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Seahawks Attempt to Turn Corner With Heavy Pursuit of Pete Carroll

Published: January 9, 2010

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Pete Carroll appeared cool and relaxed on the telecast of Thursday night’s BCS Championship. He calmly questioned Texas coach Mack Brown’s decision to run a shovel pass just before halftime, resulting in an interception for a touchdown and a 24-6 Alabama lead. The USC coach, though, did not seem on the verge of a major career move.

Roughly 12 hours later, Carroll emerged as the leading candidate in the Seahawks’ coaching vacancy after the firing of coach Jim Mora on Friday.

A proposed deal between Carroll and the Seahawks to become the team’s new coach is likely, according to multiple reports. The former New England Patriots and New York Jets coach is set to sign a five-year deal at approximately $7 million a year to become the Seahawks’ president and coach, the Los Angeles Times reported.

Earlier in the week, Carroll met with Seahawks CEO Tod Leiweke in Los Angeles, according to the Los Angeles Times. During a Wednesday press conference, Mora sidestepped a question on whether Leiweke guaranteed his return next season, telling reporters “I haven’t talked to Tod in a day, (he’s) busy with some other things.” The comments may suggest that Leiweke could have been courting Carroll in the days following the Seahawks 17-13 season-ending loss to the Titans.

“We’ve made a tough decision today,” Leiweke said in a statement Friday. “It became apparent after conducting an extensive internal audit, that a new direction was needed to provide an opportunity for the organization to be successful. Today’s decision, while difficult, is part of the process in building a franchise with a new vision in 2010.”

 

Since USC won the second of back-to-back national titles in January of 2005, Carroll has been approached by several NFL teams, most notably the Atlanta Falcons and Miami Dolphins. The previous deals have reportedly not included an opportunity to serve in a front office capacity, a probable sticking point. A spokesman in the USC Sports Media Relations Department said rumors of Carroll’s return to the NFL have surfaced for the past several years at the end of the college football season.

“Pete’s name comes out at this time every year,” the spokesman said in a statement. “In the past, he hasn’t commented on such reports. At this point, we have nothing to report.”

Ironically, Carroll’s four-year record of 33-31 with the Jets and Patriots is similar to the 31-33 record Mora has compiled in four seasons as a head coach in the league. In the postseason, Mora is 1-1 after leading the Falcons to the NFC Championship in January of 2004, while Carroll is 1-2 in the playoffs. Since Carroll left the Patriots following the 1999 season, however, he has won more than 83 per cent of his games at USC, including seven straight Pac-10 titles from 2002-2008.

During Carroll’s tenure at USC, Seahawks middle linebacker Lofa Tatupu anchored the Trojans’ defense for two years and received First-team All-American honors in the 2004-2005 season.

A year later, Tatupu earned the starting middle linebacker position in Seattle and led the Seahawks to the NFC Championship. In the week leading to the Super Bowl, Seahawks safety Michael Boulware told the Riverside Press-Enterprise that USC would have won the national championship, and the Seahawks would not have captured the NFC title had Tatupu remained in college.

“He (Carroll) sets the bar highit’s like a pro team down there,” Tatupu said in an interview with the Press-Enterprise. “It’s very structured, like a job. You’re expected to perform well.”

Either by fortune or design, Carroll’s defense is structured in the same manner as the scheme used by Seahawks defensive coordinator Gus Bradley during the 2009 season. Bradley is a disciple of former Buccaneers defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin and operated a system based on the “Tampa Two,” which frequently employed two and three-deep zones.

Kiffin also served as a mentor for Carroll at the University of Arkansas in 1977, when the young coach was an assistant in the secondary in the defensive coordinator’s system. It is there Carroll learned the principles of the 4-3 under blitz, predicated on jamming the box with up to eight defensive players.  

“In principle, we want to give our players a chance to know exactly what they have to defend.  We also want to give them an attitude in which to do that.  We want to be an attacking, aggressive football team,” Carroll said in a speech during a Nike coaching clinic. “We want to attack into the gap at the snap, get off the ball to play on their side of the field and get after the quarterback.” 

