Pompei: Pete Carroll's Unique Blueprint Has Turned Seahawks into NFL's Elite

Dan PompeiNFL ColumnistSeptember 19, 2013

Editor's Note: Dan Pompei will be writing a weekly column for Bleacher Report in which he examines the week that was in the NFL

They don't pass out shiny silver trophies after Week 2 of the NFL season. But if they did, Pete Carroll's fingerprints would be all over the object of every team’s desire.

The Seattle Seahawks are the "it" team in the NFL this September. Their resounding victory over the mighty San Francisco 49ers on Sunday night was confirmation.

To get to this point, the Seahawks took the road less traveled. A lot has been said about how they went all in for Percy Harvin and Cliff Avril—moves that might eventually put Seattle over the top. But the foundation of the team was built with less flashy moves.

They put their faith in a diminutive quarterback. They invested in other teams' castoffs. They did everything in their power to be the best team they could be.

The Seahawks haven’t hit a home run with every move, but they haven’t had to because they've swung the bat so many times. In 2010, general manager John Schneider’s first year with the team, he made an astounding 284 personnel transactions. In his entire tenure, he's made 888, including 157 this year.

May 10, 2013; Renton, WA, USA; Seattle Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll, left, and general manager John Schneider observe a rookie minicamp practice at the Virginia Mason Athletic Center. Mandatory Credit: Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports
Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

The most interesting of the moves may have been the selection of 5'11'' quarterback Russell Wilson. Schneider liked Wilson enough to draft him higher than the third round, but he didn’t need to pull the trigger before then. In Wilson, he saw a player who had a feel for the position like Drew Brees. He had everything except ideal height. 

Schneider would sacrifice size at the quarterback position, but nowhere else. Like his mentor Ron Wolf, Schneider has always been drawn to size. When he took over the team, he once told me that he wanted to transform the Seahawks so they could be like the 49ers, Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens—some of the most brutish teams in the league at the time. 

So, the Seahawks weren’t always looking for the same player that 31 other teams were looking for.

"The style of our team is one that is very physical in all phases," Carroll told me. "We knew we would play good defense and would get the right kind of guys on special teams. The big commitment had to be to the running game. That’s what closes the circle on being a tough, physical football team. It’s really hard to do when you are a throwing team. Until you run the football, it’s hard to close the loop on being an all-encompassing, hard-nosed, physical, tough team."

Hence the shift to "Beast Mode." And not just for running back Marshawn Lynch. The entire Seahawks squad has become hard-nosed, physical and tough in all areas.  

They found the biggest starting cornerback combination in the league in 6'3'' Richard Sherman and 6'4'' Brandon Browner. The rest of the NFL has taken notice, as big corners have become all the rage.

Back in the early 80s, when Carroll was the defensive coordinator for North Carolina State, he was watching a joint practice between the 49ers and Oakland Raiders. Donning the silver and black were 6'2'' Michael Haynes and 6'0'' Lester Hayes, who were being coached to bump and run by Willie Brown, a former Raiders cornerback who stood at 6'1''.

"I was a DB coach at the time, so I was watching them and taking a bunch of notes,” Carroll said. “I adopted the style he was coaching when I went back to NC State."

Carroll has favored big, fast corners, over smaller, nimble ones with flexible hips ever since.

Jun 12, 2013; Renton, WA, USA; Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman (25) talks with cornerback Brandon Browner (39) during minicamp practice at the Virginia Mason Athletic Center. Mandatory Credit: Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports
Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

While Carroll was the head coach at Southern Cal, he realized the value of allowing the younger guys to earn playing time. He said 50 percent of his players at USC saw the field in their first years.

It’s something he has carried over to the Seahawks, as Sherman, Wilson, linebackers Bruce Irvin and Bobby Wagner and wide receiver Doug Baldwin were all significant contributors as rookies. This year, it looks like tight end Luke Wilson could join that group.

Carroll talks about finding roles for young players and utilizing the specific skills of each individual without asking them to do too much. But the bigger picture is that every job—every snap, really—is up for grabs. 

