The Pete of the Moment

Pete Carroll is relying on everything he’s learned as he enters a new phase

By Danny O’Neil

Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll is unwavering in his tried-and-true approach.
Nick Cammett/Diamond Images via Getty

October 4, 2022

This article originally appeared in the July/August 2022 issue of Seattle Magazine.

7:29 a.m.: A Wednesday morning, early June and Pete Carroll sits behind the desk in his second-floor office. To his left, a view of Lake Washington. To his right, three large televisions are mounted on the far wall, tuned to CNN, MSNBC and FOX News. Only the CNN sound is on, and it’s competing with the music playing through two desk speakers: “Ring My Bell” by Anita Ward.

Carroll’s attention is trained on the largest of the three monitors on his desk. He watches yesterday’s practice. When a play concludes, he uses his hand-held remote to rewind to the beginning of that play. He watches it again.

Rewind. Replay. Rewind. Replay.

He does this at least three times per play, sometimes more. This is coaching at its most granular, a four-second slice of action examined to understand what everyone did. And right now, the most successful coach in our city’s history of professional sports is fixated on the way a 6-foot-4 rookie defensive back from the University of Texas at San Antonio pivots his hips.

Carroll watches Tariq Woolen. Rewind. He watches him again. Then Carroll sees Karl Scott, the team’s new secondary coach, as he walks by and calls him in.

Rewind. Replay.

“I thought that was pretty cool,” Carroll says to Scott.

Sorry, were you expecting a candlelight vigil with Russell Wilson now in Denver? A gnashing of teeth or wails of lament? Have you forgotten who Seattle’s coach is? Carroll has done a lot of things during his 12 years in Seattle, but wallow is not one of them. Besides, he has things to do this morning, namely a meeting with his coaching staff that’s coming up at 7:45 a.m.

“We’re rolling,” Carroll says as he strides out of his office.

There’s a schedule here. A system to follow. One that Carroll perfected in his nine years at USC and then imported to Seattle in 2010. This system is what guides Carroll into this team’s most uncertain season in 10 years. Carroll is not rebooting; he is not rebuilding. He has a system he trusts to replicate success on a fairly annual basis, which is exactly what it has done for, oh, the past 20 years or so.

Carroll walks fast. It’s the first thing you notice if you follow him as I did through Seattle’s three-day mini-camp back in June. He talks fast, too. Reads fast. His assistants know that you absolutely cannot give him a handout to go along with a presentation because Carroll will be asking you about a question he has on page three before you even get started.

He moves through life at 1.5 speed, and he shows no signs of slowing down as he prepares for a season in which he’ll turn 71. Oops. He’s not going to like the implication there, the underlying question about how much longer he’ll coach. It’s a question that keeps getting asked no matter how many times Carroll says he doesn’t see himself stopping in the near future.

So no, the oldest coach in the NFL is not slowing down. He’s not thinking about slowing down, and the fact that Seattle traded Wilson should only serve to reinforce this fact because the last thing any coach who’s winding down would want is to have a franchise quarterback traded. Actually, the last thing pretty much any coach would want is to have a franchise quarterback traded, but when have Carroll’s Seahawks ever opted for what’s normal?

Carroll uses praise and positive reinforcement to motivate players, including former quarterback Russell Wilson.

Rod Mar/Sports Illustrated via Getty

8:47 a.m.: “We’ve got a problem,” Carroll says.

He stands at the front of the 100-seat auditorium used for team meetings, looking at more than 80 players on the team’s off-season roster. The Seahawks coaching staff fills the final three rows at the back of the room, and they are by far the loudest. They hoot. They holler. They slap hands on the arm rests. Tight ends coach Pat McPherson occasionally brings a cowbell.

“We’re all about competition,” Carroll says, “but sometimes that can go a little bit too far. Competition isn’t about winning at all costs. It’s not about rubbing your opponents’ nose in the dirt. It’s striving for excellence. But sometimes, even the coaches get carried away.”

“Say it ain’t so!” shouts Mark Philipp, the team’s strength-and-conditioning coach.

“The accusations are flying,” Carroll says.

