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Seeds of the Seahawks' offense: Mike Shanahan & Pete Carroll

Mike Shanahan's name now embodies that potent combination of Bill Walsh's West Coast passing and Alex Gibbs' deep commitment to zone running, with the mesh point of those two concepts being the play-action pass.

Patrick McDermott

In a few hours, the Seattle Seahawks' offense will begin to trade blows against the closest thing in the NFL to a genetic twin, the Washington Redskins offense. They aren't identical twins, but perhaps fraternal twins, easily differentiated, but spawned from shared strands of DNA. And, I am talking about something simpler than the sexy new "college" offensive formations. In fact, I want to take it back way before the read-zone, before the split-back-read-zone, before the widespread use of the pistol, in fact, possibly before the widespread use of the shotgun formation. Before we get there though, let me digress.


During the Seahawks defense's "3rd Down Crisis" midseason, I wanted to explore what the Seahawks defensive philosophy was. What was important to the Seahawks on the defensive side of the ball? In fact, the 2012 Seahawks' defense did not lead the league in yards allowed, turnovers, sacks, 3rd down conversion, blitzes, Pro Bowl selections, rushing yards, passing yards, rushing ypc - or any other traditional or advanced stat except...

They did lead the NFL in points allowed - 15.3 ppg. 245 points allowed over the course the season in the highest scoring season in NFL history. So, despite internal conflict, this is the best defense in the NFL. Scoring is the most important statistic. I believe this defense is based around four key principals. These were drawn mostly from a presentation from Coach Seto while at USC.

1. Limit Explosive Plays
2. Make the Opponent One-Dimensional
3. Get the Ball
4. Out-hit/Out-physical the Opponent

I deduced that Carroll's offensive philosophy was a mirror-image of his defensive philosophy. I believe his offensive philosophy is:

1. Make Explosive Plays
2. Be Balanced-Never be One-Dimensional
3. Protect the Ball
4. Be Physical


Football Outsiders ranked the 2012 Seattle Seahawks Offense as the #1 NFL offense in Weighted DVOA. This still blows my mind. Think about the Arizona game - the one in Arizona. Ok, now stop thinking about that season opener and stop ripping your eyebrows off. The recent version of the Seahawks have made explosive plays throwing and running at a very high percentage, especially considering the fact that they throw the ball less than any team in the NFL. Wilson's yards per attempt (YPA) in the last eight games was over 9.0 YPA. He may not throw much, but when he does, he throw deep. Stay thirsty my friends.

The Seahawks are not one dimensional, they can hurt you both throwing and running. Very rarely can a team take away the Seahawks' running attack. Only the Miami Dolphins, and perhaps to a certain degree, the New England Patriots, were able to make the Seahawks running game stall. I blame the Miami running failures on Carroll-bye-week-vacation-South Beach-gate. The Seahawks ran the ball against the 49ers - TWICE, and the Chicago Bears (the #2 and #3 NFL Defenses in points allowed). The Seahawks don't turn the ball over much, and finished with a +13 turnover margin. We know with Tom Cable and Marshawn Lynch, the offense has a physical nature. In a recent article on, Cable talks about the difference being a "pincushion" (pass blocker), versus "tattooing" a defense (run blocking).

"There are two kinds of thoughts in this league," Cable said. "You can standup and get run at, kind of be pin-cushioned all day. Or you can come off and tattoo people and give it back."


Early in the season, I kept searching for a team that represented what I believed the training-wheels-Seahawks-offense hoped "to be like when they grew up." All season, the stats kept guiding me to three teams. The Houston Texans. The San Francisco 49ers. The Washington Redskins. All three run a lot, all three run for a lot of yards, and all three run a lot of play action passes. I kept sifting through the candidates, looking for a leader to emerge.

The Niners are built similarly to the Seahawks and are very similar in many statistical categories. I ended up removing them because Jim Harbaugh runs his own unique offensive system, and they rely more on a man-blocking than a zone-blocking system. Early in the season, with Alex Smith, I felt the Niners passing game was not explosive enough for what Carroll envisioned. I believe, after 4-6 games, I checked Alex Smith's stats, and he had thrown ZERO passes to the deep middle (over 15 yards). I am not talking completions, I am talking attempts.

