By almost any statistical measure, Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson had the best season of his four-year NFL career in 2015, leading the NFL with a 110.1 passer rating while establishing franchise records for passing yards and touchdowns.
That's why Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said he "couldn't be more excited" about the progress Wilson and the passing game.
On the other side of the ball, free safety Earl Thomas matched a career-high with five interceptions and earned Pro Bowl honors for the fifth straight year, playing the role that makes him the "linchpin" of Seattle's defense according to Richard Sherman; a role that Carroll said makes Thomas, "real critical to everything we do defensively… He gives us incredible consistency back there, and has done that for a lot of years. It really is where the effectiveness of our eliminating explosive plays comes from. It starts with him right back in the middle there."
A defensive-minded coach who himself played safety in college, Carroll once said of Thomas, "I watch this game and live this game through his eyes often. It's something that's dear to my heart. We share experiences all the time trying to get a deeper understanding of it, and it's really awesome because I can watch it all happen through him and his play."
In other words, Wilson and Thomas are not just two of the Seahawks' best players, but because of the positions they play, they are also two of the most important to what happens on their respective sides of the ball. That's why, as good as both have been in their relatively young careers, one of Carroll's focuses this offseason is on making those two even better.
"Russell and I talked about this last night," Carroll said Monday. "I think it's really the right time to turn his focus and broaden his awareness of what is going on in the game overall. He and I will spend a lot of time this offseason introducing him to the perspective of what it's like to look at the defense from the defensive side of the ball. I want him to learn and understand what's going on schematically, rotation-wise, fits-wise, even more than he knows now."
If ever there were a coach who is qualified to better help Wilson understand the way defenses work, it's Carroll, a longtime defensive coordinator before becoming a head coach, and the architect of a defense that became the first in the Super Bowl era to lead the NFL in scoring defense for four straight seasons. And if Wilson is ready to better understand the defensive side of the game, then Carroll figures it's time to do the same thing for Thomas when it comes to offense. This significant of a deep dive isn't something Carroll takes lightly, and it isn't something he wanted to put on either player earlier in their careers, but with Thomas heading into his seventh season and Wilson into his fifth, Carroll is confident that both are ready to handle it.
"I talked to Earl about the same thing," Carroll said. "Earl needs to go on the other side of the ball and do the same thing. Earl also wants to learn even more in-depth about what's going on up front. These guys have been around long enough now that it's time to take them to all of the avenues that they can to understand the game. It'll just broaden their horizons, it'll allow them to understand more so, they'll make declarations and decisions more quickly because they'll understand schematically even more so."
Of course, offensive players are constantly studying opposing defenses and vice versa, but there's a difference between knowing what an opponent might try to do to beat you in that particular week, and becoming a quarterback who can think like a safety or a safety who can see the game like a quarterback.
"There's a difference in looking at it from what the offense needs to know and the difference in looking at it from what the defense is doing," Carroll said. "I want them to understand the other side in greater depth. Those guys in particular—other guys will go along with that—those guys in particular are guys that love to study the game and they want to know more and they want to know everything. You can only take in so much. We wouldn't want to water down the process by trying to do too much early, but I think it's time now. We're going year five and year seven with Earl. It's time to really dig in. They're kind of in like settings, being the quarterback and being the free safety. I know Richard wants to go along too, and just continue to grow and expand so they really understand the game to the fullest extent."
For a quarterback who often says he is on a "constant quest for knowledge," digging deeper into the other side of the ball should be a challenge Wilson embraces this offseason.
Wilson said Monday that one of his goals this offseason is to "continue to grow as a man and continue to grow as a football player, just try to find the ins and outs of the game of football, and how I can help this team win more and more games."
Wilson said his intellectual growth helped the game slow down this season, leading to the improvements he made in 2015: "I think the first step is the knowledge. You want to continue to grow intellectually, in the game, and continue to master that part of it. Continue to work on that craft. I think that when you really mentally grasp the game of football, the game really, really slows down. I think that's what was able to happen this year, especially."
If Carroll has it his way, both Wilson and Thomas will only expand on that knowledge between now and next season.
"We're going to school," Carroll said. "It'll be a tremendous offseason for our guys, and I think they're ready for that."
Team photographer Rod Mar shot what turned out to be his final photo essay of the 2015 season, as the Seahawks traveled to North Carolina and fell to the Panthers in the NFC Divisional round of the NFL Playoffs.