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Richard Sherman crisis begs question: What if Pete Carroll’s critics were right?

With a group of maturing veterans, the Seattle Seahawks coach faces the toughest challenge of his career in pro football, and you can’t say you didn’t see it coming

Divisional Round - Seattle Seahawks v Atlanta Falcons Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Just wait. Another few losses, another season or two without a championship, and the critics will get louder. [Pete] Carroll was overrated, they’ll say. He got lucky, they’ll say. He came along at the same moment as a rare cluster of once-in-a-lifetime players, they’ll say. He’s lost his … mojo.

Carroll knows what they’ll say, and when he hears it, when he feels that he’s losing the players, losing the fans, losing momentum, or just losing, he might leave. Regardless of the contract extension he signed … he’s not likely to stay where he’s not wanted, or where his message is no longer working. ~J.R. Moehringer, Los Angeles Magazine, 2007

Let me be clear (and state the obvious): Pete Carroll has been a great head coach for the Seattle Seahawks. Whatever happens in the next few seasons, even if the Seahawks suffer from more rounds of key injuries, or if the drafts keep turning out like 2013 and 2014, and the core players move on or end up as shallow versions of their peak selves—even if the “window” closes and Seattle falls from routine contenders to a struggling franchise perpetually rebuilding around Russell Wilson—even in the darkest timeline from here, the decision to hire Pete Carroll in 2010 was unquestionably the right choice.

Winning a Super Bowl for the Seahawks was the whole goal. Carroll, by accomplishing that, is a success in Seattle. Even if they were on the doorstep of a second title, and a chance for more seemed likely and still seems possible, to say otherwise is just greed.

But in a strange twist, there is also a possibility that, since that singular achievement came within the first four years, Carroll’s critics’ warnings about his inability to adapt culturally to professional football were also correct. Maybe Carroll’s celebrated style always had a built-in self-destruct mechanism.

Here’s ESPN’s Jeffri Chadiha writing at the time of Carroll’s hiring, speaking with the same voice as many skeptics: “As much as his hypercaffeinated, rah-rah nature excited college kids who gravitated to his affable personality, it had an opposite effect in the league. … If he comes at pro players with the same easygoing approach that defined his college tenure, they're going to push the boundaries with him. If he tries to harden his personality to be tougher with them, that would be a bigger mistake.”

Chadiha’s acerbic tone in that story, plus his stance that Carroll would fail within a year or two, made him look like a fool and a “hater” after Seattle destroyed the Denver Broncos in the Super Bowl after 2013. I’m not defending Chadiha: Obviously, he was wrong. And so was anyone else who claimed that Carroll could never succeed in the NFL.

Even before the championship vindication, Carroll’s success with the Seahawks validated his approach for some pro football pundits, as expressed in this profile in advance of Super Bowl XLVIII in which Peter King says, “[Carroll] has forced critics who said his way was too collegiate and corny for the NFL to rethink that.”

In that same MMQB column, there’s even a quote by Richard Sherman: “It shows you can win with positivity, with having a great mindset. They say you have to be a hard coach to win in this league, but that’s not who he is. We love it.”

But the ongoing feud between Carroll and Sherman, who in 2016 lampooned Carroll’s “kumbaya” rhetoric and who may or may not have asked for a trade in the offseason, suggests—even for players who once bought in—the messaging may be starting to wear thin with familiarity.

“We have a kumbaya meeting just about every year,” Sherman said in December. “It happens every year at different times. The Super Bowl year, it happened after Miami (sic). The year after, it happened, I think there was some kind of big locker room deal that we had, and it happened after that. The other year, we traded Percy [Harvin]. It happened after that. Every year it happens.”

Last summer I considered the alternative hypothesis: that Carroll had never yet had a chance to grow with any group of players for more than four or five years at a time, and so perhaps prolonging his teaching with the same core could be to Carroll’s and the Seahawks’ (limitless?) advantage. Instead, the so-called “master’s course” which was the basis for my theory, and was such a hot topic that offseason, never seemed to materialize. In one part because the league’s limitations on coordinated team activities maybe prevented the coach getting together with his stars during the offseason, yes. But comments from defensive leaders Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor, and even coach’s pet Wilson, seemed to shrug off Carroll’s efforts to further indoctrinate them: “We haven’t really had that many meetings,” Wilson said at the start of training camp. “I definitely think I understand the game at a high level already.”

“I had kind of pictured it differently,” Carroll said then. “My curriculum fell short of my expectations. It didn’t quite work out.”

Not to say these candid admissions signal the same level of dissention from the quarterback or the safeties (Chancellor and the coach seem to have fully reconciled from 2015’s contract dispute) as Sherman, and it doesn’t prove Carroll won’t be able to adapt to find new ways to continue reaching his established performers. But his difficulty may be trying to juggle adjusting his style for wrangling Seattle’s veterans through more advanced challenges while taking the younger prospects through the same building exercises that worked so well to bond the team the first time around. That’s mostly how to explain the motive for any possible Sherman trade, since for periods last year the restless cornerback appeared intent on disrupting the coach’s model of conciliation.

And then there’s the example of USC, where Carroll didn’t have to deal with inculcating aging malcontents or millionaires—and still failed to enjoy the same burst of success the program reached in its first half of his decade there. The Trojans won two national championships and appeared in a third epic title game between the 2001 and 2005 seasons. Despite three more Pac-10 crowns and four more bowl wins, the team never afterward met the lofty expectations established during the crest of Carroll’s time in Los Angeles. By Carroll’s final year (and before the NCAA sanctions) USC was merely 9-4, its first season with more than two losses since his initial season when he was rebuilding that fallen program.

Surely it’s not fair to expect a Saban-in-Tuscaloosa or Belichick-in-Foxborough stretch of dominance from every coach who wins a championship. But Carroll’s record does fuel curiosity that “Win Forever” may not really be so sustainable a philosophy as the John Wooden source material implies.

Don’t get me wrong: Personally, I do trust Carroll together with the front office to guide the Seahawks past these latest bumps with Sherman, with or without the disgruntled cornerback (who I also love and fully support, as you know) on the roster. Carroll’s surely earned that trust. He is most certainly not on any hot seat in 2017, in my mind or the organization’s. Hopefully, the future yields lots more fun football and even another Super Bowl or plenty. But it would be likewise dishonest, and irresponsible as a journalist, to say there’s no reason to wonder if it will. We’ve seen things play out differently—admittedly in other circumstances—with Carroll in the past, as the above passage by Moehringer describes.

But it may take some shifts in the Grey-Haired Assassin’s internal formula, just as Carroll was able to manifest in his transition from the New England Patriots to Southern Cal. Carroll has already made some subtle changes to his coaching staff, for example, and maybe these tweaks are part of a program to apply his “Always Compete” mantra to himself as well as expecting it of his players. As Carroll said after week one last year: “I would like to think that I am in constant search of whatever I can grab onto that’s going to help me. … We’re seeking out people to help us understand more and I think that’s a crucial aspect of competing. You have to be on it. I try to illustrate that for everybody here. I want to be the guy that’s the hungriest to learn. I try to pick up as much as I can, and you never know where it’s going to come from.”

Good luck, for Pete’s sake.