Pete Carroll isn't afraid to go against the grain, and that out-of-the-box thinking was never more evident during the Seattle Seahawks' preparations for the 2012 season.
The always-effervescent head coach shocked -- and borderline appalled in some instances -- draft experts both professional and of the armchair variety with his selection of West Virginia pass rusher Bruce Irvin with the 15th overall pick in this past April's draft. Carroll's perceived third-round reach of height-challenged Wisconsin quarterback Russell Wilson the next day raised some more eyebrows, and possibly even drew a few chuckles, as the pundits wondered aloud whether a guy who's nearing social security eligibility had began to lose his wits.
Carroll may be the one getting the last laugh, however, after Wilson put on an absolutely clinical display in the preseason to wrest the starting job away from expected heir Matt Flynn, hailed as one of the prized possessions on this spring's free-agent market off a pair of impressive stand-in performances for Aaron Rodgers the last two years while biding his time as a backup in Green Bay.
Wilson's sterling four-game exhibition audition, in which the articulate young signal-caller showcased his tremendous athletic gifts while exhibiting a quick mastery of coordinator Darrell Bevell's offense, hasn't only made the rookie an instant celebrity on a Seattle squad that created a few more summer headlines with its three-week relationship with accomplished wide receiver and former reality television star Terrell Owens in August. The Seahawks believe their new field general can be the final missing piece to puzzle in Carroll and general manager John Schneider's comprehensive rebuilding plan that's yielded only a pair of 7-9 seasons to date, albeit with a gift playoff appearance by winning a cookie-dough soft NFC West in 2010.
"It's just exciting to watch this kid play," Carroll said of Wilson. "His ability to make first downs, sometimes throwing the football and sometimes with his legs, has been obvious."
Even before Wilson's unexpected rise to the starting lineup and Carroll's latest examples of unconventional wisdom, the Seahawks were being touted as a team potentially on the rise. Seattle went 5-3 over the second half of last year's campaign, with the surge fueled by a string of productive games from running back Marshawn Lynch and a defense filled with relative unknowns gelling into one of the NFL's better crews.
And if preseason results can be used as an accurate measuring stick, the Seahawks may indeed be ready to take off in 2012. With Wilson leading the way, Seattle prevailed in all four of its warm-up contests and outscored the opposition by a convincing 122-44 margin.
That body of work has in turn generated a tidal wave of excitement along the Puget Sound.
"This offseason, guys that I've hung out with, guys that I can just hear in the locker room, everybody is talking about winning every game," fullback Michael Robinson exclaimed.
Below we take a capsule look at the 2012 edition of the Seattle Seahawks, with a personnel evaluation and prognosis included therein:
2010 RECORD: 7-9 (3rd, NFC West)
LAST PLAYOFF APPEARANCE: 2010, lost to Chicago in NFC Divisional Playoff
COACH (RECORD): Pete Carroll (14-18 in two seasons with Seahawks, 47-49 in six seasons overall)
OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Darrell Bevell (second season with Seahawks)
DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Gus Bradley (fourth season)
OFFENSIVE STAR: Marshawn Lynch, RB (1204 rushing yards, 28 receptions, 13 total TD)
DEFENSIVE STAR: Kam Chancellor, SS (97 tackles, 1 sack, 4 INT)
2011 OFFENSIVE TEAM RANKS: 28th overall (21st rushing, 22nd passing), 23rd scoring (20.1 ppg)
2011 DEFENSIVE TEAM RANKS: 9th overall (15th rushing, 11th passing), 7th scoring (19.7 ppg)
KEY ADDITIONS: QB Russell Wilson (3rd Round, Wisconsin), TE Evan Moore (from Browns), RG J.R. Sweezy (7th Round, North Carolina State), MLB Bobby Wagner (2nd Round, Utah State), QB Matt Flynn (from Packers), RB Robert Turbin (4th Round, Utah State), RB Kregg Lumpkin (from Buccaneers), WR Braylon Edwards (free agent), OT Frank Omiyale (from Bears), DT Jason Jones (from Titans), DE Bruce Irvin (1st Round, West Virginia)
KEY DEPARTURES: QB Tarvaris Jackson (to Bills), WR Mike Williams (released), TE John Carlson (to Vikings), LG Robert Gallery (to Patriots), MLB David Hawthorne (to Saints), QB Charlie Whitehurst (to Chargers), RB Justin Forsett (to Texans), TE Cameron Morrah (released), DE Raheem Brock (free agent), DE Anthony Hargrove (to Packers), DE Jimmy Wilkerson (free agent), OLB David Vobora (free agent), OLB Adrian Moten (to Eagles), CB Roy Lewis (released), CB Kennard Cox (not tendered), S Atari Bigby (to Chargers)
