Pete Carroll had it his way at Southern California. Talented recruits, LA glamour and amazing results: seven Pac-10 titles; two national championships; and a 97-19 record from 2000-09.
At USC ”Win Forever” wasn’t just his book title, it was the coach’s way of life. He was, as Seahawks CEO Tod Leiweke says, ”the ‘King of L.A.”’
Yet Leiweke and $30-plus million got Carroll off his throne and back to the NFL for the first time since 1999. Carroll’s return is about to begin in Seattle, where he has sweeping powers to rescue Seahawks who have gone 9-23 the last two seasons.
”People say, ‘Gosh, why would you do that when you win all the time in college football, and here, you’re going into the meat grinder of the NFL?’ I’m ready. I couldn’t be more prepared for it. I couldn’t be more excited about it,” Carroll said, his words rolling, as usual.
”I hope we can do things better than it’s ever been done before around here. … I love setting our sights so far out, setting our standards so high, that maybe it doesn’t even seem feasible.”
Right now, it does not.
His Seahawks begin the season Sept. 12 against NFC West-rival San Francisco still trying to recover from two rough years.
Quarterback Matt Hasselbeck is coming back from his two worst, most injury-filled seasons. He turns 35 in September and is in the final year of his contract. Carroll preserved the three-time Pro Bowler this preseason by limiting his practice repetitions.
Yet the key to whether Hasselbeck can play all 16 games for the first time since 2007 – Seattle’s last playoff season – and whether he’ll have a supporting running game with former Jets All-Pro Leon Washington, who is healthy again, lies with a shaky offensive line.
Carroll and his new sidekick, general manager John Schneider, drafted Russell Okung sixth overall and guaranteed him more than $29 million to replace retired All-Pro Walter Jones at left tackle. But Okung sprained his ankle in the second preseason game. He could begin the season either unavailable or having played just four preseason series in first-year coordinator Jeremy Bates’ new offense of zone run blocking and revamped pass protection.
Irascible new line coach Alex Gibbs added former Broncos guard Ben Hamilton to help Okung on the left side, but Hamilton’s biggest impact so far has been tripping Okung on the first play of Aug. 21’s exhibition game and causing the sprained ankle. Center Chris Spencer has struggled for years; the 2005 first-round pick was demoted to right guard at the end of last season. The right side has second-year guard Max Unger, who finished last season as Seattle’s center, and inconsistent tackle Sean Locklear.
Tackle Chester Pitts arrived as a free agent from Houston but has yet to practice following microfracture knee surgery.
”We’ll go as far as they take us. It’s up to those guys to take us to victories,” Bates said of his blockers. ”They don’t get any recognition except when they let up a sack or a penalty so you don’t hear about those guys. But they’re the key to our success this year.”
The situation is only slightly better on the defensive line. Former Pro Bowl pass rusher Patrick Kerney retired and Lawrence Jackson, a 2008 first-round pick from Carroll’s Trojans, was traded despite being the team’s returning leader in sacks.
Chris Clemons, acquired from Philadelphia to be a bigger pass rusher than the traded Darryl Tapp, has been a preseason star. The other end is 6-foot-4, 335-plus pound Red Bryant, a seldom-used former tackle who may be the league’s biggest end, fitting Carroll’s desire for a huge run stopper outside.
But the Seahawks may again have to rely on blitzing from linebackers or backs to pressure passers. Doing that recently exposed a secondary that was 30th in the league in pass defense in 2009. That backfield now has 36-year-old Lawyer Milloy – an ’09 backup who played for Carroll in New England more than a decade ago – and 21-year-old rookie Earl Thomas starting as safeties.
”When you look at this team and when Pete looks at it, it’s not a one-year turnaround,” Leiweke admits. ”But I think Pete is one of those guys that can ignite a spark unlike anyone else.”
Just like at USC, Carroll is enlivening meetings with surprise guests and practices with thumping music. He’s throwing passes and running through drills. His daily command to ”Always compete!” has spawned more than 125 transactions since he arrived in January. He’s turned over half the roster and promises more churn.
”I’m pumped about it. There is not a position on this football team right now that isn’t competing,” Carroll said. ”These guys have taken to it.
”Nobody really wants it that way. They would rather have, ‘OK I know what I am doing, I’m the lead the guy.’ But that doesn’t mean that’s what is best. … we don’t operate that way.”
Not this time, not in this return.
”I have always loved the NFL so much,” he says.
The league didn’t love him back the first time. He was done after a 6-10 season in 1994 leading the Jets, and gone from New England, basically for not being Bill Parcells, after coaching there from 1997-99.
”I know so much more clearly where I’m coming from than I did then,” Carroll said. ”I was not at my best in New York. I can’t tell you how far away I was then from where I am right now. I was not at my best in New England.
”I think the Seahawks have benefited from the facts of what I’ve been through, what I’ve gone through.”
The true test of that is about to start.