ORLANDO— More than 50 minutes into an hour-long session with the media, Seahawks coach Pete Carroll was asked about the notion that he and general manager John Schneider were taking the team apart and starting over after a long, successful run.
Carroll, who is in the midst of his ninth offseason with the Seahawks, answered by saying that he and Schneider anticipated that a period of transition was coming for his team, as is the case, in varying degrees, every offseason, and then Carroll flashed a wry grin and said, "I think we're going to be all right."
He then added, "I'm excited about what we're doing and fired up about the guys who are coming to us."
Yes, the Seahawks have made some significant changes this offseason, both to their roster and on the coaching staff, but as Schneider noted a day earlier when he said the Seahawks were in the midst of “a little reset” and not rebuilding, Carroll made it clear Tuesday that he fully expects the Seahawks to remain a playoff-caliber team, even if some longtime standouts like Richard Sherman and Michael Bennett are now playing elsewhere.
With Sherman and Bennett gone, and with Kam Chancellor and Cliff Avril facing uncertain futures due to neck injuries, Carroll acknowledges that this offseason is a bit different, comparing it to a big graduating class in college, but given that so many of Seattle's top defensive players came into the league from 2010 to 2012, the Seahawks also knew this transition was coming.
"I think we are in the process of the classic offseason," Carroll said Tuesday from the NFL's annual meetings. "All the changes and the almost upheaval that occurs, it's classic for us. Whether it's players or coaches, we have been through it all and this is kind of what happens. It's really not about the guys that are leaving, it's about the guys that are coming in and the guys that show and that step up, and our focus will always be in that regard. Really nothing has changed at all in that sense. Maybe a little bit more of a graduation effect kind of feeling. But when you are coaching football there is always a graduating class. Go all the way back to the Heisman Trophy winners and the Hall of Famers and the All-Americans, that happens every year, and it's how you deal with the change that occurs by focusing on the people coming in and what they are playing for.
"We've always had changes, and it feels like every year is a new challenge, every year is a season of challenge and a season of change, so I don't see it as any different."
Carroll and Schneider fielded questions this week about their team's offseason turnover not just because of what it means to their roster this season, but also in the context of an NFC West that suddenly looks much more formidable than it did a year ago. The Rams were surprise division champions last year under first-year coach Sean McVay; the 49ers came on strong late in the season, and appear to have found their franchise quarterback in the midseason trade that brought Jimmy Garoppolo to the Bay Area; and the Cardinals, while still facing a significant question mark at quarterback, had enough talent to finish 8-8 last season despite numerous significant injuries. But while Carroll readily acknowledges that Seattle's division rivals are on the rise, he's not about to concede the division to anyone.
"If you look at it just from the perspective of right now it might seem like there is a lot going on, but think about just the time that we have been in Seattle," Carroll said. "Think about how much transition has taken place and how much cycling has occurred. From when we won the division at 7-9 and then off into the playoffs from there and all of the talk of how weak our division was, and then how strong our division became the next four, five years. It's just kind of the cycles you go through. I think this is a really exciting time for the L.A. fans and the San Francisco fans the coaches have done such a fantastic job. The newness you know and them being through the cycle of the draft picks and really the beneficial aspect of the timing of the cap right now, they've got a great chance. This is kind of how the cycle works. We have always been in kind of a different situation than that, and we'll try to keep this thing going and the challenge stays there of the division being loaded again."
When Carroll is talking about the cycle of things in the NFL, he's referring to the mechanisms the league has in place to create parity, most notably a salary cap that makes it hard for successful teams to keep all of their best players, as well as the draft, which becomes much more challenging to succeed in when a team is regularly drafting near the end of each round. Since Carroll and Schneider took over, few teams outside of New England have been as good at sustaining success as Seattle, with the Seahawks winning 10 or more games and advancing to at least the divisional round of the playoffs for five straight seasons before falling just short last year at 9-7. In that time, the Seahawks have battled all three NFC West foes for divisional supremacy over the years, and Seattle's ability to stay in the mix year after year is something Carroll is both proud of and also planning on seeing continue in 2018 and beyond.
"The whole thing is designed to make it hard when you win," Carroll said. "That's the whole idea of parity. That word doesn't come up any more, but it certainly is still the factor and we are a tremendous illustration of having to deal with that and when you win a lot and you are in the playoffs year after year after year, your draft picks are as low as they can get, and then eventually you are going to get some pretty good players who have been successful and you've got to pay them, so then the cap issues are there, so all of those guidelines are there to keep things even, and some people can overcome it and some people can't, and we have been able to sustain and feel like we've got a great formula to be able to do that and a great system with John running the personnel acquisition aspect of what we are doing. And we are just freakin' jacked and cranked as we have ever been to keep on going and keep on doing it. So it's just kind of really the managing of it—we are in a whole different mentality than teams who are just starting on the climb and trying to get it going."
One reason the Seahawks expect to stay in contention even as other NFC West teams improve is that, for all they have lost this offseason, the Seahawks currently still have a very talented nucleus in place, a group that includes multiple Pro-Bowl caliber players on both sides of the ball like quarterback Russell Wilson, receiver Doug Baldwin and left tackle Duane Brown on offense, and safety Earl Thomas and linebackers Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright on defense. The Seahawks are also excited about their incoming crop of free agents, even if that group doesn't include any splashy big-money signings, and Carroll and Schneider are also counting on young players drafted over the past couple of years to step up in bigger roles.
"It's really important," Carroll said of wanting to see young players step up this year. "We've been through a bunch of drafts, nine drafts coming up here. You see the big swaps happen and the opportunity for guys to show up. This program has been built around guys coming through and making a big splash, maybe coming out of different spots than you would think and having more significance than you would think—a lot of free agents and low-round picks and stuff like that. So this is certainly that opportunity again. There was a time when you didn't know who Richard was or who Kam Chancellor was and we've been here long enough fortunately that you can see some cycles to it, and that's what we are seeing right now."
The latest cycle the Seahawks are going through means things will be different in 2018, but what was clear listening to Schneider and Carroll talk about their team this week is that expectations will be as high as ever.
"I think we're in a very exciting time for us," Carroll said. "We've watched our guys come through. John and I, we've watched this coming, so we're not surprised by the cycle that we're in. The best way I can tell you is that it feels like a graduating class has come through, like we have every year in college—guys come and go. It's no different here in the league. This one may be a little bit more obvious of a graduating class because the guys kind of came through about the same timeframe. But we have a very solid group on both sides of the football coming back, all of our guys have played, we have experience. Because guys got banged up last year, other guys came in and already filled those spots, so it's not like a big transition in our minds, because we've already seen other guys play and fill in. So I think we're picking up where we left off there, we're going to expect guys to improve, the draft is always important to us—we'll play our guys young and we always have—but we have a tremendous nucleus of the guys that we need with the great leadership that we need from Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright and Earl and those guys on defense, and what we have from Doug and Russell on the offensive side. There's a lot of things that are in place, so we've just got to pick up and go for it again, and see if we can stay healthy, that's a big part of the challenge. We had a hard time last year in a couple spots that made a difference. If we can have good fortune, we have the elements that we need to have a really good team again.
"I think it's kind of quiet, I think people are seeing other aspects of what's going on in our division and all that, that's fine with me, I don't care. I think we're in good shape."
Take a look back at some of the best behind-the-scenes images from the Seahawks' season captured by team photographer Rod Mar.