Don't count out the Seahawks -- here's why they're a sleeper

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RENTON, Wash. -- The guy running around the Seattle Seahawks' secondary wearing No. 33 is Tedric Thompson. He's a second-year safety out of Colorado, and out here they're talking him up like he's the next new iPhone.

"Thirty-three looks amazing," veteran Seahawks linebacker K.J. Wright said. "Has since OTAs. Mentally, he's always asking me the right questions about what he should be doing. Physically, he's fast as a bullet. He's going to be exciting to watch."

The Seahawks drafted Thompson in the fourth round in 2017 because they knew they had a problem coming. They might not have known the specifics -- that Kam Chancellor would suffer a career-ending neck injury, that Earl Thomas would hold out for a new contract, and that Richard Sherman would tear his Achilles and be released -- but the Seahawks looked at their contract and salary-cap situation and knew they wouldn't be able to keep that old "Legion of Boom" secondary together much longer. So they picked four defensive backs in that draft, and Thompson looks like he might be ready to start.

This is the way the Seahawks believe it's supposed to work.

"I feel good about what we're doing," coach Pete Carroll said. "I really am excited about this group, and it's because of what they're showing. And everybody could never imagine -- the outside can never imagine that we could play good ball. But we'll see."

Oh yeah, the Seahawks know what you think about them. Out here in their secluded lakefront football lab in the upper-left corner of the country, they know what's being said. That it's all over. That they're done. That the personnel losses on defense -- six starters from last season are gone -- have hollowed them out, that they still haven't fixed the offensive line or the run game and that their time as perennial playoff and Super Bowl contenders has come to an end. These guys have the internet. They know.

But how surprised would you really be if the narrative turned out to be wrong? If there's an NFL team west of Foxborough you could imagine with its thumb in the eye of this type of conventional wisdom, is it crazy to think it's this "we believe in us" bunch? The team with the Benjamin Button coach and the quarterback who ends every news conference with "Go Hawks"? Wouldn't it be just about the Seahawkiest thing you could imagine if they managed to keep on winning right when everyone else was ready to move on?

"All I know is winning as a Seahawk," Wright said. "And I don't expect things to change now. I expect the standard to stay the same. I expect us to win the NFC West like we always do."

Brave talk, and in a minute here, we'll get to the reasons behind it. But first, a little reality check. The Seahawks did not win the NFC West last season. They went a still-respectable 9-7 in spite of all of their superstar injuries on defense, but they lost three of their last four games and missed the playoffs for the first time since 2011.

One of their three December losses was a 42-7 home drubbing at the hands of the upstart Rams, who would finish 11-5 and win the division. That loss was widely hailed as a changing-of-the-guard game, and indeed, it is now the Rams who enter 2018 as the consensus pick to win the West. That same consensus imagines the Seahawks in a rebuild, mainly because the players who have moved on were proven champions and high-level performers who will be impossible to replace.

"It truly is in respect to the guys that have been here and what they've done together and all that," Carroll said. "It's never going to be the same. It's going to be different. It is different. And it always winds up being unique to the players that you have. So somebody says, 'Is the culture going to change?' No. The culture doesn't change. The philosophy doesn't change. The people change. And they bring their dynamic and their special qualities and their uniqueness to it, and it becomes them. And so that's what we're doing."

Look, it's not as if they're stupid. The Seahawks' players and coaches know that Sherman and Chancellor and Michael Bennett and Thomas (if he stays away) won't be easy to replace. They know it's not good that Wright and top pick Rashaad Penny and top receiver Doug Baldwin are all dealing with injuries already and the season hasn't even started yet. They know the Rams are good and the 49ers are coming and that it won't be easy to get back on top.

But they also know they've done it before. And the culture here is so believe-in-yourself driven, doggone it if they're not excited to find out whether they can do it again.

"We've got a lot of great young talent," quarterback Russell Wilson said. "We had a lot of great young talent when we went to the Super Bowl and when we went to the playoffs many times. And it's never easy when you lose some great young football players like we've lost. But at the same time, I feel like we've added some great additions to our team. And it's the same intensity in terms of how we try to bring it every day. So it's been a lot of fun, and hopefully we go out there and play great football."

You want to call it a rebuild, go ahead. In Carroll's mind, where he's perpetually kneading his coaching philosophy like mental chewing gum, they're always building something here. Even when they were having success, it was with late-round draft picks and free agents who had to be built up and find their place in the program. Players like Sherman and Chancellor and Bennett, who helped deliver the glory years of this franchise, were all expectation-beaters.

"We've had guys throughout this program for years that other people didn't think could play," Carroll said. "Half our team has been free agents for years, and that means that nobody drafted them. And they've played and they've found their way. There are special qualities that, if you tap into it and reach the best that they have to offer, they'll surpass a lot of guys who have a lot more talent and a lot more potential. And so that's what we're hoping will happen again."

"The culture doesn't change. The philosophy doesn't change. The people change. And they bring their dynamic and their special qualities and their uniqueness to it, and it becomes them." Pete Carroll

Hoping. It'd be disrespectful to the accomplishments of the previous group for Carroll and his staff to assume this team will replicate them. But what fires up coaches and teachers is the finding out. Carroll describes his developmental philosophy as "relationship-based," and that takes time.

"What we're doing is looking at each individual guy," Carroll said. "What does he bring? What is his makeup? What is his mentality? What kind of worker is he? What kind of instincts does he have? And then we try to figure out how to call on him to do the things he does really well. And so he [Thompson] was a great playmaker in college, and so we're trying to keep him freed up in that mentality, so that he can utilize his instincts. He's been all over the place in camp."

Thompson is just one front-and-center example -- a player the Seahawks drafted in 2017 knowing they might need him in 2018 or 2019 and that they had the time to get to know what makes him tick and how to draw the best out of him. On offense, the player in question might be second-year running back Chris Carson, who was hot stuff here a year ago before he got hurt but now is running hard in practice because he doesn't want 2018 first-rounder Rashaad Penny taking his job. Or it might be wide receiver Tyler Lockett, who played hurt in 2017 and just signed a contract extension because the team believes he's ready for a bigger role. Heck, quarterback Russell Wilson was a third-round pick because everybody thought he was too small.

"We're not asking them to be something they're not," Carroll said. "I'm not asking anybody to be Earl. I'm not asking anybody to be Kam. I want them to be the best them. And that sounds like rhetoric, but eventually they believe us, because we mean it. And I think that's what gives them a chance to play, whether other people thought they could or not."

So yeah, doubt the Seahawks if you want. They kind of dig it. Carroll is attuned enough to the outside world to know there are doubters, and those who believe everything's changing too much for even a coach of his accomplishments to overcome. His counterpoint is that the base stuff -- the stuff that's important to him as a coach and a program-builder -- isn't changing at all.

"People always wonder what the hell we're doing," Carroll said. "That always happens. And that's OK. We're on it. We're guided by figuring out the highest expectations that somebody could achieve, and then help them agree that, 'Yeah, I could do that,' and then coach the hell out of them until it comes to life. And that's as self-fulfilling-prophecy as it gets. That's as Pygmalion as it gets. But that's what we've been doing. And it's worked out."