Despite taking the Seahawks to the playoffs for a second straight season, and the 8th time in 10 seasons in Seattle, Pete Carroll faced heavy scrutiny in 2019.
While last season was seen as a Coach of the Year caliber campaign, as the Seahawks overcame a large roster overhaul to lean on Carroll’s staples of a running game (1st in the NFL) and defense (11th) to reach the playoffs, this season he was viewed as an enemy of progress. The attachment to running the football grew stubborn, while the defense bottomed out; combined with continued difficulties with in-game decision making and it’s understandable why criticism of Carroll grew louder.
However, for all of Carroll’s faults as a head coach, he deserves credit, too. In the second year of a retool/rebuild/refresh, his team won 11 games with the second hardest strength of schedule and the most games lost due to injury. The latter two points reflect well upon the man in charge. (The MVP-caliber play from Russell Wilson deserves credit too, of course.) However Seattle’s point differential of +7, which is closer to that of an average team, as well as their 10-2 record in one-score games and high number of win probability swings of 15 percent or more—16 more than the league average—further muddies the evaluation of Carroll’s season.
Regardless of one’s stance on Carroll as the Seahawks’ head coach, it is a fair assessment to say what he does best as a head coach, particularly over the last several seasons, doesn’t manifest on the field schematically. Pete Carroll is an excellent head coach Monday-Saturday, but on Sundays the wheels loosen—if not fall off completely. Carroll isn’t going anywhere, at least not for a few years still, so how can Carroll improve Seattle on Sundays?
An outside perspective on defense
The first area that will demand improvement for the Seahawks to raise their floor is Carroll’s defense. The defensive performance in 2019 was unacceptable as they finished 18th in DVOA and not even the late season improvement was sustained, as they finished 17th in weighted DVOA. While key components Jadeveon Clowney, Jarran Reed, Al Woods and Shaquill Griffin all missed time for various reasons, and Quandre Diggs’ arrived late via trade, the performance was below the talent they have.
The under-performing defense became even more frustrating as Seattle clung to its base defense. A year after nickelback Justin Coleman featured on 67.8 percent of the defense’s snaps, it was Mychal Kendricks regularly playing 85 percent of the time. Meanwhile young, impact players such as Ugo Amadi, Cody Barton and Marquise Blair found snaps hard to come by, despite their speed and talent making a clear impact when they saw the field. Even after Amadi broke through late in the season, Carroll expressed regret at the amount of time it took.
The obvious and immediate change for the defense to make is to fire Ken Norton Jr. The likelihood of that move, however, seems slim. Carroll and Norton go way back, as Rich Eisen recounted in his book Total Access:
Pete Carroll used his post-2005 Rose Bowl appearance on NFL Total Access to recruit Ken Norton for his staff. Carroll asked Ken to walk him to his car after the interview and on the way invited him to join the USC coaching staff.
The two just completed their 13th season coaching alongside one another. Carroll has proved during his Seahawks tenure to be loyal to a fault, so it’s hard to see the pair splitting.
Likelihood of a divorce aside, it is a necessity that they do so for Seattle’s defense to reach its ceiling. Norton has shown to be archaic, inflexible and unwilling to be proactive in addressing glaring issues. Those three points are musts in the modern NFL. Take 49ers defensive coordinator, and former Seahawks defensive staffer Robert Saleh, for example. Saleh was facing the chopping block late last season as he clung to Carroll’s cover-3 heavy scheme. Undaunted, he mixed in cover-2, -4 and -6—the first Carroll disciple to truly go away from his single-high scheme—and the defense improved before vaulting towards the top of the league this season. Adaptation and growth is a must, and Norton has failed in that area.
For Seattle’s defense to rise back up into the upper echelon of the NFL, the Seahawks need to bring in an outside voice to the defensive room—someone who is allowed and empowered to make schematic changes when needed. There are no rising stars on Carroll’s defensive coaching staff, as opposed to the start of the previous decade when there was seemingly an endless pipeline of sought after pupils. Seattle needs a fresh viewpoint on defense.
Total autonomy on offense
Unsurprisingly for a team that finished 5th in offensive DVOA and led by an MVP-candidate at quarterback, the Seahawks’ offense doesn’t require wholesale changes. However, it would seem odd to call for total autonomy for an offensive coordinator as often maligned as Brian Schottenheimer, and criticisms of the second-year play-caller aren’t unfair. The offense’s urgency, or lack thereof, was a constant issue. They finished 20th in pace in 2019, a year after a lowly 26th. Despite a shoddy offensive line, Schottenheimer didn’t utilize play-action as often as he should have—a complaint that goes back to 2018. The lack of play fakes joins pre-snap motion as forms of deception which were not fully maximized.
