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Super Bowl 48's Super Seahawks: Pete Carroll's cultural & schematic philosophies apparent in Seattle's Playoffs run

Power run game. Press man. Special teams. Cover-3, man free. A game-managing point-guard quarterback. Explosive plays. Balance.

Kevin C. Cox

Watching Pete Carroll lead the Seattle Seahawks to a Super Bowl victory, it struck me how impossibly perfect the 2014 NFL Playoffs were as a microcosm for the marriage between Carroll's cultural and schematic philosophies.

After a season of seemingly interminable and annoying narratives -- Richard Sherman's trash-talk, Golden Tate's showboating, Percy Harvin's status as a trade bust, Marshawn Lynch's 'media-day-charade', PEDs, cheating, holding, game-managing, and Seattle's imminent destruction at the hands of the unstoppable Broncos -- a convincing, definitive beat-down showcasing all of Carroll's program tenets was the perfect medicine.

Carroll's cultural and psychological philosophy:

Culturally, Seattle hit on all cylinders. Always Compete is the first that comes to mind: undrafted free agents in Doug Baldwin and Jermaine Kearse providing Playoff heroics. Always Compete: a short, plucky cliche-spouting quarterback efficiently leading the Seahawks to 7-of-10 on third downs (that mattered) and calmly completing all three of his deep "explosive" passes.

Always Compete: a backup linebacker for most of the season, Malcolm Smith found himself thrust into the starting lineup due to injuries earlier in the year, and ended up being the Super Bowl MVP where there was really no clear 'most valuable player.' The fact that I never once considered Smith in contention for that honor once the game was over just goes to show how much of a team-win this really was. Defense, special teams, run game, explosive plays and a conservative passing offense; turnovers, turnovers, turnovers.

The villainous were vindicated: Richard Sherman played through injury to shut down his side of the field for the most part. Marshawn Lynch battled, didn't get much in the ground game, but scored a touchdown when his team needed him to. Percy Harvin shrugged the burden of expectations off his back, taking the Seahawks' second offensive snap 30 yards downfield (and was about two inches of white paint from taking it 60 for a touchdown), then housing a kickoff return to start the second half.

Pete Carroll doesn't give a damn about convention and he sure as hell doesn't care about narratives. He has molded his gang of model misfits and media miscreants into Super Bowl Champions by finding out what they do best and harnessing that on the field.

He galvanized his team as any good leader should -- by standing with them through the crucible of criticism, shouldering much of it himself, even, and instead of trying to change or manipulate his players, he encouraged them to be themselves.

Never underestimate the power in this.

Said Carroll:

"I told them this weekend, we don't let them be themselves. We celebrate them being themselves, and we cheerlead them being themselves."

"We're trying to find guys that have unique ways about them and qualities, and try to allow them to demonstrate that in the way we perform. We'll go to no end to figure that out."

"This is the culmination of years working with guys, and teams and coaches," Carroll said. "This is the result of a journey to figure out how you can create an environment where people can find their best, stay at their best, foster their best for the people around them so that everybody can join in."

Facilitating self-actualization. Hokey, but Carroll absolutely buys in to this 100%, all day every day.

Carroll's players have embraced this.

"He's loose," says Richard Sherman, "As loose as you can get out there. He allows his players to be who they are within the confines of the team, as long as it doesn't hurt the team, he allows guys to be themselves. If you're a reserved guy that's always focused, that's always locked in that like an Earl Thomas is, he allows you to be that guy and be locked in 100 percent of the time. If you're a loose guy and you dance at practice like I do, he allows you to be that guy. As long as when you're on the field you do exactly what you're supposed to do."

One of my absolute best memories from this season is being at the Saints Monday Night game and jumping around with the Seahawk defense as they danced during a TV timeout. That energy and attitude starts at the top with Carroll - it pervades their training camp, practice field, and obviously, their games.

As Peter King wrote this week,

"Carroll's Seahawks practice to the constant and very loud drone of music, hip-hop and rap mostly. Early in the week, Carroll will sneak in a James Brown or Earth, Wind and Fire tune from his youth, or maybe Michael Jackson. But by Friday, it was mostly unrecognizable to this 56-year-old Springsteen and U2 fan.