QB: Measured at under five-feet, 11-inches and a shade over 200 pounds at the Scouting Combine, Wilson (3rd Round, Wisconsin) won't be drawing any Cam Newton comparisons in terms of size. The Seahawks feel he's fully capable of making an initial impact similar to that of the league's reigning Offensive Rookie of the Year, however, and the 23-year-old certainly has the speed and elusiveness to be a dangerous dual-threat under center. Wilson's also got the requisite arm strength and smarts to succeed at the pro level, though he'll need to compensate for his physical limitations and overcome the stigma that short quarterbacks are at a serious disadvantage in the NFL. If he can't, Seattle does have a fine insurance policy in Flynn (518 passing yards, 6 TD, 2 INT), who proved his worth as a starting-caliber player by lighting up playoff-bound Detroit for an astounding 480 yards and six touchdowns in his final game as a Packer during the 2011 regular-season finale. The fifth-year triggerman still drew only lukewarm interest on the open market due to an arm that's average at best, but he's accurate and can be a capable game manager who makes sound decisions. The two new additions signaled the inevitable end of the short-lived Tarvaris Jackson era, with Seattle trading its 2011 starter to backup-needy Buffalo for a future late-round draft choice late in the preseason.
RB: A drastic change in offensive philosophy helped trigger Seattle's strong second-half run in 2011, with the team hitching its wagons to the powerful legs of Lynch (1204 rushing yards, 28 receptions, 13 total TD) after essentially abandoning the ground game early on. The results were conclusively positive, as the workhorse back ripped off six 100-yard efforts and scored 10 touchdowns over the final nine games to help the Seahawks rebound from a 2-6 start. He was rewarded with a new four-year contract in March after setting career bests in rushing yards and TD's. Lynch did show some signs of wearing down late, however, which explains the decision to take Utah State's Robert Turbin in the fourth round of April's draft. The well-built rookie's downhill style and cutback ability should make him a very good fit in Seattle's zone- blocking system, and he'll be a significant part of the game plan after performing well in the preseason. Veteran Leon Washington (248 rushing yards, 1 TD, 10 receptions) will be utilized mainly on third downs and as a quicker change-of-pace option in addition to keeping his assignment as the primary return man. Newcomer Kregg Lumpkin (105 rushing yards) can also help out in the passing game after recording a career-high 41 catches for Tampa Bay last year, but the Seahawks brought him in mostly to play special teams, a phase where Robinson (9 receptions, 1 TD) also sees extensive action in addition to helping pave holes for the tailbacks.
WR: This area wasn't a strong suit for the Seahawks last season, and the question marks that still exist is a big reason why the club gave camp tryouts to Owens as well as fellow veteran retreads Antonio Bryant and Braylon Edwards (15 receptions with 49ers), who wound up making the roster. Most of the uncertainty is surrounded around the health of top target Sidney Rice (32 receptions, 2 TD), who's appeared in only 15 games the past two years due to a myriad of injuries and was held out most of camp while recovering from shoulder surgery. If the 2009 Pro Bowl honoree is close to 100 percent, he can be the dynamic deep threat and red-zone weapon the offense sorely lacked in his absence last season, but that's a big if. Edwards is a wild card as well. Just two years removed from a 904-yard campaign with the Jets in which he averaged over 17 yards a catch, he was largely ineffective and subsequently released after a nine-game 2011 stint with San Francisco marred by a nagging knee problem, but showed some of his old explosiveness in the preseason. The 29-year-old will start the year behind 2010 second-round pick Golden Tate (35 receptions, 3 TD), who came on nicely when inserted into the starting lineup late last season, with undrafted find Doug Baldwin (51 receptions, 4 TD) again deployed in the slot after emerging as the team's leading receiver as a rookie. Holdover Ben Obomanu was forced into a greater role last year due to injuries and responded with a career-best 37 grabs, but is more valued for his exploits as a gunner on the punt coverage units. Onetime Panther Charly Martin will also aid on special teams after surviving final cuts.
