RENTON, Wash. — Pete Carroll was thrilled to be in the postseason but knew it was a mirage.
Two seasons ago, in his first venture back in the NFL from the college game, Carroll guided the Seattle Seahawks into the postseason with the dubious distinction of being the only team in NFL history to win a division title with a losing record. Seattle at least showed itself worthy of the playoffs by upsetting New Orleans but was quickly dispatched at Chicago in the second round.
He knew the Seahawks needed to be younger, faster, more athletic and deeper. A makeover was needed.
“We’re just so much deeper now and we’ve raised these guys in the program and I just think there’s a common feel that we’re on the same page," Carroll said this week.
When the Seahawks (11-5) face Washington on Sunday in their playoff opener, they will do so with 33 new faces on the 53-man roster from just two seasons ago. The moves were drastic in some areas and subtle in others.
No matter what the changes were, they have made Seattle a far better and more deserving team for this postseason trip. Carroll said he believes the type of success the Seahawks found in reaching at least 11 wins for just the third time in franchise history should have come sooner.
Ultimately, it was the decision to draft quarterback Russell Wilson from Wisconsin in the third round of the 2012 draft that finally made them a legitimate contender.
“I feel like I wish so much that we had got it done last year," Carroll said. “We didn’t capture it quickly enough. It just didn’t come around like we wanted it to. But we’ll take it. We’ll take it where we are. It’s been three terrific years for us in retooling the program and the roster and the staff and getting everything right. We really feel the momentum in the youth and the hopefulness for the future is there."
When that 2010 playoff appearance came the Seahawks’ way, they were a flawed team, fortunate to play in what at that time was the worst division in football. Carroll’s defensive philosophies were still being implemented and the offense was a jumbled mess. There was little continuity on the offensive line. Marshawn Lynch had arrived in a trade from Buffalo, but Seattle had yet to figure out the best ways to use its new bruising back. Most important, the quarterback position was unsettled, with Matt Hasselbeck the entrenched veteran and Charlie Whitehurst the upstart.
They were rarely competitive, falling by an average margin of 21 points in their nine losses. Only one of their seven regular-season wins came against a team that finished with a winning record.
While still having some flaws, this Seattle team is far more complete. The defense finished the season as the No. 1 scoring defense in the NFL, giving up just 15.3 points per game. They were No. 4 in the league overall, the highest year-end ranking for Seattle in team history.
Offensively, the Seahawks have morphed offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell’s system around what Wilson does best, using his athleticism and quickness as a threat to complement Lynch’s violent running. Lynch’s success is largely because of the zone-blocking schemes put in place by assistant head coach Tom Cable and finding linemen who fit what Seattle wants to do.
From the playoff win over New Orleans in 2010 to now, the Seahawks will have 15 different starters on the field against the Redskins.
“We’re young and we’re fast and we’re tough and we’ve created a physical nature about us that we’re really proud of. It goes from offense to defense to special teams," Carroll said. “We’re just going to try to keep getting better. We’ve got a long ways to go."
Wilson tied Peyton Manning’s rookie record with 26 touchdown passes on a third-quarter scoring pass in Sunday’s win over St. Louis. He had a chance to hold the record himself but instead ran for a 1-yard touchdown with 1:39 left to give Seattle a 20-13 victory.
Wilson finished the season with a 100.0 passer rating, the highest in franchise history. He passed for 3,118 yards, added another 489 yards rushing, had 30 combined touchdowns running and passing, and became the first rookie quarterback in NFL history to go 8-0 at home.
“Did Peyton go to the playoffs his first year? No," Seattle fullback Michael Robinson said after Sunday’s win. “OK. Then you know who I think is better."