The Seahawks’ theme has been the same all this month. For many months, in fact.
Since the day after their season ended without the playoffs for the first time in six years. Through the most upheaval of the coaching staff in the eight years Pete Carroll has been in charge. Even since October and a sideline shoving match between a player and a coach--during a win, no less.
The pronounced, urgent need in Seattle is for accountability. To be accountable for performance. And, more to the point of the Seahawks’ last two seasons, non-performance.
Doug Baldwin said it in October. He cited it in explaining why he shoved now-fired offensive line coach Tom Cable on the sidelines while the offense was slogging again early through an eventual win at the New York Giants.
"We just weren’t executing, as players. To me, there’s nothing that a coach can say. WE have to take accountability for that,” the Seahawks’ top wide receiver said Oct. 22. “So I got a little passionate about it. You all know, I love Cable to death. Me and Cable have one of the best relationships from coach to player.
"That was 100 percent my fault. I’ve already apologized to him. He knows how I am. It’s just, at that moment the players needed to realize it was the players, not the coaches. Honestly, I wasn’t even going at Cable. In that moment, I needed the players to take accountability for how we were doing."
The next month, while his Seahawks continued to lead the NFL in penalties that were dooming many games, Baldwin said: “I want to see the coaches, and the players, get better on the details. Button down the details."
Which details, exactly?
"All of them."
On New Year’s Day, less than 24 hours after the Seahawks lost their fourth home game of 2017, to Arizona, to finish 9-7 and out of the postseason, Baldwin said: “It comes down to us really being who we say we are, in every aspect. We don’t execute as we should. And that’s on us as players.”
Ten days later, Baldwin went on ESPN and said: “It starts with the top. (Carroll) has done a tremendous job in the past of preaching his philosophy and what he wants in the culture and the environment, and us as players, we’ve just got to go back to that. We’ve got to go back to the basics and really buy in again, because the formula is there. Obviously, it’s there. We’ve been a very successful team the past six years, the past seven years. We’ve been to the playoffs consecutively, so the formula is still there. It’s just going back to the basics.”
Then came this month’s firings by Carroll of his top four assistant coaches. Offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell, defensive coordinator Kris Richard, Cable and linebackers coach/assistant head coach Michael Barrow, all gone.
Carroll hired Brian Schottenheimer to replace Bevell. Last week week I asked Kellen Clemens about Seattle’s new offensive coordinator, because the veteran backup quarterback has had Schottenheimer as his coordinator for seven on Clemens’ 11 NFL seasons.
“Brian is very detailed-specific,” Clemens said. “One thing Brian does is he’s going to hold people accountable.”
Carroll hired Mike Solari to replace Cable. Legendary Seahawks Hall of Famer Walter Jones went on Seattle’s KJR-AM radio last week and praised the return of Solari, his Seahawks line coach in 2008, to replace Cable as Seattle’s new-old line coach.
“He definitely demands you go out there and do your best and be held accountable,” Jones said of Solari.
This past weekend former NFL general manager and executive Mike Lombardi reported the Seahawks have “strong interest” in hiring back Jim Zorn as their new-old QBs coach for Russell Wilson (since then, wide receivers coach Dave Canales is believed to be more likely to become the new quarterbacks coach). Monday, KIRO-AM radio’s Brock Huard talked about Zorn, the former Seahawks quarterback who was Huard’s quarterbacks coach in Seattle for Huard’s final season of three years playing for the team. That was in 2001.
And Huard brought up the a-word again.
“Jim is the guy,” Huard said on the air Monday, “that's going to hold Russell accountable."
You get the idea.
The Seahawks may be able to fix all this sudden need for more accountability by changing their contract structuring this offseason--that is, if they fix their salary-cap situation first.
This past season, for the first time since Carroll first arrived in Seattle to start his rebuild, a significant chunk of the starting lineup was more preoccupied accounting for their immediate futures than to “buy in” to the team’s goals, culture and environment, to use Baldwin’s words.
Nearly half the guys who were starting games last month, nine of 22 players, were on one-year contracts or in the final years of their deals. Those included tight end Jimmy Graham, nickel back Justin Coleman, running back Mike Davis, left guard Luke Joeckel, cornerback Byron Maxwell, safety Bradley McDougald, wide receiver Paul Richardson, defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson and outside linebacker Michael Wilhoite.
Those starters had one if not two eyes on where their paychecks are going to be coming from in 2018. That’s reality in this what-have-you-done-for-us-lately league of non-guaranteed contracts. Whether they admitted it or not, these passers-through couldn’t, by human nature, be as fully committed to Carroll’s program as, say, Baldwin. He’s been a Seahawk since 2011. He still has three more seasons remaining on his $46 million deal.
Heck, a 10th starter, team cornerstone Earl Thomas, went to the Cowboys’ locker room immediately following the Christmas Eve win at Arlington, Texas, and told Dallas coach Jason Garrett to “come get me.” That’s the exact opposite of buying in and being accountable to Carroll’s Seahawks system. Thomas has two more seasons left on his deal.
