Seattle Seahawks

Pete Carroll’s system of challenges starts with assistant Carl Smith

Seahawks quarterbacks coach Carl Smith helps coach Pete Carroll decide if he should challenge calls during games.
Seahawks quarterbacks coach Carl Smith helps coach Pete Carroll decide if he should challenge calls during games. AP File, 2011

When Pete Carroll throws that red challenge flag, it’s usually because Carl Smith told him to.

The affable Smith might be the most overlooked member of the Seahawks coaching staff. He’s the quarterbacks coach. With the record-setting way Russell Wilson has played the last month — the first in the league to throw for at least three touchdowns with zero interceptions and a completion rate of at least 70 percent in four consecutive games — some might wonder if he even needs a position coach.

Smith is a 26-year NFL assistant who played defensive back at Cal Poly through 1970. But the more high-profile, well-known assistant more commonly associated with Wilson’s performance is offensive coordinator and play-caller Darrell Bevell. Bevell played quarterback in the early ’90s at Wisconsin.

Yet Smith has one of the more important and potentially game-changing responsibilities on Seattle’s staff: His advice is the one Carroll takes most on whether to challenge officials’ calls on the field with a replay review.

“He’s the first guy I go to,” Carroll said of the man he hired in 2004 to be his QBs coach for him for one season at USC. “Carl and I have been around the longest, and we’ve been through the most. He has a really good eye for stuff. We start there.”

Smith is in the press box during games, so he gets the television replays in there and relays what he’s seeing down to Carroll over the coaches’ headsets.

“Yeah, and he’s kind of using everybody’s information upstairs,” Carroll said. “I’ll click to the defense and see if they have an opinion, too. Sometimes, they’re all hollering it, you can hear it through the headsets anyways. It’s kind of a cool moment trying to figure that stuff out.

“Carl is really the best guy for me to go to, and we have the best background to make sense of stuff. He’s been really instrumental.”

Smith doesn’t get any special feed, only the same replays seen by fans on TV. Carroll also bases his decision on the reactions of his players involved in the debatable play. He does all this before the next play, because once the next snap happens, the opportunity to challenge the previous play ends, per NFL rules.

“They’re always honest. They tell you exactly what they think,” Carroll said of his players. “I don’t think they’re dishonest. They may not be right — that’s the point. They’ll tell you what they feel, and often there’s been a number of times when our guys can see a ball bobble, a ball kind of hits the ground a bit, that nobody could see from anywhere. They’re the ones that are telling you. It kind of activates the whole process and we kick into it even with more intent.”

Carroll said in hindsight he wishes he would have challenged Doug Baldwin’s catch of Wilson’s jump-ball pass last weekend in Baltimore, on which the wide receiver raced across the field and leaped. Officials on the field ruled Baldwin did not possess the ball with both feet in the end zone before his feet were out of bounds.

Has he ever thrown a challenge flag just to back up his adamant players?

“There have been some times that it’s kind of from the seat of your pants. I’m trusting the reaction, and they don’t get a look upstairs,” Carroll said. “There’s been a number of those as a matter of fact, and I’m going with what they can tell me that the guys upstairs, we can’t see a good look at it, they’re not showing us anything. That’s part of it. That’s one of the cases that they don’t get replays up there immediately.

“You have to go with your gut and the reaction of the players. All of that has happened at some time or another.”

How is Carroll’s — and Smith’s — system working?

Carroll has succeeded overturning calls with challenges 48 percent of the time since he became Seattle’s coach in 2010 (23 for 48). This season he is 4 for 6.

New York Giants’ coach Tom Coughlin is the active leader in challenge success rate among coaches who have thrown the red flag at least as much as Carroll has, at 63 percent, in 20 years (his first eight years of head coaching were with Jacksonville).


So, Richard Sherman, how are your long hair strands out the back of your helmet doing after former teammate Chris Matthews tackled you by them last weekend? That was on the return of his interception during the Seahawks’ win at Baltimore.

“It’s still sore,” Sherman said. “I’ve talked to them several times, they’re still a little bit shaken up from that. They’re not used to being treated that way.”

The All-Pro cornerback said that’s happened a couple of times to him before, including last season in a game at Washington.


Kam Chancellor did not practice and Carroll discussed the possibility of usual special-teamer Kelcie McCray starting at strong safety Sunday against Cleveland.

“He’s still sore,” the coach said of Chancellor. “We’re going to wait during the week here and see how he comes back. I can’t tell what’s going to happen on the weekend.”

McCray, acquired from Kansas City at the end of the preseason, replaced Chancellor for the majority of last weekend’s win against the Ravens.


Carroll was asked if running back Marshawn Lynch, who had abdominal surgery Nov. 25, was still “off site,” the term Carroll used Monday.

“Yes,” Carroll said.

Still no timetable from the coach or team on when he may return to playing, but Carroll said this when asked if it’s possible Lynch won’t play again this season: “I don’t know that. I don’t know. Really, he has to make it back to full speed and get going. There’s a really good chance that he will be back. If we can keep playing games, it’ll help. The more we can play, the better his chances are, so we’ll see.”


Chancellor was one of six Seahawks to miss practice, not an inordinately high number for a Wednesday this late in the season: TE Anthony McCoy (knee/ankle), DT Jordan Hill (toe), CB DeShawn Shead (ankle), DE Michael Bennett (toe) and DE Cliff Avril (rest). … Carroll said Hill is likely to remain out multiple weeks.

Gregg Bell: @gbellseattle