CHARLOTTE, N.C. — This is a story of preparation, and of why one of the greatest coaches of his era might be in the midst of one of the greatest coaching jobs he has ever done.
The Seahawks were practicing scramble drills in their weekly walk-through practice last week, and on one of the plays, a scrambling Russell Wilson noticed wide receiver Tyler Lockett running an unusual route on which he took off up the right side and went deep while quarterback Wilson extended the play. Wilson, all about the details, pulled Lockett aside after the play and asked why he did that. “Just in case we need it,” Lockett told him.
Wilson relayed this story in the moments that followed Seattle’s incredible, seesaw, 30-27 comeback victory over the Panthers here Sunday and smiled. “Turns out we needed it.”
It was a play just like the walk-through play that set up Seattle’s game-winning field goal. With 1:07 left in a tie game, third down and 5 yards to go from the Seattle 47, Lockett got off the line, ran his route and turned back to see Wilson flushed out of the pocket, scrambling. He looked downfield.
“There was nobody deep,” a grinning Lockett recalled when it was over. “Quarterbacks love guys who go deep.”
So deep Lockett went, and sure enough, Wilson saw him there and heaved it. They connected on a 43-yard play that set Seattle up at the Carolina 10-yard line. A couple of kneel-downs, a couple of Carolina timeouts, a spike to stop the clock and a 31-yard Sebastian Janikowski field goal, and the Seahawks found themselves 6-5 and in the thick of the NFC playoff hunt.
“We’re already in the playoffs as far as we’re concerned,” fired-up Seattle coach Pete Carroll said. “We’ve got to win every game, and we’ve got to do it one game at a time.”
When he finished his mile-a-minute postgame news conference, Carroll bounded back into the locker room, where he spent a couple of minutes talking to Lockett at his locker then traded fist-bumps and handshakes with a handful of other players in the middle of the room. The oldest and one of the most decorated coaches in the NFL was flashing all of his trademark exuberance, celebrating a breathless win with the players who delivered it.
But while outside perception of Carroll seems to lean hard on the energy angle — the rapid-fire delivery, the manic gum-chewing and the youthful energy that belies his 67 years — the true trademark of Carroll’s program is preparation. The reasons it was a mistake to assume the Seahawks were in for a down year in spite of their offseason roster overhaul were (A) Wilson and (B) Carroll’s program. He spoke openly in training camp about how the culture wouldn’t change just because the names on the jerseys changed, and the bedrock of that belief was preparation.
The Seahawks rally in the fourth quarter to defeat Cam Newton and the Panthers 30-27.
Even after a game as breathless as this one, with its avalanche of lead changes and emotional swings, the Seahawks were a little bit boring, to be honest, talking about what made the difference. The Lockett catch to set up the touchdown was a stunner, but to the players on the field, it looked, frankly, familiar.
“We go through stuff like that in practice all the time, so to see it come to fruition is satisfying,” receiver David Moore said. “We preach about finishing, and we’ve been doing the finishing. We’ve just got to keep it rolling.”
The hallmark of a great coach is that his players buy what he’s selling. Seahawks players rattle off quotes all the time that ring as if they come right from Carroll’s speeches.
Listen to Wilson: “You have to have no fear. You can’t doubt. You have to have no fear. I think you either look forward to the moment or you fear it. You have to want it. You have to want to be in those moments.
Listen to running back Chris Carson: “We believe in ourselves. We believe in each other. And that belief comes from the work we put in together. We prepare for anything, so when the moment comes, we believe we’re going to make something happen.”
Go back to the beginning of the season. The Seahawks insisted they wanted to run the ball under new offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer. But it’s one thing to tell your players you’re going to run the ball and it’s quite another to sell them on how you want it run. Through two games, the Seahawks ranked 29th in the league in rushing, at 69 rush yards per game. Scrap the plan? No chance. Keep doing what you’re doing and hope it works? Well, that was no sure thing, either. Carroll and the Seahawks coaches had an idea.
“They sat us all down, all the backs, and had us watch old Marshawn Lynch tape,” Seahawks running back Mike Davis said. “They were trying to get us to understand about running with patience. Marshawn had great patience, and he knew how to set up his blocks. So sitting and watching that really helped us out. And since those first two games, you can tell the difference between that and the rest of the season.”
From Weeks 3 through 11, Seattle averaged a stunning 175.6 rushing yards per game — about 21 more than any other team in the league. They got a little stuck in the mud Sunday and managed only 75 of them against Carolina’s tough front, but that’s not likely to linger. These guys have put 2 1/2 months’ worth of run-game success in the bank. That’s there for them to draw on anytime they want.
“Sometimes, it’s not going to work and you’ve got to be able to go the other way or go to the throwing game,” Carroll said. “We don’t think we’re not going to throw it. We want to take advantage of it off the running game. It’s no secret, so I don’t mind saying it.”
They were, you won’t be surprised to learn, prepared for a day when the run game struggled and they needed the brilliant Wilson to save them. Carroll’s teams are always prepared. They were prepared in August to try to overcome the losses of the Richard Shermans and Earl Thomases and Michael Bennetts — championship players who set a tone in Seattle for years but who aren’t part of what’s happening now. Carroll and his coaching staff made sure of it, training the replacements in their doctrine and their expectations so they’d have a roster built on the preparation and priorities that have made Carroll’s Seattle tenure such a success.
And look, they’re far from perfect and far from home. This is a 6-5 team that’s going to have to scrap its way into the playoffs from here. But you know what? The Seahawks have beaten Dallas, which is also 6-5. They’ve beaten Carolina, which is also 6-5. They get a chance in a couple of weeks to play Minnesota, which was 5-4-1 entering its Sunday night matchup. Four of the Seahawks’ remaining five games are at home, and the road game is in San Francisco. At the conclusion of their game Sunday, Seattle had a 74 percent chance to make the playoffs, according to ESPN’s Football Power Index data. They are, amazingly, right where they want to be. If Carroll gets this year’s Seahawks to the postseason, it might not be a surprise to him, because … you know … the preparation. But it’ll be a surprise to a lot of people. And given the way the offseason went and the way the season started, it’ll be fair to rate it among the best — maybe even the best — coaching job of Carroll’s stellar career.
“We’ve got a long way to go,” Carroll said. “We’re alive, but we’ve got a long way to go.”
Carroll’s Seahawks aren’t home free yet. But at this point, are you betting against him?