Some might view it as a negative for an NFL team to have an open competition for a starting job midway through a season. Seahawks coach Pete Carroll, however, is as optimistic as they come, so it's hardly a surprise that he can look at an unsettled job and see an opportunity for his team to improve.
One of the questions heading into Sunday's game against the Pittsburgh Steelers Sunday is that of who starts at right cornerback. That has been Cary Williams' job all season, but after seeing a few too many plays they didn't like last week, Seahawks coaches made an in-game switch, replacing Williams with DeShawn Shead. Carroll wouldn't say this week if Williams will take his job back this week or if Shead will get the start, or if perhaps Jeremy Lane could start there in his first game back from the physically unable to perform list. But what Carroll does know, what so many years of operating under an "always compete" philosophy has reinforced, is that opening up the job to competition 10 games into the season will lead to better play out of that position one way or another.
The way Carroll sees it, one of two things should have taken place over the past few days of practice: either Williams, motivated by what he hopes was a temporary benching, responded well, had a great week of practice and took back his job, or Shead grabbed ahold of an opportunity and had a strong enough week of practice that he earned a start.
"It should bring out the best in everybody," Carroll said. "That's the whole idea. Everybody's got to feel it to find their best. Feel the pressure of it, and the stress, and the competitive point of it. That's why we've lived with that for a long time."
Nearly every coach in every sport is going to preach competition, but few professional teams are willing to live it as often as the Seahawks. Undrafted rookies regularly beat drafted players for jobs out of training camp in Seattle; a third-round pick won a quarterback competition over a big-money free agent and the incumbent in 2012; and in Carroll's first season, a receiver who had been out of football for two seasons played well enough for the Seahawks to release the previous regime's pricy free-agent signing (Mike Williams for T.J Houshmandzadeh).
Just this season, we've seen a practice squad player win a job over someone at his position on the 53-man roster (Kevin Smith for Chris Matthews) a midseason competition at center go to the challenger (Patrick Lewis for Drew Nowak), and this week's starting running back, undrafted rookie Thomas Rawls, is on the roster largely because he outplayed Christine Michael, a former second-round pick, in training camp. Now, one of Seattle's top offseason free agent-signings is being pushed for his job by an undrafted player who has spent much of his NFL career playing safety, and in the Seahawks world, that's a good thing.
Without giving away anything, defensive coordinator Kris Richard said he likes what the competition has brought out of his players this week.
"It just rejuvenates, and that's what it comes down to," he said. "It's kind of one of those deals where it's not necessarily complacency or ever was or anything of that nature. It's just there's a level of execution that we've come to expect and we need out there. When it's not happening, the guys that are behind, they should have an opportunity. Really, it should just lock you back in if it's your spot, or if you're battling for it, just be locked in and go for it."
If Williams, who has played very well at times this season, gets the nod this week, it will mean he showed the consistency Carroll and his defensive coaches are looking for out of that position.
"We need to be more consistent and make sure that we're making the adjustments as we're going along and staying with us," Carroll said early in the week. "He's been playing hard and tough, and trying to get it done and figure it out. But he's new to the system and some of the principles. You've just got to keep coming back to it and all that. So he'll work really hard at it."
And if Shead prevails in the competition, it will be another impressive step in the career of one of Seattle's most versatile players. Undrafted out of Portland State, Shead got his start on Seattle's practice squad in 2012, then eventually won a roster spot and made his mark on special teams. This season, however, Shead has been a big part of Seattle's defense while also remaining one of the leaders on special teams. After replacing Williams last week, Shead has now seen significant playing time this season at right cornerback, left cornerback (against St. Louis when Richard Sherman played in the slot), strong safety (starting against Green Bay) and the nickel spot where he has played for much of the season.
"He's a real good football player," Carroll said. "I always say that to you because he's such a good all-around player. A runner, a hitter, and he's a playmaker. He knocked the ball out on the kickoff return. He's our best guy at forcing fumbles in practice. He's the most productive, consistent guy at that. And it's noted, if he's on the field more, he'll knock some more balls out. That's just how he plays. And sure enough he did it. He had a great, clean strip on the ball that rolled out of bounds on us. So we'll see how that goes."
Whether Shead or Williams starts on Sunday remains to be seen, but regardless of the outcome of this weeks' competition, the Seahawks believe they'll be better off for allowing it to happen.
"Hopefully it's that feeling across the board on our team," Carroll said. "That's why these guys work hard in practice and they push each other, and matchup to beat each other every day, to push us. That should bring out the best of us, and that's what this is doing."