His Own Man
Pete Carroll doesn’t always trust the analytics that have taken over sports
By Danny O’Neil November 2, 2023
Socially liberal, but a football conservative.
That description of Pete Carroll may come as a surprise to Seattle, which for the past 13 years has watched the coach defy the expectations of his profession. In other words, he’s not beholden to analytics.
He does not use fear to motivate his players. He does not threaten their job security or question their toughness. He does not seem to be made miserable by his job. He is unfailingly positive, Willy Wonka in a pair of khakis, and yet when it comes to the actual strategy employed when his team is on the field, he is perplexingly old school.
“From the outside, it’s hard to think of a more traditional team than the ‘Hawks,” says Josh Hermsmeyer, who’s studied and written extensively about pro football from an analytical perspective.
In fact, as the Seahawks find themselves in first place heading into Week 9 of the season, in-game strategy might be one of the only ways in which Carroll conforms to the expectations you’d have of the oldest coach in the league (he turned 72 on Sept. 15). He looks to do things the way they’ve always been done when it comes to running the ball, minimizing risks, and maximizing field position.
In 2019, Hermsmeyer wrote a story at FiveThirtyEight.com showing that Seattle was among the most likely teams in the league to rush on first down, rush on second down and pass on third down; and run-run-pass was one of the least likely play progressions a team could employ when trying to gain a first down.
Since 2014, the Seahawks are also among the league’s least aggressive teams on fourth down, meaning they regularly kick in fourth-down situations despite statistical evidence showing they would be better off going for it.
It just goes to show just how deeply ingrained certain beliefs are among the league’s coaches because while Carroll has proven able to completely reinvent the way he motivates his players, he remains beholden to a formula that pairs a run-first offense with a heavyweight defense.
Of course, it was exactly that approach that put Seattle in back-to-back Super Bowls and accounted for the franchise’s only title. The problem is that it has been at least six and maybe even seven years since the Seahawks had a defense you could call “good,” let alone “great.”
Still, Seattle has made the playoffs in 10 of Carroll’s 13 seasons as head coach, and last year — when many projected Seattle to go off a cliff after trading Russell Wilson — it was the quarterback whose new team nosedived, not the former coach.
Also, there were signs of Seattle’s offense getting frisky last season, maybe even daring. The Seahawks were more aggressive going for it on fourth down in 2022 than they had been, converting 12 of their 21 attempts. They started passing more in neutral-down situations, too, meaning situations that didn’t point to either a run or pass.
“Seattle has always had smart people in their building,” Hermsmeyer says. “The only question was whether Pete would ever listen to them. Maybe now he is, at least on the margins.”