While coach Pete Carroll and general manager John Schneider will return in 2022, the Seahawks ensured they won't be sticking to status quo after a disappointing 7-10 campaign with defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. reportedly not being retained.
The decision to part ways with Norton couldn't have been an easy one for Carroll, who has been loyal to his assistants over the years, sometimes to a fault. The 55-year old assistant has been a staple on his staff dating back to his time coaching at USC and brought him along to Seattle as a linebackers coach in 2010. After leaving for a brief three-year stint in Oakland, he returned to replace Kris Richard in 2018.
But even considering Norton's steadfast commitment to the franchise, his excellent rapport with players, and strong finishes by his defense each of the past two seasons, Carroll decided the time had come to make a change. From a statistical standpoint, per data courtesy of TruMedia, the move looks to be the right one, if not a year too late.
In four seasons with Norton serving as the defensive play caller, the Seahawks never finished better than 11th overall in scoring defense. On two different occasions, they finished 15th or lower in that category, including ranking an unacceptable 22nd in 2019.
Allowing opponents to march up and down the field with ease, Seattle ceded yards in bunches throughout Norton's tenure, finishing 22nd or worse in total yards allowed in three of his four seasons as coordinator. They were particularly putrid defending the pass, finishing 27th or worse in passing yards allowed each of the past three seasons, including a 31st overall ranking in 2020 and 2021.
Looking at those past two seasons specifically, midway through the 2020 season, the Seahawks were on pace to shatter the record for most passing yards allowed in a single season by more than 1,000 yards. This past season, from Week 2 to Week 5, they became only the fourth team since the NFL/AFL merger to allow 450 or more yards in four consecutive games. That's not exactly company anyone wants to keep.
In both of those instances, Norton found ways to right the ship. An improved pass rush coupled with a healthy secondary helped the Seahawks finish first in the league allowing just 16 points per game in the final eight games of the 2020 season. In 2021, after another rough start, they ranked fifth in the league in scoring defense from Week 6 through the season finale, yielding just 19 points per game in that span.
But those turnaround efforts weren't good enough to save Norton's job. While Seattle found ways to keep opponents out of the end zone and ranked fourth in red zone efficiency last season, recurring problems ultimately led to his dismissal.
Even with veterans Carlos Dunlap and Benson Mayowa returning, Kerry Hyder signing in free agency, and a healthy Darrell Taylor added to the mix after a strong finish in 2020, the Seahawks couldn't generate consistent pressure on opposing quarterbacks. The team finished 29th in pressure percentage and 22nd in sacks, marking the second time in three seasons where the they ranked near the bottom of the league in both categories.
Without pressure being applied by the front line, immense strain was put on the back seven in coverage. Opponents exposed Seattle's linebackers at the second level, beating them with digs and deep crossing routes. Cornerbacks often lined up 10 yards or more off the ball, providing too much cushion that allowed teams to convert too many third down opportunities into a new set of downs.
As a result, the Seahawks had a tough time getting off the field, ranking 19th in three-and-out percentage and 14th in third down efficiency. Coupling those numbers with an offense that couldn't sustain drives, it's no wonder they played nearly 200 more snaps (1,201) than any other defense in the NFL this year.
Many of these issues aren't new. In three of his four seasons at the helm, Norton's Seahawks ranked 14th or worse in third down efficiency and three-and-out percentage. They finished in the top 10 in sacks only one time and never finished better than 11th in pressure percentage.
What may have broke the camel's back, however, was Seattle's steep regression creating turnovers in 2021. In Norton's first three years as coordinator, the team never finished worse than 10th in the NFL in combined interceptions and fumble recoveries. But with safety Quandre Diggs being the only player with an interception to his name until Week 17 and strip sacks few and far between, they plunged to 25th in that category this season.
In Norton's defense, his arrival back in Seattle coincided with the end of the "Legion of Boom" and he never had the talent from front to back that his predecessors did. He also dealt with constant turnover along the defensive line and in the secondary, as the team traded Frank Clark to the Chiefs, didn't re-sign Jadeveon Clowney after one season, and has played cornerback roulette with everyone from Tre Flowers to John Reid starting games on the outside. It's fair to say he was put in a tough spot from a personnel standpoint.
Through it all, Norton managed to do a quality job adapting and adjusting on the fly. He deserves plenty of credit for orchestrating defensive turnarounds each of the past two seasons, particularly in 2021 when he shifted towards running more two-deep coverages to play to the strengths of his secondary. An argument can be made he did enough to justify keeping him given circumstances and the decision to jettison may not be well-received by players who hold him in high regard.
But in the end, the Seahawks ranked in the bottom half of the league in too many defensive categories far too often over the past four years. While Norton doesn't deserve to shoulder all of the blame for those woes, he unfortunately will have to take the sword as the organization rolls the dice hoping to find a quick upgrade to get their once-dominant defense back on track.
For Carroll and Schneider's sake, they best hope that gamble pays off with the correct hire to replace him, or they may have a similar fate awaiting them a year from now.