This is the cue for video, which is now projected onto the movie screen behind Carroll. The clip is short. Maybe 10 seconds, but in it you can hear Chad Morton, the team’s running backs coach, complaining to another coach that the defensive players are being tipped off to what the offense is doing.

“Sean, you can’t tell them the freaking plays,” Morton says, mispronouncing the word “freaking.”

Sean is Sean Desai, the new assistant head coach, who was mic’d up for the practice.

“That’s good coaching,” Desai shouts back.

The clip replays three times, and Carroll asks the players what is to be done about it. He already knows the answer, though: a shoot-off.

There is a basketball hoop off to the side of the stage, a tool Carroll has incorporated into his coaching since way back in 1994 when he was a first-time head coach with the Jets. And at pretty much every team meeting, at some point, there will be a shooting competition. Might be between individuals. Could be between position groups. There was one time Tyler Lockett defeated Steve Kerr, the Warriors coach who was visiting. This Wednesday morning it is going to be between two assistant coaches. Each will get 30 seconds to shoot while a song from “Space Jam” plays through the auditorium. Desai wins, and the entire auditorium sings, “Nah, nah, nah, hey, hey, good-bye” as Morton returns to his seat.

OK, let’s pause just a second and take a broader view of the situation. We know about the energy that Carroll brings to a team. It’s as much a signature as the clunky white Nikes he wears on the sidelines or the pink wad of gum he chews. Bubble Yum, if you must know. He has silver hair, a crooked nose and the boundless energy of a golden retriever.

But there’s more to these meetings than energy. There’s a purpose to what Carroll does. These meetings are designed to engage his players. To get them paying attention. To get them up and alert so everyone is on the same page to start the day.

It’s the first step in an approach Carroll has spent a lifetime refining from the first 25 years when he hopped from one job to the next, acquiring insights and tools, to his arrival at USC in 2001 where his system truly came together. The Trojans won seven conference titles in nine seasons, three players were awarded the Heisman Trophy as the nation’s top player and 14 guys were drafted in the first round.

Carroll brought that same approach to Seattle in 2010, and now it’s being taught at Harvard. Seriously. Ranjay Gulati is a professor at Harvard’s business school. He has an MBA from MIT Sloan School of Management, and a doctorate in organizational behavior from Harvard. He has spent years studying high-performing companies to see what can be learned, and in his new book, “Deep Purpose,” he spends time on the case studies of Microsoft, LEGO and the Seattle Seahawks.

“Coaching as I understand it is all about unlocking human potential,” Gulati says in a telephone interview. “So you’re trying to get each player to perform beyond what you think they’re capable of. That’s exactly what businesses are trying to do.”

And that’s exactly what Carroll seeks to do. It’s the way that Carroll does it, however, that makes him unique. A caring model, as Gulati terms it. Carroll does not use fear to motivate. He doesn’t use anger. He seeks to build a relationship with each player, to make that player feel cared for and protected, because Carroll believes this will empower that player to perform at a higher level than even he thought possible. It’s a model Gulati would have assumed was more suited for college.

“I was a little surprised to see this in the NFL context,” Gulati said. “How do you hold this caring model where at the same time you also hold demanding expectations?”

Carroll’s success in Seattle is the answer to that question. In 12 years, Seattle has reached the playoffs nine times. The franchise won seven playoff games in the first 34 seasons. It has won 10 in Carroll’s 12 seasons, including the team’s only league championship.

9:11 a.m.: “What does it feel like when you’re in your zone?” Carroll asks. “You’re in your right mind and you’re performing exactly how you want?”

This room — so raucous just a few minutes ago — is still now, almost silent.

“Calm,” says one of the players.

“OK, calm,” Carroll says. “What else?”

You can hear the players listening. 

“Unstoppable,” adds another.

“It feels like nothing,” someone says.

Carroll especially likes this one.

“It feels like nothing,” Carroll says, “because there is a clarity that happens. You can call it no mind.”

This is the moment the meeting has been building toward.

“The player’s mind,” Carroll said. “Where you’re exactly where you want to be.”

This is as close to a key as there is to Carroll’s success. He wants to help as many players as he can get to this point where they are playing their absolute best, and the past 22 years speak to the fact that he’s pretty good at doing just that.

