Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Five Things Pete Carroll Still Needs to Prove

Youth is catching up to the Seahawks. Last year's early success, memorable mostly for its improbable defeat of the Chargers and Bears, is not being repeated. The players are visibly upset, Pete Carroll looks mellower each week, and people are starting to wonder just how legitimate last year's underdog excellence was.

A tougher starting schedule is partly responsible for all this. Last year's opening six weeks were downright cotton-candy aside from the Chargers. This year we've faced two quality offenses, the 49ers defense, and two perennial laughingstock teams from Ohio who are actually showing hints of significance(???!?!?!?!).

But although there's enough promise on the team to seriously believe in a bright future, and the gutsy road win over the Giants was delicious, these struggles are on Pete Carroll - and not in a bad way. The lack of discipline, the rawness and inexperience...what we're really seeing here is the short-term penalty of Pete Carroll's early approach with the team. The immediate and almost reckless roster turnover, the concentration of all our youth and inexperience into the offensive line, so many new and unfamiliar players integrating at once...

This is what was always going to happen. The mistakes, frustration, and venting combined with the high-octane style of this coaching staff creating a weird mix of aggressive football and sloppy football. It's the flipside of high turnover, the downside of getting younger. This is exactly what a lot of folks wanted - misguided ideas from the Tim Ruskell era about veteran signings being bad, continuity being mistaken for stagnation, impatient demands for a fresh start. (Ruskell was fired deservedly, but gets a lot of criticism for the wrong reasons.)

Now, after two games of historically inept offense (and refereeing), Pete Carroll is drawing flak. Much of it, including a lively piece from the normally level-headed Mike Sando, revolves around Carroll's QB decisions (specifically not drafting Andy Dalton, which I'll deal with in a moment). I don't have a problem with flak. I think the coaches (and the fans) need to see it after all the un-earned goodwill floating around from last year's fluke, unrepeatable playoff run. But it has to be the right kind of flak.

Earlier this season I quantified what I thought were Carroll's successes as Seahawks head coach. Thus far, he's an effective motivator who gets high effort out of his players; a decent coaching recruiter; a committed developer of players; a financially savvy, future-minded decision-maker; and a never-say-die competitor who was enough of a believer to lead his team to an unforgettable playoff upset of the defending Super Bowl champions. All good things.

But not a single one of them automatically translates to a dynasty. The pessimist points out that in no other division in the history of the NFL would Carroll even have gotten a shot to beat the Saints, that last year's cinderella story was born of lucky bounces and bad competition, and that Carroll has yet to answer a stiff challenge from top-level opponents in the playoffs. Had the Rams finished one game better, would we all still be this gracious to this coaching staff?

This front office's strengths need to be tested in the fire of consistency before they will lead this team to contender status. The good management philosophies and player acquisition strategies need to turn into production and identity on the field. Here are five things I feel that Pete Carroll still needs to prove.

5. He can start late-round picks.

This wouldn't be on the list with most front offices, because most front offices don't make a stated intention of trying to start late-round picks. But Seattle has, even to the point of trading perfectly serviceable starters for far lower draft value.

It baffled me for a long time why a turnover-obsessed head coach would be willing to trade CB Josh Wilson. Scheme and shortness be damned, Wilson was the only defender who stood out in the 2010 preseason and the only guy who provided anything like a turnover stream on the terrible Mora defense. It might also be nice to have his return-man spark right now, since I suspect that the need for Leon's services there might still be restricting his role in the offense. Wilson wasn't a world-beater, but as a second-rounder, he didn't have to be. He got results, and at some point, results become hard to legitimately argue with.

And if Seattle is not only going to trade such benefits away for the level of draft pick that doesn't even always make the team, but make it a pattern across the board (Rob Sims, Seneca Wallace, Darryl Tapp, Lawrence Jackson, and they tendered Brandon Mebane with a third-rounder before coming to their senses and just re-signing him), then I am going to hold them to their intention of making starters out of those late picks. Otherwise, Seattle's drafts are beholden to a terrible notion of value.

