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What’s Next for the Seattle Seahawks?

After trading away Russell Wilson, Seattle is entering a rebuild. Can Pete Carroll and John Schneider build another Super Bowl contender?

AP Images/Ringer illustration

In the afterglow of the Seahawks’ outrageously dominant 43-8 win over the Broncos in Super Bowl XLVIII, Pete Carroll recalled to NFL Network’s postgame crew the story of how he and general manager John Schneider had fallen in love with then Wisconsin quarterback Russell Wilson. Carroll explained how Schneider had raved to him about Wilson’s ability to “tilt the field,” and how Carroll himself had bought in after meeting Wilson, impressed by the precocious quarterback’s unflappable mental makeup and lofty goals. Carroll pointed out that Wilson had manifested everything he’d said in the predraft process by leading the Seahawks to a Super Bowl win, but he was careful to note that Wilson wasn’t the only guy on that championship team. That everyone had played their part. Carroll finished with this: “What’d we throw, 25 times or something tonight? Perfect. It was perfect. He played point guard and did a fantastic job. Just like we had hoped. We’re not looking for him to throw for 400 yards. We don’t need it.”

Those postgame comments work well as the SparkNotes version for how Carroll views the quarterback position. They provide the subtext for why the relationship between the Seahawks and Wilson ultimately frayed, leading to his blockbuster trade on Tuesday. And it may reveal how Carroll will go about rebuilding his team―and the style in which he’ll have it play from here on out.

Seattle rocked the NFL world this week, sending Wilson to the Broncos for a smorgasbord of picks and players. The move is a cataclysmic event for the franchise, one that’s enjoyed mostly sustained success over the past decade thanks in large part to its quarterback’s outsized talent. Paired with the subsequent release of aging eight-time Pro Bowl linebacker Bobby Wagner, Tuesday’s move marked the official end of an era in Seattle football. It left the team’s fans with no other choice but to tweet themselves through the various stages of grief.

For those who’ve made it all the way to the acceptance stage, one expansive, weighty question surely follows: What the hell do the Seahawks do now?

Carroll is a big believer in messaging, so I doubt we’ll hear that dirty word “rebuild” escape his mouth, but taking a quick glance at the roster and the team’s impending free agent group makes it clear that Seattle is in need of a robust euphemism of some sort (insert: reset, retool, remodel, whatever). Carroll and Schneider have been given the go-ahead to right the ship (team owner Jody Allen effectively told us as much when she sided with that duo over the best quarterback in the team’s history), and they’ve presumably got a long leash to see this next phase through. Carroll is signed through 2025. Schneider’s deal runs through 2027.

Still, there’s simply no way that Carroll and Schneider will outright tank the roster in 2022. Carroll literally wrote a book called Win Forever. He’s made “Always Compete” his life’s all-encompassing mantra. Schneider, meanwhile, has consistently espoused the singular goal of fielding a “consistent, championship-caliber team.” The Seahawks may end up being below average or just plain bad this upcoming season, but that won’t be by design. Seattle has plenty of ammunition in the draft and free agency, and there’s no doubt that Carroll will look at the Patriots as an exemplar, a franchise that spent big in free agency last spring (adding veteran players like Hunter Henry, Jonnu Smith, Jalen Mills, Matt Judon, Kendrick Bourne, and Kyle Van Noy, among others) and then hit on a few key draft picks (like Mac Jones, Christian Barmore, and Rhamondre Stevenson) to quickly pull themselves back into contention after letting Tom Brady walk.

After dealing Wilson away, Seattle now owns eight picks in the 2022 draft, including the 9th, 40th, and 41st overall selections. It’s got another 10 picks in 2023, including two first-rounders and two second-rounders. It’s got $49.9 million and change in cap space to work with in free agency this year (third most), and as things stand now it has the second-lowest payroll in the NFL for 2023, leaving $142.6 million in projected cap space for that league year (second most). Put it all together, and Seattle’s well positioned to change the complexion of its roster, and in relatively short order.

