The Curse of Pete Carroll

The Seattle Seahawks opened their 2019 season with a miserable yet enthralling victory over the Cincinnati Bengals, winning by only a single point over an opponent that nearly doubled their yardage total and handily won the time of possession battle. The narratives surrounding Seattle’s first game almost certainly sound familiar; they frequently looked unprepared and played down to a less-heralded team.

This isn’t new.

The Seahawks have done the same thing early and often since Pete Carroll arrived in Seattle. On countless occasions, preseasons are bookended by baffling performances; vanilla gameplans chock full of normalcy and not much else. Carroll’s old school mentality takes much of the blame for these frustrating contests; it’s no secret he lives and dies by the run game and defense. Russell Wilson’s brilliance does little to quell vexation in this approach. This was most notably on display during Wild Card Weekend, when the Seahawks insisted on repeatedly running into a stout Dallas Cowboys defense instead of properly utilizing their best and most important player.

While the stakes were different, yesterday’s victory over the Bengals was dangerously similar to January’s playoff loss, as so many other Seahawks games have been too. Seattle ran the ball unsuccessfully and at too high a volume; their offense lacked creativity and relied on the quarterback turning tap water into pinot grigio. A once-vaunted defense had considerable trouble stopping an A.J. Green-less offense led by the NFL’s prime meridian of quarterback play. Seattle scored a touchdown on the first snap of the 4th quarter to go up by 6. They didn’t score afterward, once again relying on a bend-don’t-break approach that undoubtedly was, is, and will continue to be aggravating.

But that might be okay, and I’m going to tell you why.

As consistent as these grind-it-out games against lesser teams have been over the past decade, so too have been those that featured the Seahawks showing up in big moments against prominent opponents. The two go hand in hand.

EXAMPLE 1: In 2016, Seattle traveled to Foxborough, standing toe to toe against the New England Patriots in a game that nobody believed them to have a chance.

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Just two weeks after a stunning victory against the eventual Super Bowl Champions (lol Falcons), the Seahawks lost to the lowly Tampa Bay Buccaneers by a score of 5-14.

The crux of the issue shouldn’t be that it’s incredibly annoying Seattle thrives against great teams and has such a hard time beating the shitty ones (even though it totally is); that the Bengals shouldn’t have been this difficult to top; that Pete Carroll doesn’t know what he’s doing.

Instead, we should focus on the fact that this strategy might be worth the headache when evaluated at a macroscopic level.

EXAMPLE 2: In Week 15 of 2018, the Seahawks lost to a truly bad 49ers team in overtime. The offense looked scared to even attempt a conversion after falling behind the sticks, cowardice that did little to inspire confidence.

Simply put, it was maddening.

The following week, Seattle somehow managed to do the very good thing and defeat the Kansas City Juggernauts Chiefs in a Sunday night bout for the ages.

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Over the past couple years, the Seahawks have not been as talented as many have grown accustomed. Because of this, there is a certain level of creativity necessary to hang with elite teams; last season, the Rams and Saints fit that bill. If Seattle ended up beating Dallas in the Wild Card round, their path to a Super Bowl would’ve gone through Los Angeles and New Orleans. Had they opened their bag of tricks to handily beat the Cowboys, what happens the next two weeks?

I posit that a fate similar to that of the Indianapolis Colts would’ve found them at some point. After looking crisp and confident in a win over the Houston Texans, Frank Reich and company were absolutely murked by a clearly superior Chiefs team. This isn’t to say that Seattle passing a little bit more against Dallas would’ve tilted the scales — they clearly should have done so — but the conservative approach was installed for a reason.

Carroll allocates a certain level of investment in his gameplans based on the opponent; based on the bigger picture. Against the Cowboys, he allocated very little in an attempt to save the secret sauce for impending faceoffs against the NFC’s best. In the waning moments of a game in which he schemed a minimal amount, Carroll had Dallas right where he wanted them: If the Seahawks hold the Cowboys on 3rd and 14, Russell Wilson has an opportunity to drive down the field and win the game outright with a touchdown.

The game’s outcome absolutely sucked; trying hard to win playoff games is obviously better than not trying hard to win playoff games. But would you rather beat Dallas convincingly and get spanked by an authoritative Rams or Saints team? Would you rather stomp an opponent 26-6 and then lose by 16 points on the road like Seattle did in the playoffs just three seasons ago? Would you rather annihilate a mediocre Cincinnati team and then try to run through the impending gauntlet of Pittsburgh, New Orleans, and Los Angeles in the coming weeks?

I don’t have an answer for you. If anything, it’s comforting to assume those in charge — Carroll in this case — have a master plan that involves making sacrifices for the greater good of the group. It’s impossible to be sure that the Seahawks aren’t just a bunch of stubborn buffoons…

…but the coaching staff’s actions have repeatedly supported this theory of matchup prioritization, yesterday included.

Both the inactivity of Ezekiel Ansah and usage of Jadeveon Clowney stood out to me the most on Sunday. Carroll didn’t deem it necessary to risk Ansah re-injuring his shoulder by suiting him up against Cincinnati; he didn’t think the team was reliant on the newly-signed defensive end. Carroll and Ken Norton Jr. then elected to play Clowney largely on the edge, instead of the interior where his disruption potential will be maximized. Some of this was surely due to Ansah’s absence, but it confirms how little Seattle’s staff wanted to put on tape before traveling to play the Steelers next weekend.

On offense, rather than trying new things — the only real creativity I noticed was a first half sweep to Chris Carson — there were multiple instances of plays pulled from 2018 in big moments. Tyler Lockett’s game-winning touchdown was straight out of last year’s Week 1 loss in Denver:


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On Seattle’s final meaningful possession of the game, they attempted to convert a 3rd and 17 on the ground by pulling Nick Vannett as a lead blocker. In 2018, a strikingly similar play essentially iced the Seahawks’ win over the Packers:


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This doesn’t necessarily tell us everything, but recycling rather than innovating speaks volumes.

We don’t evaluate performance in a vacuum, but it feels like we come dangerously close at times. Linearizing what we think should happen with what actually happens will inevitably lead to disappointment. And while it is infuriating that Russell Wilson is often underutilized and that Carroll chooses to grind out these close games against worse teams — forsaking good process in the process — I suggest that we instead be encouraged* that this Seattle team, whose roster is littered with unknown variables left and right, can be good enough to line up and beat a team that was so clearly schemed up to the 9’s (yes that is a route pun); that even though roster talent isn’t what it once was in Seattle, Carroll is still playing to win forever in his own way.

* Much easier said than done.

The Seahawks’ first triumph of 2019 was exasperating, ridiculous, and frighteningly habitual. The offensive line looked horrific and the receiving corps is so beat up or inexperienced that tight ends and running backs received the majority of Wilson’s targets.

But the team is 1-0 and put very little on film in the process. “Context” is used as an excuse so often, but I do believe that taking it into account is important in this instance. If Seattle again underperforms against an inferior franchise, I move that we avoid being surprised and, instead, wait and see if Carroll still has a few tricks up his sleeve.

If they continue to struggle, maybe they’re just not as good as we thought.