RENTON — To understand how far the Seahawks have come, just think back to one year ago.
They had endured a depressing 7-10 season, were on the verge of firing defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. and had begun internal discussions that resulted in the trade of franchise quarterback Russell Wilson on March 8. There were pervasive questions about whether Pete Carroll, at age 70, was still in tune with the modern game.
The 2022 season didn't turn out nearly as dire as predicted, with Seattle decisively winning the Wilson trade, unearthing a quarterback replacement in Geno Smith, developing numerous rookie starters and making the playoffs as a wild-card team.
But to understand how far the Seahawks still have to go, you need to travel back just a few days.
Their 41-23 loss to the San Francisco 49ers on Saturday — the Seahawks' third defeat of the season to the 49ers, in which they were outscored a cumulative 89-43 and outgained 1,259-824 — crystallized the stark discrepancy in elite talent between the teams. Carroll acknowledged as much Monday in his annual season post-mortem at the Virginia Mason Athletic Center.
Closing that gap will be the preeminent task of Carroll and general manager John Schneider. Still the picture of vigor and optimism, Carroll said that he's never felt so positive about the team after a season-ending defeat.
"Really, this is a different feeling after losing the last game. That's always the curse of the league and has its way of manifesting in the end," he said. "We've been through all of that and our guys feel like we're just getting started."
For those who follow such stats, this is the 13th consecutive year Carroll has exuded optimism in his season-ending "state of the team" address. In a related development, this was Carroll's 13th season coaching the Seahawks.
But even as he raved about the breakout performance of Smith, the anticipated growth of the team's rookie core in year two, the tweaks in the defensive scheme to which he's devoting his offseason efforts, and the complete buy-in he senses from players, Carroll also acknowledged that such talk is only that.
"OK, that's great," he said. "But we've got to do something with it. It's nothing unless we do something with it."
The real challenge for Carroll and Schneider will be to match the brilliant offseason they engineered last year, turning what was seemingly a long-term rebuilding project into a competitive team that made the playoffs.
But it's also important to put that feat into perspective. The league expanded the playoffs by one team in each conference. The Seahawks were ultimately a .500 ballclub, which is far below the level needed to legitimately compete for a Super Bowl — and far below their expectations.
Carroll pretty much laid out what it will take to get there. And it's not a change at quarterback. The return of Smith seems a fait accompli, with only the financial terms and length of contract to be determined. When Carroll says, as he did Monday, "We got our guy," it doesn't leave much room for conjecture.
But when Carroll talks longingly about the disruptive forces of the 49ers defensive front seven — glaringly absent all season in Seattle — it's clear where he's aiming the Seahawks. Whether that comes via the draft, free agency or internal improvement — most likely a combination thereof — or if it comes at all, remains to be seen. But the goal is clear-cut: to expand the playmakers on defense.
"Picture the really hot defenses around the league," Carroll said. "There's players on that front that make a difference, and they distract you from everything else that is going on. The Aaron Donald effect is so obvious. With the Rams, he made everybody better because he was so hard to deal with. Well, (Nick) Bosa is one of those kinds of guys (for the 49ers), and then (Arik) Armstead is another one. In some way, shape or form, you've got to have guys that are factors that affect the opponent in big ways."
The Seahawks have ample cap space to hit free agency hard (though a Smith contract would eat into that). More significantly, after acing the draft last year, they have an even greater chance to import impact talent with four picks among the top 52. That includes the No. 5 overall pick by virtue of the Wilson trade.
It's a huge chance to add the sort of disruptive defensive player (or players) that, as Carroll noted, prevailed in excess for the Seahawks in their Super Bowl years.
"Last year's draft being so effective for us, the hopes are really high that we can tag on to that one and keep building," he said. "I'm pretty fired up about it. I know John is, too. This is kind of a dream opportunity here, and he's pumped about it. It's an enormous opportunity for us."
The Seahawks have a multitude of options, including trading up (or down). They could still draft a quarterback high even if they retain Smith, though it's no longer the overriding priority it projected to be when they traded Wilson. I suspect they will focus on a game-changing defensive player with the No. 5 pick, but Carroll left the door open to any and all possibilities.
"If we didn't have a quarterback that functioned really well, it might be a little bit different," Carroll said. "But the quarterbacks in this draft are extraordinary players, and you don't get opportunities like this. And so we are really tuned into all of those options."
It's a complex maze the Seahawks will have to navigate this offseason. But if they want to build a team that can get past the first round of the playoffs — and solve the 49ers — they need to get it right.