RENTON, WA - With the COVID-19 pandemic impacting all walks of life, the 2020 NFL season proved to be a one-of-a-kind affair.
First, the league orchestrated an exclusively virtual draft due to nation-wide lockdowns with commissioner Roger Goodell reading all of the first round picks from his basement. Then, traditional on-field offseason programs were scrapped entirely in favor of virtual meetings via Zoom and other platforms, casting doubt about whether games would happen at all.
Eventually, teams did report for training camp, with everyone from players to team office staff underwent daily testing, rosters being downsized to 80 players, and the preseason receiving the ax to eliminate unnecessary travel and virus exposure. Once the regular season kicked off in September, the vast majority of stadiums were empty without a single fan in attendance. This trend lasted through the remainder of the season for most teams.
Ultimately, against long odds, the NFL wound up conducting a full season. A champion was crowned in February when the Buccaneers beat the Chiefs in Tampa Bay and while protocols didn't work perfectly from Week 1 through the big game and there were hiccups aplenty along the way, the league managed to somehow avoid canceling any games.
Though they didn't win a playoff game and came up well short of their goal of hoisting the Lombardi Trophy, the Seahawks enjoyed a highly successful campaign. Along with winning 12 games and capturing an NFC West division title, they were the only team in the NFL without a single player testing positive for the virus, a testament to the measures put in place by an organization that took the threat seriously from day one to ensure everyone stayed healthy.
It was quite the feat during the most unique season in NFL history. Coach Pete Carroll led the charge, consistently hammering the message home to his players and assistant coaches to avoid congregating with people outside of their family. It was just the latest demonstration of his first rule amid unprecedented times: protect the team.
While the season concluded earlier than hoped following a wild card loss to the Rams in January, Carroll had much to be proud of considering circumstances. But as the pandemic gradually improves with more and more people being vaccinated, he's looking forward to a sense of normalcy returning for this upcoming season.
Specifically, Carroll felt that, as a result of adapting on the fly without an offseason program and trying to make the most of an unusual situation, the Seahawks weren't able to fulfill their mission of "always competing" during training camp. He wants starters to be pushed, something he doesn't believe happened enough a year ago.
"I didn't feel like, because of the format of last camp where we didn't have the offseason and we didn't have preseason games and the evaluations of players were so uniquely different than its ever been," Carroll energetically told reporters on Wednesday. "I didn't feel like I gave our roster - throughout the depth of the roster - the best opportunity I could have for their statement for where they fit into this club. That's something I've already told our guys. That's happening."
"Guys that are starting are going to get guys battling for their spots and everybody's gotta battle. It's going to make the guys who are starters get better or get beat and guys deserve that opportunity and I want to make sure I do a better job of that."
Due to the ongoing pandemic, it remains unclear when NFL teams will return to the practice field for on-field workouts. Players from numerous teams, including the Seahawks, released statements through the NFL Players Association in recent weeks indicating they would not attend voluntary workouts due to safety concerns.
With that said, the NFL offseason program officially kicked off on April 19 and many players are lifting weights and working out at Seattle's team facility in Renton. According to Carroll, while he couldn't offer specific numbers, several players already have received both of their vaccinations.
After Zoom meetings exceeded expectations last offseason, Carroll has publicly been on board with continuing to implement such measures as necessary this offseason and in the future. But he understands on-field reps can't be replaced by virtual sessions, especially for young players such as linebackers Cody Barton and Ben Burr-Kirven who he believes didn't get a fair shake last August due to circumstances beyond their control.
"They want to get their shot to play too and they deserve their opportunity," Carroll commented in regard to Barton and Burr-Kirven, who will be entering their third NFL seasons respectively. "Across the board, you're going to see Ethan Pocic battling with Kyle [Fuller], and you're going to see some really great battles waged, which I think is going to just make us better. I'm excited committing that to our players and that's why I don't mind saying it out loud."
Last year, minus a traditional offseason program, undrafted rookies didn't have a fighting chance at making NFL rosters. While guard Damien Lewis, linebacker Jordyn Brooks, and defensive end Alton Robinson enjoyed stellar rookie seasons for Seattle, even draft picks were put at a far greater disadvantage than usual being indoctrinated to life in the NFL without the luxury of partaking in rookie minicamps and other sessions beforehand.
Despite holding only three selections heading into this weekend's 2021 NFL Draft, however, Carroll remains optimistic OTA practices and minicamps will take place in some way, shape, or form to allow incoming rookies to see the field before training camp. This will be especially critical with the team's lack of draft capital increasing the likelihood they will sign a large crop of undrafted free agents, who he hopes will be dealt a better hand than their 2020 predecessors.
It's all part of Carroll's master plan to get back to all 90 players competing for their spots, which he believes will be instrumental to the Seahawks chances of getting over the hump after a disappointing finish to a challenging year for everyone involved.
"Last year was uniquely different, this year is different again, but we're going to have preseason games and we'll have a better opportunity to give guys a competitive chance and really that statement will go out to the guys we acquire this weekend. We want them to have a clear shot as well. It'll make us better. Competition always brings out the best in us."