One Seahawks’ player familiar with Carroll’s tendencies on offense is wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh. The former Cerritos (Calif.) College wideout has spent the past several offseasons working out with Trojans quarterbacks, receivers and defensive backs. This past summer, Houshmandzadeh took extensive repetitions with USC freshman quarterback Matt Barkley.

“One can only assume coming from SC, (Carroll’s) had a lot of success,” Houshmandzadeh told Seattle-area radio station ESPN 710 on Friday. “Guys are going to listen to what he has to say because of his track record. I think his experience will help him out.”

Before a deal with Carroll is finalized, the Seahawks must fulfill the requirements of the league’s Rooney Rule by interviewing a minority candidate for both their coaching and general manager vacancies. John Wooten, chairman of the Fritz Pollard Minority Alliance, said in a phone interview Friday afternoon that he spoke with Vikings defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier earlier in the day.

Wooten said Frazier expects to meet with Seahawks officials, despite previous reports that the Minnesota assistant coach declined an interview. Frazier is expected to interview with the Seahawks on Saturday in Minneapolis, according to the Minneapolis Star-Tribune.

The chairman of the alliance also said Seahawks officials have indicated they will create two separate positions for president and general manager of the team. Wooten said he provided Seahawks officials with a list of minority candidates that includes: Giants Director of College Scouting Marc Ross, Lions Vice President of Pro Personnel Sheldon White, Texans Director of Pro Personnel Brian Gardner, Chiefs Director of Pro Personnel Ray Farmer and Titans Director of Pro Scouting Lake Dawson.

The Seahawks could fulfill the requirements of the Rooney Rule by naming Carroll as team president and a minority candidate such as Ross as general manager, the Seattle Times reported. Wooten added that Seahawks officials indicated to him that they would begin the interviewing process for general manager next week.

In terms of minority coaching candidates, Wooten said the list he provided to Seahawks officials includes: Frazier, Dolphins wide receiver coach Karl Dorrell, former Buffalo interim coach Perry Fewell, Saints wide receiver coach Curtis Johnson, Broncos running backs coach Bobby Turner, and Ravens defensive backs coach Mark Carrier. Carrier earned First-team All-American honors as a safety at USC.

Houshmandzadeh said the possibility of Carroll’s hire could invigorate a locker room in strife at the tail-end of the season. The Seahawks finished 5-11 and lost their final four games by a combined margin of 123-37. As the players cleared out their lockers on Monday, several openly questioned their trust in the offense.

“Everybody has something to prove,” Houshmandzadeh said of the possibility of playing for Carroll. “It’s like meeting a woman for the first time (and) taking her on a date, man. You got to do everything you can to impress her. We are all on high alert, we have to come out and do our best.”

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Wrapping The Seattle Seahawks Season, Looking Ahead to Life After Mora

Published: January 8, 2010

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In a ritual completed in 19 other NFL locker rooms Monday, Seahawks’ players removed their belongings for the final time this season in an attempt to cleanse themselves of a forgettable 5-11 campaign.

Craig Terrill, a backup defensive lineman, and D.D. Lewis, backup linebacker, toted massive, plastic-covered posters containing the 2009 team picture upon their departure. Many of the players in the photo are unlikely to appear in next year’s version.  

“I think this year more than other years, there’s a lot of uncertainty,” said quarterback Matt Hasselbeck. “There has been uncertainty here before. I think back to 2004, there were 20-something unrestricted free agents, and no one in place to sign those people. This is a similar situation in a sense.”

The first major change occurred Friday with the reported firing of coach Jim Mora. Mora met with team officials Friday morning and was informed of their decision not to retain him, in a story first reported by FoxSports.com. The Seahawks went 1-4 and were outscored a combined 140-57 since team CEO Tod Leiweke made assurances that Mora’s job was safe in early December.

After finishing the year with 17 touchdowns and 17 interceptions, a bruised and battered Hasselbeck openly questioned the player’s trust in first-year offensive coordinator Greg Knapp’s system. Seattle’s patchwork offensive line provided the quarterback with little time to throw and allowed 15 sacks in the last five games of the year.

