Jake & Stacy: What parting ways with DC Ken Norton Jr. says about Seahawks

Jan 18, 2022, 2:55 PM

Seahawks Ken Norton Jr....

Seahawks LB Bobby Wagner and defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. talk during a a game vs. the 49ers. (Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

(Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

The Seahawks will have a new defensive coordinator in 2022 as they announced Tuesday afternoon they have relieved Ken Norton Jr. of his duties along with passing game coordinator Andre Curtis. But what led to Norton’s time as the Hawks’ DC coming to an end after four seasons?

Huard: What’s next for the Seahawks as they move on from Norton

To lead off Tuesday’s edition of 710 ESPN Seattle’s Jake and Stacy, the two hosts took a deep dive into where the defense stood under Norton and why a change would be made despite the Seahawks tying for ninth in points allowed per game in 2021 at 21.5.

Here’s a breakdown of what former NFL quarterback Jake Heaps and Seahawks insider Stacy Rost discussed.

‘Surprise’ but ‘completely necessary’

On the one hand, Heaps was caught off-guard by the initial news of Norton’s departure Monday night in a Seattle Times report. But on the other hand, he understands it. He’s also glad that after slow starts on defense in each of the past two seasons, the Seahawks’ strong finish to the 2021 season didn’t lull the team into a potentially false sense of security.

“It was a reaction of a little bit of surprise, but at the same time this was completely necessary to move on from Ken Norton Jr.,” Heaps said about when he first saw the report. “The reason I was surprised is because, look, (with) conversations of status quo and running things back, you can easily convince yourself of, hey, in the second half of this last year the Seahawks were significantly better on third down, they were significantly better in red zone stoppage. There were a lot of good things that they were doing – you saw an uptick in their ability to get to the quarterback, to produce sacks; you saw an uptick in production overall from the defense (in the) second half to the last month of the season. So I could see how you could look at it and say, ‘You know what, we just need to get better personnel-wise, we don’t need to get better scheme-wise or have a new voice and a new leader.'”

The loyalty of Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll is another reason Heaps wasn’t expecting a change.

“For Pete Carroll, what we know about him is he is very loyal to his assistants, and Ken Norton Jr. is somebody that he greatly regards and someone who he has a great deal of respect for. Ken Norton. Jr. has been a part of Pete Carroll’s staff all the way back to the USC days and so I have to imagine that this was incredibly difficult and painful for Pete Carroll to move on from a dear friend of his. But you look at it and this was absolutely necessary for the Seahawks to progress, to move forward, and the standard should be much, much higher than what this defense has produced over the last four seasons.”

Numbers don’t paint a pretty picture

So what has the standard been for the Seahawks’ defense under Norton? As another 710 ESPN Seattle host found out, pretty similar to Norton’s previous tenure as a defensive coordinator with the Raiders.

Dave Wyman, a former NFL linebacker who is color commentator on Seahawks Radio Network broadcasts and co-hosts 710 ESPN Seattle’s Wyman and Bob, looked recently at the rankings in six important team defense statistics – total yards allowed, passing yards allowed, rushing yards allowed, points allowed, sacks and takeaways – for Norton’s defenses as a DC. What he found was that they all seemed to fall in the same general area.

“The average rank for those six categories all comes out to about the same – whether you say as a Seahawk coordinator or as a Raider coordinator or putting those two together, it’s about 19,” Wyman relayed last week on Wyman and Bob.

Rost zoomed in on some of those numbers, sharing that in 2021, the Seahawks ranked 28th with 379 yards allowed per game a year after allowing 380 yards per game. The passing defense was particularly an issue each of the last two seasons, with 265 passing yards allowed per game in 2021 and 285 in 2020, both of which ranked 31st out of the 32 NFL teams. And that’s why you can’t put too much stock into the 21.5 average points allowed in 2021.

“We know that while they improved in scoring (defense) this year, and that’s something to be proud of, it was also a weird anomaly that the Seahawks were allowing significantly more yards than any of those other teams that were limiting opponents to 21.5 or fewer points per game,” she said. “Overall, you’re a 19th- to 20th-ranked defense. That’s just simply not good enough, especially for the money that you have invested in a couple of key positions. You had, for a while, the richest middle linebacker in football (Bobby Wagner), and you have currently the richest safety in football (Jamal Adams).”

What now?

A big question is what a change at defensive coordinator really will mean, considering Carroll is a defensive-minded coach who has his system that he sticks to.

“Here’s what I keep stumbling back to,” Rost said. “It’s not just one man. When Ken Norton Jr. first signed on with Seattle, how many times did we hear the conversation about, ‘Oh, this is just going to be Pete Carroll’s defense. Pete Carroll’s just bringing in a dude that he knows well, he’s comfortable with. He spent years with him before, this is just going to be Pete Carroll’s defense and a way for Pete Carroll to have more control over the defense.’ So if it’s Pete Carroll’s defense, how do you improve that with a new defensive coordinator? Do you bring in someone that has a different background? Do you bring in someone who has some new ideas? Do you bring in someone that just says ‘You know what, the ideas are fine. All we needed was better personnel.'”

Heaps said that is the most important question the Seahawks now face, and his hope is Seattle does inject some new ideas with their next DC.

“You have a legitimate opportunity to improve your defense, and I believe what was tremendously needed was a new voice, a new leader, a new set of eyes on your defense to lead it and progress and move forward,” he said. “… You look at some of the other deeper numbers: sack percentage, 4.9%, fourth-worst; 11th-fewest sacks in the league; pressure percentage 22.2%, which was seventh-worst; and then just 18 takeaways, which was eighth-fewest. Those aren’t good numbers for a good defense, and that is a huge reason why it led to those big gains in passing yards and (Seattle) being consistently, as Dave Wyman pointed out, in the bottom half of the league.

“I believe you need new eyes, I believe you need a new perspective. What I would love to see is someone completely from the outside be brought in and and that has a strong voice, that has a great commanding presence, and can truly lead and take over.”

We’ll get into who Heaps hopes could be that new voice in another post here soon on 710Sports.com.

To hear the full conversation, listen to the podcast at this link or in the player below.

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Jake & Stacy: What parting ways with DC Ken Norton Jr. says about Seahawks