When Jim Mora was asked Wednesday whether he had talked to CEO Tod Leiweke, he said, “Tod’s busy with some other things right now.”
It was assumed those things involved a search for the Seahawks’ new general manager. Little did anyone know that Leiweke was actually talking to USC coach Pete Carroll in Los Angeles about replacing Mora.
What an odd little triangle it is shaping up to be.
Mora eschewed a possible chance to coach his alma mater, UW, by signing on to take over the Seahawks, so UW hired Steve Sarkisian from Carroll’s USC program. And now it looks like Carroll will join Sarkisian in Seattle, replacing Mora as coach of the Seahawks. What a completely unexpected two-year, three-man weave that turned out to be.
The Seahawks’ decision to fire Mora after one season and then lure the biggest name in college football is a bit of a stunner for several reasons, and you have to wonder whether owner Paul Allen is doing the right thing for his franchise with the kind of moves that have failed time and again in Oakland and Washington.
As inadvisable as it is to fire a coach after just one season (see how well it has worked for the Raiders), Mora’s team—particularly the offense—went backward in the final month of the season, so it’s hard to blame Allen for not having faith in Mora and for wanting to start over.
But are the Seahawks doing it the right way? Plucking a college coach—albeit the best one—and giving him control of the entire football operation? Is hiring the most high-profile coach the answer? It never has been in Washington, where both Steve Spurrier and Joe Gibbs have failed in recent years.
As Spurrier proved, college coaches usually do not fare well in the pros. The Seahawks experienced that truism themselves with Dennis Erickson, an excellent university coach who was simply average in the NFL (31-33 in four seasons).
But Carroll, 58, is not really a college coach. He is a pro coach who turned USC into a semi-pro program that dominated the NCAA in the 2000s.
Before heading to college in 2001, Carroll had some success in the NFL, tallying a 33-31 record in four seasons during the 1990s. And he really got a pretty raw deal all the way around by the Jets and Patriots, who never let him build his own team and simply blamed him when he lost with other people’s leftovers.
His first gig, with the Jets, coincidentally lasted just as long as Mora’s tenure in Seattle—the Jets fired Carroll after he went 6-10 in his only season, 1994.
After a couple of solid years as defensive coordinator in San Francisco, Carroll got a second stint as head coach in 1997, when he replaced Bill Parcells as coach of the Patriots. He took the Pats to the playoffs in his first two seasons, but an 8-8 record in 1999 got him fired as he failed to live up to the standards Parcells had set.
Bill Belichick replaced Carroll, who a year later took his pro system to USC. And just like that, two dynasties were born.
As Carroll turned USC into the NCAA’s best program over the last decade, the NFL tried to lure him back again and again. But he enjoyed being the new king of college football and refused to go back to the NFL unless he had total control over the franchise’s football decisions. Now, he apparently will get it with the Seahawks, who reportedly have offered to make him both the coach and the president at a salary of $7 million per year.
One of the major questions in this deal—assuming it goes down—is whether the Seahawks are giving Carroll more control than they offered Mike Holmgren last month. If so, why give that kind of power to a guy whose success mostly has come at the college level but not offer it to a guy who took your franchise to a Super Bowl just four years ago and has experience as an NFL GM?
You have to wonder: If this package—president, coach, and $7 million per year—were on the table for Holmgren three weeks ago, would he have taken it rather than become president of the Cleveland Browns? In Cleveland right now, Holmgren is probably wondering the same thing.
So how would Carroll impact the franchise?
Well, the guy is an excellent defensive coach. His units in San Francisco and New England were almost always in the top 10 in fewest points allowed. And that was despite the fact that he never really got the chance to build them the way he would have liked.
The transition in Seattle could be fairly smooth. Most of the Seattle defenders are familiar with Carroll’s defense because they ran a similar version under John Marshall. Lofa Tatupu and Lawrence Jackson are former USC players who could quickly help the rest of the players pick it up.
