How the Seahawks Landed on Mike Macdonald As Pete Carroll’s Successor

Most head coaches have to come in to fix something broken. That’s not the case in Seattle, where the new coach has experience taking over in a place that has already had success.
Schneider and Macdonald will build on the success that was put in place during the Pete Carroll era.
Schneider and Macdonald will build on the success that was put in place during the Pete Carroll era. / Courtesy: Seahawks
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Seattle Seahawks GM John Schneider was walking into the Harbor East Starbucks in downtown Baltimore on the morning of Jan. 30 and shot the text over to Ravens defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald as a courtesy. Nothing more. Nothing less.

“Yo, you want coffee?” Schneider wrote.

“And I’m like, ‘O.K., this is kind of more my vibe,” recalls Macdonald, who’d already interviewed with four other teams. “And I knew what coffee shop he was at because I used to live right around the corner, so I was like, S---, I’m just gonna go over and meet him.”

So imagine Schneider’s surprise when he turned around, with that text still unreturned, and saw the 36-year-old coach he was about to vet.

“Like, Who’s this square?” Schneider says, laughing. “No, [Panthers GM] Dan Morgan told me, He’s kind of like us. He can go from funny and silly to serious real quick. And he showed it. That was fun. He was like, Hey, what’s up? He was standing right behind me, like, Whoa, O.K., got it. And then we started chatting. Everything was really easy and clear. That’s the best way to describe it.”

The two wound up walking together from the Starbucks to the Four Seasons, where the interview would be held. The next day, Macdonald was on a flight to Seattle. The day after that, he was hired as the new head coach of a Seahawks team slamming on the accelerator after running a very detailed, methodical process right up until that week.

It’s been a long time since Seattle has been in this position. Pete Carroll debuted in the NFL’s only Pacific Northwest outpost 14 years ago. He’s being replaced by a guy exactly half his age. And over that interim, the Seahawks won at a clip they’d never won at before. Carroll made the playoffs 10 times, getting there with three different quarterbacks (Matt Hassellbeck, Russell Wilson, Geno Smith), won five NFC West crowns, two conference titles and the franchise’s only Lombardi Trophy.

So even taking the 2021 Wilson trade into account, this is a level of transition that the team hasn’t gone through in a generation. And as Schneider dug into the process of finding Carroll’s successor back in mid-January, what he was looking for was fully illustrated on that cold January morning near Baltimore’s Inner Harbor.

Everything was easy.

It’s the last week before the NFL’s summer. And in this week’s takeaways we’ve got …

• An appreciation for some big-box decision making in Cleveland.

• One of the league’s top free agents finds off-field trouble.

• The Packers keep pumping out receivers.

And a lot more. We’re starting, though, with the new Seahawks, who aren’t as different from the old Seahawks as you might think.

Schneider knew over the past few years that even if Carroll didn’t show any sign of, or desire to, slow down, the GM had to be ready. To do so, he kept, in his desk, a working list of coaching candidates that he continued to chip away at and research. There were in-house guys. There were old friends working elsewhere. There were coaches he didn’t know.

Along those lines, back-to-back prime-time defeats late last year (Seattle was blown out by the San Francisco 49ers then blew a lead late to the Dallas Cowboys) within a larger four-game losing streak refocused Schneider. He didn’t know what owner Jody Allen would decide. He did know he had to be prepared. And earlier in the year, as Seattle was routed 37–3 in Baltimore, the Ravens’ young DC caught his eye.

A month and a half later, Carroll was gone and Schneider was good to get rolling.

The only thing that threw a wrench in his planning was timing. Allen’s decision wasn’t finalized until the Wednesday after Week 18. Out of respect to Carroll, and all he’d accomplished, Seattle was tactful about starting the search for his replacement. So they didn’t go through the league’s detailed DEI process until late that week and didn’t get approved to start their search by the NFL until early the following week.

Problem was, by then, the window to interview candidates with the two teams that landed playoff byes—the San Francisco 49ers and Baltimore Ravens—had closed. So by the time they got the go-ahead, the Seahawks hadn’t just missed their opening to talk with Macdonald early, they wouldn’t be able to talk to him at all until after Baltimore was eliminated (the second window to talk to candidates, during the Super Bowl bye week, is reserved for second interviews).

By the second week of the search, the Seahawks had met with Carolina Panthers DC Ejiro Evero, Las Vegas Raiders DC Patrick Graham, New York Giants OC Mike Kafka, Los Angeles Rams DC Raheem Morris and Cowboys DC Dan Quinn. By being methodical, they’d also had the chance to take a broader look at the landscape and, with other coaching searches wrapping up as the conference title games approached, Schneider could tap into his connections.

