Lengthy drug suspensions continue to pile up for Pete Carroll's Seahawks. (Otto Greule Jr./Getty Images)
RENTON, Wash. -- There are people who simply don't know how to deal with success at its ultimate height. On Jan. 21, 1989, running back Stanley Wilson of the Cincinnati Bengals was found to be doing cocaine the night before Super Bowl XXIII, which his team lost to the San Francisco 49ers, 20-16. And on Jan, 30, 1999, the day before his Atlanta Falcons were soundly beaten by the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XXXIII, safety Eugene Robinson was arrested for soliciting an undercover police officer for oral sex. It would seem for some that just as you're approaching the best part of a lifetime dream, self-sabotage kicks in, and it all falls apart.
The Seattle Seahawks are dealing with this phenomenon for the second straight season. Down the stretch of their 2012 campaign, cornerbacks Brandon Browner and Richard Sherman were suspended for violations of the NFL's substance abuse policy. Sherman's was overturned on appeal, but Browner served four games, and Seattle's secondary was affected. Now, the news over the last couple of days is that Browner will be suspended for an entire year as a repeat offender, and cornerback Walter Thurmond has joined him with a four-game suspension for his own league violations.
Browner's suspension is a more complicated story. When he first came into the league in 2005, he failed a drug test while in the Denver Broncos' employ. The Broncos released him in 2006. After that, according to a source familiar with the situation, Browner ran low on money and was sleeping on friends' couches to stay solvent while he waited for another shot at pro football. His cel phone service lapsed, and he was automatically placed in Stage 3 of the program because he missed multiple notifications for drug tests. Browner played with the Calgary Stampeders of the Canadian Football League from 2006 through 2010, and maintained his Stage 3 status when he returned to the NFL with the Seahawks in 2011. Browner passed multiple tests per week from 2011 through 2013 without a hitch, but failed another non-PED test recently, and that tripped the year-long suspension. Had he not missed those notifications years ago, he would face a few missed game checks at best, and a four-game suspension at worst. According to Mike Garafolo of FOX Sports, Browner's appeal concluded Wednesday.
"Over the break, there were some issues that came up that we've dealt with," head coach Pete Carroll said of the suspensions on Tuesday, following the team's first practice after the recent bye week. "We feel very disappointed that they won't be able to play with us, but this is how it goes at times. Over the years, I've always wanted to find who maybe needed some considerations or some special opportunities to do what they can do. Sometimes, it doesn't work out. We'll always look to give guys a second chance around here, and the fact that the league has adjusted the rules allows those guys who have been suspended to be around us, and we're going to take care of them and bring them along until we get them back."
Carroll doesn't always come off as an indulgent father, as former Seahawks head coach Mike Holmgren tended to do at times, but he does talk about "his kids." and there may be a breaking point in Carroll that doesn't allow him to separate the players from the people at times. Browner, who will be a free agent in 2014, has very likely played his last football in Seattle. Thurmond, who started to take over for Browner as Browner's play declined in 2013, is a more complicated proposition. He was taken in the fourth round of the 2010 draft -- Carroll's first year in Seattle after a decade at USC -- and he's overcome injuries at the collegiate and professional levels to play at a high level this season. Browner has used up his chances, and it may be that Thurmond -- who is also a free agent when the next league year kicks in -- presents an irresistible combination of potential and development that Carroll will nurture to a degree that may seem illogical to some.
Though his team has been phenomenally successful on the field since he took it over, Carroll must see a need to reflect on the culture he has created and continues to reinforce. The Browner and Thurmond suspensions are the seventh and eighth for the team in the last three seasons (the NFL high, so to speak), and as much as Carroll's mantra is "Always Compete," this is the kind of NFL mark one would rather not set.
"I think we’re constantly reinforcing the behavior, the mindset, and the mentality that we want," he said when asked about that culture. "It’s hard to do what we do; it’s hard to expect everybody to be exactly on point. You’re going to be disappointed if that’s what you think is going to happen. It’s more about how to be able to adjust and move with it and make most of the situation and overcome it. I would love to say that we haven’t had any issues and we clean it all up and there will be nothing there, but that may not be the case even as we move ahead. We’re going to keep working for it and we’re going to keep expecting to be as perfect as we can get to be.”
But just as Joe Philbin was seen by many to be an ineffective substitute teacher when the Miami Dolphins bullying stories broke, Carroll is now batting with a two-strike count in the game of public perception. There are those who will never stop associating him with the sanctions set against USC based on his time there, and though his players will tell you that their coach has this thing on lock, the reality is different. Carroll has created a team that is incredibly fun to watch, extremely difficult to beat, and nearly impossible to trust. They have the NFL's best record on the field, and quite possibly the NFL's worst everywhere else.
And that's not fair to the guys in the building who have run the straight and narrow, as receiver Golden Tate intimated.
"Everyone should realize where this team is," Tate told ESPN Radio's Seattle affiliate Tuesday morning. "You are affecting way more than yourself. I feel like that was kind of a selfish move on both those guys' part. But it is what it is. The show must go on and that's what we're gonna do."
The problem with Carroll's media session on Tuesday is that he said a lot of the same things back in May, when it was announced that outside linebacker Bruce Irvin would start the 2013 season with his own four-game suspension, And the fact that you could superimpose many of the comments now over the comments then does leave one wondering if it isn't time for a culture change. The message should be simple: When you're on your way to a potential Super Bowl berth, try not to screw it up.
But when I asked him about a new way of doing things, Carroll seemed to believe that the way it's gone is the way it's going to go.
“We’ll always look to do it better, but we’re on it. This team is very strong about where we’re going and what we’re doing and what we’re trying to create. Because somebody slips that doesn’t mean that we’re not on track. I think we’re on tremendous track right now. The focus around here, the dedication of what we’re doing, the standard that we hold [the players] to in all areas has been exemplary in many, many areas, and we’re really proud of it. That doesn’t mean that somebody is not going to slip and make a mistake now and then.”
The difference between "now and then" and "quite frequently, and at the worst possible times" is something that Carroll will have to contend with in his own head. So far, it's proven to be a more difficult opponent than just about any team the Seahawks have faced this season.