Bobby Wagner was 11 the first time the Bill Belichick and Tom Brady led the New England Patriots won a Super Bowl. Wagner was 24 when, as an All-Pro middle linebacker, he faced Brady, Belichick and the Patriots in the Super Bowl, and now, two years later, the Seahawks will face the Patriots with those two teams once again proving to be two of the best teams in the NFL.
"They're definitely a team you look at and say, 'Man, they've done it for a while,'" Wagner said of the Patriots. "They've been doing since I was in high school, before that even. You just hope that when you look back on your career that you were relevant the whole time."
The Seahawks know they have a long ways to go to match the Patriots' current run, but in recent years their resume holds up against any team's, New England included. Since Pete Carroll and John Schneider took over as Seattle's head coach and general manager, the Seahawks have been to the playoffs five times in six seasons, advancing to at least the divisional round every year. The Seahawks have won three NFC West titles in that span, had double-digit win totals in four straight seasons, and played in two Super Bowls, winning one in dominant fashion.
But again, the Seahawks will have to keep it up for a while if they're going to catch up with New England, which in 16 seasons under Belichick has won 13 NFC East titles, including the last seven, appeared in six Super Bowls and won four. Heading into this week's game, both Seattle (5-2-1) and New England (7-1) are again in first place in their respective divisions, both looking like prime candidates to make deep postseason runs.
The success the Patriots and Seahawks are enjoying would be impressive in any era, but what makes it particularly remarkable is that both teams have found a way to sustain excellence in a league that is structured to prevent that from happening. So much of how the current NFL is structured is designed to create parity—to eventually bring good teams back to the pack and help struggling ones become more competitive. Everything from draft order to waiver order to scheduling to the salary cap to free agency should in theory keep dynasties from happing in today's NFL, yet the Patriots are well into a second decade of dominance, while the Seahawks are five years into a very impressive run and showing no signs of slowing down.
So how do they do it? Great coaching is a big part of it, as is quarterback play, and of course talent throughout the roster, but because of free agency and the salary cap, teams change a lot over the years, so there's more to it than just finding good players—though that work done by scouting departments is imperative.
"It's the culture, the culture and environment," Seahawks receiver Doug Baldwin said. "Obviously I've never been to the New England side of it, but here, the always-compete mantra, it always allows the cream to rise to the top. When you have that environment, you're always getting the best out of guys in the locker room, then you mix that in with a fun environment with the music blaring, with celebrating individuality, you get this consistent, constant fun competitive nature. I think it's probably similar over there. There are things we don't know that go on inside the organization, but from what I've heard, it's very similar in terms of the competition level."
From a Seahawks perspective, one of the key elements to success has been the culture Carroll has built not just in his locker room, but within the entire organization. Yes, Carroll keeps things fun, but it goes beyond that. It’s embracing individualism in a way that allows players to be their very best on and off the field.
"I think Coach Carroll does a great job as far as allowing players to be themselves, then on game day everybody can just go out there and play ball," defensive end Cliff Avril said. "It's a very comfortable place to come to work every day. You're having a blast, you're shooting hoops, you're listening to music, so you just feel rejuvenated every time you come here, and that allows guys to go out there and play for each other and have fun."
Seahawks defensive tackle Sealver Siliga, who previously played for the Patriots, says both head coaches have a special ability to maximize what they get out of their players.
"Obviously it's two great coaches who know have to pull the best out of their players," Siliga said. "Then both teams have a good core group of players on both teams who help get the newcomers up to speed right away."
For both Carroll and Belichick, one of the keys to sustained success has been finding their philosophies and sticking to them.
"It's staying true to who you are," Carroll said. "Look at the (Patriots), they haven't changed much over the years. There are changes, they've been from 3-4 to 4-3 at times and stuff when they need to, but their ability to stay kind of looking like the same football team for the last 8 or 10 years, I think it's been a remarkable accomplishment—it's probably longer than that. They've been able to fit things together and stay true to how they are and never waver. That's a big challenge, and the core players allow you to stay with that and stay true to it."
A pretty strong case can be made that the two head coaches facing off on Sunday are the best two in the NFL right now, and both have a healthy level of respect for the job the other has done with his team. When Carroll talks about his vision for sustained success, he doesn't set goals for Super Bowl wins; he wants to continually own his division, which gives his team the best chance for playoff success. That's something Carroll witnessed first-hand while coaching in a 1990s AFC East that was dominated by Marv Levy's Buffalo Bills. Now, it's the Patriots winning division title after division title, something Carrol respects immensely.