Marshawn Lynch had fallen to third-string running back in Buffalo but became a Hall of Fame running back in Seattle. Richard Sherman was so hardheaded, he switched positions in college. He went from being a fifth-round pick to the best cornerback in football.

Doug Baldwin. Kam Chancellor. K.J. Wright, and yes, Russell Wilson, the quarterback everyone thought was too short.

This is not to say Carroll is responsible for those successes. Those players were incredibly talented and uniquely driven. But it was Carroll’s team, his system where they flourished in a way they hadn’t before and at some point, it stops being a coincidence how many guys play the best football of their lives while on Carroll’s roster.

The Seahawks have made the playoffs nine times in Carroll’s 12 seasons, including this 2014 Super Bowl win over Denver.

Rob Carr/Getty

12:55 p.m.: Carroll heads into the weight room before practice begins, grabs hold of a pair of straps that are hanging from a weight rack and uses them to stretch his shoulders. Then a set of modified push-ups, his hands resting on the bench. Only when he heads toward the indoor practice field, removing the two gloves from his rear pocket, does it become clear what he was doing: Loosening up to throw some passes.

The oldest coach in the NFL plays catch before every practice, and once the drills start, he’ll roam the field, stopping at different drills or sometimes watching from afar.

If building a team is construction, then Carroll is the project manager. He has his plans, his system. He knows everything there is to know about the defense Seattle runs. How to execute it. How opponents will attack it. How to modify it. He knows how he wants his team to play on offense, too. Balanced. A strong running game. An aggressive, downfield passing game. No turnovers. It’s an approach that now appears more conservative because the rest of the league is passing more frequently.

You can tell where this is going, right? Carroll never wanted his offense to orbit around a single player. Not even his quarterback. He wants that guy to be a point guard, to distribute, and in a league where most games are decided by a single possession, he wants his quarterback to be as ruthless as an executioner in the final minutes of a game, but Carroll wants his team to run as often as it throws. He believes this down to his marrow, and he’s not going to abandon that system, that philosophy.

Ultimately, that became an irreconcilable difference for the quarterback, who decided he wanted a fresh start and the Seahawks were willing to trade him. And now Carroll is relying on his system to find a successor.

Will it be Geno Smith? Looks like he’ll get the first chance, having been Wilson’s back-up these past two years. Or maybe Drew Lock will pull ahead. He has a strong arm and is one of the three players acquired from the Broncos. And if none of those guys pan out as a long-term candidate, the Seahawks will spend next off-season searching just as they did back in 2012 when they signed Matt Flynn as a free agent and drafted that short guy from Wisconsin.

That’s what Carroll’s coaching approach is about. Getting players ready for their moment, and then hoping they will be. More often than not, they are.

4:44 p.m.: Carroll’s office is a cocoon for the hour that follows practice. He likes to have an hour to watch the footage from that day’s practice. Rewind. Replay. All that.

But now there are signs of stirring. Actually, the sounds of stirring as the volume of the music goes up. A guitar. A drum beat. The Foo Fighters?

Come down and waste away with me

Down with me.

Slow how you wanted it to be.

Yep, that’s the Foo Fighters’ “Everlong.” The volume is not quite ear-splitting but it’s loud enough that everyone in this corner of the building can hear it.

And I wonder when I sing along with you,

If everything could ever feel this real forever.

If anything could ever be this good again. 

“Woo!” says Carroll, in time to the music.

He’s the kind of guy who can’t help but move when he hears music. Someone who drums the desk as he thinks, using his fingers, even the heel of his palm for percussion. The afternoon is pushing toward evening, and he’s going to leave in a little more than an hour. There’s a 5-year-old’s graduation he’s going to attend, and then he’ll be back in the office by 7 a.m. tomorrow morning watching practice film on the largest of those three screens sitting on his desk.

It’s the cycle of life for a football coach. The way to prepare for the day, the week, the season ahead. It’s that consistency, the ability to repeat something, that Carroll points to when he’s asked what he finds the most satisfying about coaching ball.

“Sustaining it,” he says. “Being able to do it again.”

That’s the challenge. Doing it again.

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