Wilson or Carroll? The crucial choice facing Seattle after a disastrous 2021

Photograph: Chris Unger/Getty Images

After a period of unprecedented, sustained success, the Seahawks have bottomed out. Now, they’re at a crossroads.

Defeat to the Bears last Sunday dropped the Seahawks to 5-11 on the season. They have no shot at making the playoffs. The roster features a rotating morass of mediocrity. There are questions about the future of their franchise quarterback, head coach and chief personnel decision-maker.

Things could be about to get ugly. There remains an oft-repeated myth around Seattle that the Russell Wilson-Pete Carroll partnership turned sour once the franchise quarterback started to get paid like a franchise quarterback.

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The theory makes some sense. The Seahawks were the first team to truly take advantage of the modern Collective Bargaining Agreement that turned a quarterback on a rookie contract into the sport’s leading market inefficiency. Seattle had Wilson on the cheap, and it was able to surround him with a bevy of Hall of Famers slap-bang in the middle of their primes.

Carroll, Wilson and the vaunted Legion of Boom stomped all over the NFC on their way to two Super Bowls, winning one and dropping the other to the Brady-Belichick Patriots, falling one yard short of back-to-back titles.

It would be neat and easy if things took a sudden downshift from there; if paying Wilson was the sole reason for the decline – the expense of a $30m per year quarterback meaning talent leaking out of the roster elsewhere.

It’s also inaccurate. This year represents Carroll’s first losing season as a coach since 2011. Since the Seahawks drafted Wilson in 2012, few if any franchises have matched the pair’s success, including the period in which Wilson was signed to an extension.

Tampa Bay with Brady, Kansas City with Mahomes, and New Orleans with Drew Brees certainly had (and have) no issues maintaining a championship-caliber roster with a quarterback subsuming more than 20% of the salary cap. Patrick Mahomes, Dak Prescott and Josh Allen all absorb a higher percentage of their team’s cap sheet, on average, than Wilson.

It is not a question of Seattle being able to sign, draft or trade for talent that would fit under the cap to support Wilson. It’s about who the Seahawks have opted to sign, draft and trade for.

This season is the result of a near-decade of iffy draft and personnel decisions, dating back to the very start of the Wilson era. Since 2013, the Seahawks have made 15 draft picks in the first or second round. Only one, DK Metcalf, has made a Pro Bowl. Three – Metcalf, Frank Clark, Jarran Reed – would be considered above average players. Only one of those, Metcalf again, remains with the team. On top of that, they traded first-rounders for Jimmy Graham, Percy Harvin and two first-rounders for Jamal Adams. All three were misses; the Adams whiff not only hit the team talent-wise but also forced Seattle to completely re-define the stylistic makeup of their defense to try to accommodate his weaknesses.

A franchise quarterback and a savvy, defense-first coach can only cover up so many defects. At some point, the other players must make some plays. Seattle simply lacks talent.

That’s partly why Wilson looked to bail on the whole enterprise last offseason. As he’s always very keen to point out, Wilson did not demand a trade. He simply pointed out the four specific teams he would like to go to if Seattle wanted to trade him, which, obviously, he did not want. No, sir.

It was a masterclass in petty. The carefully coordinated media leaks. The Tune Out The Noise social media onslaught. As reported by the Athletic, Wilson believed things had grown stale. It was reported that Wilson, and others, had started to tune out Carroll’s happy-clappy style.

The Seahawks have tried to evolve in all the ways Wilson would ever demand. They shifted philosophies on defense, trying to keep up with all of the game’s latest innovations, rather than sticking doggedly to the style that drove them through their initial period of success.

DK Metcalf

Of the Seahawks’ 15 first- or second-round draft picks since 2013, only DK Metcalf has made a Pro Bowl Photograph: Steph Chambers/Getty Images

On offense, there has been a willingness to change things, too. From the caveman stylings of Brian Schottenheimer and Darrell Bevell, the Seahawks looked to get younger and slicker by bringing in Shane Waldron from the Rams to run the offense. But any sense of the Seahawks embracing the confuse-and-clobber style that powered the Jared Goff era Rams has not come to fruition.

There are two reasons: a) defenses finding counters to that style of offense (the Seahawks missed on when they wanted to jump into that evolutionary cycle); b) Russell Wilson.

At this point, it’s clear there’s not a Seahawks style or a Schottenheimer style or a Waldron style or a Carroll style. It’s Wilson’s style. His unwillingness to throw over the middle of the field has taken on meme-level proportions this season. Wilson has attempted just 26 passes of 10 yards or more over the middle of the field this season, an average of two a game. By comparison, Tom Brady is averaging seven such attempts a game, Aaron Rodgers is averaging five, Patrick Mahomes is averaging four. In fact, among 34 eligible quarterbacks this season, Wilson ranks 29th in the league in the average number of attempts per game he targets beyond ten yards in the middle of the field.

To play in a Russell Wilson offense means to forfeit the middle of the field, which constricts whatever Seattle might like to do on offense.

This has been a long-running theme to Wilson’s game. It’s why he’s able to limit turnovers, but in playing such a compressed style defenses can better cut off his supply line outside.

Wilson’s game has always been built around the deep ball. He takes the easy guff underneath and launches delightful darts down the field to move the Seahawks offense along. This year, as defenses vacate the middle and focus on the perimeter, his effectiveness has tumbled. His adjusted completion percentage (which removes throwaways) ranks 23rd among eligible quarterbacks this season on throws of 20 yards or more, per Pro Football Focus. That puts him behind Davis Mills, Tua Tagovailoa, Carson Wentz and a fossilized Ben Roethlisberger, hardly a who’s who of Favre-ian gunslingers.

As much as the offense needed to adapt and grow coming into the year, so did its pilot. He did not. Wilson then got hurt. Before the Seahawks could blink, the season had slipped away.

As this offseason approaches, Seattle’s ownership now faces a tricky choice: to move on from Carroll; to move on from Wilson; to move on from everyone, including John Schneider, the personnel czar. There’s little to no chance all three will return. Two of them? Maybe.

Carroll departing seems the most likely outcome. Whether or not Wilson’s season-long slump is indicative of anything longer-term, the Seahawks want nothing to do with the annual quarterback merry-go-round. Moving on from Carroll is likely the team’s best shot to convince the quarterback to stick around long-term.

Carroll deserves credit for his willingness to re-energize the franchise, for trying to evolve rather than getting stuck in his own fuddy-duddy ways. This isn’t the story of a coach who stayed too long, or an organization that went down thinking its way would always be The Way. This is a team that paired a talented quarterback with an excellent coach and an extraordinary roster and ran through the league like few before. Two remain true, yet the final and most important part, the core of the roster, has sunk to depressing levels of incompetence. Now, they need a reboot.

“Not for one reason at all am I thinking that we need to restart the whole thing,” Carroll said this week. There is some truth there. The Seahawks will be flush with the cap space needed to re-fashion the roster around Wilson if the quarterback wishes to stick around. But the Seahawks do need a fairly dramatic overhaul. Making a break from coach and quarterback at this stage would be easier than betting on the two to rediscover their old mojo.