As someone who closely covered the Carroll/Schneider regime during its formative years―when the team churned the roster aggressively, dug in crates to find undrafted or underutilized gems, worked the trade market, and thought outside the box to fill needs on both sides of the ball―I’ve got to admit I’m feeling some nostalgia. I’m fascinated to see how Carroll and Schneider use that capital to remake this roster, and I’d imagine for them, it must feel like having a big white sheet of paper to draw on.

But if Seattle is committed to Schneider’s vision of a consistent championship-caliber team, the Seahawks will need to patch numerous holes on the roster and continue to stock the shelves at positions lacking depth … which is basically all of them. Yes, this team has cap space to work with, but Carroll and Schneider have big decisions to make on the offensive line with impending free agent left tackle Duane Brown, center Ethan Pocic, and right tackle Brandon Shell. They’ve got to figure out how much they can offer running back Rashaad Penny, who played extremely well down the stretch last year. They’ve got work to do in the secondary, with safety Quandre Diggs and cornerback D.J. Reed heading into free agency. And then the team will have to look around the league to fill gaps at edge rusher and linebacker, among other spots. Once upon a time, the Seahawks’ Super Bowl winning squad was buoyed by a handful of shrewd free agent additions, including the team’s top-tier pass-rush duo in Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril. They’ll need to recreate some of that magic now.

Schneider needs to recapture his draft mojo, too. After landing multiple All Pro players over the first three drafts he oversaw (namely Earl Thomas, Richard Sherman, Kam Chancellor, Wagner, and Wilson), Schneider made a name for himself as one of the best talent evaluators in the league. That reputation has eroded over the years as the first-round busts have piled up and late-round gems have shown up less frequently. Schneider’s found some promising talents in the past two drafts, including linebacker Jordyn Brooks, edge rushers Darrell Taylor and Alton Robinson, offensive lineman Damien Lewis, and cornerback Tre Brown. But he needs to find a handful more big-impact players in this year’s draft.

Of course, while free agency and the draft provide avenues for improving the roster, Seattle’s future hinges greatly on whether Carroll and Schneider can find an answer at the quarterback spot―and quickly. That’s easy, right?

The team’s succession plan is sure to be the most heavily scrutinized part of the process, and for good reason. Carroll and Schneider’s track record at the position outside of Wilson isn’t super inspiring. It includes a trade for Charlie Whitehurst, a stint with Tarvaris Jackson, and a decent-money contract for Matt Flynn. But that’s also a small sample considering Wilson’s been an ironman at the position since 2012. There have been reports over the years that Schneider absolutely loved both Patrick Mahomes and Josh Allen as prospects (there is less talk about which shitty quarterbacks he loved, which seems to always be the case with these type of front-office leaks), but the decisions that he and Carroll make at that position over the next few years will play a big part in defining their remaining tenure with the team.

The Seahawks are likely to utilize a multipronged approach in that search. Drew Lock was effectively a throw-in to the Wilson deal, but don’t be surprised if the team gives him a legitimate chance to win the starting job in 2022. The Seahawks will almost surely explore veteran options in free agency, too, with guys like Tyrod Taylor, Andy Dalton, Marcus Mariota, and Mitchell Trubisky figuring to receive consideration. Seattle will explore options in the trade market as well: The team is reportedly interested in pursuing Deshaun Watson, who faces indictment on both criminal and civil complaints of sexual misconduct on Friday (and NFL Network’s Daniel Jeremiah said on his podcast that the expectation is Watson will eventually be a Seahawk); it may throw out feelers for a trade for Kirk Cousins; I’ve seen Matt Ryan trade ideas floated; and though it may be unlikely considering divisional rivalries, Jimmy Garoppolo is on the block for the 49ers. Gardner Minshew has plenty of fans in the area after playing at Washington State, too. And in what might be the most down bad scenario of all time, the Seahawks could explore a trade for Sam Darnold. Carolina GM Scott Fitterer has close ties to the Seahawks after spending 20 years in various roles with the team.

