SEATTLE -- The best NFL head coaches know how to manage games. They appreciate the critical role quarterbacks increasingly play in winning. They know how to evaluate the position and manage it, too.
The best coaches call for field goals with the first-half clock running down and no timeouts remaining. The best coaches, or at least those with the personnel power Pete Carroll wields with the Seattle Seahawks, do not let two seasons pass without drafting a quarterback. They do not indecisively start a struggling backup quarterback when the starter is ready to go.
Yes, we did. We found out that a decade of dominance at USC has at least temporarily dulled Carroll's appreciation for well-established NFL realities. We learned that now would be a good time for Carroll to join his peers in coaching as though his job depended on it, not as though a $35 million contract gives him a free pass while building up the roster and eventually getting around to finding a quarterback. A little urgency, please.
"We learned something about what we're trying to do on offense, we learned something about what happens when a coach gets hormonal and tries to jam it down their throat for a touchdown at the half -- a mistake," Carroll said.
Hormonal? That might have been Carroll's most creative call of the day. His fourth-down decision to go for it with the first-half clock running down and no timeouts in his possession recalled a nearly identical mishap against the San Diego Chargers last season.
Hey, live and relive.
One embarrassing defeat does not invalidate the plan Carroll and general manager John Schneider have put into place. Far from it. What this defeat does do is highlight the short-term costs of the plan. It shines light on Carroll's shortcomings. But if the San Francisco 49ers cooperate, it could serve as a first step toward a much brighter future.
Some explanation is in order.
These Seahawks, unlike the 2010 version, need not worry about an accidental playoff appearance derailing their chances for a top-10 pick in the draft. Last season, the Seahawks went from 4-3 to 7-9 and still won the NFC West. They politely accepted the postseason invite, but the playoffs were a hindrance to securing a franchise quarterback.
Winning the 2010 title and upsetting New Orleans in the wild-card round dropped the Seahawks from eighth to 25th in the draft order. The Seahawks missed out on the top quarterbacks and took a gamble by drafting right tackle James Carpenter, leaving quarterback Andy Dalton for the Bengals to select 10 picks later.
Dalton was not perfect while passing for 168 yards on 29 attempts Sunday, but he tossed two more touchdown passes than the Seahawks have mustered in their last eight quarters. Dalton played with poise, showing good instincts in avoiding the costly sacks Seattle's Tarvaris Jackson and Charlie Whitehurst have taken too frequently, including in critical situations Sunday.
Dalton made two sensational plays, including one when he sidestepped pressure and threw a perfect strike to A.J. Green for a 43-yard touchdown. There was enough promise to think the Bengals might have found their quarterback.
The Seahawks' decision to build up their offensive line before investing in a quarterback is not without foundation, particularly if they weren't sold on the young passers available to them in the draft.
At the very least, however, the Bengals' 5-2 start with Dalton behind center provides an opportunity to reassess the thinking.
Dalton has a chance to become a very good NFL quarterback. Carpenter, despite drawing two penalties in third-and-long situations while struggling Sunday, has a chance to become a very good run-blocking right tackle. Which one would you rather have? Which one has a chance to significantly upgrade the long-term fortunes of his franchise?
If the Bengals are wrong, big deal. They used a second-round pick -- think Golden Tate, only cheaper -- and signed Dalton to a deal averaging $1.35 million a year. The Seahawks could have had Dalton for the price of Carpenter, not quite $2 million a season under the new labor agreement. They still could have drafted another QB in 2012. They could have targeted a road-grading right tackle later in the draft or through free agency.
The plan can still come together spectacularly for Carroll if the Seahawks finish poorly enough to draft one of the top quarterbacks in 2012. That should happen. The 2011 NFC West race is pretty much over.
The 49ers, at 6-1, hold a four-game lead over 2-5 Seattle with nine games to play. The 2003 Minnesota Vikings and 2008 Denver Broncos blew 3.5-game leads after Week 7, but no team since realignment in 2002 has blown a four-game lead after Week 7. The 49ers could realistically win only two more games and still win the NFC West.
The 49ers' coach last season, Mike Singletary, awkwardly and disingenuously thanked the Seahawks for a Week 1 beating as though it had provided a wake-up call. The Seahawks could more genuinely thank the 49ers for removing ambiguity from where Seattle stands during its second rebuilding season under Carroll. This is not a playoff team.
No matter how much praise Carroll heaps upon Jackson, and there was plenty following the quarterback's gutsy 323-yard performance off the bench Sunday, the Seahawks cannot realistically go through another season with the status quo. They cannot allow a defensive-minded head coach to talk them into thinking they can go another season without moving aggressively to address the position. They cannot hold up the 49ers' success with Alex Smith as evidence quarterbacks aren't all that valuable, after all.
That's one lesson Carroll cannot afford to learn the hard way.