I then moved on to Houston. Zone blocking. Good running back. Good offensive line. Good defense. High use of play action passing. In fact, about midway through the season, Russell Wilson's offensive stats (sans passing attempts) were almost identical to Matt Schaub. I eventually moved on from Houston, not because of their late season slump, but because I realized Carroll always wanted a QB with more mobility than a Matt Schaub. Gary Kubiak has "made do" with Matt Schaub, but I discovered that his mentor, Mike Shanahan, probably felt the same way about the need for a mobile QB.

Once the Seahawks added the element of the zone-read, I knew it was the Redskins, but more importantly than the Redskins or Robert Griffin, I felt Carroll's offensive philosophy deeply resembled Mike Shanahan's. More on this later, but let's go back in history.


Pete Carroll described it as a Monday in early January. The year was 1995. After a 6-10 year, his first year as an NFL Head Coach, Pete Carroll had just been let go from the Jets after only one year - a la Jim L. Mora with the Seahawks. The eighty year old Jets owner didn't buy into Pete's vision or style.

Pete walked out of the office without saying a word - and took his family to Disneyland. He took solace on the fact that he still had three years left on his contract (a la Jim L Mora with the Seahawks). Pete Carroll knew that he would now have to shoot for a defensive coordinator job, and was ready to pounce on the next opening. In Pete's own Winforever words:

"I received a telephone call from Mike Shanahan, the new head coach at the Denver Broncos...Mike wanted to build a whole new defensive staff. Despite a 7-9 record that year- thanks in large part to great performances by quarterback John Elway - they had probably been the worst team in the league defensively. This made the coordinator job a very exciting prospect...

...This seemed to be exactly what I needed after leaving New York. Mike was an excellent coach, and he was coming from San Francisco, where he had been the offensive coordinator under George Seifert, whom I respected and admired enormously...

...The next day as I was getting ready to leave for the airport (to interview with Shanahan), the phone rang again. On the line was Coach Seifert. The 49ers had just won the Super Bowl 49-26 over the San Diego Chargers...Ray Rhodes, George's defensive coordinator, had been offered the head job with the Philadelphia Eagles and was going to take it. And so, with my suitcase literally packed for Denver, George had called to ask if I would be interested in coming out there to talk about replacing Ray- and he wanted me to come that day...

...I ended up being offered both jobs...I spent most of that night alone in my San Francisco hotel room, on the phone with my wife, Glena, trying to think it through. Finally she asked me the question I hadn't been able to ask myself: "Are you afraid the expectations are too high in San Francisco?" And all of a sudden it clicked...I called George and told him I would take the job if he still wanted me. Fortunately, he said yes."



In the next two years, Pete Carroll would gleen jewels from Bill Walsh himself, and George Seifert, and Bill McPherson, a defensive assistant. The topics ranged from quarterbacks, to contingency planning, to how to run a practice, how to change a culture, to even the unique defensive line front the Seahawks run. All of these nuggets gained in these two years would greatly impact his leadership, philosophy, and scheme at USC and with the Seattle Seahawks.

They were good years on the field as well; the 1995 Niners went 11-5 and won the NFC West. Their two best players were H.O.F. QB Steve Young and the G.O.A.T., Jerry Rice. They scored 457 points, and allowed only 258 (that's a 199+ point differential!) which works out to scoring 28.6 ppg and allowing 16.1 ppg. Both of these led the NFL. The offensive coordinator during Carroll's time there was Marc Trestman. One of Carroll's linebackers was Ken Norton Jr. The 1995 Niners ended up losing in the Divisional Round to the Packers, 27-17. The Packers would lose to the Cowboys in the NFC Championship, but the Packers quarterback, Brett Favre, won the NFL MVP award that year. That 1995 Packer team was coached by Mike Holmgren, was managed by Ron Wolf, and also had Steve Marriuci, Reggie McKenzie, Andy Reid and Ted Thompson on the staff.

There was also a completely unknown, 24 year old, Pro Personnel Assistant on that 1995 Packers team named John Schneider.

The subsequent season, 1996, the Niners were also very good, boasting a 12-4 record. But, injuries to Steve Young, including concussions and broken ribs, hampered him throughout the year and in the playoffs. The Niners ended up losing the Division to the Panthers and went into the Playoffs as a 12-4 Wild Card team. They ended up losing again to the Packers, this time 35-14 at Lambeau in the Divisional Round. (The 1990's NFL was dominated by the NFC, namely the Cowboys, Niners and Packers.) The Packers hurt Steve Young and also dominated on special teams.

(As an aside, I wonder if these games also reinforced Pete's ideas to protect the QB and emphasize special teams.)

