Over the last six seasons, there hasn't been a more successful team in the NFC than the Seattle Seahawks. Five straight years from 2012 to 2016, the Seahawks won at least 10 games with a playoff victory as well. The team lifted the Lombardi Trophy at the end of Super Bowl XLVIII, and Seattle would have done so again a year later if not for a perplexing play call at the end of Super Bowl XLIX.
However, last year the Seahawks' aura of invincibility took a hit. The team went 9-7 and missed the postseason for the first time since Russell Wilson took the reins as quarterback. And after an offseason that saw Seattle's vaunted "Legion of Boom" defense fall to pieces, last season looks less like a temporary setback and more like Seattle's championship window was slamming shut.
"I couldn't feel more optimistic about our chances to be really good again," Carroll said. "I think there is a championship team sitting in this meeting room right here."
If that optimism hasn't dimmed, Carroll is even more upbeat than we thought—because the team in the meeting room looks a lot different in July.
And not in a good way.
The Seahawks have suffered a jaw-dropping amount of attrition on defense—much of which was self-inflicted. Seattle traded defensive end Michael Bennett to the Philadelphia Eagles and lost fellow end Cliff Avril to retirement. After one year with the team, tackle Sheldon Richardson was allowed to depart in free agency.
What was once one of the most feared pass rushes in the league is now Frank Clark—and not much else.
The secondary was blasted too. Like Avril, strong safety Kam Chancellor was forced out of football by injuries. Batterymate Earl Thomas is embroiled in a contract holdout and has been repeatedly mentioned in trade rumors. Cornerback Richard Sherman was released and then signed with the rival San Francisco 49ers.
As Robert Klemko reported for The MMQB, Sherman wasn't shy about offering his assessment of Seattle's offseason.
"They've lost their way. It's as simple as that," Sherman said. "They've just lost their way. When you make too many mistakes over a long period of time, you kind of dig yourself a hole. And then when you backtrack, you gotta make a bunch of rash decisions to try and fill the hole and hope that it holds up."
The cupboard isn't bare—middle linebacker Bobby Wagner is one of the best in the game, and K.J. Wright isn't far behind. But this was a defense that used to be loaded with talent at all three levels. Since 2012, the lowest the Seahawks have finished in passing yards allowed is eighth.
With due respect to Clark, cornerback Shaquill Griffin and safety Bradley McDougald, the Seahawks' chances of finishing that high in 2018 don't look promising.
It isn't just the defense that was affected by personnel losses in the offseason. The offense took its lumps as well. The departure of wide receiver Paul Richardson might not sting that badly, but watching tight end Jimmy Graham and his double-digit touchdowns sign with the Green Bay Packers did.
Then there's the matter of an offensive line that allowed 43 sacks last year and ranked 25th or worse in the NFL in both run blocking and pass protection per Football Outsiders. Carroll said the glass is half-full there as well with the acquisition of 2013 first-round pick D.J. Fluker and a full season with Duane Brown at left tackle.
"The offensive line is a factor," Carroll told reporters in March. "This is the first year that we really have some continuity coming to us, and adding D.J. Fluker I think is a great positive for us to get his physical dimensions he's going to bring. I think we're poised to make a really good turn here."
"We haven't had a guy like Duane Brown in some time," he added. "Duane coming back is a great plus. He barely got started with us last year, then he got hurt and struggled through an ankle and all of that."
Carroll can talk up Fluker, Brown and new offensive line coach Mike Solari until he's blue in the face. But optimism isn't going to make Fluker, who is on the third team of his career, good. Or make Brown, who missed two games in 2015 and four in 2016, the player he was when he was in his prime in Houston.
Holdovers like third-year pro Germain Ifedi, who is slated to flank Brown at right tackle, don't help the confidence level either.
Will the line be better in 2018? Hopefully. But that doesn't mean it will be great. Or even good.
Much the same thing can be said about a run game that hasn't finished inside the NFL's top 20 since Marshawn Lynch left. Carroll, though, is pleased with the development of rookie first-round pick Rashaad Penny this summer.
"He has picked up a ton of stuff," Carroll told the media in June. "[Running backs coach] Chad [Morton] was just talking about the pass-protection stuff that he looks so comfortable with after the time he has been here. That was something that was new for him and a demanding part of the game."
There have been similarly positive reports regarding Chris Carson, who Bob Condotta of the Seattle Times called the team's best back in OTAs.
Penny is a talented youngster who peeled off over 2,200 rushing yards last year at San Diego State. But he's yet to take an NFL snap in the preseason, much less the regular season. Carson has all of 49 career carries and is returning from a major injury.
Carroll has been equally ebullient about a number of young tailbacks over the last couple of years. They struggled—in large part because the line in front of them wasn't very good.
Yes, in Russell Wilson the Seahawks have one of the NFL's best players at the game's most important position. Doug Baldwin is a Pro Bowl wideout. It's unquestionably Wilson's football team now, and he enters the 2018 campaign as a leading candidate to be the league's MVP.
But he's an MVP contender partly because for the Seahawks to have a good season (by their standards), Wilson will have to stand on his head and carry the team.
One man can only do so much on a football field. Ask Aaron Rodgers.
It doesn't help that as the Seahawks are getting worse, most of the rest of the division is getting better. The Los Angeles Rams won the NFC West last year and were incredibly aggressive in adding veteran stars for a Super Bowl run in 2018. The San Francisco 49ers appear to have found their franchise quarterback in Jimmy Garoppolo and finished last year with five straight wins.
The days when the Seattle Seahawks were easily the best team on paper in the NFC West are gone. They might not be second-best.
As Sherman told Klemko: "It's just unfortunate. It's really unfortunate. I think it'll all come out when they do the 30 for 30. Mistakes and poor judgment on things ruined what could have been a really special deal. You don't have much left right now."
To be fair, there were other factors—losing Chancellor and Avril the way they did was rotten luck, and all the big contracts the team's defensive stars (Sherman included) signed were going to create cap issues at some point.
But Sherman's right. There's not a lot left in Seattle—at least relative to the team that came so close to back-to-back championships. Not enough for the Seahawks to see Atlanta come next February.
The Seahawks are more likely to finish with a sub-.500 record than make the playoffs.
It's a tough pill to swallow for fans after the most successful fistful of seasons in franchise history. But the fall has already started for the "Legion of Boom" Seahawks.
And soon winter is coming.