On offense, Carroll wants to bring his USC coordinator, Jeremy Bates, with him. Bates, 33, is young and very inexperienced, but he is known as an innovative young coach, which might be just what the Hawks need to replace the stale offense coordinated by Greg Knapp this season.
The key is that Bates knows the West Coast offense, having learned under Gruden and Shanahan. So he could be perfect for quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, who could have a lot of leeway to run the offense as he did when Holmgren was around.
Of course, Bates also might end up going to Chicago or Washington. In that case, Carroll could bring in Norm Chow, his old coordinator at USC who is now at UCLA. Or Jim Zorn, whom Hasselbeck knows so well. Either way, it looks like the offense should be more to Hasselbeck's liking in 2010.
Additionally, any USC players the Seahawks draft—safety Taylor Mays, tackle Charles Brown, et al.—would have a seamless transition to Seattle’s schemes.
As they prepare to sign Carroll
The Seahawks also are still trying to find a GM. Tom Heckert (Philadelphia) and Eric DeCosta (Baltimore) both withdrew from consideration. Heckert is the favorite to join Holmgren in Cleveland, and DeCosta probably didn’t want to leave Baltimore simply to play second fiddle to Carroll.
The Hawks supposedly are still planning to meet with John Schneider of the Packers and Marc Ross of the Giants next week. But it wouldn’t be surprising to see them retain Ruston Webster, since his role would remain primarily as the lead personnel man and he surely wouldn’t make waves about not being chief in charge.
This kind of arrangement has worked well in Philadelphia, where Andy Reid has the power and is backed up by his GM, Heckert. It didn’t work so well in Denver, where Mike Shanahan made many poor personnel decisions and hamstrung himself as coach. The structure worked OK for a while in Tampa Bay, where Jon Gruden was king but worked in concert with his GM, Bruce Allen. So what the Seahawks are doing is not unprecedented, and it’s quite possible to be successful with this set up.
The other minor issue the Hawks are trying to deal with is the league’s Rooney Rule, which requires teams to interview minorities for coaching and GM positions. Ross would satisfy the requirement in the GM hunt, and Leiweke reportedly is in Minnesota today to interview Vikings defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier for the coaching gig. And they are apparently trying to set up an interview with San Diego DC Ron Rivera.
But with Seattle’s flirtation with Carroll now public knowledge, it seems obvious the Seahawks are simply using Frazier and Rivera to satisfy the rule.
If Frazier and Rivera turn them down, the Hawks could argue that they tried to comply. Of course, that argument didn’t work for Detroit when GM Matt Millen wanted to hire Steve Mariucci and couldn’t find a minority assistant to help satisfy the Rooney Rule. The Lions were fined $200,000 by Commissioner Paul Tagliabue for non-compliance, and Tagliabue said the next violation by any team would carry a fine of $500,000. That penalty could be even higher under Roger Goodell.
The Hawks didn’t have to deal with the Rooney Rule when Mora replaced Holmgren last year because Mora was an assistant who had been named coach-in-waiting, which qualifies as an exception to the Rooney interview requirement.
This time the Hawks are planning to bring in the biggest name in college football. Why should they bother with the charade of interviewing minority assistants who have no chance at the job? Just hire Carroll and move on.
If the NFL wants to punish them for doing that, Allen can afford the $500,000 or whatever Goodell fines him (assuming, of course, that draft picks are not involved). The cash would be a drop in the bucket compared to the $35 million or more he will be paying Carroll and the $12 million he will still be paying Mora. Allen can afford it all.
What he can’t afford, however, is to be wrong about Carroll. This is a high-stakes, high-profile gamble—the kind Snyder has lost over and over in Washington.
Allen is gambling he won’t become the next Dan Snyder. He’s gambling that firing Mora after just one year and giving the power to Carroll instead of Holmgren are the right moves.
Allen can’t afford to lose this gamble. If he does, he will have burned almost $50 million on coaches and the Hawks will end up spending the 2010s like they spent the 1990s: out of the playoffs.
Let’s hope that doesn’t happen, for Pete’s sake—and the Seahawks'.