The hits keep coming at the Seattle Seahawks, and they’re coming from all directions.
Three days after the Atlanta Falcons introduced Seahawks defensive coordinator Dan Quinn as their new head coach, the Oakland Raiders hired linebackers coach Ken Norton Jr. to oversee their defense. Quinn’s departure had been anticipated, but Norton was seen as a permanent fixture of Pete Carroll’s staff.
In retrospect, breaking away from the Carroll coaching cradle makes sense for Norton, who turns 50 next year. That his career aspirations extend beyond those of a position coach should not surprise anybody who has had the pleasure of meeting him.
Loud and gregarious and brimming with contagious energy, Norton was born to run a defense, if not an entire NFL team. Losing him is a blow to the Seahawks, who’ll miss the heart and soul he brought to the practice field and meeting rooms.
But as much as Carroll values Norton, the linebackers coach had little opportunity to move upward in Seattle’s chain of command. The first choice to replace Quinn, all along, is Kris Richard, the defensive backs coach whose amiable personality belies a keen and intense focus on the details that distinguish great players from those who merely are good.
During a media availability session at the Seahawks’ hotel last week in Phoenix, a national football writer asked me where Richard was sitting.
I pointed to a table occupied by three Seahawks assistants.
“Over there,” I said. “He’s the one with the big smile.”
Richard’s face lights up into high-beam mode when he talks about any aspect of defense, whether it’s strategy or technique or general philosophy. Media commitments before a Super Bowl can be a grind, but Richard — a USC sociology major pursuing a master’s degree in communications — clearly savored the opportunity to discuss the Legion of Boom.
“Extraordinary” was the first word Carroll used last week to describe the 35-year old Richard, a former USC cornerback whose association with the Hawks head coach began in 2001, Carroll’s first year with the Trojans.
“We go way back to his playing days,” said Carroll. “Everything you can look at to evaluate jumps out at you: the way these guys have achieved, the camaraderie they have, the level of play they’ve maintained for a long time, the stats and all that kind of stuff. Kris does a fantastic job.
“He’s a real product of our system — a guy that we raised up in the system and have become proud of the job he does. He has gone beyond maybe what normal expectations are for such a young career.”
If you get the idea Carroll owes something to Richard, it’s because, well, he owes something. His first USC team was 2-5, and he was hearing the howls of critics who insisted the twice-fired NFL coach was in way over his head at the college level. Then the defense took the field for a two-minute drill destined to settle a 34-34 tie at Arizona.
Richard precisely read the play and picked off a pass, returning it down the sideline for a 58-yard game-winning touchdown.
“I was so fired up,” Carroll would recall a few years later, “because it was the first time, in our little young history, that we had made the play that you’ve gotta make to win a game. I remember saying to the guys at that time, ‘Fellas, we don’t have to lose any more.’ We won the rest of our games during the regular season, lost in the darn bowl game, and then got ripping from that point on.
“I look back at that as the turning point.”
The aftermath of Super Bowl 49 looms as another turning point for Carroll. Amid the topical storm about the last-minute play call that doomed the Seahawks, he’s lost three assistants from a staff so close-knit, it was regarded as family.
But coaching-staff turnover isn’t necessarily a negative. Eyes that have looked at the Seahawks from afar can offer new insights and fresh perspectives.
While nobody in the organization wanted to part with the dynamic presence that is Ken Norton Jr., it’s also fair to say that everybody in the organization should be excited about the imminent promotion of Kris Richard.
Watching him smile last week as he chatted with reporters, it was obvious the Legion of Boom’s personable drill sergeant had reason to savor the ultimate combination platter awaiting any assistant coach.
A man going places, while staying home.