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How Pete Carroll brought the Seahawks back

Coach Pete Carroll embraces Richard Sherman during the Seahawks' 2014 Super Bowl victory over Denver. Credit: Anthony Quintano/Flickr

The Seahawks have won two road playoff games in their 40-year history — one in 1983 and the other in 2013. Now they propose to win three in three weeks to get back to the Super Bowl.

If they pull this off, let’s yank Bertha out of her waterfront quagmire and hand these fellas some shovels.

If accomplished, the football feat could well be the pinnacle achievement of Pete Carroll’s Seahawks coaching tenure. The cruel irony is that few will look at it that way — not unless the Seahawks can pull out a victory in Super Bowl 50, winning the final yard that was denied the team a year ago in the most abrupt, confounding loss in Super Bowl history.

Without that moment of redemption, the ferocious slog of 2015 will be rendered a football footnote.

In an expansive mood Monday after the Seahawks’ 36-6 walloping of the Cardinals, their successors as NFC West champs, Carroll talked for the first time during the season about the the depth of the burden that followed losing to the New England Patriots 28-24 on an ill-conceived pass play, turning a near-certain win in the final seconds to a devastating loss.

“We had to get through last year,” he said, responding to a question about this season’s biggest challenge. “We had to get through the finish of the season. There was no question that it had a big impact.”

Carroll and his coaches had to navigate an emotional minefield among talented, high-strung young men in professional shock. “Everybody was going to have to deal with it on their own,” he said. “We were going to try to be extraordinarily patient and understanding and caring as we worked our way through it.”

Carroll is all about dispatching the past and returning focus to the immediate week, day, hour and moment. At the opening game of the regular season, he didn’t even want the ceremony that raised the NFC Championship flag. It was a symbol of the past season. “That was already done, it was over with,” he said.

“Every season, it’s something. It could be personnel losses, coaches, players, quarterbacks leaving, whatever. Things happen. You have to deal with it,” he said. “That’s just a microcosm of life: Deal with it properly, put it in the right place and get on with it.”

Easy to say, not so easy to do. In the first part of the season, the Seahawks lost four of six games. The poor start wasn’t necessarily because opponents were better.

“It just took us some time. I think we had some hangover from (the Super Bowl loss),” Carroll said. “It’s a most challenging event to endure for a program and a staff and players and fans.’’

Now they have won six of their past seven and are six-point favorites to beat the Vikings this Sunday in Minneapolis. The Patriots? They started 10-0, and have lost four of their past six.

That’s another aspect of Carroll’s teachings: It’s never about the start; it’s always about finish.

It’s evident in his coaching strategy: He’s unafraid to train and play young players quickly. He knows they will make costly mistakes early. But he has learned that a 16-week season is long enough that, managed properly, a buck private in September can be an officer by Christmas.

That’s why the Seahawks became the youngest team (by average age) to win a Super Bowl. That’s how this season he continually threw rookies and newcomers into the talent void, and still reached the playoffs for the fifth time in his six seasons in Seattle.

In the first part of of the 2015 season, the Seahawks survived. In the second part, they flourished. The youngsters, the no-profilers, the football refugees delivered in December after the angst of September.

“That’s something I’ve grown through,” Carroll said. “I don’t have any problem with going with the young guys. … If you can get them to be successful in the things they’re pretty good at early on, then kind of feed them along, you can anticipate that they’ll make a good progress and movement toward becoming the football player they can become.”

The strategy is why the Seahawks have sustained success. But it has risks, and sometimes fails. The current example is the offensive line. After rewarding huge contracts to quarterback Russell Wilson and linebacker Bobby Wagner, the Seahawks were out of money under the NFL salary cap. So they dieted with the offensive line payroll and flirted with disaster, which Carroll now is comfortable admitting.

“At the bye (first week of November) was when it was glaring,” he said, referencing multiple sacks of Wilson. “We had to do something drastically to change the course. … I think we might have overshot a little bit with that one.”

The early losses, largely due to offensive-line shortcomings, are why the Seahawks begin the playoffs on the ice planet of Hoth. But now, the changes have turned the Seahawks into the most efficient passing attack in the NFL.

Nearly as remarkable as the remedy is Carroll’s public comfort in admitting error. He knows that in motivational psychology, nothing works all the time for every subject. Sometimes he fails, sometime the player fails. There is disappointment, but no shame.

A few days after the Super Bowl loss, Carroll agreed to do an exclusive interview with NBC and Matt Lauer, who flew from New York to sit with the coach at the team’s practice facility. Carroll explained that he was going to lead his team from what some consider the worst single-game loss in sports history. Said Carroll: “I’m built for this.”

As he said: Put it in the right place and get on with it.

The game starts Sunday at 10 a.m. PT on NBC.

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