Opportunity abounds on the practice fields in Renton, Wash. 

"The vision for this program was to put together a team of guys who really understood what it was to compete and build a real team," Carroll told me. "Not just get the hotshot players, but to go with guys who really cared and would make the sacrifices and would buy into the approach and philosophy.

"We have an approach to help each guy be the very best he can possibly be. We'll take a very precise look at each guy and find out their uniqueness and discover what they bring that’s special, then fit it into our football team. That's the same thing we did at SC exactly. I thought maybe that wasn’t prevalent in the NFL. It's more of a business, hard-line, old-school way of looking at it. I just found that when you really focus on empowering each person to be their very best, you get a great team result. So we needed guys who would be competitive, buy in and sacrifice, then see how far we could take them."

Certain members of the organization have told me that when the Seahawks "miss" on players, the misses have been more about personality and character than ability.

Then there are the players who have thrived in Seattle under Carroll who have struggled elsewhere. Among them are Lynch, defensive end Chris Clemons, offensive lineman Paul McQuistan, offensive tackle Breno Giacomini, fullback Michael Robinson and defensive end Alan Branch.

The Seahawks also have hit on some later-round players and undrafteds such as the butt-slapping, cheerleader-dancing Sherman, Baldwin, safety Kam Chancellor, linebackers Malcolm Smith and K.J. Wright and guard J.R. Sweezy.

That is all a testament to Schneider understanding what Carroll is looking for, and to the coaching staff's ability to develop talent and utilize it correctly. 

This Seahawks team was not built like other teams. And that may be its great advantage.

NFL Confidential

  • In the midst of all the Johnny Manziel trashing, we should point out that some NFL teams are drawing a distinction between Manziel’s football character and his off-the-field character. That is, they are concerned about how he comports himself away from the team. In fact, one talent evaluator compared him with Ryan Mallett in that regard. But the reports they have gotten about Manziel in the locker room say he is a solid leader who is well-liked. Scouts also like his intelligence, and they love his instincts. So it’s not like Manziel is considered a complete disaster from an intangibles standpoint.
  • One reason Devin Hester set a Chicago Bears record for kickoff-return yardage in a game Sunday is because he clearly is happier in his role this year, according to those who know him. Not playing on offense has improved Hester’s focus and energy as a return man. Hester, who can be moody, has been upbeat and talkative this year. He initially recoiled at the idea of a coaching change, but after several coaches, including special teams coach Joe DeCamillis and defensive assistant Chris Harris (a former teammate), took Hester out to dinner in the offseason and explained how important he could be to the team in a new role, Hester embraced this challenge.
  • Personnel evaluators were not surprised to see the 49ers' Anquan Boldin go from having 13 catches in week one against the Packers to having one catch in week two against the Seahawks. Why? "He can’t get off the line anymore against a physical defensive back," one front office man said of the 32-year-old. 
  • Andy Reid is returning to Philadelphia Thursday as head coach of the Chiefs, but in a sense, he never left. Reid still owns the suburban Philadelphia house he called home for 14 years. In fact, friends of Reid say he has no plans on selling the house. 
  • Texans safety Ed Reed may make his 2013 debut this week against his old team in Baltimore, and it will be interesting to see how he fares. There are many around the league who will tell you the 35-year-old did not play up to his previous standards in 2012. One scout said Reed guessed a lot because he knew his skills had deteriorated, and as a result was caught out of position. Reed’s tackling skills also have been called into question.

Remember the Name: DeAndre Hopkins

When NFL decision-makers looked at their draft boards in April, they didn’t see an all-around wide receiver who could be considered a sure thing.

Tavon Austin was an intriguing prospect but his lack of size was a concern. Cordarrelle Patterson had the size, but he was awfully raw.

And then there was DeAndre Hopkins. The Clemson product had nice hands—measured at 10 inches, they were the largest of any drafted receiver. And he played physically.

But he ran a 4.51 40 yard dash, so teams had their reservations about him. He fell to the 27th pick, where the Houston Texans nabbed him.

