I wrote the bones of the following column almost a year ago today, at that time on the precipice of a new season with Tarvaris Jackson at the helm. It was meant to try and get into Pete Carroll's head a bit on why he was doing the things he was doing at the quarterback position. Well, turns out, after a year, the quarterback position is still no more settled. Regardless, what I wrote still applies and if you missed it the first time around, it may interest you now - with a few edits and adjustments to fit the current state of affairs. It's about Bill Walsh, and his influence on Pete Carroll and how Carroll established his philosophies.
If you're a football fan you almost certainly know the name Bill Walsh and you probably know his significance and importance to NFL history. If not, in short, he is widely regarded as a football genius and he revolutionized how the game was played, practiced, and approached on many levels, all while leading the 49ers to three Super Bowl victories in the 1980s.
I bring it up here because he had a very strong influence on Pete Carroll's coaching style and philosophy, so if you're like many around the country that are curious (or annoyed, exasperated, vexed?) about Carroll's methods and attitude, it helps to take a look back at the career of Bill Walsh. Carroll was the defensive coordinator for George Siefert's 49ers in 1995 and 1996, and Bill Walsh was a consultant for the team in those years. Carroll took to Walsh like a puppy and gleaned as much information from the legend as he could in those two seasons.
In his book Win Forever, Carroll mentions that Bill Walsh imparted to him a philosophy on quarterbacking that struck a chord, and he's followed it ever since. "We talked a lot about the quarterback position. Coach Walsh was one of the great quarterback gurus in the history of the game, and he convinced me that everything a coach does in designing his offense should be about making it easy for his quarterback, because his job is so difficult. He believed that everything should be be structured with the quarterback in mind."
What have the Seahawks done the past two offseasons while building their team? Some say they've completely neglected the quarterback position but I would guess Carroll believes he's doing the exact opposite. He's added two 'first-round' (meaning, hopefully awesome) offensive linemen in Russell Okung and James Carpenter (now injured) to work with a second-round center (Max Unger) and third round right guard (John Moffitt) in establishing a run game and effective pass protecting unit meant to help the quarterback. He signed two Pro-Bowl receiving options in Sidney Rice and Zach Miller, and beefed up the running game with the additions of Leon Washington, Marshawn Lynch, and Robert Turbin. These players are complemented, hopefully, with the additions of Kellen Winslow, Golden Tate, Anthony McCoy, Kris Durham, Ricardo Lockette, Braylon Edwards, Terrell Owens, and maybe Phil Bates or Lavasier Tuinei to a team that already had Deon Butler, Cameron Morrah, and Ben Obomanu on the roster.
He's set out designing an offense that will make things easier for his quarterback. Whoever that is.
Bill Walsh, the guru, and one of Pete's mentors, described his ideal quarterback: "All I'm looking for is a guy who can throw a catchable ball."
Well, Walsh did have Joe Montana and Steve Young, but how much influence Walsh had on their success is hard to gauge in hindsight. So, is Tarvaris Jackson Carroll's guy? Is it Matt Flynn? Russell Wilson? I don't know, but Pete may. It all goes back to...:
"I still think about Coach Walsh's "catchable ball" today when I evaluate potential quarterbacks during recruiting, draft preparation, or free agency and I have never forgotten the importance of building an offense that is focused on protecting the quarterback, first and foremost."
There's quite a lot of grey area when it comes to finding a guy that throw a "catchable ball," but that idea isn't the only nugget that Carroll took from Bill Walsh's philosophy. He also inherited Walsh's doctrine on practice, team building, and importantly, player nurturing and confidence building. These ideas are something to keep in mind over the next few weeks while Carroll sets out to decide on a starting quarterback between Tarvaris Jackson, Matt Flynn, and Russell Wilson.
Bill Walsh passed away recently, and Steve Young shared some thoughts on his late great coach. "He knew me well before I knew myself. He knew what I could accomplish well before I could accomplish it. You know, as a coach, that's the ultimate talent you can have. I said in my Hall of Fame speech, he's the most important person in football in the past 25 years, I don't think there's any debate of that. ...(Young goes on talking about development of West Coast Offense, timing, etc).
"Integration. You know, everyone talks about racial integration, but he integrated every place you can on a football team. Culturally, cliques that would form, he'd break them up. He'd break up guys sitting at the lunch table. He knew football was the ultimate people sport, it was the ultimate team game, there's too many guys. If you're going to be good, you've got to develop a level of respect for each other."
"At some point, you're going to be 3rd and 7, down four, on the road, in New York, it's raining, you're tired, and you can smell the bus fumes and you just want to go home. Guys had to have that element in them. So he built it, in the lockerrooms, in the plane, hotels, training camp, he was so much ahead of his time."
All this sounds familiar - and there are tons of anecdotes coming from the VMAC of Pete Carroll doing these types of team-building and team-growth types of things. I'm not trying to convince you that Pete Carroll is the second-coming of Bill Walsh. Not at all. I'm simply trying to shed some light on why Carroll does some of the things he does and where he developed his methods -- how he has gone about building the roster, why he places such importance on team-building and practice, and why he believes in the power of building a player's confidence.
