign, as much as fans might clamor for that change. That doesn’t even account for the issue of COVID-19 screening that could delay an incoming coach — or Quinn’s desire to jump right back in as an assistant so soon after a traumatic dismissal.
This is a defensive mess that the Seahawks — Carroll, Norton and the players — will have to pull themselves out of, it seems. Carroll said he didn’t even recognize the Seahawks’ game Sunday, which included four Russell Wilson turnovers.
But there have certainly been ongoing glimpses all year of the defensive lapses that plagued them. Have there been enough to crack Pete Carroll’s optimism, and his loyalty?