One of the happy contradictions within Pete Carroll, the NFL’s hippest-oldest coach, is how he makes his living as a defensive guru who is also somehow a quarterback whisperer.
Unlike contemporaries Jim Harbaugh or Jon Gruden or even Mike Holmgren, Carroll never played quarterback himself—not even in high school. He became a safety at Pacific and his coaching background comes purely from the defensive side, as a secondary coach and then defensive coordinator.
And unlike Tony Dungy or Bill Belichick, to name two recent championship-caliber defensive specialists aided by exceptional quarterback play, Carroll’s achievement isn’t hitched to one transcendent talent at the position.
In nine years as head coach at USC, Carroll led five different quarterbacks to tremendous college success, including two Heisman Trophy winners. All five of Carroll’s USC starters got drafted into the NFL, three of them top-10 picks—plus one more future NFL starter from Carroll’s system who never got to start for the Trojans.
Counterpoint suggests Pete Carroll might not be personally responsible for this trend. With Southern Cal’s recruiting, ahem, advantages, it’s possible the program was simply able to collect the best QB talent and let it flourish with other choice weapons while Carroll conducted his defense at the other end of the practice field. But that’s not really how folks who were there tell it.
"Pete Carroll knows quarterbacks. He recruits and studies them. He polishes and cajoles them," said Carroll’s biographer Steve Bisheff, the longtime USC beat writer. "He controls and, yes, identifies with them."
Of course not all of these excellent college players went on to NFL excellence, but then Carroll wasn’t coaching them anymore either. What’s interesting is Bisheff wrote those words in 2009, before Carroll’s return to pro football set him up with his greatest quarterbacking puzzle—and probably his greatest quarterback: "You could say Carroll is infatuated with quarterbacks. You could also say he is especially good at picking the right player to play the position."
Last week Sheil Kapadia compared Russell Wilson’s development to current NFL passers at the same points in their careers, concluding he appears better than all of them except Aaron Rodgers. Actually that isn’t quite fair, since Kapadia stood Wilson’s rates next to other players’ first 64 games, whereas Wilson’s unblemished availability puts him way ahead of that curve after four years. Rodgers, for example, did not make his 64th appearance until his seventh season with the Packers. Indeed the only other quarterback to exceed Wilson in any category Kapadia used was Tony Romo—who had a similarly late blossoming after sitting on ice for three years.
Either way, Wilson has performed quite well for Carroll. But highlighting his four years as a pro isn’t just a way of showing how elite Wilson is—it also signals an opportunity for which we really have no comparison. Because four years as a starter is a passage beyond which we’ve never seen Pete Carroll travel together with any one quarterback.
Here is the list of Carroll’s primary starters in 19 seasons as a head coach:
N.Y. Jets: Boomer Esiason (1 year); Patriots: Drew Bledsoe (3 years); USC: Carson Palmer (2 years—after 3 years in Paul Hackett’s system), Matt Leinart (3 years), John David Booty (Josh’s brother—2 years), Mark Sanchez (1 year), Matt Barkley (1 year); Seahawks: Matt Hasselbeck (1 year), Tarvaris Jackson (1 year), Russell Wilson (4 years).
To be precise Leinart and Booty each technically totaled five years under Carroll, including redshirt and understudy seasons with the Trojans. (Matt Cassel also logged four backup years.) But I’m not giving Carroll credit for supervising the tutelage of second- and third-stringers while he had a whole team to run. Likewise, Wilson’s growth in Seattle owes as much to some alchemy of Carl Smith, Darrell Bevell, even Tarvaris Jackson—with a sprinkling of Douglas Baldwin, Jr.
From game situations to leadership settings, though, Wilson entering his fifth season as fulltime NFL starter now possesses more direct experience being Pete Carroll’s protégé than any earlier quarterback has had. More important: He’s not going anywhere.
So what does this tell us? All it truly means, of course, is we don’t have a template for what comes next.