Additionally, the reason Bill Walsh came back to the Niners as a consultant in 1996 was because Marc Trestman's play calling, and dip in the running game, had come into question.

Marc Trestman is a Championship winning Head Coach in the CFL. He was the offensive coordinator opposite Pete Carroll during the 1995-1996 Niners stint. He also coached Oakland Raider QB Rich Gannon to the 2002 NFL MVP award and eventual Super Bowl loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Before heading to the CFL in 2007, Trestman coached at NC State from 2005-2007, where he was a part of successfully recruiting a young 18 year old quarterback named Russell Wilson. Marc Trestman is a good coach, but probably never got a fair shake. Interestingly, Trestman is said to be currently interviewing for the Bears job. At San Francisco, Trestman had the unfortunate luck of following the esteemed Mike Shanahan.


The 1994 San Francisco 49ers were RIDICULOUS. Their head coach was George Seifert, and offensive coordinator was Mike Shanahan. Gary Kubiak was their QB coach. Before the season they signed Ken Norton Jr., Rickey Jackson, and Deion Sanders. They started slow, but ended up winning 10 straight toward the end of the season and finished 13-3. The offense, under Shanahan, was absolutely lights out. They scored 505 points (while giving up 296) and scored 66 TDs. Those led the league. Steve Young won the Super Bowl MVP and NFL MVP with his best season as a pro, and sported a 112 passer rating. Deion Sanders won Defensive Player of the Year. Jerry Rice led the NFL in receiving.

They also ran the ball more than you would think. They passed 51% of the time and ran 49% of the time under Shanahan. For comparison, in Mike Holmgren's last year as the Niners OC, 1991, they passed 54% of the time, and ran 46% of the time. The 1994 Niners were just as efficient as the Holmgren-led Niners in the West Coast System, but perhaps, even more explosive.

In fact, please watch the first 2:00 minutes of the attached 9-minute video, "Steve Young - Super Bowl 29". If you notice, the 49ers scored 49 points in their 49th season to destroy the Chargers in that Super Bowl. And, the first two Young touchdowns were scored in the 1st Quarter, and each of them went for over 49 yards...

...and they were both off of play-action.


Mike Shanahan spent three years with the Niners, 1992-1994. After the Super Bowl win following the 1994 campaign, he went back to Denver. Of course, he would win two more Super Bowls with Denver, now as a Head Coach instead of as a Coordinator.

But, let's back up: Mike Shanahan started as an assistant in Denver in 1984. Not only was he with Elway, but also worked with Gary Kubiak, who was the backup QB at the time, and Offensive Line Coach, Alex Gibbs. Shanahan and Gibbs were in Denver through 1987 and then went together to the Raiders, as Shanahan became the Head Coach under Al Davis. After a falling out - Shanahan went back to Denver, and then went to the 49ers. When he went back to Denver for the third time, to become the Head Coach, he went to assemble a coaching staff. He was unsuccessful in landing Pete Carroll as his Defensive Coordinator, but he was successful in bringing back Alex Gibbs from 1995 to 2003.

Shanahan and Gibbs were able to win two Super Bowls by combining a WCO, zone blocking, play action passing, and an accurate and mobile quarterback. Shanahan's name now embodies that potent combination I just described: Bill Walsh's West Coast passing and Alex Gibbs' deep commitment to zone running, with the mesh point of those two concepts as the play-action pass.

Shanahan, with his HOF Quarterback, and his run-heavy version of the West Coast Offense, defeated his predecessor at San Francisco, Mike Holmgren, in the Super Bowl following the 1997 season. Holmgren had a HOF Quarterback as well in Favre. Shanahan ran the ball 50% of the time and passed 50% of the time that year, with Gary Kubiak as his OC. Holmgren, with his version of the WCO, ran 47% of the time and passed the ball 53% of the time.


Seahawks fans are very much in tune with Mike Holmgren, and his version of the WCO. His best season, 2005, displayed great balance with 53% running and 47% passing. 2007, also a good season, saw much more passing- 58%, with only 42% of play calls running. In fact, the eyeball scan of his entire time with the Packers and Favre shows that Holmgren is more of a 53%-of-the-time-passing type of coach. Holmgren also ran the power/man blocking scheme and never was able to switch to the zone scheme successfully.

Shanahan is different than Holmgren in that he was totally committed to the zone blocking scheme of Alex Gibbs (Carroll said, this week, they used cut-ups of Gibbs/Shanahan/Broncos to coach zone blocking at USC), more committed to running the football, more committed to the play action passing game, and more committed to a mobile quarterback. In fact, thinking about Shanahan's list of QBs - all of them were mobile.