"Nobody's done it better than they have," Carroll said. "Of course I've watched them intensely over the years, and I really admire the job that they have done, the consistency that they've found. It's a great tribute to the coaching, because Bill has been the constant, he and Tom have been the constants to that. The coaches have changed under him and the players have changed, but the consistency of their performance and the level and style of performance has always stayed at the top level. We've admired that for a long time."
That respect goes both ways, with Belichick equally impressed with how the Seahawks have done things, even if the two teams have at times taken different approaches to achieve high levels of success.
"When we look at Seattle, we schematically are different from them, but there's nobody better than Seattle, so I think there's a lot of different ways to be successful," Belichick said on a conference call with Seattle-area media. "I think that Coach Carroll, John Schneider and those guys have done a great job of putting together a championship team. They're good every week. They're good every year. They lead the league in a lot of categories consistently; the most important one being wins. They know how to win and they know how to compete every single week, and that's something that we've tried to take note of from them and find ways to help our team do a better job in those areas, too."
Carroll too has learned plenty from watching Belichick over the years.
"I think trying to be really good at everything that you do is probably something that our teams are similar in in some regards," Carroll said. "If you look at a lot of numbers, you see there's a lot of similarities in there over the long haul… Really, again, staying true to who you are and your approach so you can be really good at it and you can get going so you can do it well, regardless of what's going on the other side that you're facing or as the changes come by."
Get to know the faces of the New England Patriots' offensive and defensive units heading into the team's Week 10 matchup with the Seattle Seahawks.
Not as Different as They Might Seem
On the surface, there might not be two coaches in the league who are less alike that Carroll and Belichick. But even if their personalities come across differently in press conferences or on the sideline, the have a lot more in common than people might think, ranging from their defensive backgrounds to their fierce competitiveness to the way they have been able to build winning cultures that allow their teams to sustain success in a league set up to keep that from happening.
When Belichick was talking earlier this week about the success of undrafted free agents on New England's roster, he explained it by saying, "We try to create a competitive situation and just let the players decide how it works out… We let the competition bring out the best in everyone?" Sounds familiar, doesn't it?
Lawyer Milloy played for Carroll both in New England and Seattle, and also played two seasons under Belichick with the Patriots. Prior to his two former teams meeting in Super Bowl XLIX, Milloy noted that the two "might seem different, but they’re very similar. They're going to compete to get that locker room atmosphere right. Individuals are not bigger than the process. If you do anything to sway the direction of the team in the wrong way, you're out of there. Everybody thinks Pete is a happy-go-lucky player's coach or whatever, but look at his first year when we had (284 player) transactions. Everybody says he's a player's coach, but all the players were coming in every day looking to see if their name was still on the roster.
"The biggest difference is one's got a smile on his face, the other one doesn't, but the ultimate goal is to win championships, and both love, love winning. To be a good head coach, you've got to be a tremendous facilitator to build the right atmosphere; both those guys do that."
It's All About the Ball
The Seahawks and Patriots have played very different styles of football over the years, and what has helped one team succeed hasn't always been a big part of the other team's game, but if you're looking for one concrete explanation for both team's sustained success, look no further than turnover differential.
Since 2012, which is Russell Wilson's rookie season and also the year that marks the Seahawks turning a corner under Carroll, the Patriots lead the NFL in turnover differential at plus-56. The Seahawks are a close second at plus-52, followed by a massive gap between them and the third-best team in that all-important statistical measure, Carolina at plus-29.
"It starts with taking care of the football and not giving it up," Carroll said. "We have sort of similar turnover ratios over the years, there's stuff there that I really admire the way they're able to hang on to the ball. They've been great with not fumbling the football, and right now they haven't thrown an interception yet, if you can imagine that."
Of course no player is more important to ball security than the quarterback, which is a big reason why the Seahawks and Patriots have been so good. Brady will go down as one of the best quarterbacks to ever play the game, and as Carroll mentioned, he has been the one constant for New England over this run other than the head coach. And just as Brady has helped New England win with a changing roster, Wilson, along with Carroll and Schneider, is one of the biggest reasons the Seahawks are a threat to stay on top for a long time. And it's no coincidence that in addition to putting up big numbers, both of those quarterbacks are great at taking care of the football.
"It's so important," Carroll said of quarterbacks avoiding turnovers. "You're seeing one of the great illustrations of why programs can stay winning. Without that, it just doesn't happen. You've got to have a great dedication and respect for the ball, you have to do that. We're trying to exemplify that better than anybody's ever done it over a long period of time. You keep cranking out that emphasis, and Russell leads the charge. He's got the ball in his hands on every snap on offense. They are great at it too. All of the factors, if you want to get down to one, I would say that would be the most key and crucial factor to both our teams and why we win some games and keep making it challenging every year."