The Morning After: A day of reckoning for Pete Carroll & Russell Wilson
Pete Carroll is the best coach in the history of this franchise. Russell Wilson is the best player in the history of this franchise. That status grants them trust and confidence, but not fealty. Each man made decisions on Sunday that made it far less likely their team would win a critical game against a division rival. Where Wilson at least acknowledged his errors, Carroll showed no signs of enlightenment or humility. What was once a team on the glide path to a Super Bowl, will now be fortunate to win their division. The blame for this adversity falls squarely on the shoulders of these two franchise greats, as does the responsibility to overcome it.
Carroll is responsible for everything that goes right or goes wrong with this team. It is why I get aggravated when people try to separate out Wilson’s success from Carroll’s success. It is Carroll who helped choose the GM, who created the culture, who picked the coaches, who chose the schemes, who approved the players, who picked the guys on the roster, who chose the starters, approved the game plans, and on and on. He deserves the credit when things go well and the blame when they do not. That’s the job.
He is not doing it well right now.
Let’s start with his decision to punt the ball on 4th and inches on his own 42-yard line to start the 3rd quarter when trailing by four points. Set aside the analytics that clearly indicate a team should go for it. Forget that those analytics are based on averages, and this offense is far from average. Go old school. Feel the game. Seattle was outmatched. They were fortunate to be in the game at all. That was the moment to reach for a win, to lean forward. That was the moment to believe in your league-best offense instead of your league-worst defense. Instead, he wasted a timeout on a pointless challenge, brought out the offense for a humiliating attempt to draw the defense offsides to take a penalty, and then gave the ball to the Rams.
Every single part of his decision was wrong. What made matters worse was his explanation and doubling down on the decision in his postgame press conference:
“It wasn’t worth giving them the football as well as they had done in the first half there,” Carroll said. “I didn’t mind getting them the ball inside the 10-yard line. And we’ll go play defense back there. … There’s too many opportunities to give them that advantage. What if they took the ball and went down and scored right there? Then the game feels like it’s lopsided and you’re way behind it.”
That quote is as damning in its logic as it is in its complete lack of self-awareness.
It wasn’t worth giving them the football because they had done so well on offense? Exactly. Good point. So you decide to…give them the ball? You didn’t mind giving them the ball inside the 10-yard line? Forget for a second that the Rams had scored on drives of 70, 77, and 93 yards in the first half. I wish I could. Take a look at how the Seahawks defense has done all season when opponents have started inside the 10-yard line.
Read it and weep. The Seahawks allow opponents to score points on 70% of the drives they start inside their own 10-yard line. In fact, the Rams scoring a touchdown on a 93-yard drive in the first half made it six straight opponent drives starting inside their own 10 that resulted in points against the Seahawks.
Of course, this drive did not start inside the 10-yard line because Carroll chose to take a delay of game penalty. This was just a wee little 88-yard touchdown drive.
Carroll had the mind-blowing audacity to say, “What if they took the ball and went down and scored right there?” Good god, man. Are you listening to yourself? They did take the ball down and score right there. They always take the ball down and score. You have the worst defense in the history of the sport, and that’s not an exaggeration.
If he had said the exact same quote in defense of going for it on fourth down, it would have been exactly right. The logic would have checked out. Instead of giving his offense a chance to keep the ball and his team a chance to win, he made the explicit choice to give the ball to the opponent and trust his defense over his offense. It was a losing decision. It was indefensible.
Fear-based decisions like that erode teams confidence in their leaders. So does lack of accountability. One of the most important jobs of any leader is performance management. Any manager in any industry knows that their job is to both find talent and put it in position to succeed, as well as identifying employees who are underperforming.
The general rules of performance management for someone not meeting the requirements of their role are to: (1) make them aware that they are not performing at an acceptable level (2) clearly explain what is expected of the role and how success will be measured (3) give them a timeframe by which they need to demonstrate success in the role (4) move them out of the role after that allotted time if they have not shown requisite improvement.
It is one of the hardest things to do as a manager, at least if you care about others anywhere close to as much as you care about yourself. It is far easier to look the other way or equivocate the poor performance than it is to tell someone they are not doing their job well. The discomfort does not end when you break the news. It continues through the whole process, and is the most painful when/if you reach the point of needing to let the person go.
What has always given me the will to overcome that discomfort was the knowledge that lack of action would have even larger consequences on the rest of the organization. Keeping a low performer around means others have to pick up the slack. It means people lower their expectations about can be done, especially if the low performer is in a leadership position themself. Ultimately, it leads to lack of trust in you as a leader and can result in reduced effort because employees know their is a limit to what can be accomplished with this person in place and know that poor performance is tolerated.
It is imperative that a leader takes performance management seriously. Carroll is not doing his job right now. Ken Norton Jr. has not done his job as a defensive coordinator well at any time in his tenure. Not two years ago. Not last year. Not this year.
He was once again out-coached from the opening snap in this game. His defense was a joke in the first half. His defense has been historically bad all season. Yes, he is a longtime employee of Carroll. Yes, he has been beloved by the linebacker room. Neither of those are measures of success for the job he is being asked to do.
The defense actually showed some improvement during this game, but not before allowing 17 points on the first three possessions. Yes, they were missing players due to injury, but that is always the case in the NFL.
Two key common errors in performance management are: (1) mistaking improvement for acceptable performance (2) coming up with excuses for why performance is poor. Think about the fact that this game represented the best performance of the season for the defense in terms of points allowed. That is not acceptable.
Carroll needs to fire Norton. His team needs to see him hold coaches accountable. He needs to demand excellence instead of excusing ineptitude. This team is capable of winning a Super Bowl if it at least has a defensive coach who can match wits with opposing offensive coordinators. That will never be Norton. Never.
