Pete Carroll's win forever philosophy is about to be put to the test.
The Seattle Seahawks reached the summit with a Super Bowl XLVIII rout of the Denver Broncos in the coach's fourth year at the helm. With all of his key pieces returning, Carroll must fend off the NFC's best in 2014.
Seattle's roster was built by Carroll and general manager John Schneider with a distinct vision an aggressive defense that goes after turnovers and an offense that controls the pace long enough to set up big plays. That formula stands in contrast to most of the pass-happy NFL, but it soon might be copied if the Seahawks sustain their success.
It's very surreal, Schneider said. I felt like (the fact that) I was blessed enough to get my own opportunity to do it the way I wanted to do it for a guy like (Seahawks owner) Paul Allen is pretty neat. To go ahead and hook up with Coach Pete and put our philosophy in place, put our heads down and just grind through it and see it come to fruition is very special.
Schneider and Carroll locked up two of their franchise cornerstones, cornerback Richard Sherman and free safety Earl Thomas, with long-term contracts in the offseason. Tough roster decisions could be coming next year, but this year's team returns 17 Super Bowl starters.
The schedule features eight games against teams that made the playoffs last season. But the Seahawks again are embracing the work-hard, play-hard style that made them the league's most personable and successful team.
You can work out and still be on The Tonight Show, Carroll said. We set our direction of having the greatest offseason of our lives each day. That doesn't mean they can't have a good time and have fun.
The most important thing that will happen is that we recapture the work ethic that made us what we are.
The Seahawks will ask Russell Wilson to reprise his role as an efficient playmaker in his third year. Wilson has averaged 25 pass attempts a game in his career, and he won't shoulder the same load as other young franchise quarterbacks such as the Carolina Panthers' Cam Newton (30.7 attempts a game) and the Indianapolis Colts' Andrew Luck (37.4). Tarvaris Jackson's familiarity with the offense makes him a fitting backup. The acquisition of Terrelle Pryor was a low-cost investment that could add a wrinkle on select plays.
No player has embodied the workhorse running back role in the last three years the way Marshawn Lynch has. Beast Mode has averaged 334 carries a season (including the playoffs), the most of any ballcarrier during that span. Given that, it's little wonder he's hinted at a training camp holdout. Christine Michael could close the gap between Lynch and the Seahawks' backups. A second-round draft pick out of Texas A&M in 2013, Michael has been the buzz of Seattle's offseason program. Inconsistency limited him to 18 carries as a rookie, but he could add an explosive presence to a powerful run game. Robert Turbin returns as a hard-nosed runner who can be plugged in for Lynch.
Percy Harvin's promise remains tantalizing, especially after he flashed his big-play ability in the Super Bowl. If healthy, he sparks one of the team's most heavily criticized units. The fact remains, however, that Harvin has played in 10 regular-season games over the last two seasons and has played in all 16 regular-season games once in five NFL seasons. Golden Tate left for the Detroit Lions, but Doug Baldwin returns as a reliable target for Wilson. Rookie Paul Richardson is a downfield threat who complements sure-handed Kevin Norwood. Either could earn more playing time now that Sidney Rice has retired.
Zach Miller has been a steadying presence since joining the Seahawks in 2011. Though he had to take a pay cut to stay in Seattle, the seven-year veteran has earned the staff's trust. Luke Willson likely will be Miller's successor. He caught 20 passes for 272 yards as a rookie and is a speedy threat.
The Seahawks' sporadic offensive struggles in 2013 can be traced to the line of scrimmage. Seattle gave up 44 sacks (tied for 10th most in the NFL) and ranked as Pro Football Focus' No. 27 offensive line. A full season of Russell Okung at left tackle should stabilize the group. Center Max Unger is looking for his third consecutive Pro Bowl berth, but the interior line is shaky with James Carpenter and J.R. Sweezy at guard. Michael Bowie or rookie Justin Britt will have to step up and seize the starting right tackle position vacated after Breno Giacomini signed with the New York Jets.
Carroll prizes depth and versatility along his front, and he'll have plenty of both this year. Michael Bennett has 171/2 sacks in the last two years and is one of the league's most well-rounded defensive ends. Cliff Avril takes over for Chris Clemons as a starter after an impressive finish last year. Brandon Mebane, Tony McDaniel and Kevin Williams will man the middle. Youngsters Jordan Hill, Greg Scruggs and Jesse Williams will vie for snaps after the departutes of Clemons, Red Bryant and Clinton McDonald.
Malcolm Smith's MVP performance in the Super Bowl brought attention to an overlooked group. For a Seattle team that keeps its starting linebackers on the field more often than its counterparts, it's all about range. Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright can drop back in coverage and hold up against the run. Bruce Irvin, who also can slide down to defensive end and boost the pass rush, will rotate at weakside linebacker with Smith.
The Legion of Boom didn't retain all of its members, but the big names are back. Sherman's contract puts him among the most well-paid defenders in the league, and he hasn't been shy to say that he's the best. Thomas will rove deep in Seattle's secondary for some time after signing a four-year extension, too. Kam Chancellor made a strong push for Super Bowl MVP but was beaten by Smith. Byron Maxwell was groomed to replace Brandon Browner, who signed with the New England Patriots. Jeremy Lane replaces Walter Thurmond at nickelback.
Steven Hauschka was a rock last season, hitting 33 of 35 field goal attempts. Jon Ryan and the Seahawks allowed 3.9 yards per punt return last season, the second-lowest average in the NFL. Thomas emerged as the early favorite to replace Tate as punt returner, though Harvin and Richardson could push him in training camp.
Carroll will have impressive coaching continuity entering his fifth year. The Seahawks lost Gus Bradley to the Jacksonville Jaguars the previous season, but offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell and defensive coordinator Dan Quinn return in 2014. Bevell drew interest from the Washington Redskins and Minnesota Vikings in the offseason and could be a future head coach.