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Pete Carroll Was Seahawks Football. Now the Team Has to Find What’s Next.

Carroll spent 14 years as the gum-chewing face of Seattle football, bringing the team its greatest moments as well as a Lombardi Trophy. Replacing him will involve more than just finding a head coach—it’ll mean rebuilding an entire culture.

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“We weren’t anything. And then we were something. And we made something special.”

Pete Carroll spoke at length to media members and a handful of gathered Seahawks players at his farewell press conference Wednesday, dispensing thank yous and waxing philosophical on a range of topics from coaching to mentorship to competing and more. But that one line—an off-hand observation about how meaningful it’s been that so many of his former players are still connected to the team in various ways—stuck with me the most. It perfectly and succinctly encapsulates the Pete Carroll era in Seattle, both from the team’s point of view and from that of its fans.

Carroll’s tenure ended suddenly and unexpectedly this week when the Seahawks announced that Carroll and the team had amicably agreed “that his role will evolve from head coach to remain with the organization as an advisor.” That was, it seems, a respectful way of saying he had been fired by team chair Jody Allen, and reading between the lines of Carroll’s presser, my assumption is that any future role he holds with the team will amount to something ceremonial, at most. So after spending 14 years as the gum-chewing face of the franchise, Carroll signed off with predictable, signature verve—telling the gathered audience that he’s “frickin’ jacked” and “fired up” for whatever comes next.

It was an extraordinarily emotional send-off—I’m not sure I can remember watching a presser quite like that one, especially for a coach who was not retiring. And the overall reaction, both from local media and the team’s fans, seemed to be that of overwhelming gratitude. No matter how anyone feels about results we’ve seen over the past couple of years (and I’ll get into that below), Carroll accomplished what many people doubted he could do when he was hired in 2010, reinvigorating and reinventing a dejected Seattle sports scene.

Together with a long list of standout players, Carroll helped create some of the most exciting and magical moments in Seattle sports history, from the Beast Quake to the Tip to the 43-8 Super Bowl win over Peyton Manning and the Broncos. Carroll turned the Seahawks into an NFL powerhouse. His final record in Seattle ends up 137-89-1—with only five teams collecting more wins than his during his 14-season stretch. Carroll won the NFC West five times, went to the playoffs 10 times, and got the franchise its first and only Lombardi Trophy.

Carroll is Seahawks football. He’ll leave as the greatest coach in team history, and in my opinion, will go down as one of the best football coaches ever. He’s one of just three coaches to have won both a college national championship and a Super Bowl (joining Jimmy Johnson and Barry Switzer), and his influence—both schematically and philosophically—cannot be overstated. In a league where coaching candidates are typically slotted into two buckets as either scheme-lords or culture-builders, Carroll has been both.

On the scheme side, Carroll’s influence is wide reaching. His Legion of Boom-era Cover 3 defense was often imitated but never duplicated; his success had other teams experimenting with tall, long-levered corners like Richard Sherman, undersized, explosive linebackers like Bobby Wagner, and hyper-rangy center fielders like Earl Thomas. Teams hired away Seattle assistants over the years, hoping to install the Seahawks’ principles. Former Carroll staff members like Gus Bradley, Robert Saleh, Dan Quinn, Todd Wash, and Ken Norton, among others, held defensive coordinator or head-coaching positions with new teams.

Carroll innovated on offense, too. When Russell Wilson took the helm in 2012, the Seahawks were one of the early adopters of the read-option offense. Carroll, together with GM John Schneider, thought outside the box in roster construction, as well; the Seahawks churned their roster at a rate never before seen early in their tenure (they made 284 transactions in 2010 alone), hoping to unearth hidden gems and underappreciated contributors. And they developed systems meant to help them find hits in later-round picks, developing a version of the Nike SPARQ score, which measured incoming rookies’ athleticism. The idea was to find the most explosive athletes and then coach them up on their techniques, and was at least part of the reason Seattle found key contributors in tight end Luke Willson, receiver Jermaine Kearse, and cornerback Jeremy Lane, among others.

The culture and program-building side of coaching, though, is where I think Carroll really set himself apart—and where his legacy as Seahawks coach will really live on. He has, from the very first day he was announced as the team’s coach, represented a relentlessly positive attitude. That was actually one of the reasons many people in Seattle didn’t initially like the hire. Carroll was viewed as a hokey, cliche-spewing college coach whose rah-rah style would fail to resonate with the older, much richer players in the NFL. But when the Seahawks eked out a division title and playoff berth in Carroll’s first season, then beat the defending champion Saints in the coolest way imaginable in the wild-card round (with the aforementioned Beast Quake), it became pretty clear that the formula that Carroll had created at USC could, in fact, translate to the pros.

But it’s more than just doing some hooting and hollering on the sideline. When Carroll led the Seahawks to their Super Bowl XLVIII victory two years later, he laid out the crux of how it’d all come together. “This is the culmination of years working with guys, and teams and coaches,” he said. “This is the result of a journey to figure out how you can create an environment where people can find their best, stay at their best, foster their best for the people around them so that everybody can join in.”

