Internal strife eating at Seahawks, challenging Carroll

Larry Stone
Seattle Times

When Pete Carroll addressed the media a few days after the Seahawks’ season-ending loss to Atlanta in mid-January, he began, as he is wired to do, with a soliloquy of optimism.

“By the time we walked out of that locker room,” the coach said, “because of the year that it’s been and the things we’ve gone through and the things we overcame, the connection of the players was unbelievably tight. As much so as any team that we’ve had in the time we’ve been here.”

One has to wonder, however, how much of that declaration by Carroll was mere wishful thinking, or him willing it to be true. Four and a half months later — and 3 1/2 months before the season opener in Green Bay — the tightness of those connections are very much in question after a tumultuous offseason.

An ESPN article last week highlighted the tension that has long reverberated among three key figures of Seattle’s would-be (but not quite) dynasty — Carroll, quarterback Russell Wilson and cornerback Richard Sherman.

In light of those dynamics, coupled with the ongoing drama over Sherman’s future with the team, one thing is certain: This coming season will be the most delicate, most difficult and most important coaching challenge of Carroll’s career here.

How successfully he can resolve the issues roiling under the surface — and increasingly spilling over into public view — will provide strong evidence on whether Carroll’s coaching ethos of allowing players to express their personalities is a sustainable model.

It’s hard to argue with the Seahawks’ overwhelming success under Carroll — two Super Bowl trips, one title and five consecutive playoff appearances. Yet two nagging questions are haunting the team as it tries to belie the NFL’s institutional barriers against maintaining perennial success.

One is whether there is a statute of limitations on Carroll’s manifesto of positivity. Many have pointed out his style might be better suited for the college game; not because it isn’t effective with professionals — it demonstrably is — but rather the constant turnover in college allows his message to resonate freshly with an ever-rotating group of players.

Certainly, NFL players tend to have a relatively short shelf life, but the Seahawks’ decision to lock up their core players has led to an astonishing and atypical amount of continuity, particularly on defense. Sherman, Earl Thomas, Kam Chancellor, Bobby Wagner, K.J. Wright, Michael Bennett, Cliff Avril, DeShawn Shead and Jeremy Lane all remain from the Super Bowl teams (and in some cases well before) — and all would have graduated and moved on by now based on the timetable of a college program.

One has to wonder if Carroll’s exhortations continue to resonate with them, or if, as the ESPN article suggests, they’ve begun to not only wear thin, but also grate.

His ability to keep the Seahawks buying into what he’s selling will go a long way toward determining whether these fractures are repairable.

The second question, inextricably linked to the previous one, is whether the franchise’s trajectory toward dynastic achievement was irretrievably thrown off track by the most devastating loss in NFL history in Super Bowl XLIX.

If there’s one takeaway from Seth Wickersham’s ESPN piece, it’s the deep-rooted pain from that game — particularly the shocking interception of Wilson’s pass intended for Ricardo Lockette from the 1-yard line — is the conduit of all the lingering grievances.

That’s hardly a shocker on the surface, considering Sherman made his ongoing discontent crystal clear with his sideline tirade after a Wilson pass in Week 15 against the Rams was almost intercepted at the L.A. 1. Sherman didn’t mince words in linking that play to Seattle’s ill-fated decision to pass rather than hand it to Marshawn Lynch in the Super Bowl against New England.

But what was revelatory was how the fallout from the interception highlighted divisions within the locker room between offense and defense, as well as isolating the perception Wilson receives favored-son treatment from Carroll.

That’s an awful lot of tangled string to unravel for the coach, who characteristically seems energized to tackle the job.

The Seahawks always have reveled in the noise and pomp, which they believe ultimately works in their favor. But there’s another connotation to “circus,” of course, that hardly can be called fun, and Seattle’s offseason has embodied it.

Some will say all this turmoil is the inevitable backlash of fame and fortune coming home to roost. It’s a cycle of boom and bust that has struck down many a Super Bowl champion.

Carroll, on the other hand, believes he has the tools to thwart that outcome, and “Win Forever.”