For a time, analysts suggested that Marshawn Lynch was the dominant identity of the Seattle Seahawks.
And some now suggest that record-setting quarterback Russell Wilson, with his polished demeanor and ineffable athletic magic, would be the face of the franchise.
Or maybe it was Richard Sherman or Michael Bennett, or the defense as a whole, as one of the best in the history of the game.
But they’re all reaching on this topic, ignoring the obvious.
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Since 2010, the day he arrived, this has never been anything but Pete Carroll’s team.
Nothing happens in the headquarters or on the field that hasn’t sprung from the restlessly inquisitive mind of the head coach. He created the environment, the rules and the prevailing mindset.
To that extent, it isn’t just his team. This is Pete’s world.
Carroll’s culture of perpetual competition transformed the team’s headquarters into a commune on the shores of Lake Washington, a place with its own language, customs and standards of performance.
The continuing genius is that he’s done it with such a delicate hand, and an inclusiveness that makes it all a functioning plurality. And in that respect, it’s so contrary to the NFL’s typical totalitarian framework, in which the coach is committed to quashing individual expression and identity.
That’s why free agents want to come here, and veterans want to stay.
“Guys want to come here to play for Pete — we hear it all the time,” said veteran linebacker Mike Morgan. “They come here and they love it. The team follows his lead, with all the energy and enthusiasm, and we have no choice but to go out and play like that.”
Carroll’s approach is validated by the results: A Super Bowl championship, two NFC titles, and two NCAA national championships at USC. Although Carroll might argue that the results are secondary to the process.
“What makes Pete Carroll different from any other coach is he understands the moment … he knows exactly how to use his philosophies to the best of his abilities,” defensive end Michael Bennett said. “A lot of coaches have philosophies, (but) it doesn’t mean anything because they don’t win games. When you have a coach that’s really won, people buy in a lot faster because he knows what he’s talking about.”
Ah, yes, the “buy in” concept. It was a big part of Carroll’s initial sales job in Seattle. Like so many other things with Carroll, the wording is crucial. “Buying in” stands as an invitation to invest in this common enterprise, rather than sounding like some manner of imperative command.
It subtly projects the notion that players have volition here.
Historically, the relationship of a player to a coach is subservient. In the NFL, players know they can be cut or traded at any moment, which creates fear rather than confidence. The unity feels forced: Fit in the box and walk in lock step or we’ll punish you in a flurry of profane imprecations.
Carroll’s staff, instead, spends no time telling players they have to get better, but focusing on ways to help them accomplish it.
“Are you better having a guy play hard because he wants to or because he feels he has to?” asked linebackers coach Lofa Tatupu, a former Seahawk who played for Carroll back in the heart of his USC success. “That’s the different atmosphere that he sets, and that makes guys excited to come out here and compete against each other.”
Players, more than anything, want to improve, and Carroll realized they play better if they’re loose, confident and without fear. But how to instill that?
Carroll has explored the question for years, and has taken what he can from high-performance psychologist Dr. Michael Gervais.
“It’s a culture of people aspiring to be the best, rather than (being) scolded or shamed or criticized for not being good enough,” Gervais said of Carroll’s Seahawks in a 2014 interview with Mindful magazine. This approach, Gervais said, is a well-researched principle in psychology that explores the potential of a person.
“Coach Carroll does a great job of doing that,” said Bennett, who likened the seemingly imperturbable Carroll to a football Willy Wonka. “He has elevated the mindset of people to understand that there’s more in them, and they can be greater.”
The Wonka allusion is insightful. (“Want to change the world? There’s nothing to it”). Carroll has said this, basically, when talking to players about creating their own reality.
In addition to lessons on the psychology of competition, the Seahawks have been given devices to help track their sleep patterns, and electronic monitors that trace every step in practice to measure energy output. And after every practice, they’re hand-delivered health drinks mixed specially for their needs.
Even if none of these things help win games, players respect that effort.
“It’s about caring, absolutely,” Tatupu said. “He’s going to build a connection with people, and I’m not talking from just a sheer athletic standpoint. It’s about always trying to find ways to get better. Bringing in a nutritionist, finding ways to take care of the players, adapting and learning about performance. It’s all about progress and change, and all those little things reach people.”
These, Tatupu said, are part of how Carroll continues to seek ways to get better.
“He’s so competitive, that he hates to lose the (pregame) coin flip,” Tatupu said. “If he thought there was any way he could make it more than a 50-50 proposition every time, he’d start researching it to try to get an edge.”
While Carroll’s competitiveness is legendary, he’s also fueled by an inextinguishable inner pilot light of intellectual curiosity.
It’s what drew him to Dr. Angela Duckworth, the author of “Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance.”
Carroll and Seahawks general manager John Schneider specifically target prospects with the vague essence of “grit.” It’s native to those who have found ways to overcome hardships in their lives, and Carroll wants to decode it and find ways to develop it in every player.
Carroll moderated a town hall meeting with Duckworth this past spring. Duckworth had spent time with the Seahawks and remarked on the ways the culture had been created. “You guys have a language,” she said, noting that when Carroll says “Always compete,” it’s not strictly about beating an opponent, but striving to better oneself.
“The Seahawks know what that means, but people outside the organization might misunderstand it,” she said. “That strengthens your culture, strengthens your identity.”
Duckworth made another interesting observation of Carroll. “You treat everybody the same, whether it’s Russell Wilson or the guy giving you your french fries,” she said.
She came away from the experience with a very personal compliment: “I wish Pete Carroll were my dad,” she said. “Kids need somebody who is positive and supportive and listens to them.”
Carroll’s philosophies could be undermined if his lieutenants altered the message, but it seems his assistants buy in, too. It’s served them well, as the last two defensive coordinators have been hired as head coaches by other franchises trying to tap into the Seahawks’ success.
Tom Cable, offensive line/assistant head coach, has played and coached the game most of his life. The thing that drew him to the Seahawks “was the fact that you could teach and you could develop players here.”
And once Cable arrived?
“The thing I learned is that you can do it this way and you can have fun doing it this way,” he said. “You come to work knowing how we’re going to do business this day and every day.”
Cable labels Carroll “uncommonly consistent.”
“That’s the beauty of this competition culture, it’s consistent; you’re always trying to do something better than you’ve done it before, or better than anybody’s ever done it before,” Cable said.
The thing Cable most admires is Carroll’s fearlessness. He’s developed an approach that’s different from what had been the norm and made it work.
“So many times in this job, this world, we battle fear — Pete’s not that way,” Cable said. “He’s had his butt kicked, he’s been on the street, but he’s worked through his philosophy and implemented it and shown that you can build a culture that is positive and is about teaching and mentoring.”
And it wins games?
“Oh, absolutely,” Cable said. “This is why we do it, and we have a heck of a lot of fun doing it this way.”
That’s how it is at the team’s lakeside headquarters, where Carroll conducts his happy war against complacency, and tries every day to do his job better than anybody ever has.