Carroll’s program is rooted in finding ways for every player and every coach to maximize their potential. In his book Win Forever: Live, Work, and Play Like a Champion, Carroll explained that the titular phrase is “not about the final score; it’s about competing and striving to be the best. If you are in this pursuit, then you’re already winning.” Carroll and his staff see themselves as guides on that journey of self-actualization, and their job is to help those players find ways to improve every day. He has a mantra for his coaches, “learn your learner,” which serves as a constant reminder that no two people learn in the exact same way. Carroll and his staff strive to take that into account, with the ultimate goal of keeping players really engaged with what they’re doing—every single day.

“I’ve said it: If we’re not having fun, I’m totally screwing up,” Carroll explained on Wednesday. “It’s part of making the environment that you work in alive, and sometimes uncertain. You don’t know what to expect from what’s going to happen next. It’s like going into your high school class, maybe it was a history class, and you had a teacher that was really unique. The music was playing or there was something going on and you could hear it as you were walking down the hall and you couldn’t wait to find out what was going on that day. That’s what this learning environment was supposed to be like. Every day you had to come in, you didn’t know what was going to happen. It’s needed to keep you at the very peak of your awareness and focus.”

One example of that? As The Athletic’s Michael-Shawn Dugar and Jayson Jenks broke down back in October, Carroll’s team meetings in Seattle have been the stuff of legends. Every day was a little different, as players recounted, and Carroll would make up random games to play or prank the players, just to get the energy up and keep them guessing. Of those stories, I think my favorite is when Carroll told the players to try a new Gatorade they’d gotten, then when the players opened the cooler a fake snake would pop out and scare them. Carroll had a camera in the cooler, and played the reaction shots for the team the next day.

Helping an entire team of players self-actualize sounds like an incredibly tiring, never-ending process, especially when new guys cycle in every season. But, not many people have the energy Carroll has. You just keep at it, “one person at a time,” he said. “It works. It’s real. And you can feel it.”

Of course, Carroll’s core philosophies and tenets have been tested over the years. The Seahawks’ devastating loss to the Patriots in Super Bowl XLIX broke apart much of the cultural foundation that Carroll had been laying over his first four seasons in Seattle. When Russell Wilson threw an interception from the 1-yard line, giving away what looked to be a certain second straight Super Bowl win, the team’s once rock-solid chemistry unraveled. There was infighting, finger-pointing. Some players blamed Carroll for the decision to pass the ball in that situation. It took years for Carroll to recapture his signature locker room magic, and that wasn’t until a handful of big-name players had left the team.

Carroll’s belief in embracing and celebrating individuality and self-expression definitely led to some drama, too, both on and off the field. I took to calling the Seahawks a Circus during the post Super Bowl years, and every new event got a “Big Top Rating” of one to five on my Twitter account based on just how serious the latest bit of controversy was. It was mostly just funny for Seahawks fans, though, I think, because Carroll always managed to smooth things out and hold the team together. He seemed to enjoy the chaos. And he navigated the trade of a Seattle icon in Russell Wilson in typically adroit fashion, moving to backup Geno Smith without skipping a beat. The Seahawks haven’t gotten back to where they ultimately want to be, that’s true, but Carroll’s still led this team to nine-plus wins in eight of the past nine seasons since that fateful Super Bowl loss. That feels like success.

That’s why when I heard the news about the Seahawks and Carroll’s split, I was honestly pretty surprised. I was immediately a little bummed out. When I started listening to Carroll talk about how passionate he is about his program, how proud he is about how his philosophies manifested in his players—and saw him break down and cry a few times—it started to feel like the Seahawks had made a massive mistake.

But taking the emotions of a highly-charged, emotional presser out of the equation, I can understand why the decision to move on was ultimately made. Carroll’s culture-building skill has taken the Seahawks only so far over the past nine seasons, and the edges we used to see in his scheme seem to have diminished over the years. Despite repeated coaching changes, schematic tweaks, and a whole lot of investments in the form of big-money contracts, trades, and draft picks, Carroll’s defense—the side of the ball he’s ultimately most responsible for—only seems to be getting worse. It was one of the worst units in the league this year, and because of that Seattle has struggled to keep pace with the Rams and 49ers in the NFC West. A new staff, and new ideas, may be needed to get this team properly back into the race.

That burden now falls to Schneider, who will start the search for the Seahawks’ new coach. I remember hearing Schneider once say that with the structures and rules in place around the draft, the schedule, the waiver wire, and everything else, the league pushes you to 8-8 (this was before we had 17-game seasons, but you get it). The NFL is designed, and built, to stimulate parity. Seattle’s had a hard time pulling its way back out of that dreaded purgatory of mediocrity, with finishes of 9-8, 9-8, and 7-10 over the past three years, respectively. With Carroll gone, Schneider’s main charge is to defeat that inertia and change the status quo.

The version of the Seahawks we see now is much further along than the team that Carroll and Schneider inherited back in 2010. I’m guessing we won’t see 280-plus roster transactions in 2024. But with question marks at quarterback—there’s no guarantee Geno Smith will return next year—and at most of the key positions on defense, this team, for all intents and purposes, is back to being “not anything,” as Carroll alluded to in his goodbye presser. It now falls to Schneider, and his yet-to-be-seen head coach, to turn it into something special.