However...Carroll is well on his way to proving just this. The fifth-round pick netted us by the Wilson trade has now given us Richard Sherman, who got off to a surprisingly strong start against Cincinnati last Sunday. Rob Sims turned into Kam Chancellor. The Tapp trade was a hands-down winner in Chris Clemons even though the other half of the deal, an extra fourth-round pick, was promptly cut. Jackson and Wallace only got us a couple of fringe players, but that doesn't erase the other wins. It's huge defiance of the odds to commit bad-value trades and come away with not just three starters, but two defensive linchpins and a promising #2 corner candidate.

See, some people talk about value in a vacuum, but can we really judge these moves based strictly on theory, methodology, abstract definitions of value, or what-have-you? This is the NFL, where complexity and luck are king. (Yes, yes, I made a luck pun. Get it out of your system.) Players get injured, scheme elevates or diminishes others, crazy things happen to disrupt the logical connection of process to result. There has to be a certain degree of "all's well that ends well" to our judgments. In other words, this favorite tool of armchair GM's just doesn't cover enough of the NFL's randomness to be applicable that simply.

So I don't know whether Seattle has just gotten extraordinary lucky with these deals or whether there's some moneyball formula they're not telling us about. But they've proven a lot of us fans wrong when it came to those terrible trades, and the consistency tells me there's something behind it. If they can maintain this odds-defying success with low draft picks, this issue won't be part of this list for long.

4. He emphasizes the right qualities in players.

I'm still trying to figure out why we drafted Golden Tate. It sure wasn't because of an abundance of NFL attributes. The guy was a hybrid running back in college, known for poor routes and lazy blocking downfield. He was the product of a high-percentage Notre Dame passing system and got by with the "playmaker" label, both of which evaporate quickly against the superior playing field of the NFL. There's still plenty of hope for his pro development, but his curve is longer than Adam Jones' rap sheet.

It's not to the Al Davis extreme yet, but Pete Carroll has an unmistakeable lean towards physical qualities and vague "playmaker" labels. Scott earlier called this a hunt for matchups. But I think it's a little ironic that for all the hubbub over height in receivers, Seattle's receivers are currently led in receptions, yards, and yards per reception by the smallest of them all (Doug Baldwin, so slight that Kip doesn't expect him to last in this physical league). It's his technique that's ultimately opening things up on offense, his awareness and route-running.

Or the fact that Seattle's all-world free safety, Earl Thomas, is shorter than almost any other defensive back on the roster. Yeah, Kam Chancellor is tearing it up as well, but it's not his linebacker size that's doing it or even his physicality. Aaron Curry had all the measurables and intensity too, he just couldn't complete an open field tackle to save his life. Nor was he ever in the right position to MAKE the tackle in the first place, whereas Kam is wonderfully assignment-correct so far.

One thing everyone got excited when Jim Mora came along was the size of the revamped defensive line. Way too much attention had been paid to the overhyped "smallness" of Rocky Bernard, and people thought that was the problem. Red Bryant, Brandon Mebane, and now Alan Branch are (by different standards) amongst the top three defensive tackles in the league - in run-stopping. But the tradeoff of their size is that they can't hustle to the quarterback or make a lot of plays in space. Stacy Andrews and Colin Cole were huge too, but that's about all they had to offer - no technique or quickness (and they haven't been picked up by anyone else). Size? Far from an automatic enabler, at almost any position.

But it's not as if Carroll is dwelling on measurables. I was concerned at first when it jumped out as a throughline in Carroll's early transactions at WR and CB. But since then, Seattle has found itself with a ton of the "right stuff" anyway. As long as the team is on the market for the right attributes - technique, discipline, awareness - we're in business. They've certainly gotten the attitude they're looking for.

3. He can hit in the first round of the draft.

Sorry, is this a bit of a "duh" moment? Not for any Seahawks fan who watched Tim Ruskell flail and ultimately die a slow death in the first round. Many franchises are anchored by first-round talent (oftentimes because those picks are franchise QB's, but not always), and Ruskell just didn't get it done there. Part of the problem, as Rob Staton points out, he thought he could coast along on an aging Matt Hasselbeck and thus lacked the urgency. But his misses in the first round are a simpler and greater factor in the collapse of the team than is commonly acknowledged. I doubt that his policy of signing free-agent stopgaps would be getting nearly as much heat had Patrick Kerney and Julian Peterson been replaced successfully by Lawrence Jackson and Aaron Curry.

