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Handling heightened expectations
The Seahawks topped the pre-draft power rankings at ESPN.com last month. At NFL.com, they were No. 4, with this comment: “Should we just anoint the Seattle Seahawks contenders for the next three years?”
So much for coach Pete Carroll’s improved – and improving – team sneaking up on anyone during the 2013 season.
That will happen when you close the third-best regular season in club history (11-5) in emphatic fashion – winning their final five games, and the last four by a combined score of 170-43. And follow that with the franchise’s first road playoff victory since 1983 and coming within 31 seconds and two points of advancing to the NFC Championship game. And follow that by acquiring triple-threat Percy Harvin in a trade to augment an already burgeoning offense and adding defensive linemen Cliff Avril, Michael Bennett and Tony McDaniel to enhance the pass rush.
As one assistant coach from an NFC West team put it at the NFL Scouting Combine, “The Seahawks were the team no one wanted to face at the end of last season, and they remain a team no one wants to face.”
One problem with these great expectations: The Seahawks’ success last season was directly related to the fact that the players – from All-Pro free safety Earl Thomas to backup defensive tackle Clinton McDonald – played with individual, as well as collective, chips on their shoulders. They were out to prove anybody and everybody who doubted them wrong.
It fueled them to achievements that haven’t been seen in this corner of the NFL landscape since the 2005 team posted its franchise-best 13-3 record during the regular season, won the only conference championship in club history and advanced to the Super Bowl.
But what motivates these same players now that they’re being told how great they are at every turn?
Carroll addressed these heightened expectations on Monday morning during the team meeting that kicked off the offseason program.
“It’s really crucial that we handle it well,” he said. “That reality, it’s really important to own that.”
But no one – players or coaches – has had to handle anything like this with the Seahawks. That’s because the last time the Seahawks were being mentioned in the same breath with the Super Bowl this early in the process was 1985.
Take a spin in the way-back machine and you’ll understand why: In 1984, the Seahawks lost leading rusher Curt Warner to a knee injury in the first half of the season opener. Coach Chuck Knox veered away from his “Ground Chuck” offensive philosophy as the Seahawks morphed into “Air Knox” with Dave Krieg passing for 3,671 yards and 32 touchdown passes. The defense forced a franchise-record 63 takeaways and allowed 247 points. The sum of those startling numbers was a 12-4 record, and great expectations for 1985.
But they finished 8-8 that season, as the players did not handle the notoriety well and tripped over the expectations.
“This is obviously the most attention that we’ve had, it’s the most expectations we’ve had as far as winning games,” said Pro Bowl center Max Unger, one of the longer-tenured Seahawks even though he’s entering only his fifth season. “So it’s out there, and it’s our job to hear it, be able to manage it and still do our jobs.”
Carroll and several of his assistant coaches have had more experience dealing with the harbingers of hype because they won seven Pac-10 champions and two national titles during a nine-year run at the University of Southern California before coming to Seattle in 2010.
“As the praise comes, we handle it with humility,” Carroll said of those lessons learned. “You understand it and treat it like it’s no big deal.”
The players are ready to practice what Carroll was preaching during the team meeting.
“With the expectations, it’s obviously at a different level this year,” Unger said. “No one is hiding it. People are obviously talking about it. But as a pro, it’s about handling the expectations. And as coach Carroll just said, something that kind of rang with us, ‘It’s like poison. You take too much and you’re going to get sick.’ So it’s our job to deal with it.”
Offered strong safety Kam Chancellor, a Pro Bowl alternate the past two seasons who played in the NFL all-star game as an injury replacement after the 2011 season: “You embrace it a little bit. But at the same time, we want to pick up where we left off. We don’t want to regress in any way. You don’t want to go backwards.”
That’s where having those shoulder chips as part of their mental makeup plays into it.
“Everybody on this team has been told that we couldn’t do something – they’re too small, that we’re not smart enough, they weren’t quick enough, they weren’t fast enough,” Chancellor said. “So we’re all looking to prove that’s not the case, that we can be winners and be the best at what we do. So regardless of what anybody else is saying, what really counts is what’s going on in this locker room. We just have to continue to hold each other accountable and play not to let the guy next to you down.”
This won’t be the last time Carroll drops some not-so-subtle reminders because, as he put it, “It happens every year. The examples of the teams that don’t handle it are enormous. The examples of the teams that handle it well are few.”
Handling it well starts with meeting the expectations head-on and keeping everything in perspective.
“We realize that all the hype and the built up really doesn’t mean anything, doesn’t amount to anything, because that’s based on what happened before,” Carroll said. “It’s what you do now that counts.
“The ability to discipline and focus that way, that’s what’s crucial.”
Even with all that said, Carroll also is embracing the expectations – if handled properly.
“I particularly love this challenge, because this is where you want to be,” he said. “You want to be in a position where you have high standards and expectations to live up to. We’ve worked really hard to get there, so we’re not going to turn away from it. We’re not going to ignore it.
“We’re going to embrace it and handle it, hopefully, really well. The ability to do that is what allows you to win consistently for a long time.”