Pete Carroll is a man with a plan
RENTON, Wash. — An entire wall is consumed by three massive televisions, each with the volume turned up. On the left, it’s Lions versus Bears on “Monday Night Football.” In the middle, Mitt Romney and Barack Obama are going head to head in the third debate. On the right, the San Francisco Giants are securing a World Series berth.
Glued to all three at once is Seattle Seahawks Coach Pete Carroll, his eyes darting from screen to screen. He’s positioned behind his desk in his corner office with three more glowing distractions in front of him: oversized computer monitors for breaking down game film.
“This is the best I’ve had it right here,” Carroll almost shouts over the noise, watching the TVs like a transfixed trader on the floor of the stock exchange. “I’ve never had all this available before.”
Carroll, the former USC coach, once had a brain-analysis test that characterized him as having “high neuro-agility,” which apparently is the technical term for a no-huddle, hurry-up attention span.
“If he only had 13 things on, I think he’d be bored,” said Chris Carlisle, Seahawks strength and conditioning coach. “He’d need that 14th thing on.”
Welcome to Carroll’s world, where tracking 14 story lines constitutes a slow day. Last month, he gave a Times reporter a week’s worth of behind-the-scenes access to what goes on at Seahawks headquarters, what happens in meetings, and how a game plan is formulated and installed.
In a sense, the 5-4 Seahawks mirror their coach. They are energetic, competitive, and have concentration issues resulting in a string of close losses on the road. The team that is 4-0 at CenturyLink Field is 1-4 away from home.
Seattle has the NFL’s third-youngest roster — including rookie Russell Wilson starting at quarterback — and the second-oldest head coach, which seems like a mismatch. But few coaches are as youthful as the 61-year-old Carroll, who seldom stops moving around the sprawling facility and always looks as if he’s about to break into a jog. There’s no hint in his stride of his recent knee replacement.
“It’s constantly surprising to see somebody who’s older than my dad have that kind of energy,” said Carroll’s right-hand man, Ben Malcolmson, 27, who won acclaim at USC when he went from student journalist to walk-on receiver. “Everyone has their ups and downs, times they just want to chill and relax. With him, it’s never, ‘Hey, I’m going to take a nap for 15 minutes.’ It’s nonstop.”
Everywhere you turn at team headquarters there’s a basketball hoop, either full-sized or miniature, including one over the door to Carroll’s office. Critics snickered at his penchant for basketball games in his first NFL head coaching gigs with the New York Jets and New England Patriots. The implication was that it was undignified for a coach to be playing pickup games during any spare moment.
But Carroll hasn’t changed his interactive style. He might be the only NFL coach who wears receivers gloves to practice. He needs them, because he spends half the session playing catch with Jake Briggs, 22, an assistant equipment manager. The coach isn’t ignoring his players, he’s simply multi-tasking.
“Yes!” Carroll shouts, raising his arms overhead to signal touchdown. An instant earlier, he’d flung the football about 35 yards through the basketball hoop on the sideline. He spends the better part of practice trying to re-create the shot, clanking several off the rim yet never matching the swish.
Carroll and Briggs play catch every practice, and even on Sundays during pregame warmups. Although he was a safety at Pacific, the coach has a good arm. He can routinely heave an NFL ball more than 50 yards but uses a smaller version for his annual birthday ritual of throwing his age, one yard for every year.
“Fortunately, we played in Denver this summer,” Carroll said, referring to the thinner air. “I hit 60 about three or four times in a row. Then somebody said, ‘Try this ball.’ It was a smaller one, and I hit 63 or something like that.”
Said Briggs of the daily games of catch: “I guess it keeps him loose.”
That’s key to Carroll, and a philosophy he employs with his players. He wants them to go 100 mph, test their physical and mental limits, then — at the appropriate time — to take their foot off the accelerator.
“The reason it’s so important to have this atmosphere is I want these guys to be alive, I want them to thrive,” Carroll said. “Think of your favorite teacher you ever had in school, the one who made it the most fun to go to class. They surprise you. They keep you guessing. They keep you coming back, wanting to know what’s going to happen next.”
That carries over to the classroom. Defensive players meet in a room adjacent to the cafeteria, and are greeted at the start of meetings by thumping music and a swirling, nightclub-style siren light. As much as they can, the coaches want to make the experience enjoyable for the players, who spend up to 10 hours at the facility depending on the day. Most of their time there is spent working out, practicing, getting treatment, and in team or position-group meetings that are intensely detailed when the door is shut and the music is turned down.
“It’s kind of a tradeoff, like, you let us have fun and we’ll get the work done,” rookie linebacker Bobby Wagner said. “Everybody trusts that we’re going to get the job done.”
Seattle is an epicenter of the tech industry, and the Seahawks are owned by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, so it’s only natural that the players are at the technological cutting edge. They don’t carry playbooks, they carry iPads that are uploaded with new video and game plans each week. If a player is released, or happens to lose his iPad, the information is remotely wiped from his device.
Coaches have iPads too, and when the Seahawks play away from home, those tablets are loaded with game video for coaches to review on the flight home. By Tuesday morning, the coaches have a 100-page scouting report on the upcoming opponent, prepared by a Seahawks scout who attended that opponent’s most recent game.
