The question concerned USC.
Pete Carroll was asked about the moment nine years earlier when he had been hired to be the Trojans coach and given the task of resuscitating a fallen football giant.
“They were at the bottom,” he said. “Very similar to here.”
Yes, very similar to here, and before Carroll starts his first season as Seahawks coach, it’s worth asking just what brought the franchise to this point.
It wasn’t all that long ago the Seahawks were a conference heavyweight. Seattle earned five consecutive playoff berths, four straight division titles and won 33 of 40 games at Qwest Field from 2003 to 2007, a home record rivaled only by the New England Patriots.
And now, just five seasons after playing for the sport’s biggest prize, Seattle is on its third coach in three years. The Seahawks are 9-23 the past two years, failing to win more than five games in back-to-back seasons for the first time since entering the league.
The decline cost jobs, it wrecked dreams.
Tim Ruskell resigned as president with a month left in the final season after forcing the issue of an extension. Jim Mora was fired as coach by his hometown team after just one season, the shortest tenure of any non-interim coach in the team’s history.
And then there was Mike Holmgren, the winningest coach in franchise history, who took a one-year sabbatical in 2009 and had his potential return become an awkward mess that was part of a 24-hour period that marked a low point for this recently proud franchise.
Seattle hit bottom the week before Christmas 2009.
A Saturday night and Sunday evening when the franchise’s nose dive became a death spiral.
First, the team announced Holmgren and the team failed to agree on a deal to bring him back to the front office. To this day, the sides can’t agree what they were fighting about. The Seahawks contended money became the main hangup, Holmgren has said it was the scope of authority and layers between him and the owner.
And then the Seahawks went out and lost at home to Tampa Bay on Sunday afternoon, beaten 24-7 by a team that hadn’t won on the road in more than a year. In a year of bad defeats, that might have just been the worst for Mora, concluding the worst weekend for the franchise that didn’t involve the threat of relocation to Southern California.
Missing was Ruskell. He’s the one who steered the Seahawks from Holmgren to Mora and then had his tenure as Seahawks president capsize.
How had it come to this?
The most popular explanation is a pair of 2006 transactions. In March, Seattle lost guard Steve Hutchinson to Minnesota after getting contractually blindsided. In September, the Seahawks traded a first-round pick for the right to pay Deion Branch a contract that New England wouldn’t.
Both were clear mistakes. Each proved costly.
But an NFL season is a 53-man enterprise, and two transactions can’t sufficiently explain the past two years. Besides, the Seahawks made the playoffs for two more seasons after those deals before cannonballing off the cliff of relevancy.
The seeds of Seattle’s decline were sown much deeper, something that CEO Tod Leiweke pointed to the day Carroll was introduced as Seahawks coach.
“We did not have alignment of an organization,” Leiweke said, “and you know it doesn’t make any one person not a good person. I have huge respect for Mike Holmgren. I consider Tim Ruskell a good friend of mine.
“But there was not alignment.”
For years, that was the elephant in the Seahawks’ living room that no one in the organization would talk about. But now the house has been swept, it has become clearer.
There was an underlying tension, the unavoidable reality that Ruskell held the position Holmgren was initially hired to fill in 1999.
The first year Holmgren’s hand-picked offense paired perfectly with the new general manager’s penchant for finding cost-conscious additions. Players like Chuck Darby, Joe Jurevicius and Bryce Fisher. Seattle won 11 consecutive games that year and reached the Super Bowl.
Holmgren had one year left on his coaching contract, and that offseason he asked for some time before making a decision whether to sign an extension. At the league meetings, he said he still felt a pull to try being a general manager. The reality that went unstated is that wasn’t going to happen in Seattle. Not with Ruskell there.
Holmgren came back, signed an extension and only continued success would plaster over the underlying disconnect with his boss. When the winning stopped, the cracks were exposed.
“To be quite honest, there was not a harmonious relationship between Tim and Mike Holmgren,” Leiweke said on Jan. 11. “It’s probably neither guy’s fault, but we learned a lot there.”
There were times it became downright comical. In 2008, the Seahawks played road games at both Miami and Tampa Bay, and a preliminary schedule indicated Seattle would play those on consecutive weekends. Ruskell was planning to keep the team in Florida between games and have it practice at Disney World. Holmgren wasn’t interested. That disinterest was communicated, and somehow, when the official schedule came out, the Seahawks were no longer playing consecutive games in Florida. So much for the happiest place on earth.
