Expectations are high as Pete Carroll enters his third season in charge of the Seattle Seahawks. And it’s not just because he’s in his third year and he’s expected to win after a pair of 7-9 seasons. It’s because he and GM John Schneider have done well to set the team up to be successful now.
The Hawks have a top-10 defense that returns every starter and aspires to be one of the elite units in the game. They also have one of the league’s best emerging running games, as Marshawn Lynch led the NFL over the second half of last season.
The only thing missing is the passing game. But if rookie quarterback Russell Wilson develops as Carroll hopes, the Seahawks could return to their recent glory days and perhaps Carroll can give Mike Holmgren a run for his money as the best coach the Hawks have ever had.
Holmgren is the gold standard in Seattle, and he will remain king until Carroll puts together the same kind of sustained success as Holmgren, who led the team to five straight playoff appearances (2003-07) and a Super Bowl berth. The only thing missing was an NFL championship (you can argue among yourselves about the cause of that, Jerramy Stevens and Bill Leavy).
There are some similarities in how the two regimes started off, but Carroll and Schneider––who spent a year in Seattle under Holmgren––seem to be ahead of Holmgren in building the Hawks into a contender. Both coaches managed to squeak into the playoffs in their first seasons before settling back a bit in their second years as they rebuilt the team in their visions.
Entering their third years, they both aggressively sought potential franchise quarterbacks. Before Carroll chose Wilson as his starter, it seemed as if he would follow in Holmgren’s exact footsteps by handing the offense to a former Green Bay backup QB named Matt. But for now––and maybe forever––it will be Wilson rather than Matt Flynn.
Holmgren, meanwhile, dubbed Matt Hasselbeck his starter in 2001, and the young veteran struggled until finally seizing the job in 2002 after Trent Dilfer went down.
The Hawks finished 7-9 in 2002, but that was the last time they failed to make the playoffs until 2008. And they reached the Super Bowl in 2005. In the end, Holmgren was right about Hasselbeck. It just took a couple of years longer than anyone would have preferred.
In 2012, Carroll is going even younger, but he has his own Matt as insurance in case Wilson flops.
Of course, a major difference between the coaches is that Carroll will not be as dependent on the quarterback as Holmgren was because Carroll has put together a better defense.
Holmgren carefully crafted his offense through the draft, but relied almost entirely on free agency (John Randle, Chad Eaton, Levon Kirkland, Marcus Robertson, et al.) to continually rebuild his defense over his first four years. Once he had his offense in place, he finally started using first-round picks on defense (Marcus Trufant in 2003, Marcus Tubbs in 2004). But it wasn’t until Tim Ruskell came in and rebuilt the defense in one offseason (Lofa Tatupu, Leroy Hill, Patrick Kerney, Bryce Fisher, et al.) that the Hawks finally broke through to the Super Bowl.
That’s where Carroll seems to be ahead. He already has built a staunch defense — using inherited players (Brandon Mebane, Red Bryant, Leroy Hill, Trufant), vets (Chris Clemons, Alan Branch, Brandon Browner, Jason Jones) and a lot of young draft picks (Earl Thomas, Kam Chancellor, Richard Sherman, K.J. Wright, Bobby Wagner, Bruce Irvin).
He also brought in Tom Cable, the line guru who last year turned a motley collection of draft picks and castoffs into one of the league’s best-functioning units. The ultimate testament to his ability is the fact that rookie J.R. Sweezy has made the conversion from college defensive lineman to starting right guard in one offseason. And it’s not like the Hawks don’t have other choices there.
Creating a defense and running game that are now among the league’s best has enabled the Hawks to gamble on a dynamic play-making rookie quarterback. This formula––strong defense and running game supporting a rookie QB, has been quite successful in the NFL over the last decade. Just ask Pittsburgh, Baltimore, San Diego, Atlanta, the New York Jets, Cincinnati, et al.
The Hawks ranked ninth in defense (seventh in scoring defense) last season and led the league in rushing over the second half of the season. If Wilson can help the offense improve on the No. 28 ranking it has held for three of the last four years, the Hawks have a good shot at returning to the playoffs in 2012.
If Carroll is as good at sustaining it as Holmgren was, the Seahawks could be on their way to another good decade of football, and maybe Carroll will be the coach to finally bring Seattle that long elusive Super Bowl title.
Expectations are high, but Carroll has the Seahawks poised to meet or exceed them.
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Chris Cluff worked as a sports editor and writer for The Seattle Times for 11 years and has written two books on the Seattle Seahawks. Since leaving the Times, he has written about the Seahawks and Seattle sports for Bleacher Report and the blog he shares with a fellow sportswriter, outsidethepressbox.com. His work can be found on Examiner.com.