With Russell Wilson, Seahawks' window remains wide-open

Seahawks coach Pete Carroll has a story he likes to share about his first game as an NFL head coach.

It was back in 1994, his only season with the New York Jets. Carroll's squad went to Buffalo to take on the Bills and came away with a 23-3 win. After the game, instead of getting on the team bus, Carroll walked back into what was then known as Rich Stadium.

"I was just hanging out, kind of reveling in the moment, first game and all that stuff," Carroll recalled earlier this month. "And on the wall of that stadium, they had the championships on the wall there that they had when Marv [Levy, former Bills coach] was there. They had gone back and back and back to the Super Bowl and all of that, the division championships, all that stuff.

"That was the moment that it hit me, that has affected me ever since, that to be really good at something is not to just get there and do it one time. To be really good at something, what really meant something to me was to do it over and over and over and over again so that you can prove who you are and prove what you’re worth and prove that you can withstand the changes and adaptations that are there."

Carroll's quest to get the Seattle Seahawks back to the Super Bowl for the third straight year fell short Sunday afternoon, and that will sting for a while, just as last year's loss to the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl was difficult for this team to get over. Carroll will try to figure out why the team got off to such a slow start against the Carolina Panthers. He might question his decision to go for it on fourth-and-5 in the second quarter rather than kick the field goal. Perhaps he'll revisit the sequence at the end of the first half that resulted in a missed 55-yard field goal by Steven Hauschka.

But before long, Carroll and the organization will turn the page. They'll decide on the future of running back Marshawn Lynch and other veterans. They'll develop a plan for free agency and start looking ahead to the draft. In about four months, the Seahawks will begin OTAs.

All the planning will focus on one question: How can we get back to the Super Bowl?

The answer will start with the quarterback. For fans, it will be difficult to acknowledge with Sunday's loss still fresh, but the best thing to happen to the Seahawks this season was Russell Wilson taking another step in his development. He led the NFL in passer rating. He showed he can dissect defenses when given time in the pocket. And he put the team on his back with a 24-touchdown/one-interception stretch that resulted in the Seahawks earning a wild-card berth.

Wilson turned 27 in November. There's a good chance he has yet to reach his ceiling, and because of that, the Seahawks will be a legitimate Super Bowl contender again going into the 2016 season.

Consider the NFC quarterbacks who played this weekend: Wilson, Cam Newton, Carson Palmer and Aaron Rodgers. There are haves and have-nots in the league right now. With Wilson, the Seahawks are on the attractive side.

Defensively, cornerback Richard Sherman is 27; safety Earl Thomas is 26; linebackers Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright are 25 and 26, respectively. The Seahawks need to figure out a plan for right cornerback and decide whether to bring back linebacker/defensive end Bruce Irvin. But the core of a defense that has finished first in points allowed for four straight seasons is in place.

Nothing is guaranteed in the NFL from one season to the next. Players may voice dissatisfaction with their contracts or suffer offseason injuries. But Carroll and general manager John Schneider wanted to build a roster that could sustain success over an extended time.

That's what Carroll saw in Buffalo, and that's what he has going in Seattle despite Sunday's loss.

"That’s where winning for a long period of time became the essence of what I’m working to achieve," Carroll said. "That’s why a record that you make in one year, you get the ring and all that stuff, that’s great, it’s awesome, it’s fun. But coming back and doing it again, coming back and showing you’re worthy again is the great challenge. That’s where I find my greatest inspiration to work and to try to figure things out and try to find ways to be successful."