Personal problems or personnel?
The departure of Hutchinson is the landmark so often cited in Seattle’s decline.
Just as important were the players the Seahawks brought in every year. That was Ruskell’s NFL pedigree, or at least it was supposed to be, his college scouting. His first year in Seattle, he picked a pair of linebackers who turned out to be immediate starters, Lofa Tatupu and Leroy Hill.
Tatupu made the Pro Bowl in 2005 and the next two seasons. However, he was the only Seahawks player drafted by Ruskell ever chosen for the Pro Bowl.
Ruskell generally avoided belly flops in his draft choices. Quarterback David Greene was the only outright bust of a player Seattle chose in the first three rounds under Ruskell’s watch. But Seattle didn’t find stars, either. Of the four players chosen in the first round under Ruskell, none could be considered an above-average starter last season.
The Seahawks drafted players who became contributors and failed to address the reality that the players who were the nucleus of Seattle’s offensive success were getting older.
Walter Jones was on the other side of 30 yet Seattle didn’t draft anyone who projected as an offensive tackle from 2006 to 2009.
Shaun Alexander’s streak of injury-free seasons stopped after he re-signed with Seattle in 2006 yet the Seahawks drafted more fullbacks (three) than tailbacks (one) during Ruskell’s five years in charge of the draft. Seattle picked two quarterbacks in those five years, neither of whom are still with the team.
The Seahawks increasingly broke out the checkbook to fix problems. Tired of giving up big plays? Seattle signed two free-agent safeties in 2007. Neither Deon Grant nor Brian Russell are still with the team.
Want to stimulate the pass rush? Seattle signed Patrick Kerney, who was 30 and coming off a season-ending surgery in 2007. That addition paid off with 14.5 sacks that first season but Kerney struggled through injuries the next two seasons and retired.
If a salary cap were still in place this season, Seattle would have more than $16 million of cap space committed to players who are not currently on the roster.
When Mora took over in 2009, the die was already cast. Here was Ruskell’s roster being coached by Ruskell’s hand-picked successor. The offense that had been Seattle’s signature during its greatest period of success became its undoing. Seattle scored 280 points last season, its fewest in any year since 1993.
In retrospect, the five-year trend is clear.
2005: Seattle reached the Super Bowl
2006: The Seahawks played the Bears into overtime of the divisional round of the playoffs.
2007: Seattle was whitewashed 42-20 by Green Bay in the divisional round.
2008: The Seahawks plummeted fast and hard with only the St. Louis Rams preventing them from scraping their nose on the cellar floor.
2009: Ruskell resigned the first week of December.
The franchise faced a choice after the season. If it hired a general manager to come in and work with Mora, the Seahawks would once again be pairing a coach with an executive who had no role in his hiring. Or Seattle could fire Mora, the coach who had waited for this opportunity in his hometown, passing up a chance to coach the Washington Redskins in 2008.
Seattle took the more dramatic option. The Seahawks went for the sizzle of an uber-successful college coach others had failed to lure back to the NFL. They opted for overhaul of the coach and the culture.
Change starts at the top in the NFL, but it doesn’t necessarily trickle down.
Under Carroll and John Schneider, the general manager Carroll helped select, changes have flowed more like an avalanche.
Seattle might have changed coaches for the second time in two years, but this time it is truly starting over.
It probably won’t be fixed immediately. Not even in the NFL, where it’s possible to turn around on a dime.
Seattle is too thin up front to expect that sharp of a rebound. Seattle doesn’t have a defensive end on its roster who started an NFL game last season. On offense, the backup center is starting left guard Ben Hamilton. The backup for rookie left tackle Russell Okung is Mansfield Wrotto, previously a guard.
But the overhaul has begun.
“We needed to really work it, and not just sit here and wait,” Carroll said. “Let’s be proactive in all of our thoughts about helping to make this the most competitive team we could make it. That meant changes were coming.”
Carroll has done this before. Nine years ago, he took over a program at USC that had finished outside the top 20 four successive years for the first time in history. The Trojans were in the Rose Bowl his second year, the first of seven consecutive conference titles.
The Seahawks are beginning anew.
Leiweke, the executive who hired Carroll, is the outgoing CEO, and he will head to the NHL as CEO and part-owner of the Tampa Bay Lightning as soon as his successor is hired.
He leaves the Seahawks with a fresh start under Carroll. A clean slate with the dysfunction of the past two years only a memory.