But first comes what Carroll calls “Tell The Truth Monday,” when players arrive for treatment at 8 a.m., lift weights, eat lunch, then pile into a meeting room that’s like an average movie theater. Cornerback Richard Sherman walks in, grabs a stray basketball, and just misses on an across-the-room shot at the full-sized hoop onstage. Only a few teammates lift their heads to watch.
Soon, the lights dim and the movie screen comes to life with highlights from the Seahawks-49ers game the previous Thursday. The video is pulled directly from the NFL Network broadcast. The speakers are cranked as loud as a summer blockbuster.
On the screen, a close-up of running back Marshawn Lynch slamming into a 49ers defensive back prompts a guttural “ooof” of approval from the players in the room. In another clip, color analyst Mike Mayock praises the blocking of Seahawks tackle Russell Okung. A smattering of claps.
Because the Seahawks lost, 13-6, the highlight package isn’t as robust as it might otherwise be. It lasts eight minutes, about half as long as the one the day after Seattle beat New England last month. The lights come up, Carroll walks to the front of the room, and gives a succinct assessment of what he has seen: “Tough to look at.”
He talks for nine minutes, spinning critiques into positives whenever he can, lamenting that he didn’t prepare the players well enough for San Francisco’s blocking schemes, and never mentioning the Lions, Seattle’s next opponent.
As far as the players are concerned, Monday is about looking back at the previous game, mining it for any helpful details, then letting it go. After the team meeting ends, the special-teams units stick around for a brief review of how they played, then it’s off to offensive and defensive meetings, and finally individual position meetings. At 2:45, the players are free to leave, and aren’t required to return until breakfast at 6:30 a.m. Wednesday.
The coaches, however, are just getting started. In assembling the game plan, they’ll work into the night and do the same Tuesday. It isn’t a matter of putting in new plays; training camp is the time for that. Building a game plan is about picking the right collection of plays that are already in your playbook. There might be a trick play or wrinkle the Seahawks practice during the week, but otherwise, they don’t change who they are from week to week.
It’s dark outside when the coaches and scouts come and go, and for many, their chance to see their kids during the week comes Tuesday night when the facility is opened for the families.
“Every hour is precious,” said Scott Fitterer, Seahawks director of college scouting. “There’s not a lot of time when guys are sitting around putting their feet up, or on the treadmill getting in face time.
“Just like with the players, Pete wants the coaches to be fresh, and he wants their families to be invested. He doesn’t want the coaches to feel like, ‘I need to get home and see my family.’ There needs to be a balance between football and life. Pete and [General Manager John Schneider] allow that to happen.”
Carroll’s wife, Glena, spends part of the week in Los Angeles, and part in Seattle, making frequent trips to Miami to see their grandchildren.
The players reconvene on “Competition Wednesday,” and the morning meetings are rapid-fire. A blitz meeting for quarterbacks and centers at 7:45. The punt team meets at 8, kickoff returners at 8:20, and so on. At 8:45, the players file back into the theater, where Carroll shows them two minutes of San Francisco Giants celebrations, then, when the lights come up, ribs receiver Braylon Edwards for his crisp Detroit Tigers cap.
“I see Braylon’s been a fan for a couple weeks,” he says, drawing some chuckles.
The coach turns his attention to the Lions, showing some highlights from their Monday night loss to the Bears. He talks about the importance of creating turnovers, and how the Seahawks have gone from first to fourth in causing fumbles. Stripping the ball will be the emphasis today. Carroll promises his prime parking spot to whomever causes the most fumbles in practice, and if an offensive player strips a ball back, he automatically wins.
That carries over to “Turnover Thursday,” and it’s clear what Carroll believes wins and loses games. More practices and meetings. More late nights for the coaches.
The end of the week is “No Repeat Friday,” when the goal is for players to be so pristine in their execution that they never have to repeat a play. Practice ends at 1 p.m., and by 3:30, the team’s chartered plane is bound for Detroit.
The Seahawks wound up losing that game, 28-24, before returning and beating Minnesota, 30-20, on Sunday in a must-win game at home. Carroll knows winning. He was 97-19 at USC with two national championships and seven consecutive Pacific 10 titles. For some, Carroll’s legacy at the school was tainted by his departure for the NFL five months before the NCAA handed down some of the most severe sanctions in history.
Among the USC coaches and players who joined him in Seattle are Ken Norton Jr., Rocky Seto, Pat Ruel, Kris Richard, Kenechi Udeze and Carlisle. Offensive coordinator Jeremy Bates came too, but that experiment flopped and he lasted a year.
Carroll is convinced this Seahawks team, young as it is, has playoff potential.
“The nucleus is here,” said the coach, coming off two 7-9 seasons with one postseason win. “We’ve got a chance to be really solid. Maybe it winds up we’re not good enough, I can’t believe that. I think we’re going to win a lot of games.”
Back in Carroll’s office, the TVs have been left on, and Seattle’s Macklemore — the coach’s new favorite artist — is rapping on the sound system.
Dawn Beres, executive assistant to the head coach, turns off the TVs, turns down the music, and gathers the stack of empty soup bowls on Carroll’s desk.
“Sometimes,” she says, “I feel like I’m living next to my teenage son.”
Carroll, for one, would happily agree.
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