Even worse, Hasselbeck became too hurried to develop chemistry with free agent wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh or Nate Burleson, who returned after missing nearly the entire 2008 season.

“I think that’s just something you’ve got to ask yourself: ‘Did you trust the play?  Did you trust the guy coaching you?,’” Hasselbeck said. “When I’m cutting the ball loose, I (need) to trust that the guy I’m throwing to is going to help me out. At the same time, when I’m standing in the pocket, I’ve got to trust the guys around me got my back.”

One day after Hasselbeck ended the season with an interception that sealed the Seahawks’ fourth straight defeat, the 34-year-old quarterback said he hopes to be back in Seattle next year.

At a wrap-up press conference on Wednesday, a Seattle-area radio host asked Mora “When you close your eyes and imagine this team in September do you see Matt Hasselbeck as your starting quarterback?” Mora jokingly complied by shutting both eyes on the stage, pausing for a moment, before resoundingly saying “yes.” With a new coach, Hasselbeck’s status is now in question, as well.

Houshmandzadeh, for one, would welcome the return. The offseason prize signing said Hasselbeck and Mora were the two primary reasons why he chose to come to Seattle. Houshmandzadeh finished with 135 targets, but only 79 catches (his lowest total in four years).

More tellingly, the former Bengals receiver said in early December he would have had “90-100 catches,” if he had as many targets as Texans wideout Andre Johnson. At the time, Johnson had the ball thrown in his direction 130 times.

“There were certain things (Matt and I) got better at timing-wise, and certain things that we didn’t, some of it my fault,” Houshmandzadeh said. “You run routes a certain way your whole career and then you come here and it’s a little bit different. There’s times where you try to go back and do them how you’ve done them, and he’s not used to that.”

One receiver who may not return is Deion Branch. The former Super Bowl MVP ended the season with 45 receptions for 437 yards and has not finished with more than 51 catches in each of his four years with the Seahawks. Though the ex-Patriots wideout had a strong game in the season-finale against the Titans, Branch struggled filling in for Burleson at split end in the final month of the year.

“I’ve got two years left on my contract,” Branch said. “This is where I want to finish my career.”

Seahawks left tackle Walter Jones, a virtual lock for the Hall of Fame, hopes his career is not finished. Jones has missed the team’s last 20 games with crippling knee and back injuries and hinted at retirement near Thanksgiving. The nine-time Pro Bowler went on injured reserve in October and spent the majority of his time rehabbing in Florida.

“My knee feels a lot better. I feel pretty good in the direction that I’m going,” Jones said. “The decision (on whether to return next year) is going to be made pretty early, hopefully in the next couple months.”

Without Jones, the offensive line had difficulty opening holes for running backs Julius Jones and Justin Forsett in Knapp’s zone-blocking scheme. Jones had trouble hitting the hole quickly and finished with 3.7 yards a carry, the second-lowest in his career. Forsett, meanwhile, averaged 5.4 yards per run in primarily a backup role. Jones is unsure if he will return.

“I don’t know,” Jones said. “Some crazy things happen. I like the team, I would like to be here, but that’s not up to me.”

An encouraging sign for Knapp is that the Seahawks’ running game finally started to show improvement as the season wore down. Seattle averaged more than 4.0 yards per carry in each of its last three games. In their previous 12 contests, the Seahawks eclipsed that average only three times.

“I think it’s closer to where we want it to be,” Mora said. “I think that’s an indication of guys understanding the scheme, and how it does take some time.”

On defense, the loss of middle linebacker Lofa Tatupu for the season in late October stung as badly as the absence of Walter Jones. Though David Hawthorne filled in admirably with a team-high 117 tackles, the unit had to play more than half the year without its defensive quarterback. Tatupu has been pleased with his progress, as he recovers from a torn pectoral muscle.

“I’m not (bench) pressing 300 yet, but I’m doing okay,” Tatupu said. “I expect to be ready for offseason lifting (in) mid-March, (when) we usually get back into it.”

