The Seahawks Game that Broke Wilson and Carroll

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Seahawks coach Pete Carroll and QB Russell Wilson were heading in different directions for awhile.   / Drew McKenzie, Sportspress Northwest

Theories about what killed the relationship between coach Pete Carroll and QB Russell Wilson likely will fester and linger in the manner of theories about the Kennedy assassination. As football’s grassy knoll is endlessly examined in Seattle, the NFL has a more forward-thinking agenda for the opening weekend of its regular season: Feeding America’s lust for instant gratification.

The league exploited Seattle’s anxiety over the departure of Wilson to its highest pinnacle — the showcase of Monday Night Football and its giant national TV audience. Pitting Wilson’s new team, the Denver Broncos, against his old team in the stadium that he helped turn into the NFL’s most massive auditory annoyance, is diabolically juicy sports theater. It also provides an easy platform for the instant rendering of which side won the NFL’s most dramatic off-season transaction.

In the likely event of a defeat — the Broncos are favored by 6.5 points, up from 3.5 in May — Carroll will be judged nationally to have blown the trade as well as the Seahawks’ season and future, and Wilson will be given wings toward his prime directive of becoming the season’s Most Valuable Player.

Those assertions would be wrong. At least, premature.

But responsibility for creating them falls upon Carroll and the general manager, John Schneider. Part of their charge is the adroit, long-term management of superstar talents, and they let Wilson get away after 10 very good years. Just as the Mariners did with Ken Griffey Jr., Monday’s outcome will offer relatively little about the trade because full results await the 2023 draft, where Seattle has Denver’s first- and second-round picks. The March trade that brought the Seahawks two high draft picks and two starting veterans can’t be honestly evaluated for a while. But the teams are meeting in 2022, so yeah, the Broncos have slipped the Seahawks a shiv.

As for Wilson’s lust to be voted the NFL’s highest individual honor, if it hasn’t happened yet, it is more unlikely now. A big part of his game has been his legs, but age — he’s 34 in November –will put a claim on speed and quickness. Among the QBs who have flourished later in careers (Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers, Brett Favre, etc.), all were pocket passers. That’s never been a forte for Wilson, largely because he’s too short to see well the middle of the field. He compensates brilliantly with throws on the move. That too will diminish.

However, Wilson will be venerated within the Broncos franchise as he was not at Seahawks headquarters, where his wizardry grew from Potter to Dumbledore but would never rule Hogwarts as long as Carroll was there. In Denver, Wilson is the eminence whose gravitas is measured in megatons. The franchise has a new owner, a new head coach (who has never been a head coach), and seven assistants who are new to their stations. Since the Broncos haven’t been to the playoffs in six seasons, they are more than happy to Let Russ Cook in a way that would (and did) cause the risk-averse Carroll to retch.

So Wilson is incentivized to shove the meal down Seattle’s throats. He’s likely to dazzle Monday as much as he fizzled in what proved to be his final nationally important game in Seattle. It’s the game outcome that is most representative of the split.

In 2020, the Seahawks won 12 games, the NFC West title and earned a playoff home game on Jan. 9, 2021. However, they drew in the playoffs their nemeses, the Los Angeles Rams, who imposed their will, 31-20, in a stadium emptied by COVID. Seattle’s most galling single play came in the second quarter when, trailing 6-3, the Seahawks called for a wide receiver screen pass to DK Metcalf, a play the Rams had scouted well. It’s also one Wilson likely is never pleased to throw because the pass is sideways, not downfield. Rams CB Darious Williams intercepted and ran it back 42 yards for a touchdown. Bad play choice, bad throw. The Seahawks never recovered.

Aside from a 2016 game in sub-zero Minneapolis, it was Wilson’s worst playoff game, 11 of 27 for 174 yards with five sacks and 10 QB hits. Even after Rams All-Monster DT Aaron Donald left the game with a sternum injury in the third quarter, Wilson over the next three possessions was two for seven for 16 yards. Net yards of offense: Three, because of five penalties (four offensive) for 35 yards.

Many were the contributors to what may have been the worst offensive sequence of the Carroll/Wilson era. Taking it hardest was Wilson, who needed 45 minutes to reach the post-game podium. He said, “I hate this feeling.”

Far as I know, it was his first public use of the word “hate.” I should have paid closer attention.

