If the NFL held a draft to expunge words from the football vocabulary, my first-round choice would be “culture.” Football fans think they know what it is, but no one can explain it beyond some vague vibe around the head coach. Some ascribe much virtue to it. My guess is that Don Shula, Vince Lombardi and Tom Landry won a lot of games without knowing what the hell it was.
Bill Belichick and Pete Carroll probably are hip to the term. Yet they won a lot of games seemingly by pursuing “culture” from opposite directions. Belichick’s infrequent smile had all the warmth of the first scratch on a new car. Carroll’s occasional interpretations of Daffy Duck had the capacity to scare small children.
Was either way right? Or wrong? Both gents were successful, yet both appear to have insufficient qualities, including their opposing approaches to culture, to appeal to any of the eight teams that had coaching vacancies this off-season.
Fortunately for me, I won’t have to indulge flagrant over-use of culture regarding the Seahawks. In hiring Mike Macdonald Wednesday, they have a head coach with no culture — of the NFL variety — because he’s never been a head coach, at any level, in his relatively brief tenure upon the planet.
The point came to mind as the first Seahawks coaching search in 14 years meandered through three weeks since Carroll was surprisingly gang-planked. At his lone press conference since then, general manager John Schneider said something that called for scrutiny. He was asked whether Jody Allen, chair of her late brother Paul’s trust and thus the Seahawks’ decider who fired Carroll, gave directions to Schneider as he was handed the football reins of an NFL franchise.
“It’s clear, it’s concise,” Schneider said. “We want to keep our positive culture, everything that’s been created here.”
Well . . . bleah.
What franchise wants another kind? Is there even a choice in sports? Does it matter? Belichick was a curmudgeonly crank, but with six Super Bowl wins and 31 playoff-game wins, it didn’t seem to be a career impediment.
Carroll’s high-energy enthusiasm was a unique personality trait that endeared him to fans, media, players, coaches and employees. But did the creation of a funhouse lead to more football success than some other version?
I’m dubious. What is easier to discern is that the Seahawks weren’t succeeding. Since the last Super Bowl appearance nine years ago, the Seahawks have three playoff wins and have missed the post-season in two of the past three seasons.
In 2023, the Seahawks were 6-1 against non-playoff teams and 3-7 against playoff teams, including 0-4 against the San Francisco 49ers and Los Angeles Rams, division rivals who outscored the Seahawks by a cumulative 106-48. The three wins against good teams? A harrowing survival in OT at Detroit, and two final-minute home dramas, 24-20 over Cleveland and 20-17 over the down-spiraling Eagles. Getting to the final 9-8 record required Geno Smith to set a single-season NFL quarterback record with five final-minute, game-winning drives. Good on Geno. But the Seahawks were one failed play away in each of three games from 6-11.
Carroll could argue that the Seahawks would have been 11-6 had they finished off properly against the Cowboys (41-35) and the second Rams game (17-16). But beyond this typical if-then parlor exercise endured after every season that disappoints is this key conclusion at the end of Carroll’s 14th season in Seattle: Despite consecutive solid drafts, the Seahawks were nowhere near championship caliber.
Where Carroll had been consistently successful was in managing up. A vastly underrated but critical feature in his 14 years was that, regarding major franchise decisions, no daylight appeared between Carroll and Schneider, and Carroll and ownership. Never did any story leak about conflicts between the two on personnel matters. Glance around the NFL and you will see frequent coach/GM disagreements that end up dividing staffs and scouts, producing stories of disarray and dysfunction that often lead to job loss.
That isn’t to say it was all yippee-skippee between the Seahawks leaders. But Carroll averted the potential for public conflicts by dictating terms before he agreed in 2010 to leave USC for a third try in the NFL: He insisted on final say on all football-personnel matters. That very unusual stipulation by a coach was accepted only because then-CEO Tod Leiweke insisted Carroll choose the GM from a list of four executives Leiweke had researched. Carroll interviewed all four and chose Schneider, who had never been a GM.
Leiweke wanted to avoid cronyism. The slick maneuver created a coherent partnership that produced way more hits than misses, helping elevate the Seahawks to one of the NFL’s more highly regarded franchises.
Seven months after Leiweke hired Carroll, he left the Seahawks for the NHL and Tampa Bay, where he was the top executive and a part-owner. Then he moved on to be COO of the NFL, second in command to commissioner Roger Goodell. Now he’s back in town with the NHL and helped make the expansion Kraken a success, housed in a state of art arena at Seattle Center that was privately funded.
The Seahawks never filled the position held by Leiweke, the best executive in Seattle sports history. All senior execs since have been business-side, not football-side. When Paul Allen’s death in 2018 elevated his sister to estate chair, she kept Bert Kolde, her brother’s bestie from college, as vice chair.
Allen and Kolde were referred to by Carroll in a report that quoted him saying “non-football people” fired him, implying they didn’t understand the game. That was a rare bit of foolishness by Carroll — most franchises are owned by non-football people, who paid for the right to fire anyone they want. One team owned by an ex-player, the Dallas Cowboys, has been a house afire for a quarter-century thanks to the nincompoopery of Jerry Jones.
Absent any “football people” oversight in Seattle, Schneider is for the first time in full charge of the Seahawks. Rather than choose either of two credible candidates who were former head coaches, Dan Quinn and Mike Vrabel, he selected the inexperienced McDonald, a highly successful defensive coordinator in two years with the Baltimore Ravens.
At 36, he is the youngest head coach in the NFL. He must also learn to manage up. When Schneider began in Seattle, he was 39. He too, brought no culture, wasn’t in full control and had to learn to manage up.
At 52, he didn’t want another Carroll. Which is good, because there isn’t one. Schneider seeks another Sean McVay, who took the Rams’ top job in 2017 at 30, and won a Super Bowl two years ago.
Culture doesn’t breed winning. Winning breeds culture. The rest is personality.