"..When "Hold Me Back" came on, the team was practicing red zone plays. Important tuneup for the biggest game of their lives, and the last time they'd go full speed before the game. Between snaps, the entire defensive line was dancing on the field. Quarterback coach Carl Smith, 65 and with a bum hip, was even swaying. Carroll saw that, and smiled. Then the ball was snapped, and backup running back Christine Michael pivoted left out of the backfield and went down. A couple of defenders, Clinton McDonald and Bobby Wagner, hustled over to Michael, who was slow getting up, and each took a hand as all three laughed about something. This is what I saw during the week: a team having fun at practice, like it was some dance party, and a team that really gets along. And works at a fast pace.

"I'm glad you saw that," Carroll said. "That's real. That's who we are."

This style has resonated with the players, and has smashed the perception that a 'rah-rah' coach like Carroll wouldn't work with a bunch of professionals. The Seahawks don't seem to fit the cultural prototype in the NFL, and I think that's completely by design. Carroll came to Seattle and eradicated any semblance of a culture that existed before him.

"Football is a game," Michael Robinson said in that Peter King column. "A game. Pete has figured that out. He makes football fun. All aspects of it-practices, games. One of our goals is to play at a level other teams can't match. That's what you saw tonight. What do you see when you see a team, running around practicing to music all week? They're loose. They're full of energy. And that's what we are. I know it works for us."

It's not just about fun and games with Carroll though. He approaches coaching as a philosophy. The music and high-energy focus is just one aspect of it. He wants his players to be loose because when you're loose, you're not nervous. When you're not nervous, you can focus, and when you can focus, you can perform at your peak levels.

Carroll has meticulously and deliberately developed, over the past decade-plus, the culture and mindset of his team(s) to adopt the philosophies of his own Win Forever doctrine. In Carroll's own words, "what Win Forever means ... is aspiring to be the best you can be, or as I like to refer to it, maximizing your potential.' But Winning Forever is not about the final score; it's about competing and striving to be the best. If you are in this pursuit, then you're already winning."


He has meshed Win Forever with many aspects of Timothy Gallway's The Inner Game of Tennis, which has been a huge impact on Carroll's entire world-view. The Inner Game is focused on quieting your mind and expelling all doubts and playing in the absence of fear.

Carroll has also contracted Dr. Michael Gervais, a sports psychologist, to work with the team closely (he works closely with Russell Wilson weekly), and the Always Compete mentality is pervasive.

With a Super Bowl win, Carroll becomes only the third coach ever to win Championships at both the college and NFL level. Coincidentally enough, he joins Jimmy Johnson, who coached a team that many have compared the 2013 Seahawks to -- the '92 Dallas Cowboys -- to a Super Bowl win.

Of course, Carroll's teams at USC dominated for nearly a decade, and this Super Bowl XLVIII annihilation brought back memories to USC's 2004 season, where Carroll's Trojans destroyed Oklahoma 55-19 to win the National Championship.

"It feels very much the same," said Carroll, "I know this is the NFL and all that, but the way the team came together, the way they performed under this kind of scrutiny very much resembled the stuff we've seen before."

And it's no accident, as far as Carroll is concerned.

"We developed a mentality from the first day we start talking about these kinds of moments, because this is exactly what we envisioned from day one."

Screen_shot_2014-02-03_at_1 Screen_shot_2014-02-03_at_1

Read Carroll's post-game presser words very carefully, because I believe he chooses specific language very deliberately:

"We were going to be right here and win this football game - and it just happened to be in New York which makes it even more special - in the fashion that we were able. We deserved it and we earned it because this is exactly what we've been preparing for, and we expected it.

"That may sound cocky. That may sound arrogant. But it's a mentality you can't get in one week.

"Y'all were right. How can a young team handle this if we just started talking about this two weeks ago? You're right. We wouldn't have had any foundation, but this team has a foundation. They have the understanding, and they came in here knowing that this could likely happen, knowing that it could be a game just like it was, and with that kind of result and that kind of outcome, there's not one of those guys that's surprised by it. We knew what it takes to get there. They've understood that. That's a long process, to bring guys into that mentality.