Morgan, whom Schneider had hired and mentored in Seattle, tabbed Dave Canales to lead the Panthers. Tennessee Titans president of football operations Chad Brinker, whom Schneider and John Dorsey had hired in Green Bay, picked Brian Callahan. And Rich McKay, with whom Schneider has worked on league matters for more than a decade, tabbed Morris for the Atlanta Falcons.

All of them—since, by then, they were out of the coaching market—could be resources for Seattle. All had interviewed Macdonald. The feedback was consistent.

“That he crushed it,” Schneider says.

Which steeled Schneider to stay patient.

“You’re trusting people you’ve trusted forever,” he continues. “The hardest part would’ve been waiting through the Super Bowl. That would’ve been tough.”

Another tough part was how, having been in that position before, working for a playoff team, Schneider didn’t want to distract from what the Ravens were trying to accomplish. So where others in that situation in the past have put in a slip to get permission to talk to a coach, to signal interest even if the rules didn’t allow for an interview, Seattle stayed silent on its intentions to meet with Macdonald.

“It’s distracting for the candidate, and it’s distracting for the team,” Schneider says. “So it was out of respect for Mike and respect for the Ravens.”

Then, on Championship Sunday, the Kansas City Chiefs beat the Ravens and the 49ers beat the Detroit Lions, and Schneider quickly put in for permission to meet with Detroit OC Ben Johnson and Macdonald. Both also got requests from the Washington Commanders. Johnson pulled his name out of both searches the next day. Macdonald met with Washington first, on Jan. 29, then dove in with the Seahawks.

As it turned out, the interview was just as easy as that first interaction.

“He’d interviewed with a bunch of teams, we’d interviewed a bunch of people, and it was pretty clear,” Schneider says. “What felt like a 20-minute conversation with clarity, thoughtfulness, vision, was about an hour and a half … so all that information felt like it was packed into 20 minutes; it was that clear.”

After those 90 or so minutes, Schneider had a pretty good idea of where it was going, and that he’d ask Macdonald to get to Seattle for a second look. It wasn’t 48 hours later before the Seahawks were negotiating with Macdonald’s agents, Jimmy Sexton and Davis Horton at CAA, and the GM and his new coach were sketching out their new collective vision.

“We got done negotiating with Jimmy, and then basically we came in and we’ve got Mike’s grease board in here,” Schneider says. “We just started working on it right away. And it might’ve been two or three o’clock in the afternoon, and Mike’s like, Am I gonna sign anything? We’d been going for about four hours, and felt like we were behind. And we wanted to be competing with everyone else.”

The reality is they were behind. That was Jan. 31. Most of the NFL’s scouting community was already on its way back from the Senior Bowl, and the Seahawks were just launching a new program, with the combine a little over three weeks away and an entire coaching staff to fill—another process that Macdonald wanted to be intentional with, so he wouldn’t just wind up hiring who he knew (which was part of what Schneider liked about his vision).

The task, on paper, was daunting. Schneider and his decorated personnel department had, for 14 years, been evaluating guys for the same program, the same defense and just a few different offensive schemes. Now, they’d have to recalibrate how and what they were looking for all over the field.

But where Macdonald’s hire did represent a new beginning, it certainly wasn’t a repudiation of all that had come before him, the way a lot of hires are.

In fact, when Macdonald was interviewing for jobs, he was looking for a place that matched the values he’d learned over a decade in the Harbaugh family football program—with nine of those seasons coming under John in Baltimore and one with Jim as Michigan’s defensive coordinator in 2021. All the same, the Seahawks wanted to build off, not push away, the unique culture that Carroll curated in Seattle, starting in ’10.

“I had a good model, the longevity in Baltimore, and seeing those relationships work,” Macdonald says. “And it doesn’t really matter what the power structure is, it’s really the working relationship and shared values. I think Ozzie [Newsome] has been the best at setting it up, and I’ve been able to see that. So I just told myself going into the whole process, Hey, you got a hell of a situation going, you’re the freaking coordinator for the Ravens, that’s pretty awesome.

“So you really gotta take the pressure off yourself and go in with open eyes, and an open mind to, Hey, let’s spill your guts, what you believe in, what’s really important to you, and try to figure out over a Zoom interview, which is really difficult to do, what’s important to those people.”

Which showed the aforementioned match.

