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Don’t expect Rocky Seto’s departure to alter the Seahawks’ scheme

Pete Carroll’s longtime right-hand man was instrumental to Seattle’s practices and certain techniques, but his resume shows he wasn’t the defensive mastermind

NFL: Seattle Seahawks at San Francisco 49ers Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

I can’t blame Rocky Seto for leaving the Seattle Seahawks. By all accounts Seto decided to quit his job to do something he thinks is more important. Maybe lately you’re wishing to do the same.

And yet the vacancy that leaves—Seto was Assistant Head Coach of the defense—seems hypothetically unsettling. That’s a title corresponding to Tom Cable’s role on the offense, and while many Seahawks fans would love to see Cable go there’s no denying he’s been instrumental to the scheme and so his departure would represent a significant shakeup on that side of the ball.

Indeed, another way to interpret Seto leaving could be as a casualty of Seattle’s performance decline in 2016, or perhaps of some kind of power struggle with defensive coordinator Kris Richard. Now, there’s no evidence that this is the case—indeed there’s plenty to the contrary: Seto has long mentioned his faith in interviews and Pete Carroll indicated he and Seto had discussed the possibility for years.

But again, it doesn’t need to have been any conflict for Seto’s absence to represent a cost to the team. Seto had been a Carroll assistant since the head coach arrived at USC in 2001, a 16-year period that has been perhaps the most sustained success across both levels of football for any coach ever (Barry Switzer had a longer championship run at Oklahoma but very short-lived pro success that most attribute to Jimmy Johnson’s architecture in Dallas—whose own championship tenures on both levels were also shorter than Carroll’s; Paul Brown’s Ohio State career was quite brief before his decades-long leadership of Cleveland; those are the only three other men to win titles in college and the NFL). Since Carroll had never done it without Rocky Seto, you could make the corollary conclusion that Seto was invaluable to Carroll’s defensive mastery.

“He’s been a special confidant to me to maintain our language and our belief because he goes back the furthest with me. He’s been a great friend,” Carroll said after promoting Seto to his latest position following Dan Quinn’s hiring by the Atlanta Falcons. Painting Seto as some kind of secret ingredient to Carroll’s success, however, ignores the reality of his roles during that time.

While Seto did make it all the way up to defensive coordinator in Carroll’s last year at USC, 2009, Carroll evidently didn’t see fitting to keep Seto in that perch at the professional level, carrying Seto along to the Seahawks as a mere quality control coach. Indeed, after his time as a graduate assistant, Seto had only otherwise ever been a position coach (safeties in 2002-03 and 2011, linebackers in 2004-05) or unit coach (defensive backs in 2006-08) before inhabiting more “nebulous” duties later in his career in Seattle.

In a profile of Seto in the New York Times before Super Bowl XLIX, Ben Shpigel described Seto’s “vague job outline” when he was then known as “defensive passing game coordinator”: “He spearheads the tackling tutorials, oversees the scout-team defense, delivers the most creative presentations at Seattle headquarters, instructs the safeties, teaches the cornerbacks, draws on Bruce Lee and the animal kingdom to inculcate turnover-forcing techniques, executes special projects, analyzes third-down and red-zone and two-minute tendencies, advises Coach Pete Carroll, assists the defensive coordinator Dan Quinn on game days and assists everyone else every other day.”

Seto thus appears to be a sort of “glue guy” among the coaching staff. The Greek lyric poet Archilochus is famous for saying “a hedgehog knows one important thing but a fox knows many things”—and indeed that macroscopic fox-like approach to managing many things instead of one specialty could have made Seto prime head-coaching material. Yet after non-disciples Gus Bradley and Dan Quinn found head coaching opportunities elsewhere it was Richard, not Seto, who Carroll fast-tracked for that kind of chance by making him defensive coordinator in 2015.

In almost all respects, Seto had seniority over Richard, whose coaching career was delayed by a much-more successful playing career that included five years in the NFL (Seto had been a walk-on linebacker at USC before similar beginnings as a volunteer assistant predating Carroll). Seto was already the defensive coordinator while Richard was a graduate assistant in 2009. But in the NFL, they did similar things. In 2011, Richard coached cornerbacks while Seto coached safeties, and then it was Richard named defensive backs coach from 2012-2014 when Seto was passing game coordinator. As mentioned above, though, it doesn’t sound like Seto was really drawing schemes for the pass defense.

Richard both rose through the ranks faster (even counting to Seto’s stint as DC at USC, Richard’s elevation in 2015 came sooner relative to the start of their coaching days) and seems more involved with technically implementing the defense and playbook. Even though Richard sort of eclipsed Seto’s duties, I still don’t think there’s any cause to believe that any rivalry between the men turned into disgruntlement and a split between Carroll and Seto. Indeed, the fact Carroll named Seto Assistant Head Coach seems like a measure of loyalty to his long-time protégé than a consolation to the loser of a competition. We’ve known Carroll to play hooky with the public version of information in the past, but as far as we know everything about this Seto move appears genuine.

But it does add up to a suggestion that the Seahawks aren’t losing a fundamental factor to their defensive success.

Don’t get me wrong. We should remember that Seto’s contributions were valuable: Many have pointed out Seattle’s characteristic style of tackling from the hips was an emphasis of his coaching, and as Shpigel’s mention of Bruce Lee illuminates Seto was also responsible for the team’s tenacity for punching and chopping at the ball—Earl Thomas’s Karate-chop at the end zone against the Rams’ Benny Cunningham in 2014 was straight out of the Seto armament, according to Julian Benbow in the Boston Globe.

In that sense you could also possibly credit Seto for winning the playoff game in Minnesota after 2015—when Kam Chancellor’s punch forced Adrian Peterson’s fumble that set up the winning field goal—or the game-saving play earlier that season when Chancellor knocked the ball away from Calvin Johnson inches from the goal. But these are elements of play that are reproducible once learned and likely can be passed on by the players themselves. They don’t take place at the organizational strategic level the way Carroll’s and Richard’s, or even Cable’s, schemes do.

The Seahawks will probably miss Rocky Seto at a personal scale, but I doubt they even find a replacement for his specific duties. And I wouldn’t worry that you’re going to notice his absence in the results on the field.