Unlike the running game on offense, the defense regressed in the final month of the season. During the month of December, the Seahawks allowed an average of 30.75 a game and a season-high 48 to Green Bay. Mora, however, was impressed with how the defense stifled Chris Johnson last week, when the Titans back was held to 3.7 yards per carry.

“I feel like, coming out of that game Sunday, it might’ve been the very first time I felt all year, defensively, that we kind of had it,” Mora said. “The players really understand the package and how we want them to play it. We want to make sure we continue that, and then add problems for the offense. That’s when you become a really good defense.”

Still, questions remain. Defensive end Patrick Kerney (elbow) and strong safety Deon Grant (wrist), both 30 or above, underwent surgery this week. Darryl Tapp, a fourth-year defensive end, will become a free agent in the offseason. 

Personnel decisions cannot be made until a new front office and coaching staff are put in place. Mora politely sidestepped questions on the new general manager on Wednesday and it is not yet known if he knew his fate at that time. His firing may signal the first major change.

“I really have no say in (the general manager’s decision),” Hasselbeck said on Monday. “It’s unfortunate that this year, we didn’t put our best stuff out there, what we showed on game film, which is kind of like your resume in a sense.  That’s disappointing. There’s nothing you can do about it except get better and, given the opportunity, make it happen.”

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Running To The Top: A Look at The Giants Top Offensive Play Calls

Published: May 27, 2009

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For the third time of the night, John Madden predicted the play moments before it transpired. With 1:39 remaining in the first half in a battle for the top seed in the NFC with the Carolina Panthers in December, the Giants lined up in a shotgun formation with three wide receivers. The scoreboard read, Panthers 21 Giants 10, 1st and 10 from the Giants 45-yard line. Madden turned to partner Al Michaels and said “this is the perfect time for the Giants to run a draw.”

On the sidelines, Giants coach Tom Couglin had a similar train of thought. With Domenik Hixon to his right on the outside, Steve Smith to the left on the outside, and Amani Toomer in the slot, quarterback Eli Manning handed the ball to running back Derrick Ward on an inside handoff. Right guard Chris Snee pulled to the left and delivered a key block five yards down the field.

When the play was finally whistled dead, Ward had gained 34 yards and put his team in field goal range.

The run was one of the five most effective plays utilized by the Giants in 2008. It was also the set in which the team predominantly used Ward, a backup running back who ran for more than 1,000 yards last season. With Ward off to Tampa Bay for the 2009-2010 season, the role will likely be assumed by Ahmad Bradshaw, last year’s third back on the depth chart. Still, the formation is not the team’s primary set.

The presence of Madison Hedgecock, one of the top fullbacks in the league, enables the Giants to run its offense primarily through a power-I set. In this formation the Giants use two running backs, two wide receivers, and a tight end. Hedgecock typically lines up just behind Manning and in front of 6’4”, 264-pound running back Brandon Jacobs.

The formation also has a number of variations. From the base set, the Giants can run a Strong I, with Jacobs positioned to the side of the tight end, a Weak I, with Jacobs positioned away from the tight end, a Big I, with two tight ends, and a Power I, with three backs in the backfield.

Along with the Panthers, the Giants are the only team in the league to use the set as their primary formation. One reason the team depends heavily on the run, he said, is because of its quick, dominant offensive line. The ability of guards Rich Seubert and Snee to quickly emerge off the line and block downfield allows the Giants to use the run as a foundation for nearly every play in its playbook.

“The Giants are a team that runs a lot of counter and a lot of misdirection,” Cosell said in a mid-May phone interview. “Not a lot of teams have centers and guards that are very good on the move on the perimeter, so that limits what they can do in the run game. The Giants are able to do that because their O-line is very versatile and very athletic.”

It is difficult to identify a team’s five most effective plays, Cosell said, because there are a multitude of factors that influence a team’s play-calling pattern. In the week before a game, a head coach can spend in excess of 70 hours breaking down film and determining the tendencies of his opponent. Through such preparations, a coach might factor anything from personnel packages to defensive alignments to down, distance, and field position when selecting a play.