It’s new territory for both coach and player, in this case. It usually is. Coach-quarterback pairings only find longevity in the context of success to begin with, but few of them last even so. Look at Mike Smith and Matt Ryan in Atlanta. There’s a chance this particular horizon represents a turning point for all the wrong reasons.
Could a superstar of Wilson’s stature and celebrity, for the first time ever making a salary higher than his coach’s, eventually chafe at Carroll’s "cajoling" or "controlling"? It’s a natural itch, and a staple of coach-quarterback relationships—even Super Bowl combos.
What if Carroll’s methods, so notoriously honed while aimed at players in the reloadable college model, simply don’t offer anything more to teach Wilson after four years? Does Pete Carroll’s approach, like Harbaugh’s, come with an expiration date?
Maybe so, but Carroll isn’t acting like it. Indeed, noticing how the coach is embarking into uncharted waters with Wilson as his main squeeze helps make sense of (and particularly the timing of) Carroll’s repeatedly-announced desire to take the quarterback through a so-called "master’s course" this offseason.
"We’re going to go much deeper into different areas than what he’s had to focus at," Carroll said on his radio show after the Seahawks’ playoff loss to Carolina. "Now he’s ready. He can command what we’re doing on offense. He’ll get better at all that stuff, too. But we need to just get him a better understanding of everything that’s going on in the game."
It was an idea Carroll echoed again at his end of season press conference, the same session Kapadia quoted in his article, and again almost every time he’s taken a microphone since. Carroll says he has designs to include Earl Thomas, Kam Chancellor and other leading Seattle players in the advanced curriculum too.
Like I said, it makes sense. Carroll has learned in football for more than 40 years from the likes of Bud Grant and Bill Walsh. Far from running out of material, Pete probably has loads of teaching he’s never had time or chances to share with a quarterback—or any players. "You can only take in so much. We wouldn’t want to water down the process by trying to do too much early," Carroll said in that January press conference, "but I think it’s time now."
I can remember reading in 1999 about Carroll saying his Patriots defense was, in his third year, finally poised to break out because his scheme was so complex it took two full seasons to install. Back then this was framed as an example of the coach’s arrogance—and it may after all have only been a way to buy excuses for the time it took to transition the roster from talent suited for Parcells’s 3-4 alignment.
Now it seems like evidence Carroll already had a vibe for deliberate instruction. From that perspective it must have been extra frustrating to lose his job again, and then doubly so to start over in the NCAA where he was bound to keep starting this process over with young players, again and again and again.
Best of all, Carroll’s declared intention to flip the script—I mean the strip, the little nylon thing that shows you where to line up in practice, whatever—to hop across the line of scrimmage and initiate Wilson into schemes from defensive points of view, should at last give the old man a platform for applying his own defensive mastermind to his love of training and "polishing" quarterbacks. ("At last" meaning, you know, to a degree that being a NFL head coach hasn’t already joined those two pursuits.) This is in some ways a moment Carroll has been waiting for for more than 20 years.
From Wilson’s standpoint the prospect seems equally exciting. Coming off his marvelous swing at the end of 2015, Wilson seems on a trajectory to keep improving—especially when we remember how those quarterbacks (Romo, Rodgers) who didn’t learn on the job right away sprouted after their third or fourth years. Add to that possible further enrichment of Pete Carroll’s two-way master course, and Wilson might be on the edge of a Total Football not seen since Johan Cruyff.
He certainly seems set to prove that Carroll can develop quarterbacks far beyond "picking the right player."
"It’s been so much fun to watch these guys grow up with us," Carroll said in January. "You think a guy is a grown guy when he leaves college, but they’re not. There’s still so much there for him to take in, and to become more of what they’re capable of."
Four years is a familiar figure because it fits the traditional development curve of an undergraduate athlete. The average NFL career length is 3.3 years. After four accrued seasons NFL players count for contract purposes as vested veterans, and can have their deals fully guaranteed if they make opening day rosters.
For Russell Wilson moving beyond four years as a pro marks a milestone with his head coach, and a rare admission to football’s graduate school.