TE: The Seahawks paid big money for Zach Miller (25 receptions) prior to last season after he strung together three straight 55-plus catch years in Oakland, but the free-agent pickup spent much of his Seattle debut as a pass blocker to assist a front line that was often shaky in protection and became a relative non-factor on offense. He also missed time with a concussion, which prompted Schneider to bring in some help in the form of Kellen Winslow, acquiring the ex-Buccaneer in May for a conditional low draft choice. The brash ninth-year vet ended up being released, however, after failing to overcome the persistent knee woes that sapped him of the field-stretching skills he once had. Taking his place will be Evan Moore (34 receptions, 4 TD), a younger and faster alternative who averaged over 20 yards per catch as a part-time player in Cleveland two years back but was deemed expendable by the Browns in the preseason. Third tight end Anthony McCoy (13 receptions) is a quality athlete and the best run blocker of the trio, but has generally worn an underachiever's label during his first two years in the league.
OL: Seattle turned to the 2011 draft to address a problematic offensive line, nabbing right tackle James Carpenter in the first round and right guard John Moffitt in the third, but the two then-rookies missed a combined 14 games with knee injuries and struggled at times to pick up the nuances of the zone-block schemes. Carpenter's absence may have been a blessing in disguise, as former Packers reject Breno Giacomini stepped in and became one of the group's most consistent members, and he may hold onto the job even when Carpenter comes back from last year's ACL tear that will sideline him for at least part of 2012. When the Alabama product does return, he may wind up at left guard, though journeyman Paul McQuistan fared pretty well in a few spot starts there last year and is the leading candidate to replace free-agent departure Robert Gallery. Medical issues have also plagued left tackle Russell Okung, with the No. 6 overall pick of the 2010 draft sitting out 10 games over his first two seasons with ankle and chest ailments. If he can stay on the field, the gifted 24-year-old has a chance to finally reach his very high ceiling. Moffitt has also dealt with a elbow problem in camp and may lose his post to rookie J.R. Sweezy, a seventh-round surprise who's made a speedy adjustment to offense after operating as a defensive tackle at North Carolina State. The line's one constant last season was center Max Unger, a strong pass blocker who inked a four-year extension in July, though he missed nearly all of 2010 with a toe injury. All those durability concerns triggered the depth signing of former Bear Frank Omiyale, who owns 32 career starts and can play both guard and tackle, while Lemuel Jeanpierre is a decent backup who started five times between right guard and center last year.
DL: In dire need of a high-end pass-rushing complement to team sack leader Chris Clemons (51 tackles, 11 sacks), the Seahawks got a potentially great one in Irvin, who's undersized but extraordinarily fast and racked up 22 sacks in two seasons at West Virginia. Though the pick was almost universally panned by analysts, it's still a move that could help Seattle boost its modest 2011 total of 33 quarterback takedowns. More aid could come from the versatile Jason Jones (27 tackles, 3 sacks), a free-agent addition from Tennessee who can line up either as a big end or a penetrating tackle. He netted 15 1/2 sacks over four years with the Titans and will likely kick inside on nickel downs opposite Alan Branch (34 tackles, 3 sacks), an Arizona castoff who proved to be an astute pickup by Carroll by playing stout run defense in his first season with the organization. Active nose tackle Brandon Mebane (56 tackles) and oversized end Red Bryant (32 tackles, 1 sack) were two other reasons why the Seahawks held opponents to 3.8 yards per carry last year, fourth-best in the league. Clemons is one of the game's most overlooked speed rushers, having amassed 11 sacks in back-to-back seasons since coming over in a trade from Philadelphia, and should be in good spirits after getting a three-year, $21 million extension after staging a holdout in minicamp. A pair of rookie draft selections, tackle Jaye Howard (4th Round, Florida) and end Greg Scruggs (7th Round, Louisville), will vie for time in the rotation along with interior returnee Clinton McDonald (35 tackles).
