The decision to move up defensive line/assistant head coach Clint Hurtt to replace fired Ken Norton Jr. as Seahawks defensive coordinator isn’t surprising. An in-house candidate is often the safest, easiest choice. Hurtt has been on Pete Carroll’s staff since 2017, is popular with players and most importantly, understands that Prof. Dumbledore is in charge of defending Hogwarts.
The succession, first reported by the Seattle Times Friday, hasn’t been announced by the Seahawks yet, nor has the signing of longtime Carroll friend Pat Donatell, 65, as an unspecified defensive assistant. A third recruit, Sean Desai, a member of the Bears’ defensive staff for seven years but not retained by new Chicago coach Matt Eberflus, is pending.
The laggard pace of Seahawks changes following the Jan. 17 firing of Norton could have signaled Carroll was waiting for a favored DC outsider to spin out of the annual post-season coaching carousel, which has had nine head-coach vacancies, seven of which have been filled. But as assistants come and go, it also could be that Desai, 38, is waiting for a better gig than Seattle’s vacancy at pass-game coordinator.
Regardless of the timing of the official announcement, the change in Seahawks DC pedigree is distinct.
It goes from Norton, 55, a coordinator with eight years of DC experience (four years in Oakland, then four in Seattle), plus a prestigious, 12-year playing career that included being the first player to win three consecutive Super Bowls, to a 43-year-old who never has been a coordinator and, because of a knee injury during a good college career at Miami, never played pro ball.
Then again, pedigree in a DC job is a little over-rated. On the reactive side of the ball, the game is mostly counter-punching.
The Seahawks defense was slow to react in each of the past two years, allowing massive yardage, near-record amounts early in the season, before adjustments allowed the Seattle offense to participate in the game for longer than a TV commercial.
The Seahawks gave up an average of 379 yards a game, second-most in team history and fourth-worst in the NFL. The 1,201 scrimmage plays allowed were the most in the NFL, the 18 takeaways ranked 25th, as did their total QB pressures per dropback (22.1% were hurries/knockdowns/sacks). Yards after catch was third-worst.
In hindsight, Carroll’s season-ending presser had several hints of dissatisfaction that helped explain Norton’s departure.
“We weren’t as clean defensively as we needed to be for that last drive, last play,” he said. “There’s also the obvious things, the lack of turnovers we were able to create. Usually, those come when you’re ahead, and if you’re well ahead, the ball gets more exposed, and you get more turnovers. That feeds off itself. Also, you’ve got to create them, and you create them with pass rush. The quarterback is the number one critical aspect of turning the football over . . . We need to improve our pass rush.”
Yet, while schemes are important on defense, it’s not as important as talent and experience. Those virtues are brought about by the roster builders, not the DC. And in the NFC West, talent is an acute separator.
The Rams’ appearance Sunday means that in the most recent 10 Super Bowl match-ups, the NFC West has contributed six of the conference champs — two each by the Rams, 49ers and Seahawks. Even the lagging Arizona Cardinals this season won 11 games.
The one-off NFC entries were Carolina, Atlanta, Philadelphia and Tampa Bay. In the same period, The only NFL team with more Super Bowl appearances than the West trio was New England, with three.
“We have a very challenging division, and we’re going to have to be really good,” Carroll said. “If you make it through this division, you should have a chance to win it all.”
But that chance comes through quality drafts. As we’ve established in this space, the Seahawks haven’t done much of that. But at least part of the problem is the Seahawks being victims of their own successes.
Here’s a glance at the narrative of the rivals who met in the NFC Championship barely won by the Rams, 20-17.
In light of recent successes, this fact is hard to recall: The Rams had 13 consecutive non-winning regular seasons, ending with a 4-12 record in 2016, the last year in St. Louis before relocating to Los Angeles.
That stripped-down team’s poor finish provided the opportunity to draft QB Jared Goff with the first pick overall. Goff wasn’t great, although he was good enough a year ago — with a broken bone in his hand — to help kick out the Seahawks from the first round of the playoffs.
The Rams began a string of five straight winning seasons in 2017 with an 11-5 record, in which the they had the coach of the year (rookie Sean McVay), defensive player of the year (DT Aaron Donald) and the offensive player of the year (RB Todd Gurley).
After the 2020 season, they pulled off a stunner by trading Goff and two first-round draft picks to Detroit for QB Matthew Stafford, who has helped drive the Rams into the Super Bowl for the second time in four years. From the last losing season in St. Louis, only three players, all starters, remain on the Rams roster — Donald, RT Rob Havenstein and P Johnny Hekker, the pride of Bothell High School.
After losing the 2013 NFC Championship to the Seahawks, the Niners had five consecutive non-winning seasons, ending with a 4-12 record in 2018, which helped get the No. 2 pick in the 2019 draft, pass-rusher extraordinaire DE Nick Bosa. The next season, they were 13-3 and went to the Super Bowl.
So the Rams and 49ers each rebounded from recent 4-12 records to make the this season’s NFC Championship.
The Seahawks, meanwhile, made the playoffs in nine of 10 seasons, denying them a perch in the top half of the draft’s first round. That’s no excuse for using their lower first-round picks on L.J. Collier, Germain Ifedi and Malik McDowell. But it helps explain why the Seahawks’ talent doesn’t pass the eye test compared to the Rams and 49ers and their relative bounty of bad seasons and good drafts.
Carroll was, well, defensive.
“All drafts are not created equal,” Carroll said. “When you pick where we’ve picked over the years, you don’t get the top 10-15 guys. Usually, those are the guys everybody knows who’s going and where they’re going. It’s so obvious because those guys are the outliers. As you get to the middle of the round and down to the bottom of the round, it gets much more wide open and much more speculative.”
Which brings us to this off-season, where the Seahawks finally could have been in position to benefit in the draft from a 7-10 record . But as you likely know, their first pick, 10th in the April draft, belongs to the New York Jets as part of the Jamal Adams trade.
The decision to pay dearly in draft capital and salary for a 214-pound pass rusher whose shoulders get hurt a lot was not likely made by Norton. But it will be the responsibility of his successor to work around the problem of the highest paid defender with no clear position.
Which suggests the job vacancy may not have attracted a large number of premium candidates.