The Seahawks obviously had a lot of problems in 2016 — a JV offensive line, a revolving M*A*S*H lineup and too many B.A. Baracus impersonators.
On top of that, they apparently did not want it enough.
“The team was not as hungry as we were four years ago,” Sherman Smith, recently ousted as running backs coach, told 710 ESPN on Friday. “When you have the type of success that we’ve had — you win a Super Bowl, you have a heartbreaking loss in the Super Bowl, you’ve been to the playoffs, what, five years in a row, you have this reputation — guys aren’t as hungry.
“We’ve got to get that hunger that we had when we weren’t winning,” Smith said. “How do you get that back when you’ve won and you’ve got the big contracts and endorsements and everybody loves you? How do you get that back? I think there’s only so much Pete (Carroll) can do, but the players … (have) got to do some things themselves.”
Obviously, it would help if they stayed healthy. But the make-or-break questions for this franchise this offseason: Were the injuries the reason for the lack of so-called hunger? Or has Carroll’s message simply grown stale? And, if it’s the latter, what can Carroll do to regain the interest and control of his team?
To be fair, Smith’s comments obviously didn’t apply to everyone. Bobby Wagner, K.J. Wright, Cliff Avril and DeShawn Shead had their best seasons in 2016 — no lack of hunger there. Russell Wilson and Tyler Lockett played through major injuries that would have sidelined most others for weeks. Jimmy Graham and Thomas Rawls came back from serious injuries to give everything they had — Graham putting up an excellent season.
Kam Chancellor rededicated himself after his fruitless 2015 holdout. Richard Sherman and Michael Bennett were so hungry they let their tempers get the best of them at times. Earl Thomas was playing great until he was knocked out for the season in November.
So, no, hunger did not seem to be an issue for the team’s best players. But it’s hard to eat when you don’t feel right — and injuries to almost every one of those guys certainly threw this team off in 2016.
It seems obvious to think the team will play better if it avoids so many ailments. But what if it was more than just the bad O-line and the various physical failings?
What if Carroll really did ruin his credibility with his all-time stupid decision to throw the ball from the 1-yard line in XLIX? That ridiculous loss to the Patriots still burns. Sherman referenced it during one of his sideline blowups last season, and Smith said it Friday:
“Losing the Super Bowl, let me tell you, that was hard. That was hard. Because, even as a coach, it took me a while to get over that thing. The 2015 season was really hard for me because my mind would always go back to the Super Bowl. When we’d go into the indoor practice facility, man, we should have two of those banners hanging up in here. And it was hard to overcome that for coaches as well as for players.”
You would think that would drive the team even more, as Carroll has insisted it does. But Smith indicated the opposite has been true. Does that mean the players aren’t listening to Carroll anymore?
At USC, it was easy to use the same message because his roster turned over every four years. But this isn’t college. The core of this team has been around for 5-7 years now, and the top players are all multimillionaires and Pro Bowl players. It seems hard to imagine they need more motivation than winning a Super Bowl, but Smith said they do.
Last year, it seemed clear that some guys who got paid eased off the gas — Jeremy Lane and Jermaine Kearse were notable culprits. And the rants and distracting behavior of Bennett and Sherman clearly affected team focus at times — Chancellor made that clear after the loss to Atlanta.
Carroll has always walked that line of barely controlling his team as he lets players do their thing, and he admits keeping them focused is his biggest challenge every year. But he says he has the magic salve.
“Competition pushes a lot of that stuff to the side,” he said in his postseason presser. “That’s what we’ve always stood for. I have to make sure that the guys feel it. I mentioned to them that there is going to be a whole slew of guys coming into this team, just like there were last year. If you want to hold your spot, you’d better get right. You have to work out and get strong and get fast and be ready for the challenges that other guys bring, because we’re going to give them an opportunity. The theme of competition is so crucial, it drives you beyond that kind of complacency.”
In the early days (2010-12), it was easy to create competition, because the roster had so many holes. By the 2013 and 2014 Super Bowl years, the Hawks were the deepest they had ever been — and the players were hungry to win. Then XLIX happened, and they haven’t been the same since.
To get back to that, they need to regain both their physical and mental health and add competition at the top of the roster. It goes without saying that the O-line needs more bodies, but the place where Carroll really needs to add competition is in the heart of his team — the secondary.
Carroll talked about pushing Wagner and Wright — an odd statement since they both had their best seasons in 2016 — and it wouldn’t be a surprise if the Hawks used their first draft pick on a playmaking linebacker to play alongside that star duo. But what Carroll and John Schneider really need to do is focus on pushing the top players in his best unit.
The Hawks have been trying to set up competitive situations at other positions in the past couple of drafts. Before he was injured, Lockett already had basically supplanted the underachieving Kearse. C.J. Prosise and Alex Collins were brought in to push Rawls. Nick Vannett was drafted to come up behind Graham and Luke Willson. Frank Clark and Quinton Jefferson are supposed to complement Bennett.
This offseason, the Hawks need to keep building their offensive line while also adding better talent in the back seven of the defense.
Add a stud safety to challenge Chancellor and a couple of high-quality corners to push Sherman and Lane. It is time to plan for the departure of those guys and Thomas anyway, so bring in some fresh blood. One recent rumor had the Hawks possibly interested in trading for Jets safety Calvin Pryor, who has drawn comparisons to Chancellor. And the draft is loaded with corners — maybe take one in the first two rounds and let him push for a starting spot.
With some better competition at the top and better luck in the health department, the team most likely would regain the hunger Smith said has been missing. And, if the offensive line started playing at a varsity level as well, perhaps we wouldn’t have to wonder whether Carroll’s message was no longer being heard.