(Interesting note: for some reason, those picks had a pattern of struggling to mentally adapt to the pros. Spencer allegedly muffed his line calls. Kelly Jennings had a well-documented confidence problem. Lawrence Jackson didn't give a damn. And Aaron Curry - well, that horse is mummifying.)

So far Carroll isn't doing too badly in this department, but it's still early. Russell Okung has struggled to stay healthy and seemed to hit a bit of a sophomore wall early in the season, penalties and allowed sacks peeping through the cracks. He's settled down a bit since. Earl Thomas is a stud, next. James Carpenter - eurgh. He's made strides but still has a long ways to go, and I still hate the pick positionally. I understand the offered reasoning, but I don't agree with it (and I still suspect that Schneider just got caught with his trading pants down a little bit). A right tackle in the first round? That's the kind of "maintenance pick" that a fully established contender makes. Yeah, Pittsburgh and Green Bay wanted him, but they're contenders with fewer holes. Seattle had far worse needs than the average mid-20's teams.

It's also worth mentioning that despite the overall venom towards Tim Ruskell, Carroll has not outperformed him in the second and third round of the draft. Golden Tate is useless with our current QB arsenal, John Moffitt is ordinary, and Charlie Whitehurst (via trade) we now know all too well. And only in Thomas has there been any attempt to find true premiere talent for the defense, despite severe needs there.

It's a worthy debate as to which positions deserve attention in the top 100. As the league shifts towards dominance of the pass, positions connected to the pass are gaining value. Defensive linemen, cornerbacks, and of course quarterbacks should get looks there, while running backs and linebackers are fading towards the middle rounds. But what this team really needs is an infusion of premiere talent at cornerstone positions, rather than every extra fourth-rounder it can scrounge up. Carroll is a little behind the curve in the first three rounds and could use a strong draft next year (containing a franchise quarterback) to make up some ground.

2. He has the right priorities on defense.

Fieldgulls' Kenneth Arthur remarked recently that there's a difference between an exciting defense and an effective one. The 2011 Seahawks have more playmakers and more plays to brag of than at any other time in the last three seasons, but it still tends to show up a lot more against poor competition, and not in the final score. Yes, Seattle's run defense is top ten in much more proven fashion than last year, and yes, our secondary is getting into receivers' heads and snatching interceptions while Chris Clemons racks up the pressures up front. There is real talent here.

But that collection of big plays has yet to translate to the stoppage of an elite quarterback. It's like strong walls without a foundation. Seattle's pass defense is ranked #21 in DVOA, exposed by any QB rateable above "mediocre", and it's hard to blame the secondary. Ben Roethlisberger, Matt Ryan, and Eli Manning have treated the 12th Man to a display of the scrambling pinpoint passes that even the best coverage just can't stop - the hallmark of the currently ruling QB profile. And any team hankering for the playoffs is on a collision course with those very guys, not to mention Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers.

Conventional NFL wisdom - and yeah, we all know how much regard Carroll has for that, but stick with me - conventional NFL wisdom prescribes a strong interior pass rush to flush the QB from the pocket, kill his playbook, and protect your secondary. That's been the winning formula for the last three Super Bowls (along with strong play from your own QB, which pushed Seattle over the top of the Giants).

But I'm not sure Carroll has the same priorities. Is he looking at the league to take his cues from what's currently working? He's spoken about the draft not falling out right, but that doesn't fully account for the pass rush going almost completely ignored through 17 draft picks. Does that reveal bad draft luck or a philosophy? Carroll has a great eye for the secondary, it seems, but putting that before the pass rush strikes me strongly as putting the cart before the horse. Any secondary will eventually be exposed if the QB has all day to throw.

(To be fair, there were rumblings that Carroll and Schneider were targeting one of the many interior pass rushers available in the mid third round, only to watch a DT run snatch them all away while they prioritized right guard.)

Meanwhile, the team's resources have been shuttled toward run defense. Tim Ruskell did that, too. Seattle's run defense ranked 10th in DVOA in 2009 and boasted all the net effectiveness of a screen door on a submarine. It demolished Denver's run game in 2010 and yet couldn't do a thing to stop Kyle Orton. Drew Brees hung 404 yards on us in the playoffs with Julius Jones providing the rushing yards. The Seahawks have followed to a "T" the cliche formula of shutting down the run and daring quarterbacks to beat them through the air, only to have them shrug, say "okay", and do just that without breaking a sweat. Repeatedly.

