Michael Dickson’s improvised run late in the fourth quarter of the Seahawks’ Week 8 victory over the Detroit Lions showed something about the rookie punter’s guts, as well as his athleticism.
Pete Carroll’s reaction to that play, which was not what he nor anyone else on Seattle’s sideline was expecting, showed something about the Seahawks coach’s philosophy of empowering players to take calculated, and yes, sometimes improvised, risks during games.
Because as exciting as Dickson’s 9-yard run out of Seattle’s end zone was, plenty of coaches would have been more angry than fired up that a rookie punter ignored the play call—which was for Dickson to run around, bleed some time off the clock, then step out of the end zone for a safety—in order to take such a big risk, even if it ended up working out.
“It was a great play, really that was a fantastic play,” Carroll said. “Players and athletes get chances sometimes where they’ve got to go or they don’t, and he showed you his mentality to a certain extent. And I’d like to think he showed you our mentality too that we trust our guys. As you work hard and you work at it, you’re going to get faced with opportunities, and I’d like our guys to be able to improvise well and find ways to make special things happen. We’re always looking for guys who have special qualities, and part of that is guys who have the background and the courage and the faculties to make those kinds of decisions and make them right. It was one of those, you didn’t know for a while if it was going to work out, right in the midst of it it seemed like it was in slow motion, but he turned it into a very positive play and really put a game away for us. So it was really nicely done.”
So why in a league and a sport where so many coaches insist on players doing as they're told does Carroll embrace his players occasionally taking chances? Some of that, Carroll said, comes from his early days in the NFL working under Bud Grant in Minnesota, but it really goes back even farther than that to Carroll’s childhood as a San Francisco Giants fan.
“I don’t know if it developed in me as a coach, but when I was growing up, I grew up watching Willie Mays play baseball, and if you guys ever had a chance to see what he was like—I watched him through all of his career in San Francisco—the guy always played with the sense that he was looking to do something special if you gave him half an opportunity, and lots of times he just created it,” Carroll said. “I grew up thinking that’s the way you should play; he was my hero, he was everything to me as a kid. And that’s the kind of play he would make. He would see a situation and he would do something that nobody would ever think you could possibly pull off, and he would. He didn’t always do it, but he did it enough where he was all-time."
And don’t misinterpret Carroll’s talk about improvisation to mean he’s OK with his players doing whatever they want on the field. A huge reason the Seahawks have been so good over the years, and particularly on defense, is the discipline with which the team plays. Good run defense, a staple of Carroll’s best defenses, requires a ton of discipline from everyone in the front seven. And Seattle’s defensive backs are constantly being told to “stay on top,” meaning above everything else, they have to stay disciplined and not take risks that get them beat deep.
But, as players build trust and show they can do their jobs the way they’re asked, Carroll is willing to allow those players some freedom to take calculated risks in the right circumstances. No player demonstrates that better than quarterback Russell Wilson, who makes some incredible plays while improvising, but also makes smart decisions and rarely turns the ball over.
“Bud Grant used to tell teams, one of the greatest plays in football is the lateral, and he would allow our guys, if you make an interception… as long as you practiced those types of situations and it wasn’t unfamiliar to you, then he would OK it,” Carroll said. “I’ve told you guys before what a big influence he had on me when I got a chance to be around him in the Vikings days, and that made sense to me to. If you put guys through situations and you prepare them to do stuff, then you trust that they’re going to get it done. But you’ve got to draw the line sometimes, and it doesn’t always work out. But sometimes the great things don’t happen unless you give them a chance. Can you imagine why I’m so comfortable with Russell Wilson. Look at Russell, he takes off on a naked (bootleg) and takes off the other way (against the Lions) to set the opportunity up to whip that guy and get on back to the play side of the route so he could have a chance to throw the ball. He’s about 20 yards behind the line of scrimmage at one point and looking backwards, and I love to see him do that kind of stuff. I know it’s not always going to work out, but most of the time it does, and we expect him to find really great plays in there, because he’s that kind of a guy.”
And Carroll doesn’t just coach his players this way, he lived it as a multi-sport athlete growing up.
“Yeah, I used to try to do everything,” Carroll said. “It didn’t always work out, but I tried a little harder than most, I think. I was encouraged to do that by my big brother. So it feels comfortable, this isn’t something we made up, this is a real deal that is a real way of looking at how you play.”
As Carroll notes, his on-field improvisation didn’t always work out, something his former Redwood High School coach, Bob Troppmann, was all too willing to recall when interviewed about Carroll prior to his first season as the Seahawks’ head coach. Troppman, who passed away in 2012 at the age of 89, told a story of a time when Carroll, a standout safety and occasional quarterback, went in at quarterback late in a game Redwood was leading, and, well, let’s just say Dickson’s improvisation worked out a little bit better than Carroll’s.
“I sent him in late in a game, and for once we were ahead,” Troppmann said in 2010. “I said ‘Take it easy. Do the best you can, but run out the clock.’”
Carroll’s response, according to Troppmann, was, “Got you, Coach.” Then Carroll went off script.
“He made up a play himself,” Troppmann said. “He threw a pass, and they intercepted it and went 95 yards for a touchdown. He was on my black list for a while.”
Carroll didn’t stay on Troppmann’s black list, and in fact the two remained in close contact until Troppmann’s death, with Carroll calling his former coach on game days throughout his coaching career. But that moment on a high school field that put Carroll in his coach’s dog house five decades ago, the spectacular play of a Hall of Fame centerfielder, and a bold run by a punter in Sunday’s win in Detroit, it’s all connected.
“As crazy as that connection sounds, I think I’ve always thought that way, and I’ve always felt like that’s the way you should play the game—go for it and see if you can make stuff happen,” Carroll said. “I think that way, I’ve always encouraged the guys that I’ve coached to look for those kinds of opportunities and not be afraid of what they’re going to do wrong and the mistakes that they’re going to make. There’s always a line to be drawn, and there are certain guys you don’t let have that kind of freedom. I said something to Mike a couple of weeks ago about it, and the fact that he could put that together and utilize it at a time like that and make a play like that, it just shows you the kind of athlete and the kind of competitor he is. Had you not given him that chance, he might not have done that.”
Game action photos from the Seattle Seahawks' 28-14 win in Detroit in Week 8 of the 2018 NFL season.