Salk: Blaming Pete already? Seahawks coach’s style has tradeoffs

Sep 13, 2023, 2:04 AM | Updated: 11:26 am

Seattle Seahawks Pete Carroll...

Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll before a game on Aug. 10, 2023. (Christopher Mast/Getty Images)

(Christopher Mast/Getty Images)

Pete Carroll is the most successful coach in the history of the Seattle Seahawks.

He’s won more games, more playoff games, more Super Bowls, and has the highest winning percentage of any coach the franchise has ever had. He is likely going to the Hall of Fame, and when you consider his college record, he is one of the greatest coaches of his era.

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He is also coming off a surprisingly productive season in which he not only won, but he did it without the quarterback that so many thought he was holding back.

He should be at the top of the mountain. You would think he’d be untouchable. And yet after one loss, the most common frustration I’ve heard wasn’t about the quarterback. It wasn’t about the offense that gained three meaningful yards in the second half. It wasn’t about the players, the defensive line, the pass rushers or the coordinators. It was about Pete.

I’m not surprised. Pete is polarizing. He does things his own way and he doesn’t fit the mold, so it’s easy to point to things he does differently and assign blame there. And after nine years since his last championship, and eight since he last brought a team to the conference championship game, there is an understandable need get back to the promised land.

Pete isn’t perfect. But I don’t think he’s the problem, either. That is, if there is a problem at all.

When Pete first arrived here, I was skeptical. OK, I was horrified. I didn’t think there was a chance the guy I had watched in New England could succeed in the NFL. He couldn’t coach men. He couldn’t maintain control. He would get walked all over. He was just a college coach and his rah-rah persona would never fly.

I was, of course, very, very wrong. Pete has thrived. His record proves that. He has consistently had his team in contention, and he’s given this franchise a personality and a reputation. So why are folks so quick to want him gone as soon as there is turbulence?

A few reasons. First of all, there is a segment of the population who just always blames the coach. For everything. They want change all the time. They want whatever is on the other side of the fence. The field turf is just greener on the other side. That isn’t unique to Pete.

But Pete Carroll comes with tradeoffs. You love his ability to build culture, harness the power of positivity, have fun with his team, and make this a place where players want to come and stay. But for every young player who thrives in that system, there seems to be a veteran that is ready to move on. Some of that is the natural cycle of NFL life, but not all of it is.

Pete empowers his young players. He builds them up and helps them grow. He makes them feel like the most important people in the world. And while that seems to help maximize their ability for a while, it can lead to a dangerous combination of declining skills and entitled behavior later in careers. It’s no accident that he seemed re-energized last season with a young roster of pups who were excited to hear his spiel and commit to his philosophy. Because while I was wrong that he couldn’t coach men in the NFL, there may have been some kernels of truth in his challenges with entitled veterans that he helped create.

There are other tradeoffs, too. For all of the cultural and environmental plusses, he might not be the most detail-oriented of the 32 who share the title of NFL head coach. Discipline isn’t usually the calling card of a Carroll-coached team, but Pete seems willing to sacrifice it in order to get his guys to play with their hair on fire. He wants them more concerned with going full speed than making a mistake. And while the downside of that is clear to see in the moment (penalties, mistakes, etc.), the upside more than balances it out.

In fact, that concept of being balanced out is important, and we’ll come back to it before we’re done. But why do folks blame Pete? In part, because the things he doesn’t prioritize are easy to see and the things he does are invisible. You can’t see the positive effects of good culture. But trust me, you know when it isn’t there. You know when a team doesn’t have it.

That isn’t enough to explain it, though. My partner Brock Huard brought up an excellent point: Pete is one of the few coaches in the NFL who have come up on the defensive side of the ball. And in the current day, offense is where the excitement is at. That’s where the inventiveness, statistical revolution and even the rules are at their strongest. Young, creative, exciting offensive coaches are revolutionizing the game, and the previous generation of defensive-minded geniuses like the Patriots’ Bill Belichick and Steelers’ Mike Tomlin feel left behind.

Is it accurate? I don’t think so. I believe there is still a place for a defensive-minded system, especially with a coach who is willing to empower creative folks around him. But I think Brock is right that having one of the few defensive coaches in the league plays into the belief that he isn’t like the other coaches out there.

There is one other thing that I believe is playing a role. Pete is the only one left to blame when things go wrong.

He is now by far the most recognizable name and face in this organization. With Russell Wilson gone and most of the Legion of Boom settling into new roles in the media, Pete is it. There is no other titan to choose. The “Pete or Russ” debates have no successor because there isn’t another obvious camp for folks to join.

I think that’s a misread by many. What we saw last year was, in my opinion, as strong an endorsement of Pete’s coaching ability as anything in years. If Russell had succeeded in “cooking” in Denver his way last year, I would have come around and said that Pete needed to adapt or go. That he had wasted Russ’s prime and the team needed a hip, offensive tactician like everyone else has.

But the opposite was true. Russ struggled (to put it lightly), and Pete not only succeeded with a journeyman signal caller that most (including myself) had written off in Geno Smith, but he threw it down the field more than in previous seasons. It became clear that Pete wasn’t opposed to a modern passing offense; he just needed the right quarterback to run it. Pete will always value the balanced approach offensively, but he proved able to adapt to the changing times.

There is that word again: balance. For Pete, it’s all about how to build a team. You run the ball to help your quarterback and to complete the “circle of toughness” that he believes wins football games late, when the winning is done. But for me with regards to Pete, it means accepting some of the things that drive me crazy because they are more than overpowered by the positives. Accepting that the Seahawks might not lead the league in discipline but that their strengths are more subtle and harder to quantify.

Ultimately, the Seattle Seahawks need to win. If they keep laying eggs like the one we saw against the Rams, no coach should be invited to stick around too long. The defense needs to clean up its multi-year issues and the offense can’t go quiet for halves at a time. But for now, I’ll fall back on the strongest piece of evidence: 128-82-1. A record that should buy some time and trust.

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