SEATTLE – The Seahawks’ painful playoff loss to the Dallas Cowboys in January had barely ended when Seattle coach Pete Carroll began gushing about the prosperous times ahead.
“We come out of here with a great feeling about our future,” he said at the postmortem news conference a few days later.
Carroll immediately began to talk about the Seahawks’ limitless potential.
“You can tell that the nucleus and the core of the team that you need to be a championship club is here,” he said.
It has been four months since Carroll uttered those words, and the Seahawks are entering the final stage of their team-building process – free agency that no longer requires teams to yield a compensatory draft pick when they sign players.
As we’ve learned, Carroll always sees the glass not just half full, but overflowing with nectar. Yet he seems genuinely convinced that the Seahawks, following last season’s 10-6 record and wild-card appearance, are on the verge of a much bigger breakthrough.
But are they really? The Seahawks lost their best pass rusher when defensive end Frank Clark, who had 13 sacks, was traded to Kansas City. Wide receiver Doug Baldwin, who has been a foundational offensive weapon and team leader since the Super Bowl years, was released Thursday. Outstanding nickel cornerback Justin Coleman signed with Detroit.
The Seahawks certainly can overcome those losses, the kind that hit every team to a certain extent, but much of their master plan has to click. It won’t just happen automatically, by dint of Carroll willing it to be so. There are basically three ways for the coach’s predicted leap forward to become reality in 2019.
One, of course, is via newly acquired personnel that fills holes and provides the spark that elevates the team. Carroll believes the recent draft will do just that, with potential impact players such as defensive lineman L.J. Collier and wide receiver D.K. Metcalf. He sees other draftees and undrafted free agents with a chance to break out and plug holes while augmenting a special-teams unit that was spotty last year, especially on kick coverage.
The Seahawks have a new kicker in Jason Myers, a former Pro Bowler. They have a new guard (Mike Iupati) to replace the departed J.R. Sweezy. Cassius Marsh and Nate Orchard were brought in for depth on the defensive line.
Next we’ll see who is signed in this new phase of free agency, which the Seahawks approach with nearly $26 million remaining in salary-cap space, an unusual bounty for them. But any player who has lasted this long on the open market often has some sort of question attached to him, usually health-related.
Carroll has indicated that the second means of year-to-year improvement – a leap forward by the players already on hand – is the one he is counting on most heavily. And that is the hardest to predict, because an NFL career is not always fluid, as we’ve seen play out multiple times. But here’s what Carroll said shortly after the Cowboys loss as he looked forward to 2019:
“I think we have to expect that we’re going to make a big jump growth-wise, experience-wise. We had a lot of guys that played for us for the first time that contributed in big ways that we can anticipate really making a big step forward in terms of understanding the game, what it takes, and developing what we refer to as a mastery of their position and the play of NFL football. We’re going to get so much better.”
The Seahawks would love to see major improvement from the likes of Delano Hill and Tedric Thompson in the secondary, Rasheem Green and Jacob Martin on the defensive line, Rashaad Penny at running back and numerous others. But the possibility for regression is also present, if we’re being honest.
The third method for improvement, I’d say, is through intangibles such as attitude, buy-in and addition-by-subtraction, which is where Carroll has a reputation for excelling. You could make the argument that the Seahawks benefited from the latter last year with the departure of Richard Sherman. This year, they will be without Earl Thomas, whose holdout, subsequent return and fiery exit after a broken leg added an undeniable element of tension to their 2018 season. But those are also core players whose skills are close to irreplaceable.
Having Russell Wilson’s contract settled could ease the quarterback’s mind and propel him to loftier heights – or it could cause him to lose his edge (doubtful). Many fans would love to see Carroll get away from his cautious, run-oriented offense and feature Wilson’s passing game more prominently – though what the Seahawks did last year was good enough to score 26.8 points per game, tied for sixth in the NFL. Wilson put up the highest QB rating of his career (110.9) along with the best touchdown-to-interception ratio (35-7).
The Seahawks lost seven games last year by a total of 30 points, including two close defeats to the NFC West champion Rams. Find a way to turn a few of those into wins, and it would change the tenor of the season – and Seattle’s schedule is rated as the seventh easiest in the NFL based on opponents’ 121-132-3 record last year. Put that all together, and maybe the Seahawks can navigate their way to a vital home playoff game.
On the other hand, the Seahawks also won five games last year by a combined 19 points. It’s a delicate ecosystem, an NFL football team. Can the Seahawks replicate last year’s plus-15 turnover ratio, best in the NFL and so crucial to their success? Will Wilson and Tyler Lockett again have a flawless connection, as was the case last year?
That’s a lot to unpack. One can see a definite path to Carroll’s nirvana – as well as the danger lurking along the way.