"It comes from a very strict, disciplined approach. That's how they've learned it. This game was very similar to the Oklahoma game. This game was very similar to the multiple Rose Bowl championship games. It was just like those games. It felt like it. It looked like it. The score was like it. The offense, the defense, the special teams.

"So, something's going on. I really can't tell you exactly what it is but something's going on because I sat back there at the end of the first quarter and said, ‘Shoot, here it goes.' The score. Bang, bang, bang, bang and it's 22-0 at halftime.

"There's a lot to it and we're very proud of it and I'm thrilled that we've seen it in one area and we've been able to bring it to the NFL and recreate it. For the fans that have watched us over the years in Southern California, I would think they took great pride in what happened last night because they understand what they've just watched. There's something about that. There's something pretty powerful about that understanding.

"Hopefully we'll start stepping into the next one. We've done this before. We'll see how we do."


Carroll's schematic philosophy:

I expounded on Carroll's cultural philosophy above, but it's obvious that you have to have a stylistic philosophy to win at the highest level. Carroll's Xs and Os and schematic beliefs are extremely, extremely specific, and he marries them perfectly with the cultural things he's established in his program.

As Richard Sherman wrote, just prior to the Super Bowl:

"He's [coaching in the Super Bowl] because he's pulling off the most unique philosophy in football. Think about it. We use a power running game and press coverage-the oldest of the old school. Yet we have specialized doctors who monitor us for concussion symptoms and wrist wear that helps the team track our sleep patterns. The same coach who shows us clips of Lester Hayes and Mike Haynes playing press-man 30 years ago wants to know if we're getting our proper REM sleep (and, in case you're wondering, the sleep science has paid off for several guys)."

Power run game. Press man. Special teams. Cover-3, man free. A game-managing point-guard quarterback. Explosive plays. Balance.

Each aspect could be (has been) an article unto itself, but I want to point out a few things.

First, the game-manager label. This is a topic I broached last week in reference to Russell Wilson and Carroll talked about the quarterback position last night after the Seahawks had won the Super Bowl. As Carroll points out, Wilson's play depends on factors that straddle the psychological part of Seattle's program and his schematic doctrine.

Carroll addressed the immeasurable and intangible 'tilt the field' leadership aspect while pointing out that they don't want their quarterback to have to carry the team and pass a whole bunch of times for a whole bunch of yards:

Carroll: "What'd we throw, 25 times or something tonight? Perfect. It was perfect. He played point guard and did just a fantastic job. Just like we had hoped; we're not looking for him to throw 400 yards, we don't need it. If we do, we'll call on him to do that."

Seattle scored 43 points with 206 passing yards. Also, two interceptions (one for six), two forced fumbles, a safety, and a running touchdown.


In perfect juxtaposition, you have Peyton Manning, coming off the most prolific passing season of all time, failing to 'put his team on his back' as he threw the ball 49 times for 5.7 yards per attempt, completing 34 passes, a Super Bowl record, while amassing a meager 8 points.

If this isn't the perfect endorsement for Carroll's whole world view -- "the most consistent, proven championship formula in the history of this game" -- I don't know what is.

I wrote about the Seahawks' passing game last week, and because Seattle was able to completely suffocate the best passing offense ever assembled, I think it's worth bringing it up again. If you missed the first time, great, and if you already read it, too bad, keep reading anyway, because I added some stuff.

Seahawks "Defensive Passing Game Coordinator" Rocky Seto gave a presentation in March 2008 at USC about secondary play (Seto was previously the Defensive Coordinator at USC as well). He walked on as a linebacker at USC and has worked for Pete Carroll his entire coaching career, so I generally just look at Seto as a Pete Carroll spokesperson. In that presentation (which is no longer online but similarly styled reports can be found at TrojanFootballAnalysis) he broke down the Pete Carroll philosophy for defense:

Three main principles of secondary play:

#1 Eliminate the big play
#2 Out hit the opponent on all plays
#3 Get the ball -- either strip the ball or make the interception when in position.

Notes from Seto's explanation of those three points do a great job of really defining the defensive principles that Pete Carroll has developed over three decades of coaching, but has fine-tuned at USC and now in Seattle.