Despite those criticisms, it was a positive season for second-year offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer. He had a number of creative, smart play designs; he expressed his intention of getting running backs more involved in the passing game and he succeeded; and all season long he was scheming players open. However, where the offense comes off the rails is where Pete Carroll’s fingerprints can be found: The stubborn commitment to the run.
It’s okay running the football on 1st and 10—Seattle was above league average in success rate doing so in 2019, and averaged 4.2 yards per carry on first down. It’s okay running the football on 3rd and short (five yards to go or fewer)—where the Seahawks’ success rate was 67 percent. On second down, however, it’s downright maddening and a product of Carroll’s philosophy. In Schottenheimer’s first season as offensive coordinator, Seattle had the 2nd highest second down run rate in the NFL; this year, they were tied for the 4th highest.
The Seahawks’ offense can thrive and be in constant rhythm under Schottenheimer, but it needs to truly be under Schottenheimer: total autonomy. Carroll must be hands off and let Schottenheimer be the creative, efficient play-caller he has proven to be in spurts during his Seattle stint. The offense, and the team as a whole, will thrive as a result.
Special Teams change
There isn’t much to say in the game’s third phase, as no one on the outside is really a special teams expert, but it’s time for Brian Schneider to go as the Seahawks’ coordinator. Carroll values special teams as highly as any head coach not named Bill Belichick or John Harbaugh (or now, Joe Judge), but Seattle’s third unit has been poor for too long. In five of the last six years, they have ranked 19th or below in DVOA. They’ve failed to take advantage of the new touchback rule and find little edges where they could with ease.
Michael Dickson has as much raw ability as any punter alive; Jason Myers was excellent in 2018; and Neiko Thorpe, Amadi, Blair, Nick Bellore and Shaquem Griffin all stand out for their play on teams. They have, to the untrained eye, under-performed.
Though a case can be made for both Norton and Schneider’s dismissals quite easily, neither is likely. Norton and Carroll’s relationship is well documented, while Schneider has been on Carroll’s staff for 11 years. On Monday, Carroll all-but shot down the possibility of coaching changes. However, even if Carroll brings back the entire coaching staff for 2020, he can make a hugely positive change without any change schematically or on the staff.
Embrace modern strategy
For this hypothetical evolution in Carroll’s coaching to succeed, it would need to be a proper embrace. Carroll’s glaring faults in modern football—his commitment to the run and shoddy defense—probably would have been forgiven in 2019 had his in-game decisions not been so consistently mind-boggling. Too often he seemed to be making decisions on the fly or second guessing himself. The crucial delay of game penalty the Seahawks took in Week 17 exemplifies the semi-organized chaos which Carroll coaches in during games.
Carroll should have a data analyst not only on staff, but on the headset on game days.
New Browns head coach Kevin Stefanski was hired as a favorite of Paul DePodesta (of Moneyball fame) in large part because he embraced analytics. He will join a number of head coaches who have an analyst in his ear in-game.
Baltimore and John Harbaugh tore through the NFL, becoming the 7th best team ever recorded by DVOA, while embracing analytics with open arms. Harbaugh has had a football analyst in the booth and on the headset for years to communicate win probability in certain situations. Ahead of each game their analyst, along with the coaching staff, establish a plan for strategy and in-game the analyst is charged with reminding Harbaugh of set rules—be it 4th down aggression, short yardage situations or what have you. Importantly, Harbaugh emboldened their analyst, defending him and their process to the media on numerous occasions.
Evolving in this manner would improve Carroll’s aggression, decision making, win probability and ultimately, team success. Seattle was tied for the 4th fewest 4th down attempts in the NFL this season with 14, well below the league average of 18.6. That figure is frustrating on its own, but its made worse by Carroll’s seemingly passive decision making. On 4th and short (five yards or fewer to go) from his 40 or better in 2019, Carroll elected to punt 14 times. Now, there are different theories for where to go for it, but the consensus would be that Carroll should have gone for it on a large number of those punts. Even doing so on half would have risen the team well above average, and just three back of the swashbuckling Ravens.
They can make massive, positive strides in modern strategy, but Carroll has to embrace it for it work.
Not all is lost for these Pete Carroll led Seahawks. There is talent at all three levels of the defense and at all three skill positions on offense, and they will be guided by one of the league’s most unstoppable forces at quarterback for years to come. However, too often in 2019 Carroll’s coaching was another obstacle the team had to overcome. Just as they did with injuries and a difficult schedule, they pushed past it.
If Carroll can embrace modern football, empower an outside hire at defensive coordinator and allow the offense’s coaching staff to have total autonomy, the club’s legendary head coach can return to his place as someone who guides the team’s success, instead of hindering it.