Steve Young came over to the 49ers from the Buccaneers after compiling a 3-19 record in two years, throwing 11 touchdowns to 21 interceptions and completing fewer than 55% of his passes. Bill Walsh saw something in him that he liked and made the trade for him. He came to the 49ers, developed for a few seasons, then the rest is history.
"He knew me well before I knew myself. He knew what I could accomplish well before I could accomplish it. You know, as a coach, that's the ultimate talent you can have."
It might be cheesy but it sure worked for Walsh. I'm sure Pete Carroll believes it can work for him as well (again, whether it's Flynn, Wilson, or Jackson), and he's not the only one using some of the principals and philosophy that Walsh pioneered.
Mike Holmgren, now president of the Cleveland Browns, who some of you might be familiar with, is another disciple of Bill Walsh's methods on quarterbacking, and has had some success with guys like Brett Favre and Matt Hasselsomethingorother. (Remember how he traded for an obscure 6th round pick, built a team around him, and developed him into an All-Pro and led his team to a Super Bowl appearance or something along those lines?)
The Bill Walsh modus operandi was closely linked to the West Coast Offense he developed where the onus was on making it easy for QBs -- by choreographing the footwork and timing so the QB didn't have to think, just make throws to the weapons assembled around him. There were principles from this in place with Holmgren's Favre/Hasselbeck teams and are present with his new team's offense now.
Carroll used this QB philosophy following his time in San Francisco -- both the relationship, trust-building aspect and the idea of making it easy for the QB, in his next jobs in New England with Drew Bledsoe, and later at USC with Carson Palmer, Matt Leinart, Mark Sanchez, and a few other fairly successful players (John David Booty, for example... wildly successful in Carroll's system, not so much in the NFL).
When there was no clear standout at quarterback in his time at USC, there would be a competition, and then the 'winner' would be awarded the benefits of that position. This happened several times in Carroll's tenure at USC, but is exemplified by the beginning of the 2003 season.
As a sophomore that year, Matt Leinart beat out redshirt junior Matt Cassel, Carson Palmer's backup in 2002, and Purdue transfer Brandon Hance for the starting job at quarterback - not because he had set the world on fire in practice, but simply because Pete Carroll and his staff needed a starting quarterback. The legend goes that once he was told he'd be the starting QB that year, Leinart replied, "You're never going to regret this." He was right - the Trojans went 11-1 that year, won the Rose Bowl and the AP National Championship. The Trojans didn't lose in 2004 and won the National Championship, then stayed undefeated again until the final game of the 2005 season, when they lost to Vince Young in the Rose Bowl and BCS National Championship game.
Carroll recollected on the start of that three year period of total domination with Leinart at QB a while back, when asked about Leinart's quarterback competition in Arizona at the time. "I know the fact when Kenny [Whisenhunt] says to Matt, 'You're my starting quarterback', it makes worlds of difference to Matt." Carroll said. "I watched that happen when we had to choose between he and Cassel years ago [referencing the 2003 season]. Matt was floundering. Cassel was floundering. We didn't look like we were going anywhere. Then we made a call the last day of spring practice, 'OK, if we were playing a game today, you'd be the starter, Leinart. Go ahead and take it over.' He had a look in his eye. He said what I think he probably said to Kenny: 'You'll never regret this and you'll never have to look back.' And he just flipped and hit the switch. I think that's what he's been waiting for. He's been waiting for that recognition that you are our starting guy and I think he's going to be a terrific player. I don't know him in any other way. I don't know how to think of him in any other way than he is going to be a great performer for them."
I would guess that Carroll tried this method - a method he really believes in - with Tarvaris Jackson last season by giving him the starters job and a ringing and sustained public endorsement, and that didn't work out how anyone would have hoped. Obviously, I'm sure Carroll realizes, it doesn't always work. Jackson never 'flipped that switch,' and though he played well enough to remain in the conversation, the Seahawks have brought in more competition for him and the job is no longer his alone. Matt Flynn has been handed the keys for the first half this weekend and all the first-team snaps in practice this week, and responded with what's been pretty much unanimously described as his best practice in a Seahawks' uniform. Some say that Flynn has a shot to grab the starting job and never look back. Will he flip that switch? We'll see.
So far, most rational observers would say that the only thing Carroll and company haven't succeeded at in their two years in Seattle thus far is to improve their passing game. The defense is much improved. The morale is much improved. The depth and overall talent is much improved. It's a passing league though, as they say, and Carroll must prove he's able to build a team that can do that. I'm sure that's something he'd like to remedy this year.
Whether Tarvaris Jackson, or Matt Flynn, or maybe Russell Wilson can become the NFL's next Steve Young or Matt Hasselbeck is anyone's guess, but you have to believe that Carroll is still just looking for that Bill Walsh catchable ball, from the Bill Walsh philosophy that quarterback is just a key part of a bigger, integrated unit.