#1 Eliminate the big play

In summary, Carroll believes that giving up big plays -- in either the run game or the pass game - will ultimately cost you the game. While every scheme, man, zone, or a combination of both, has weak points, Carroll is most concerned about protecting the deep middle of the field against the explosive pass. That's the first thing he will teach to new safeties, and it's a statistic that Carroll and his staff monitors closely. It's a specific focus in their program.

As Seto's presentation declares,

Sorry math- and stat-phobes, USC coaches both track and hang their hat on this notion and it is the #1 base principle for secondary play. USC annually leads the Pac-10 in not allowing big pass plays on defense.

The results bear this out for Carroll's NFL team: In 2012, the Seahawks gave up five passes of 40+ yards (4th in the NFL) and 40 of 20+ yards (6th in the NFL). In 2013, the numbers were better, as Seattle gave up an NFL-low three pass plays of 40+ yards and an NFL-low 30 pass plays 20+ yards.

Carroll's philosophy in action.

Speaking to Seto/Carroll's specific focus on taking away the deep middle of the field, consider this: In 2012, opposing teams only attempted 15 passes to the deep middle -- best in the NFL. In 2013, teams attempted a mere 8 passes to the deep middle -- even more best in the NFL.

Carroll's philosophy in action.

From last night?


Carroll's philosophy in action.

#2 Out hit the opponent on all plays

As that PFF tweet alludes to, this philosophy of being physical and punishing opposing offenses ties in with the 'take away the big play' mantra. If you're taking away everything deep, that will open up options for teams underneath. Apart from the actual hits, forcing opposing offenses to string together a series of 9, 10, 11 plays in any given drive increases the odds forcing a mistake or a punt. Carroll's medicine for giving up more shorter underneath gains is to make receivers, tight ends, and running backs really feel the defense each time they catch it.

This was from the NFC Championship Game:

Carroll's philosophy in action.

This was from the Super Bowl:

Carroll's philosophy in action.

Seto's presentation notes:

When [the defender cannot arrive in time] to disrupt the pass, the emphasis then switches to delivering good clean hard hits on the wide receiver. Multiple film examples were shown where completed passes were rendered incomplete by the quality of the hit put on by the defensive back. Also, even when the ball is completed, the hit put on the receiver has the psychological effect of making them tentative in the future.

As stated, quarterbacks - and in the Super Bowl's case, Peyton Manning -- are going to inevitably complete passes against the defense. The idea for Carroll then is that if you physically punish your opponent and hit them hard when they catch the ball, there's a better chance that you can dislodge the football (which is what happened to Vernon Davis above) or even better, make the receiver tentative when going for the football in the first place (as you can see with Michael Crabtree on a key third down late in the NFC Championship Game below):

This is what Deion Sanders refers to as a "business decision."

Carroll's philosophy in action.

#3 Get the ball -- either strip the ball or make the interception when in position.

Carroll's teams spend extraordinary amounts of time, particularly for an NFL team, running basic drills. One focus is on drills that make the act of forcing and recovering fumbles second nature.

As the Seto presentation noted,

USC practices daily drills for DB's in individual practice periods with both cornerbacks and safeties breaking on different balls. Coaches throw hitches, slants, outs, fades, seams, post, corner, and go routes. One DB tries to catch the ball one tries to bat it away or make the interception. Much attention is put upon footwork, hands, and hip motion and direction in turning.

Stripping balls from receivers is emphasized as well in drill and in actual scrimmages. They key coaching point is to get the hand onto the tip of the ball and find a way to rip it out. This has to be emphasized and practiced or it will not just happen. Dislodging balls from behind is also practices as well. When two players tackle a receiver if possible one should hold him up and pin his arms while the other strips the ball away. This takes team work and not just going for the big hit.

I've seen this at Seahawk training camp sessions so it's a tenet that Carroll and Seto have brought to Seattle. Again, it's instilling a second nature into players to strip and punch at the football.

This is from the NFC Championship Game:

Carroll's philosophy in action.

This was from the Super Bowl:

Carroll's philosophy in action.

The Seahawks forced 17 fumbles in 2013 (5th in NFL), intercepted 28 passes (1st in NFL) and were first in the NFL in takeaways as a defense.

Carroll's philosophy in action.


Carroll has fit all of this together - his Win Forever philosophy, the Inner Game, his old-school but new-school approach, and it produced the greatest season in Seahawks history.