Little more than a month later, he told a national radio show he was tired of being hit so much, and wanted more say in the offense; the first critical words he’d spoken in his time in Seattle. It was the first public sign of the rot in the relationship. Wilson’s future was put in play nationally by agent Mark Rodgers, who leaked a list of four teams to which Wilson would agree to be traded (his contract contained a no-trade provision). It was the beginning of the end.

Publicly silent, Carroll and Schneider were privately furious. And, after a 7-10 season in 2022 that included Wilson’s first noteworthy injury, here we are. Grand irony: Because of injuries to both his quarterbacks, Rams coach Sean McVay went ultra conservative on offense, rushing 43 times for 164 yards, to win a playoff game on the road, Seattle’s first home playoff loss since 2005. Wilson was beaten by the style he eschews. Might even happen again Monday.

McVay’s ball-security emphasis that game is the kind of thing Carroll proposes to do this season with Wilson’s successor, the mediocre Geno Smith. It’s been Carroll’s hallmark to build good defenses and special teams, insist that the quarterback take few risks, and win games late. Apart from contract extension matters, the conflict illustrates why Wilson didn’t want to be here, and ultimately why Carroll didn’t want him here.

Carroll this week sounded defensive enough to be defiant.

“We’ve been averaging 10 wins a year for the last 20-something years,” he said, counting his USC tenure from 2001-09. “You think I could think anything different than that? I don’t. I don’t see any reason my expectation should change at all. I don’t care what anybody says. People have been saying stuff about teams for years. They don’t know. They’re just guessing at this point. And then we go and prove it.”

Apart from these layers of dysfunction, there’s a fundamental question to ask of fans ahead of Monday: Are you going to cheer or boo the return of the greatest player in Seahawks history? As is often the case when family problems cry out for wise solutions, we turn to The Simpsons. In this case, Marge was breaking up a squabble between Bart and Lisa.

“I hope you understand,” she said, “I’m too tense to like you.”

Since Seattle is way too tense about this, let Russ have it. At the Ring of Honor ceremony for him in 15 years, all will be forgiven.

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Art Thiel is a longtime sports columnist in Seattle, for many years at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, and now as founding editor at SportsPressNW.com.

7 COMMENTS

  1. Russ has been a more polished, more savvy version of Alex Rodriguez. Taking extra steps such as knowing his Bible and regularly visiting Seattle Childrens Hospital while driving away in his Mercedes to his mansion in the Meydenbauer Bay area of Bellevue. Every contract talk he would forget the Seahawks and cut off any public talk. Like ARod he worked hard on his image. Make no mistake he’s a solid QB who will go the HOF but he’s been All Pro only once and that was as a second teamer. Going to the Pro Bowl is not the honor it once was because multiple times he was an injury replacement and it’s just an exhibition game. He wasn’t even playoff MVP. He’s in a new city, new team with different teammates, new coaches, new offense and new conference. As much as the pressure is on Pete Carroll it’s also on Wilson.

  2. Pro athletes can, and sometimes do, worse than be a little phony. We don’t hear much criticism of RW from the parents of kids he visited. Nevertheless, to have cameras record many of his charitable works was annoying. Bobby Wagner, as just one comparative, did many quality deeds in the community, but we often learned about through incidental encounters by fans sharing on social media. But now that RW changed his professional laundry, his flaws and shortcomings get some airing.

  3. I was skeptical when Pete Carroll came to Seattle, unsure that his rah rah demeanor was real, but he sold me. The man is the real deal and Pete Carroll—not Russell Wilson—is the man most responsible for the most successful run in Seahawks history. Russell Wilson, to be sure, is a big part of the success, but it was defense and a good running game that brought Seattle a Super Bowl, and many people—especially national media—tend to forget that. This year marks a massive change for Pete Carroll and Co. and I wouldn’t read too much into Monday’s game, dramatic though it figures to be. Instead, I look for the Hawks to be a bit sluggish early in the season but hitting their best stride over the final third of the campaign, just as Pete Carroll coached teams tend to do.

  4. Griffey and Randy Johnson got warm receptions in their first games back after forcing their way out of Seattle, but then again those games were a few seasons after the trades thanks to interleague play. If Wilson’s first game back was 2024, he’d likely get a similar response. The guy was on Seattle’s first “Big Four” champion since the 1979 Sonics, after all.

    Personally, I’m not going to pay too much attention. I’m writing this year off as a rebuilding season, and I’m a lot more worried about the Sounders missing the playoffs than the Wilson-Carroll/Schneider feud.

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