Whoever succeeds Ken Norton Jr. has to be comfortable with two awkward things: Pete Carroll is really the defensive coordinator, and SS Jamal Adams.
Right away, the awkward things limit the field of candidates.
Carroll’s football roots are on defense, and Adams has no roots, at least as far as knowing how and where he should best be deployed, which is a not a good sign for the unit’s most expensive player — in the event that LB Bobby Wagner doesn’t return to the Seahawks.
The oddest single factoid that emerged on defense from the most disappointing season of Carroll’s tenure was that Adams finished with no sacks a year after setting the NFL record for sacks by a defensive back. It was like being promised an all-you-can-eat holiday dinner, then discovering the joint has only a salad bar.
What percentage of that was a scheme failure, and how much was a player failure, isn’t clear. But how to keep Adams, a 213-pounder who, because of injuries, has played just 12 games in each of his first two seasons in Seattle, healthy and productive, is Priority One for the new guy.
Needing a new guy was determined by Carroll, who Tuesday fired Norton, along with passing game coordinator Andre Curtis, first reported Monday evening by the Seattle Times.
No successors were named, mostly because a big chunk of the league is in flux with nine dismissed head coaches, and some front-office casualties. Given the number of blowout losses in a mostly lousy wild-card weekend for the losers, the tumult may increase. So decisions among many eligible candidates may take awhile.
That the 7-10 Seahawks couldn’t even reach the freshly bloated 14-team playoff field had to have been Topic A for the meeting last week among team chair Jody Allen, Carroll and general manager John Schneider. Although more leaks come out of the Vatican than from the Seahawks aerie, a safe presumption is that since neither Carroll nor Schneider have been pitched into Lake Washington by now, they are safe.
Since firing Shane Waldron after a single season as offensive coordinator would have been, well, stupid, some heads had to roll to make the decision-makers appear properly dismayed. To the extent that Norton can be held responsible for consecutive miserable starts by the defense the past two seasons, he was the target of convenience.
Since he was on his second term in assisting Carroll is Seattle, after several years together at USC, there is little doubt that Carroll knows what he has, and wants from, Norton, 55, including deference. Then again, maybe the call came from above the coach. We’ll never know.
The two assistants leading the speculation to fill the vacancy are Clint Hurtt, 43, the Seahawks’ current assistant coach as well as D-line coach since 2017, and Ed Donatell, 64, a Carroll crony from as far back as his first coaching job at University of Pacific in 1983.
Donatell has been the Denver Broncos DC for the past three seasons, but his boss, Vic Fangio, was fired last week. He worked with Carroll from 1990-94 when both were on the defensive staff of the New York Jets. His name may induce an acid flashback for Huskies fans, who recall that he was DC under Tyrone Willingham for the 0-11 season of 2008, worst in the program’s modern history.
The hope is he’s a little smarter now.
If current players have any influence, Hurtt, who was a DT for the notorious Miami Hurricanes of the late 1990s under coach Butch Davis, would be a popular choice. High-energy in the Carroll tradition, there is no mistaking his presence on the practice field. A longtime assistant in college as well as the pros, he has never been a coordinator.
Either one would know the Seahawks rules — it’s Carroll’s call on defense.
But either one, or anyone else Carroll chooses, probably gets the job if he offers a clever plan to get Adams’ performance anywhere close to the level of his compensation and treasure surrendered for his acquisition.
For whatever it’s worth, among the top 100 safeties ranked by Pro Football Focus for 2021, Seahawks FS Quandre Diggs ranked sixth, and Adams was 92nd. It should be noted that two spots ahead of Adams was Arizona’s Budda Baker. So PFF’s evaluation system isn’t everything.
According to Pro Football Reference, Adams in 2020 blitzed 98 times, had 10 QB hurries, six knockdowns and the record 9.5 sacks.
In 2021, the same numbers were 44, 5, 1 and zero.
Clearly, the Seahawks by scheme dialed back Adams’ rushes and dropped him into more traditional pass coverages. The problem was that pass coverage is what Adams does least well, although he showed improvement. The number of completed passes to targets he was covering dropped from 78.8 percent to 58.8 percent year over year.
Whether Carroll and Norton quarreled over solutions to Adams’ productivity, or worse, said nothing, also will never be known. But a solution is imperative to fixing the secondary, the team’s season-long weakest link.
The four-year contract extension for the game’s highest-paid safety — $70 million, $21 million guaranteed, $9.1 million in 2022 — kicks in this season, making him untradeable. And he needs to find a place and a manner of play to keep his skinny self’s time in harm’s way to a minimum.
So the new DC’s chances for staying for as long as Adams mostly depends on bringing him back from the Island of Misfit Toys.