GLENDALE, Ariz. — Pete Carroll long ago reached a stage where every game he coaches — such as Thursday night’s Seattle at Arizona contest — is seemingly fraught with heavy meaning.
The stakes against the Cardinals are a chance to improve to 6-1 for the first time in Seahawks history and stay atop the increasingly competitive NFC West, the only division in the NFL in which every team is at least .500.
And when he takes the field Thursday, he’ll see a face that led the team that might have been the most critical in getting Carroll to this point in his career — Arizona quarterback Carson Palmer.
In 2001, Carroll was in his first year as coach at USC, potentially a last shot at head-coaching success after being fired by the Jets and Patriots.
Palmer, meanwhile, was a junior quarterback who had arrived at USC with heavy expectations — as is so often the case at a school with as much tradition as any in college football — that had yet to be met.
Their first year together didn’t indicate anything was about to change as USC went 6-6, stumbling to the finish line with a 10-6 loss to Utah in the Las Vegas Bowl.
After that season, Carroll made a decision critical to his future, and one that continues to influence the Seahawks to this day.
“We were so bad in the first year I felt like if this is the last time I’m ever a head coach, I’m going down the way I want to go down,” Carroll recalled this week.
That meant deciding to run the offense the way he wanted it run, something Carroll had never previously done. Having made his name as a secondary coach and defensive coordinator with the 49ers and others, Carroll had left the offense to others in his previous head-coaching stops. “I just had always sat back to the guys that were in charge,” he said. “And then I didn’t do that anymore.”
After the 2001 season, though, Carroll sought out famed offensive line coach Alex Gibbs to implement an outside zone- blocking scheme, and created an offense that would establish the run to set up play-action and bootleg passes.
The offense proved a perfect fit for Palmer, who won the Heisman Trophy as the Trojans finished 10-2. The season springboarded Palmer on his way to becoming the No. 1 pick in the 2003 NFL draft, and created a template for coaching that Carroll follows to this day.
“It gave me the balance in how I was approaching being head coach that I’m still handling now,” Carroll said. “That’s when it all changed.”
Palmer says Carroll has never told him directly how much that season changed his coaching career, but that he didn’t need to.
“I saw it happen, before my eyes, without it being told to me by him,” Palmer said this week. “I saw him taking more control of the offense.”
Washington coach Steve Sarkisian, then in his first year as a full-time assistant, coaching Palmer and the other USC quarterbacks, says he still sees the foundation of the offense the Trojans adopted that season when he watches the Seahawks today.
“Without a doubt,” Sarkisian said this week. “They have obviously adapted some with the times — there is obviously a lot more shotgun, some of the zone-read stuff they are doing (with Russell Wilson). But they still run outside zone, and they run it really well whether it’s to the strongside or the weakside, and they have all the play-action passes off of it with the double moves and the deep posts, which I think makes their offense very effective.”
Despite battling injuries and inconsistency early, Seattle’s offense ranks 10th in the NFL, gaining 372.7 yards per game, and is ninth in scoring at 26.2
It’ll get tested heavily Thursday night, though, against a Cardinals team that features a solid front four and a young and improving secondary led by former LSU standout cornerbacks Patrick Peterson and Tyrann “The Honey Badger” Mathieu.
The Cardinals are particularly stout against the run (allowing 90.7 yards per game, fifth in the NFL), which could force Seattle to rely more than it has in past weeks on its downfield passing game.
Palmer, meanwhile, has been erratic in his first season with the Cardinals, who acquired him in the offseason to solidify a quarterbacking spot that was a revolving door during a 5-11 season in 2012. While he’s thrown for 2,483 yards, he’s also tossed 11 interceptions, second-most in the NFL, for an Arizona team that is 3-3.
Arizona also has a history of success against Seattle at home, winning six of the past seven, and those who were with the team a year ago will undoubtedly want to make amends for a 58-0 loss to the Seahawks in Seattle last December.
“There’s some new guys on the team that didn’t experience that,” Palmer said. “But, it definitely got brought up by the head coach (first-year coach Bruce Arians), and I think he said it in a way that everybody responded well to it.”
Afterward, Palmer said he hopes to seek out Carroll following what will be the first time they’ve faced each other in an NFL regular-season game, each seeing in the other a reminder of the season that forever altered their football fates.