If nothing materializes in free agency or via trade (or even if it does), though, the Seahawks will have the opportunity to grab one of the top quarterbacks in the draft, too. From Liberty’s Malik Willis, Cincinnati’s Desmond Ridder, Pitt’s Kenny Pickett, Ole Miss’s Matt Corral, or North Carolina’s Sam Howell, there are plenty of options. If Carroll asked me, I’d tell him that Willis would make a lot of sense for the team, if he lasts to the no. 9 spot. Willis reminds me a little bit of early-career Wilson, bringing the dual-threat skill set to run the same type of read-option-, boot-leg-, and deep-shot-oriented offense that the Seahawks favored from 2012 through 2015 or so.

But whatever route Seattle takes at the quarterback position, whether it’s a draft pick, a trade target, or one of the available free agents, it’s clear that in trading Wilson, Carroll has crossed the Rubicon and is fully committed to getting back to doing things his way from here on out. As ESPN’s Bill Barnwell wrote earlier this week, the trade was as much an individual personnel move for the Seahawks as it was “an ideological shift for them back to what Carroll believes is the correct formula for winning football games.”

Wilson had lobbied for more latitude to run the offense he wanted to run. He seemed to want more agency in the way the roster was built. And he almost certainly wanted to throw the ball more often, or at the very least run more complex or aggressive schemes. The man trademarked the term “Let Russ Cook.” Carroll had indulged Wilson (and the media, and the fans) to a point over the years, allowing his staff to explore pass-heavy approaches (the Seahawks have even ranked among the league’s pass-happiest teams during stretches). But it never felt like Carroll truly embraced the identity Wilson wanted the team to have. The two were never completely at odds, but a palpable philosophical tension clearly developed. Wilson views himself as one of the best quarterbacks in history, and maybe he is. Carroll wants his quarterback to be a point guard who throws it 25 times a game.

It’s not that Carroll wants a bad quarterback. He’s not an idiot, I don’t think. He knows how important quarterback play is and that a good one makes everything infinitely easier. His teams at USC produced Heisman winners in Carson Palmer and Matt Leinart. He knows that if he hadn’t found Wilson, he probably wouldn’t still be the Seahawks coach. Carroll’s true vision for the quarterback position is a guy who can distribute the football, get all his teammates involved, throw a catchable pass, and hit the deep shot when it’s open. But Carroll knows he needs a guy who can convert on third down when the game is on the line, too. That’s why we may even see this team turn around and trade multiple high-end picks for a guy like Watson. But in Carroll’s heart of hearts, I don’t think he has ever wanted his offense to rely so strongly on any one individual player. He doesn’t want a quarterback to win him games. He wants to win by protecting the football, playing tough on defense, making plays on special teams, and running the ball. In so many ways, Seattle’s Super Bowl win over Peyton Manning’s all-time-great passing offense was the perfect encapsulation of Carroll’s whole world view. The Seahawks scored 43 points on just 206 passing yards. They picked Manning off twice, returning one for a touchdown. They forced two fumbles, scored a safety, got a kick return touchdown, and added a rushing score for good measure. Malcolm Smith, a role playing weak-side linebacker, was the game’s MVP.

I remember hearing Carroll lay out his philosophy back in 2013, and I don’t think he’s ever deviated from those core beliefs, no matter how loud the media or player clamor gets. “It’s not just that we want to run it,” he said then. “It’s about how we want to take care of the football; we want to own the football; that’s the biggest determining factor for winning and losing.”

More than that, though, Carroll believes that a strong run game brings a psychological element to the team, and I doubt anyone will ever convince him otherwise. “It’s the way we want to play,” he said. “We want to be physical, we want to be tough, we want to attack you, we want to get after you, we want to make sure you know you’ve played a very hard football game. When you play our team, we’re going to beat the hell out of you if we can. You don’t get that feeling when you’re a throwing team. You can’t get that.”

In more succinct terms, a balanced, run-heavy approach, at least according to Carroll, is “the most consistent, proven championship formula in the history of this game.”

Whether Carroll ever regains a championship formula with the Seahawks remains to be seen. But with Wilson gone, the discord between coach and quarterback is gone too. For better or worse, it’s Carroll’s show again.