All he has done in his first two games is catch 12 passes for 183 yards, including the game-winning touchdown in overtime Sunday.

If Hopkins’ NFL beginnings are a portent of what is to come, he might have been prophetic when he spoke of being better than teammate Andre Johnson.

"The kid is very talented," Texans wide receivers coach Larry Kirksey told me. "He works hard. He came into camp and surprised everybody with the way he was able to catch the ball. I think as the year goes on he’ll continue to mature and keep getting better and better. He wants to be better and it’s important to him."

The Texans are lining up Hopkins at the Z, or flanker position. But in Gary Kubiak’s offense, that means moving around to different spots. So Hopkins has a lot on his plate. Kirksey said the rookie is not comfortable with everything yet.

“He has a ways to go still,” he said. “He will have some growing pains. His route running has to improve. He knows that. But he has a good feel for how to get open and adjust to the ball in the air.”

As for the player Hopkins is eventually supposed to replace as the Texans’ No. 1 receiver, Johnson has helped Hopkins quite a bit in terms of teaching him how to prepare, Kirksey said.

And no one seems to mind that Hopkins made a bold statement about wanting to be better than Johnson. "I think it’s good he thinks that way," Kirksey said. "Andre even told him he should think that way."

Assistant Coach You Should Know: Adam Gase

If I told you there is a 35-year old offensive coordinator whose playbook is a blend of Mike McCoy, Josh McDaniels and Mike Martz, would your curiosity be piqued?

What if I told you he's learned from Nick Saban and John Fox, and that his father-in-law is Joe Vitt?

And what if I told you his offense has scored more points through two games (83) than all but two teams in NFL history?

You probably would say Denver’s Adam Gase is a head coach in waiting. And you wouldn’t find any arguments. A promotion seems to be a matter of when, not if, for Gase.

But he just became an offensive coordinator this past offseason. When McCoy left Denver, Fox promoted his quarterbacks coach rather than hire an experienced hand like Ken Whisenhunt or Pat Shurmer.

Fox has said that Gase has "it." Gase is known as a “grinder” with exceptional energy and work ethic.

Friends say he learned the value of being prepared for the next situation—whatever it may befrom McDaniels. They also say he learned from McDaniels' mistakes in handling personnel.

If Gase takes Peyton Manning where no one else has taken him, the line will form on the left. 

Hot Reads

  • It was a legal block by Seahawks guard J.R. Sweezy into the back of 49ers defensive tackle Ian Williams' leg that broke his ankle and knocked him out for the year. And that's the problem. The NFL is concerned that teams won't be able to run the ball if they outlaw low blocks inline. But the NFL should be more concerned about the safety of players, and the sustainability of their product.
  • Think of Brandon Meriweather as a public service. He’s an example every coach can use when talking about how not to tackle.
  • The passing of Rick Casares barely registered a blip on the NFL radar last weekend, and that's a pity. Casares was a bruising fullback for the Bears from what I consider the NFL’s greatest generation—the late 50s and early 60s. Mike Ditka considered him the toughest player he ever suited up with, and he was beloved in the locker room. He retired as the Bears’ all-time leading rusher and stayed No. 1 until Walter Payton passed him. He currently ranks third.
  • Two weeks in, and the media is clamoring about Ron Rivera being fired, Josh Freeman being traded, and RGIII being benched. Glad no one overreacts in the NFL.
  • New York Giants cornerback Prince Amukamara reveals that teammates call him “the black Tim Tebow” because of his morals. NFL scouts, however, argue that Amukamara throws a much better pass than Tebow.
  • Whether or not the Browns were wise or unwise in trading Trent Richardson for a first-round pick (I'm saying unwise), there is no doubt they were brazen. How many other owners other than Jimmy Haslam and how many executives other than Joe Banner could trade away perhaps their most valuable asset after two weeks of the season and expect their fan base not to flinch? Only in Cleveland.

Dan Pompei has covered the NFL for 28 years and sits on the Hall of Fame election committee. He has covered 26 Super Bowls, most recently for the Chicago Tribune. Follow him on Twitter here


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