Every moment he remains in charge of this defense is an indictment of Carroll as a coach and a leader.
As much as Carroll deserves heat for his choices and performance, it is his quarterback who has most directly contributed to the team losing three games in four weeks. Wilson was terrible in this game.
It would be easy to revert back to the old script of blaming the defense given how the game started, but the defense was not the primary reason for this loss. The Rams scored six points in a second half that started with the Seahawks trailing by four. Look at the Rams yards per play progression by quarter and by half:
There is an argument to be made that this was the best Seahawks defensive performance against a Sean McVay offense. The defense even managed to create a turnover that could have changed the game script. Jamal Adams stripped Jared Goff at the Rams 27-yard line.
Wilson and the offense took over trailing by just 7 points. They gained 5 yards on first down, and then the inexplicable happened. Wilson scrambled to his right despite having Will Dissly completely open as part of the designed play. He appeared to have tons of space in front of him to at least get a first down, but possibly even scored a touchdown. There was almost no risk to him keeping the ball at that point. Instead, he chose to throw the ball across his body and across the field. Bad choice. The Rams picked it off.
It was one of the most uncharacteristic plays of Wilson’s career, and certainly one of the worst. One of the things Wilson excels in is making risk/reward decisions. He slides instead of taking hits. He rarely throws interceptions. What made this play so appalling was the decision to choose high risk over no risk for what would have been equivalent reward.
This was a defense that is in dire straits. They are without confidence. They are injured. They have a terrible coach. They are being run out of the stadium. Your safety is playing with one arm and creates what could be a game-changing turnover. Wilson was given a golden opportunity to lift his team, to be the leader they need him to be. He not only failed, but he made their jobs more difficult, and did so for no good reason.
It would not be the last time in this game he would make a bad choice. He threw another interception on a 3rd and 9 in Rams territory. That came directly after he lost track of the play clock and took a delay of game penalty that turned a 3rd and 4 into a 3rd and long, which directly contributed to the interception. That type of unforced error is excusable as a rookie, but inexcusable at this stage of Wilson’s career.
He also took an intentional grounding call on the second drive of the game when he had ample opportunity to leave the pocket or throw it over a receiver’s head. That came a few plays after he oddly chose to make a short throw when the Rams were caught offsides. The pass was picked off. It was a low reward, high risk throw that seemed to be more the rule than the exception on this day for Wilson.
Later in the game, he ducked his head for no clear reason before taking a sack. It was the type of move a young Wilson would make, inventing pressure when there was none.
Many devoted fans are rushing to Wilson’s defense. They say he is overcompensating for a terrible defense, and is pressing because he knows he needs to score on every drive. Others are saying he is hiding an injury, possibly a concussion from all the hits.
While I find those excuses ludicrous for a player we all believe is capable of winning an MVP award, they are implicit acknowledgement that Wilson is playing poorly. His decisions are so bad that people think he must have a brain injury.
The truth is if Wilson had just played to his normal performance level against Arizona and Los Angeles, the Seahawks definitely beat the Cardinals and likely could have beaten the Rams. You could argue they could have also beat the Bills, but the team was thoroughly outplayed and outcoached in that one.
Wilson did not need to score every time to win this game. He did not even need to be magical. He needed to be a smart, solid quarterback who made the throws that were there.
D.K. Metcalf was forgotten in this game. Wilson barely even looked his way. The story will be that Jalen Ramsey shut him down. The reality is that Wilson never gave Metcalf a chance. The receiver looked noticeably upset that he was not getting chances, especially when he was open.
Metcalf barely missed one diving catch after Ramsey had pushed him twice with both hands while the ball was in flight. No call there, but the refs were happy to throw a flag in the endzone against D.J. Reed on a 3rd and goal play that should have resulted in a field goal, and instead turned into the Rams only points of the second half.
Dissly and Greg Olsen were open throughout the game. Wilson hit them a few times, but was off on most of his throws. It took sometimes great catches by those two. Had the passes been on target, the plays could have been much bigger.
This was a game where Chris Carson would have made a difference. He remains an underappreciated part of this offense. People know his running, which is significantly better than the alternatives on this team, but he is also a capable receiver and blocker. It may not be a coincidence that the offense has been less effective in the three weeks since his injury.
He may be back this week for the Thursday night game, but the team may also choose to give him the extra two weeks to be healthy for the stretch run.
Past Seahawks teams could beat you with the run game or the pass game. They could win a low scoring game or a high scoring one. They could beat you with pass defense, run defense, pass rush, coverage. There were so many ways they could play and so many ways they could beat you.
This Seahawks team can only beat you one way. They must pass the ball well and score a lot of points. They are uniquely equipped to do exactly that, so it’s not all bad. The reality, though, is that having fewer ways to win means you have less margin for error.
Many fans have been screaming for years to build the team around Wilson and to put the game in his hands. They have their wish. It is up to him to determine how far this team will go. If that responsibility is too much for him, he is not the player he wants to be.
Where do we go from here?
Seattle is injured and scuffling. They have a short week against a team brimming with confidence after a miraculous Hail Mary victory over Buffalo. They are unlikely to have either starting corner. Adams may not play, and if he does, will be playing with a debilitating injury. There is little reason to think the defense can rise up against the Cardinals.
Wilson has been more the reason the Seahawks have been losing lately than the reason they have been winning. The simple reality is if he does not snap out of it and return to MVP form, the Seahawks cannot win this game.
This is the moment where the Seahawks decide whether they have the resolve to be more than another toothless playoff team. The challenge is severe, but they have left themselves with no room for further losses in the division.
If they do not play with the fire and passion of a champion in this game, it will be a telling sign that this team does not believe in themselves or their coaches. Carroll needs to set the tone. All eyes rest on him and his star quarterback. Destiny awaits.