While the Seahawks were going to five straight postseasons and making consecutive Super Bowls from the 2012 through 2015 seasons, the team’s then-young, core stars more readily and easily held themselves accountable. Their accountability spread across the entire locker room, and in Baldwin’s and others’ minds was a large reason for Seattle’s championship success. Back then, Wilson, Baldwin, Thomas, Richard Sherman, Kam Chancellor, Bobby Wagner, K.J. Wright and others were flush and secure with newly extended contracts and the security that came with them in Seattle. The buy-in is a lot easier when you are in your mid-20s, you are winning, and you just signed for $30-50 million more of the Seahawks’ money.
Furthermore, all of those above foundation players were homegrown. Carroll drafted them into the only NFL program they’ve known. Accountability, buy in--and winning--were at all-time highs in Seattle.
But in 2017 that core’s contracts continued to get more expensive. The “Legion of Boom” secondary wasn’t 25 anymore but pushing 30. The Seahawks oddly, publicly entertained trade offers for Sherman. Thomas was coming off a broken leg. Chancellor was coming off surgeries to both ankles that left him in a wheelchair.
Then the Seahawks signed a series of free-agent veterans from outside Carroll’s system to one-year deals.
McDougald ended up starting two games for Thomas and the last seven games for Chancellor at safety in 2017. He was playing for the huge raise he’s about to get, up from the $800,000 Seattle paid him last year. Whether that raise comes from the Seahawks or some other team in free agency is to be determined.
Davis was mothballed on the practice squad the first 10 weeks of the 2017 season. He was far from buying into that.
Graham, in the final year of his $40 million Seattle inherited in its trade with New Orleans in 2015, got his touchdowns--10 of them, all in the red zone. Between the 20s he often looked disinterested. He finished with career lows in catches (57) and yards (520) over a full season. He tied for second in the league in dropped passes (seven). The Seahawks aren’t likely to offer the 31-year-old Graham anywhere near want he wants in free agency in March, and there’s no indication he wants to stay, anyway.
Joeckel and the team chose to have clean-up surgery on his previously repaired knee in October. That was done partly in consideration of free agency this spring. The surgery cost him five games in the middle of the season, and was a blow to the team’s finances. The Seahawks overpaid in guaranteeing him $7 million in his one-year deal. Then they ended up in such a tight cap situation they waived future Hall of Fame pass rusher Dwight Freeney and replaced him on the active roster with rookie wide receiver David Moore to save about $200,000.
No need to further explain the $2,865,000 the Seahawks and general manager John Schneider guaranteed running back Eddie Lacy for this past season.
The realities of the NFL is those temps played--or in Lacy’s case, mostly not played--this past season for themselves as much as or more than the team. That’s not to say they tried with any less effort or discipline or professionalism. It’s just a reality. A team that doesn’t commit extensively to its new players cannot expect all of those new players to commit absolutely and unconditionally to the team he just joined--and may be leaving again in a few months.
So what now?
The coaching purge was only phase one of Carroll’s rebuild of the Seahawks. Phase two begins next month at the NFL’s annual scouting combine in Indianapolis, then continues with free agency in March and the draft in April. Yes, getting new players. Carroll’s not going to get Seattle back to his run-first offense, as he’s vowed to do, by only changing coaches. He and Schneider must add blockers, plus backs who can run through the hoped-for holes from those new linemen.
Will the Seahawks continue their one-year signings in 2018 that largely failed in 2017? Not if they want more buy in and accountability to Carroll’s system. But more multiyear deals will take more cap flexibility than Seattle had last year. It may take shedding veteran contracts to find that cap space. Seattle is believed to have about $14.4 million in available space on what is expected to be a cap of $178 million per team in 2018. Seattle is 26th in cap space in the 32-team NFL, according to overthecap.com. Take out the $6 million in the rookie pool Seattle will need to pay its current amount of eight draft picks this spring, and the Seahawks really right now have a little over $8 million against this year’s cap to spend on all players in free agency.
Will the Seahawks accelerate their roster transition away from their long-time core and give prospects such as safeties and 2017 draft choices Delano Hill and Tedric Thompson the chances to play, to eventually replace Chancellor and Thomas? The homegrown buy-in that worked so wondrously earlier this decade remains an unknown now. Many of the presumed replacements, including Hill and Thompson, either haven’t shown they are ready--or aren’t here yet. There are no Kam Chancellors and Richard Shermans entering their second years in 2018, as far as anyone can tell. Including these Seahawks.
Either way, raising the level of this team’s accountability involves more than words and intent. It involves more than players, or even players and coaches.
Baldwin knows that.
“We have to get better. The trend that we are on now is not good,” he said this month.
“It’s just comes with different focus, a different mentality. Maybe more self-evaluation and really understanding who we are as men, first and foremost, in this locker room.
“Or in this building, I should say.”