Still, the Giants found success in 2008 with a diverse playbook that defenses found difficult to decipher. A handful of the team’s top plays on the season came from a wide range of formations and distinct play-calls. It might explain why the team finished third in the league with an average of 26.7 points per game.

Against the Cincinnati Bengals on Sept. 21, Toomer hauled in a critical 31-yard pass from Manning in overtime that helped the Giants prevail 26-23. Toomer lined up to the left of the quarterback and faked a Bengals defensive back with a slant-and-go route along the left sidelines. More than two months later against the Redskins, Manning connected with Toomer on a 40-yard fly route for a touchdown down the right sidelines.

The play contrasted starkly with Toomer’s overtime catch against the Bengals. This time, Manning drew the Washington defense in with a play-fake to Jacobs, as Boss went in motion from left to right. The Giants ran the former from a single-back set, but the latter from the I-formation.

More than any other team in the league, the Giants’ coaching staff excels at varying the direction and type of running plays it calls.

Last season, the Giants ran the ball 178 times to the left, 84 times down the middle, and 222 times to the right according to statistics compiled by the Elias Sports Bureau. The team also does a masterful job at spreading its run distribution. Of more than 80 running plays first month of last season, the Giants called 12 different types of runs. The team ran 19 counters, 14 slants and went off tackle 11 times en route to a 4-0 start.

“This is impressive on multiple levels,” Joyner wrote in the New York Times blog The Fifth Down. “The 12 run types are atypical not only because of their volume but also because each play was run more than once. I should also point out that very few teams ever try to run an inside counter draw which the Giants ran twice), as it requires very coordinated blocking that can easily be screwed up if the blockers aren’t in total synchronicity.”

The offense can also confuse defenses with its three-wide, shotgun alignment. In the first quarter of the Panthers game, Manning eluded a probable sack and connected with Hixon on a 40-yard deep route. But on four separate occasions against Carolina, Ward completed substantial gains from the same formation. In overtime, he set up the winning touchdown with a 51-yard run. 

Instead of reacting to the defensive alignment presented, the Giants attempt to force defenses to adjust to its offensive sets. When New York faced the Baltimore Ravens on Nov. 16 the offense did not abandon the run, even though the Ravens had one of the top run defenses. Operating mostly under the I-set, three backs combined for 207 yards rushing.

Jacobs set the tone on the first drive when he spun left to break a tackle and powered 36 yards up the middle for a first down. In the process, Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis nearly tripped over himself.

The reliance on the formation was present in nearly every Giants game plan. Against Carolina, the Giants ran nearly half of its plays, 33 of 68, from the I-set. On such plays, the team ran the ball more than two-thirds of the time, 21 of 33. The formation also allows the Giants to run play action and throw downfield.

“There is a domino effect to all this,” Cosell said. “The Giants have a very simple pass game, if you’re able to run the ball well and you’re able to run strong side well in particular that forces the defense to defend your tendency to run. They have to bring down a safety to the strong side – their strong safety. Now what happens is the weak safety drops into the deep middle and on the weak side, you get your X receiver (the weak side receiver) in one-on-one coverage.”

Another necessity for a successful strong side running attack, according to Cosell, is the tight end’s ability to block a defensive end one-on-one. Cosell believes Boss, the Giants starting tight end, has become a superior run blocker. He points to several occasions during the 2008-09 season when Boss dominated the opposing defensive end on the line.

“He handled Trent Cole in one of the games against the Eagles and he manhandled Chris Long against the Rams,” Cosell said. “The bottom line is if you want to have a good strong side run game your tight end has to block defensive ends one-on-one.”

The departure of Burress and Toomer could alter the Giants’ offensive attack drastically. Without Burress, the Giants might struggle to establish a deep threat. This also might affect their play-calling before the snap.

“I think because the receiving corps is average they’ll probably have to do more things with motion and movement – maybe some more shifting,” Cosell said. “They might have to create and dictate some matchups with motion and shifting because their receivers will not be able to win matchups on the outside.”