That seems a handy counterexample to the common belief that good run defense automatically makes pass defense easier. The gap could be explained by a very poor secondary those years. But the trend reappeared this year when Matt Ryan and Eli Manning racked up big numbers on our improving secondary without much success from their running games. It might be the most under-recognized bugaboo that Seattle has yet to shake from the Ruskell/Holmgren era.

(If you want more than a surface impression, the 2009 campaigns of Philip Rivers, Brett Favre and Matt Schaub are handy examples of non-Peyton Manning QB's who rack up the yards without the assistance of a rushing attack. Also, check out this body of research assembled by Brian Burke of Advanced NFL Stats:  here, here, here, and here. I'm not sure if I buy all of his statistical methods, and his conclusions in this last article seem simplistic and too easily arrived at, but it's worth a look.)

Super Bowls aren't being won by premiere running backs. This is one area in which Carroll may ultimately need to adapt to NFL reality. He's taken some steps - jettisoning Aaron Curry in favor of the superior coverage instincts of KJ Wright, backing the linebackers away from the line to play better in space, press coverage to disrupt routes and force QB's to throw deeper. But they're still doing it. In the end, our greatest sources of pressure in this scheme are secondary blitzes (always a big gamble despite our skilled blitzers) and pure end pressure (proven to not be enough despite Chris Clemons' best efforts). It's a defense geared towards the run rather then the pass, and the presence of Alan Branch suggests that that priority is intentional. It remains to be seen whether this defense will make any dent at all in a playoff environment.

1. He can find a franchise QB.

Carroll can talk about "Win Forever" and "Always Compete" until the cows come home, but the only motto that will ultimately make him successful in the NFL is "Find a Franchise Quarterback".

I think we're all in agreement on that point by now. Hopefully, so is Pete Carroll. Better run defense and offensive line? This team is disorganized and needs a face of the franchise. I get the desire for "offensive balance" stemming from a good run game, which Carroll has prioritized. But while we're sitting here in our comfy armchairs with our tea and crumpets, discussing what looks good on paper, Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees are out there throwing 40 times a game and putting up 3 TD's in the first half. Good luck keeping up with that using a running game.

The most popular defense of Seattle's quarterback search thus far is that "there haven't been any good options". Well, there have been. Ryan Mallett was available at pick #60 and, even as a bust, would have been only slightly more restrictive than Charlie Whitehurst at that price. Should the good fortune of the draft never come through for Carroll with future QB's, Mallett will stand in retrospect as an easy, escapable offramp that Seattle passed up on because he "didn't fit". The position is important enough that I say draft a guy and MAKE him fit. Especially when you're dealing with first-round talent who fell largely because of character rumors that even now, six months later, have yet to be given any shape.

Instead, Carroll exited the 2011 draft without a QB, consigning himself to the hope that the right guy just falls into his lap (i.e. circumstances completely beyond his control). I realize all coaches are looking for "their guy", and honestly, Tarvaris Jackson's recent improvement could go a long way towards justifying the extension of the search. But I'm still unsettled. Getting picky with QB's at a time with the league is so desperate for them that they're drafting Christian Ponder at #12 - that doesn't seem like a winning strategy. It seems reckless.

However, you can also err on the other extreme. Cincinnati's victory over the Seahawks brought on a wave of national pundits mocking Pete Carroll for not drafting Andy Dalton, who thus far has posted a journeyman performance against modest competition. I don't like the Carpenter pick, but I'd have liked drafting Dalton at #25 even less. QB issues or not, it would have handcuffed the team to a highly questionable low-ceiling prospect for years. A similar risk is true of blatant system guys like Landry Jones, Kellen Moore, or Nick Foles this next year.