LB: Youth will be served at linebacker as well for Seattle this season, with 2012 second-round choice Bobby Wagner projected to hold down the middle after winning a camp competition with injury-prone veteran Barrett Ruud, who was dealt to New Orleans in mid-August. A teammate of Turbin's at Utah State, the 22-year-old is a high-effort player who can fly around the field and displayed better-than-anticipated read-and-react skills when pressed into action in the preseason. The Seahawks hope Wagner can have the same kind of impact that strong-side regular K.J. Wright (65 tackles, 2 sacks) did as a rookie last year, with the 2011 fourth-rounder emerging into a physical run-stopper and demonstrating some pass-rush ability after displacing failed former first- round selection Aaron Curry a few weeks into the season. The old man of the group is 29-year-old Leroy Hill (89 tackles, 4 sacks), brought back on a one- year deal to again roam the weak side after putting together a solid last season and staying clear of trouble, a problem for him in the past. Special teams ace Heath Farwell was also re-signed after posting a team-best 21 stops in only 11 games on kickoff and punt coverage, with Malcolm Smith (16 tackles, 1 sack) and Mike Morgan -- two former University of Southern California members who played for Carroll in college -- filling the reserve ranks on the outside.
DB: An extremely young secondary grew up in a hurry in 2011, with the kiddie corps' sound overall play enabling Seattle to finish sixth in the league in pass efficiency defense while permitting just 18 touchdowns through the air. As a result, three of its constituents -- safeties Kam Chancellor (97 tackles, 1 sack, 4 INT) and Earl Thomas (98 tackles, 2 INT) and cornerback Brandon Browner (54 tackles, 6 INT, 23 PD) -- went to the Pro Bowl. Browner turned out to be a hidden gem in his first NFL season after toiling five years in Canada, with the 6-foot-4 cover man leading the NFL in total passes defensed (29) and returning two of his six picks for touchdowns. Opposite-side starter Richard Sherman (55 tackles, 4 INT, 17 PD) is nearly as big and a revelation in his own right, with the 6-foot-3 fifth-round selection holding opposing quarterbacks to a mere 46 percent completion rate on passes thrown his way during a splendid rookie campaign. The 232-pound Chancellor brings an imposing presence to the backfield as well, but the third-year pro showed to be more than just an in-the-box run-supporter by intercepting four passes and often blanketing tight ends. Free safety Thomas, meanwhile, lived up to his billing as a premium draft pick when the 2010 first-rounder gave up just one touchdown as the last line of defense. With projected nickel back Walter Thurmond (12 tackles) to begin the year on the physically unable to perform list while on the mend from a nasty broken leg suffered back in October, Seattle re-signed the declining Marcus Trufant (23 tackles, 1 INT) for a 10th season with the team, with the 31-year-old asked to cover the slot for the first time in his career. Rookie Winston Guy, an instinctive sixth-round choice out of Kentucky, was pegged to be the third safety and joins special-teams stalwart Chris Maragos (12 tackles) as back-end depth.
SPECIAL TEAMS: The Seahawks boast a premier returner in Washington, who's taken back seven kickoffs for touchdowns in his six seasons and had three such scores in 2010. For an encore, the shifty running back placed fifth in the NFC with an 11.3-yard average on punt returns along with a good 25.2 mark on kicks last year. Punter Jon Ryan is also coming off an excellent year in which the native Canadian pinned a league-best 18 attempts inside the 10-yard line and averaged a personal-high 46.6 yards per boot. Kicker Steven Hauschka can be spotty, having connected on under 79 percent of his lifetime field goal tries, but knocked home a respectable 25-of-30 three-pointers and was 9-of-12 from 40 yards or beyond in 2011. Long snapper Clint Gresham has held down that role for the last two years and gone unnoticed, a positive development for one at his position.
PROGNOSIS: Last season's strong finish and this summer's impressive results have tabbed the Seahawks as a team to watch in 2012, and a defense that has a chance to be terrific should keep them in every game they'll play. There are still a few challenging obstacles that lie ahead in Seattle's quest for a playoff berth, however. The schedule looks to be a daunting one to start, with the first three home opponents no pushovers in Dallas, Green Bay and New England and road trips to defending division champ San Francisco and 2011 playoff entry Detroit also awaiting in the first half. With a rookie quarterback and an offensive line that still may take some time to jell, it will be a difficult course to navigate. The remainder of the slate does appear considerably easier, and if the Seahawks can make it through the tough initial stretch in reasonably good shape, they're certainly capable of giving the 49ers a real run for their money in the NFC West. A stumble out of the blocks, however, may keep Seattle back in the middle of the conference pack.