Elway, Young, Jake Plummer, and Jay Cutler (much more mobile than given credit for; for a 2nd look go watch the Seahawks loss to them in the playoffs last year and the game in Chicago this season). Plummer was more known for his mobility, and Cutler more for his big arm. But safe to say, Shanahan is looking for a mobile, big-armed QB to run a West Coast system to pair behind his love for zone blocking and running the ball.

In fact, it was widely rumored that Shanahan coveted Jake Locker in 2010 and 2011. It was rumored that Shanahan would take Locker with the 4th pick of the 2010 Draft, but once Locker stayed in, he took Trent Williams to be the cornerstone Left Tackle of his zone blocking scheme. At the time, with Gibbs as a consultant, the Seahawks preferred Williams as 1A and Russell Okung as 1B. With Williams gone at 4, the Seahawks took Okung, happily, at 6. Williams was thought to be better on the move in the zone blocking scheme. Interestingly, Tom Cable, at Oakland at the time, believed Okung, not Williams was the number one offensive lineman in the 2010 Draft.

Back to the QBs: once Locker was taken #8 by Tennessee, Shanahan moved back in the draft from the #10 spot and let Jacksonville move up to draft Blaine Gabbert. Shanahan decided to hoard picks and wait it out another year for his mobile QB. Once the 2011 Rex Grossman Campaign came to a merciful end, there was no price he would not pay to move up from the #6 hole to get RG3, his Steve Young 2.0.


Again, the statistical similarities between the Redskins' offense and the Seahawks' offense have been detailed out in numerous articles and blogs this week by Mike Sando and Football Outsiders and dozens of others. Both teams are in the Top-5 in the NFL, and many times sit alone as the Top 2 in the NFL, in categories such rushing attempts, designed runs, rushing yards, play action percentage, play action yards, quarterback rushing yards, passing YPA, and passing efficiency. Add to that the read-zone and the pistol and the comparisons are unavoidable. RG3 and Russell Wilson. Shanahan and Carroll. On the sidelines, the coaches couldn't be more different - Carroll looks as excitable as my son, passing Toys R Us, while Shanahan looks as excitable as a man passing kidney stones.

Who is better? Is Shanahan a better offensive mind than Carroll is a defensive mind? We may find out in a few hours. Who is better? The hottest rookie QB in 2012 versus the hottest rookie QB and possibly, hottest QB period, of the second half of 2012? I don't know, but I do believe that both Russell Wilson and RG3 have strong similarities to Steve Young, and both have thrived amazingly as rookies under the offensive concepts of Bill Walsh, Alex Gibbs, and Mike Shanahan.


The 2006 Atlanta Falcons were not a good team, but I wonder if there were any tiny seeds that reinforced some offensive concepts of the 2012 Seahawks. The team was coached by Jim Mora and the offensive line was coached by Tom Cable. The team led the NFL in rushing at 183 yards per game, obviously with a running QB, Michael Vick, and Warrick Dunn. The "consultant" that year? Alex Gibbs.

Matt Schaub was the backup QB. I am not saying that Russell Wilson is Michael Vick, Russell is a smarter runner and a better passer, but Tom Cable gained some familiarity that year with a strong running game coupled with a QB that was also a threat to run, all behind the foundation of the zone scheme.

A few more nuggets: Obviously, both of these teams, coaches and quarterbacks have been influenced by the success of the Nevada Pistol, the Oregon Read-Zone, and Spread Concepts at Baylor. Carroll got beat handily by Oregon in 2009, and Chip Kelly was a friend and visitor to the VMAC in years past. Shanahan and Son were more quick to adopt these ideas and implement them in Week 1. Carroll was slower to adopt them as he had to initially create a system that worked for both Matt Flynn and Russell Wilson. After four weeks of offensive futility, he began to watch Shanahan and RG3 and the Seahawks began practicing these "college" concepts. They wouldn't be ready to unveil them until late in the season. Once the Seahawks did, the offense basically shot up to, and perhaps past, the level of the Redskins offense.

We will see which version of a Shanahan offense wins today, Shanahan's or Carroll's. I am predicting a Seattle Seahawks Victory 28-22, mostly because Carroll has something that closely resembles a Shanahan Offense, but Mike has nothing close to resembling a Pete Carroll defense. Advantage Seahawks.