No Russell Wilson, bad defense and 2-4 start: Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll faces toughest challenge

RENTON, Wash. -- Matt Hasselbeck remembers seeing it everywhere, hearing it everywhere: seven and nine.

It was the end of the 2010 regular season, coach Pete Carroll's first with the Seattle Seahawks and Hasselbeck's last as Seahawks quarterback. They had just beaten the St. Louis Rams in Week 17 to claim the NFC West title and become the first team in the Super Bowl era to win its division with a sub.-500 record.

To the dismay of many NFL observers, that meant a first-round meeting with the New Orleans Saints, who had earned a wild-card bid at 11-5 after winning the Super Bowl the previous season. Talking heads groaned that a 7-9 team didn't deserve to win its division, let alone host a playoff game.

What's more: the Saints had beaten the Seahawks by two touchdowns in New Orleans two months earlier.

"So we knew how good they were," Hasselbeck, now an analyst at ESPN, recalled this week. "They were really good, and we knew we were 7-9."

Until Carroll got them to believe they weren't.

"Seven and nine was everywhere and Pete's slogan was, 'We are not 7-9. We are zero and zero. And guess what everyone else is? Zero and zero,'" said Hasselbeck, who will be inducted into the Seahawks' Ring of Honor when they host New Orleans on Monday night (8:15 p.m. ET, ESPN) as 4.5-point underdogs.

"Whether we were naïve to believe it or not, we thought we were zero and zero. We were not 7-9. We were zero and zero, just like everyone else. We believed it. We were in. He had us so focused on it. Maybe we were suckers, but we loved it. We were in on it."

Eleven years after his team pulled off one of the greatest playoff upsets in NFL history, Carroll has another improbable task in front of him. The Seahawks are 2-4, 4½ games behind the division-leading Arizona Cardinals and 3½ behind the second-place Los Angeles Rams. They have a suspect defense and a backup quarterback in Geno Smith for at least two more games, while Russell Wilson recovers from finger surgery.

Carroll has faced his share of difficult coaching challenges in Seattle: rebuilding on-the-fly in 2010, avoiding the pitfalls that can follow a Super Bowl win, managing the fallout of their devastating Super Bowl loss to the New England Patriots, moving on from the Legion of Boom in 2017 and 2018 and turning around a historically bad defense in 2020.

What makes this obstacle different from most of those: Carroll doesn't have Wilson.

"It's a challenge," he said. "I've got to lead the charge, and I'm going to kick ass on that."

'It's a very similar feeling'

Carroll's unwavering optimism, even in the face of dire situations, is rooted in regular assurances he used to get from his mother. Rita Carroll's oft-repeated line to her children was that "something good is about to happen."

Linebacker Bobby Wagner believes something good is about to happen.

Seattle's defensive captain is one of three players -- Wilson and wide receiver Tyler Lockett are the others -- left over from the 2015 Seahawks' team that started 2-4. It finished 10-6, earned a wild-card bid and advanced to the divisional round after Minnesota Vikings kicker Blair Walsh missed a chip-shot field goal in sub-zero Minneapolis.

"I remember everybody on the outside saying our season was over and saying that we had no chance of being good," Wagner recalled of that 2-4 start. "And I remember us just locking in and focusing. It's a very similar feeling. I feel like when you watch the games and watch some of the things that we've done, I feel like we're very close and I feel like it's not like we're not getting better.

"I'm very confident in the guys that we have. I'm confident that we're just a couple plays away, just a couple minor tweaks away from being a team that I know we can be. So we've just got to lock in. There's no more room really for error for us to ... figure these things out."

That 2015 team had the Legion of Boom leading the league's top-ranked scoring defense. And it had Wilson, the quarterback who's led more game-winning drives in the fourth quarter or overtime than anyone since 2012, the guy who has masked so many of his team's flaws in its post-Super Bowl years, the primary reason why you can never count the Seahawks out.

This team has a defense that showed improvement last week in an overtime loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers but has mostly underperformed while allowing the most yards in the NFL through six games. It has a good backup in Smith, who filled the role of game manager well while rallying Seattle from a 14-0 deficit before losing a fumble in OT.

It's Smith's job for at least two more games, when Wilson will be eligible to come off injured reserve. Carroll has given no timetable on his quarterback's return, saying if it's physically possible for Wilson to play in Week 10 at Green Bay following Seattle's bye, he will.

"I definitely feel like we understand what's at stake," Wagner said. "It's important for guys like myself, Russell to make sure the young guys understand that we have been in this position before. Just because we started 2-4, it doesn't mean that has defined our season. The season is very long. I'm confident that after these two games, the bye week, we'll be sitting in a very good position."

'How do we fix this?'

Carroll, who turned 70 last month, is under contract through 2025 after signing an extension last season. Hasselbeck believes that's an important distinction from the dynamic that struggling teams often face.

"Usually in a situation where you're on the quote-unquote hot seat or you're having one of those terrible years, people are all concerned about their own jobs and it's more about covering your own butt for your own job than it is about getting it fixed for real," he said. "I think the nice thing if you're rooting for Seattle is there's job security in a big way there. There's no question about ... that kind of thing. So the focus will be on how do we fix this? Similar to last year when everyone was losing their minds on talk radio."

Hasselbeck was referencing their defensive turnaround, when they went from setting records for futility early to allowing the fewest points in the NFL over the last seven weeks.

"Pete didn't really flinch," Hasselbeck said. "He just got it fixed basically."

Now, the issues are on both sides of the ball. The NFC West is stacked. Wilson is sidelined. And the stakes are raised given the uncertainty about Wilson's future in Seattle beyond 2021.

Carroll and the Seahawks need something good to happen in a hurry.

He pointed to how his players rallied in Pittsburgh as evidence of how they'll handle such an unfamiliar challenge.

"There's no choice," he said after the Steelers' loss. "Fortunately, we come back on Monday night. We get an extra day. But there are no options. We've got to come back and freaking battle. That's how we do it."