“One of the reasons we felt there was alignment, when you share values on how you want your team to be, it’s gonna reflect a lot in what type of players you want to bring in,” he continues. “Going back and forth on what’s important, it’s not, O.K., this guy’s gotta be 6'5" with 34-inch arms. It’s like, Hey, these are the types of players we want on our football team, this is what we like coaching. It might be different language, but principle-wise, there’s a lot of parallels to what John and the guys, and Pete have done here for a long time.”

In particular, Macdonald told Schneider he wanted to emphasize drafting, signing and developing tough, rugged, high-character players who love football. And as he described it to the GM and the scouts, in Macdonald’s words, “you felt a lot of nodding going on.”

From there, Schneider and his staff drilled down on what Macdonald would build on the defense, and what new offensive coordinator Ryan Grubb—whom the head coach connected with through Horton, and who carried a well-known rep as an innovator in the NFL scouting community—would build on his side of the ball.

The key, as Macdonald described in his interview, and over the phone five months later, very much reflected his Baltimore background, in that he’d be looking for “varied” schemes that kept pushing the envelope on what could be accomplished. But everyone agreed that finding those fits would be a lot easier after they honed in on the types of people they wanted.

“Scheme-wise, Albert, looking back through the whole process, to look at anything as initial roadblocks is really narrow vision, man,” Macdonald continues. “We can get through all that stuff. In my opinion, I was looking at it as, These are the guys I want to work with, and these are the guys that fit our team. Because those are the guys that are gonna project what’s important to [the coaches], and how they’re gonna coach their guys.”

It didn’t take long for proof that Schneider had gotten that staff to come to Seattle.

The Seahawks had less time between the hiring cycle and the draft process, but quickly got on the same page. / Courtesy: Seahawks

Through the first draft cycle, there were going to be bumps.

A long-established personnel staff had to keep learning its new coaches. The coaches all had to learn a new scouting language on the fly. So it means something that when I asked whether there was one player acquisition—veteran or rookie—who represented the progress everyone had made, there was very little pause.

“Probably Murph,” Macdonald says.

“Yeah, we totally knew he was going to be there at 16,” Schneider quickly quips. “So we were on it.”

The implication, of course, is that the big Texas defensive tackle, Byron Murphy II, was an obvious pick for Seattle, and it’s hard to argue too much with that. He could’ve gone as high as No. 8 to the Falcons or No. 9 to the Chicago Bears. He was a second-team AP All-American, and hyper productive from the interior for the Longhorns, yet still carried a ton of untapped potential. His character assessment was as clean as it comes.

So Schneider and Macdonald weren’t exactly splitting atoms in taking Murphy with the 16th pick. And yet, how they got there said a lot for how far they’d come in a really short amount of time—and maybe just as much about where they both were philosophically to begin with, to fuel the match.

“From my perspective, it was like, O.K., we’re catching up from a coaching perspective,” Macdonald says. “We’re not gonna be as deep in the weeds as we normally would be personnel-wise, or as we will be this time next year. And oh, by the way, Seattle’s got a sweet history in how they’ve done the draft, proof’s in the pudding, so let’s trust on how they operate and let them cook. Let’s put in the input they want, and whatever we feel like we can add to the recipe, so to speak, but I was just excited to see how we did things here. …

“[Murphy] doesn’t meet all the size criteria. That’s the first thing. And so you see the ability on tape, and listening to how our personnel people described this guy as a person, this is our type of dude. I didn’t go into the school, I don’t know anybody at Texas, it’s not like I’m calling those people. It’s going straight off our scouts and our in-house guys. And how they describe him, that’s our type of guy right there. Take the position and all that s--- out of it, this is our first pick as the new crew here. We think this guy is gonna be very representative of who we want to be.”

That Schneider and his crew got there independently was a really good sign.

It wasn’t the only one.

The same personnel department had, months earlier, traded second- and fifth-round picks to the Giants to acquire veteran defensive lineman Leonard Williams, who’ll turn 30 later this month. Of course, given that investment, Schneider and his staff really wanted to keep Williams long term. But they also wanted to use the fresh sets of eyes they had in-house to make sure he was right for the reconfigured program.

Macdonald had his criteria. Williams, it would turn out, fit it.

“Mike and his staff are basically trusting what we’re saying about Leonard as a person and a competitor,” Schneider says. “Everybody can watch the film and be like, He’s a pretty damn good football player, right? But we’re making a huge investment, and we gave up a second-round pick before they all got here.”

By mid-March, Williams was extended at $64.5 million over three years.