These are possibilities that forced me to face a personal self-contradiction. I want a franchise QB badly and don't believe in hedging, don't believe in dinking around with league backups out of a blind optimism and a desire to get something for nothing. But am I willing to stake a first-round contract on a guy with enough red flags to hint at a major bust? As cliche as it is, I'm single at 28 because I'm choosy. I've had enough patience (fortunately) to watch enough great possibilities turn sour that I've learnt that temporary singlehood beats long-term misery any day. Losing one year to a Tarvaris Jackson, as frustrating and uncertain as it seems, is preferable to losing three or more years to a Jason Campbell. This is doubly true for Pete Carroll, who could also lose his job. My conclusion: be flexible with your standards, Pete, but don't throw yourself at just anyone for the sake of appearing proactive.

Fortunately, the wait may not last long. In classic "all's well that ends well" fashion, this upcoming QB class is looking more tantalizing every week. There are a number of guys coming out next April who could operate well in the "point guard" profile that Seattle is currently testing with Tarvaris Jackson. Should Seattle draft too low to nab Andrew Luck or Matt Barkley (that is, should they draft #3 or lower), you've got guys like Ryan Tannehill, Robert Griffin III, and Austin Davis still flying under the radar. They're having quietly impressive seasons, improving their stock week by week. (Seahawks Draft Blog is the place to follow their progress.) They're rated below Luck and Barkley for good reason, but a lower salary cap makes them much more palatable in the Top 16. And every one of them looks like a safer bet than Landry Jones.

As long as the QB search remains unfinished, so does Seattle's identity. Its style and scheme will ultimately reflect the talents of its QB, and that might mean some changes once he arrives. Mike Williams is a good example - a good receiver who thrives on a QB like Matt Hasselbeck who can/will pass into tight coverage but fades next to a QB like Tarvaris Jackson who relies on separation. Like the pass rush/secondary issue, Seattle may be building their team backwards by building the car before the engine - and should be prepared for further adjustments once the incompatibilities show themselves.

It's not what I would have done, but leaving the 2011 draft without a QB was not a fatal mistake for Pete Carroll. There is plenty of time. Meanwhile, that elusive QB's support system is already here and in the process of solidifying. That will help. I just know that I'd hate to be Seattle's front office right now, faced with an "Occupy the VMAC" movement should they fail to draft a quarterback. That's the kind of QB pressure that Carroll would no doubt be happily rid of.


  1. Would have taken any other QB than Mallett available at Seattle's picks?

  2. Very good article. I will say, however, that I am one of those who believes that Carroll hasn't drafted a franchise type QB because "there weren't any good options."

    Carroll's first draft the only option was Clausen. We're all glad the Hawks passed.

    This last draft, sitting at 25, the only option available was a trade into the top 10 for Gabbert, Locker, or god forbid, Ponder. None of those guys, in my opinion, would be worth the capital it would have taken to trade up that high.

    Other than that they could have taken one of Dalton, Kaepernick, or Mallett. Dalton and Kaepernick were never first round prospects, nor should they have been.

    Which leaves us with Mallett as Carroll's only legitimate option at the position to this point in his Seahawk's career.

    I was just as big a fan of Mallett as the next guy, in fact I thought he was the best QB prospect in the draft, but to believe that Carroll's decision to pass on him was only because he didn't fit his scheme is silly. Mallett didn't fall to the third round for no reason, he fell because of some pretty serious character concerns. You may want to pass them off as baseless rumors, but a prospect with Mallett's talent doesn't fall into the middle of the third round on rumors alone.

    It's not like Seattle was the only QB needy team to pass. Miami had none of the scheme restriction of Carroll yet still decided to go in another direction. The same can be said of Arizona and Oakland.

  3. Great read. Interesting, this is all personnel/GM stuff, and I think most of them really are falling in the Hawks favor, or will be proven so with the next draft. My biggest question is can Pete win on the field, with the X's and O's. I've come to see the method behind the madness in player acquisition, but am not at all confident that the calls on game day will follow.

  4. I wouldn't have taken any other QB besides Mallett, and wouldn't have risked Mallett himself at #25.

    I myself have acknowledged the strength of the Mallett anti-hype as implied by so many teams passing on him. It is hard to ignore that. But would it be hard to bench him with a late second round contract?

    But as you're all saying, this is all likely to be proven moot anyway come April. It's becoming harder to see Carroll passing on this upcoming QB class. One way or another, we'll have a much better handle on his beliefs about positional value once April arrives.