“That was basically our biggest move in free agency,” Schneider continues. “So you can say, free agency, Leonard Williams, draft, Byron Murphy, like, here’s the consensus—they’re our type of people. It wasn’t asking the rest of the National Football League what we think about players. It was reflective of our own situation.”

Which, of course, wasn’t exactly a bad one even before Macdonald walked in the room.

Nine times out of 10 in the NFL, a new head coach is hired to fix something broken.

That’s not the job Macdonald took. He did say, when I asked what he thought of the roster, “If you put too much stock in the initial roster, I don’t think you’re looking at it the right way.” But he also knows he’s inheriting a good base of young talent, while coming into a stable franchise.

That makes this a different type of challenge. And it’s not all that unlike what he took over at Michigan in 2021 or Baltimore the year after, in replacing well-respected veteran coordinators Don Brown and Wink Martindale.

“There are parallels,” he says. “You gotta do your homework, you gotta figure out what the team’s about, recognize who the players are, what their motivations are, how they react to stimulus. What’s the aggregate conversation, where are we at as a football team, where do we need to go today, what’s the next thing we need to do, what are the building blocks? There’s no point in thinking, this team is broken; we need to rebuild it. And no point in thinking, like, Oh, that’s a Pete-ism.

“This is our team. O.K., what do we need to do to get to the next step? And there’s a lot of s--- we need to do, but what’s tomorrow? Let’s go attack that, and let’s do it again the next day.”

And to best illustrate that, Macdonald dug back to his return to Baltimore in 2022.

He’d come off a monster year at Michigan, through which he’d leveled up the Wolverines’ defense, helped supercharge the draft stock of guys such as Aidan Hutchinson, Dax Hill and David Ojabo, and gave new life to Jim Harbaugh’s program in Ann Arbor. He had experience working under Martindale in Baltimore, as his defensive backs coach, then his linebackers coach. But quickly, as happens in the NFL, he got a fistful of reality as a new coordinator.

In Week 2, his defense gave up 28 fourth-quarter points to the Dolphins at home, as the Ravens blew a 35–14 lead over the game’s final 13 minutes.

“Miami scoring like a thousand points in the fourth quarter, yeah, that was not good,” he says. “That made you look at yourself and say, clearly, I’m not getting our guys ready to play and win to the level that we need to. … Went back, went to the players and said, We all agree, that’s not gonna get it done. Starts with me. Starts with the coaches. We got to evaluate everything, players too, we’re all looking inward, and let’s go to work.”

In a way, the experience only steeled his resolve. At Michigan, he dove in with a new group he didn’t know all that well. Everyone had a blank slate. Conversely, at the start of 2022 in Baltimore, because he knew so many of the people, he dipped his toe in the water rather than doing the same sort of cannonball he had in Ann Arbor.

In reflecting on the Miami loss, he decided to lean all the way into what he believed would work, as if he hadn’t been in Baltimore previously. Very clearly, it worked.

So now, again, with a roster and program that wasn’t a mess before he got there, he’s taking a similar approach. He’s respecting the past. But his eyes are squarely looking forward, and to facilitate that vision he’s trying to give every player the same chance to start from zero and build in the Seahawks’ new program.

“All through the lens of, This is where we’re going, but you can’t do all that s--- in one day,” he says. “You gotta do what you need to do that day. It’s all through the lens of your vision for what kind of team you want to be, but you’re not thinking, O.K., we need to stray away here or we need to abide by this. You just let your principles guide you, have guys get alignment, and let’s just keep freaking going. And we’ll look up after we stack all these days and see where we’re at after spring and then, guys, let’s reevaluate, and plan for camp.”

And the good news is that, as he looks around, he sees an infrastructure built to support him.

That starts with the guy he met at the Starbucks in Baltimore, but it hardly ends there.

It’s why Schneider, Allen and all the power brokers were never going to treat this like a teardown. Because it most certainly isn’t one.

“When we adopted this change, I felt like it was the most attractive job of the ones that were available, because of the experience and the talent and the passion of the people we had in this building,” Schneider says. “And while obviously we felt like we had a really nice roster, that’s going to change every year. But to be able to support whoever comes into the building, the head coach, brand new coaching staff, new players, there’s a really great foundation of people here that have been here for a number of years.

“Our president’s been here 30 years. Dave’s been here, how long have you been here?”

PR chief Dave Pearson answered to Schneider that he arrived in 1998.

“There’s a lot of really great foundational people in this building,” Schneider says.

So Macdonald is there now for one simple reason: Seattle sees him as another one.

Albert Breer