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Originally published Saturday, July 21, 2012 at 6:04 PM

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Seahawks' playoff expectations aren't a crazy dream

There are big issues to overcome, but also renewed hope that it's OK again to have substantial expectations for the Seahawks.

Seattle Times staff columnist

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A sampling of the preseason buzz about the Seahawks:

The playoffs are realistic. A winning record should be mandatory. The Seahawks might have a top-five NFL defense. The running game, assuming Marshawn Lynch dodges heavy punishment, should be a strength. This team is young and hungry, and I love it. The rest of the nation better wake up and recognize.

But, oh, who's going to be the quarterback?

It seems that premature praise has become the substitute for joy in Seattle sports. Over the past five years, such early euphoria has revealed itself as dismay once the actual season began. But those resilient fans are unbowed. And now, with the Seahawks trending toward becoming a quality team again, there's renewed hope that it's OK to have expectations.

As long as this wonky three-man quarterback competition bears fruit.

It's the first year of legitimate expectations in the Pete Carroll era, but there are legitimate issues — like, well, you know — to overcome, too. With the Seahawks set to open training camp next weekend, it would be prudent to offer a word of caution that, while it appears things are lining up well, this team still has a long way to go. But who practices prudence during the preseason?

This is a time to dream big, or at least dream bigger than you've been able to during a four-year skid of losing seasons. In the second half of last season, the Seahawks indeed established themselves as one of the NFL's rising young teams. They're agile and brawny now, a tough and united team that is developing a rugged style of play. It only took Carroll, general manager John Schneider and the rest of the front office two seasons to gut and restore the roster with talent that can win.

Now comes the really hard part — actually winning. The replenished Seahawks will face that pressure for the first time. But every team on the brink of a breakthrough must go through this. The encouraging thing is that, with Carroll in charge, it's not like the Seahawks have been babied to this point.

Carroll applies pressure daily in his competitive-based program. Even when the Seahawks have been comically overmatched, he has coached them as if preparing for a championship run. It means that, though the Seahawks are operating under new conditions, they don't have to change much to adjust to it.

Carroll, always enthusiastic but forever seeking more, left his players with this thought at the end of last season: "Now we've got to grow up. We've got to do something with it. We haven't done anything yet, but we feel like we're at the point where we can. ... But we've got to go do it. Saying all that doesn't mean a darn thing until we go out and do something with this offseason and come into preseason raring to go."

Sometimes, it feels like the rest of the nation is wondering when Carroll will stop daydreaming about being an NFL coach and return to college, where he was a runaway success at USC. The perception of Carroll struggling in the NFL led to the laughable notion that he'd leave a $6.5 million Seahawks gig to replace Bobby Petrino at Arkansas. In reality, Carroll has done a fine job putting the Seahawks in a position to enjoy another period of sustained success.

Carroll's coaching staff has thrived on a micro level, developing young players and instilling a winning ethic. Now, even though they'll still be focused on development, the focus shifts to a macro level. Turning the Kam Chancellors and Richard Shermans on this roster into productive starters isn't enough anymore. Now, that production must translate into winning.

The Seahawks' mission is as simple as the stats indicate: They were a top-10 defense in points and yards allowed last season, but on offense, they ranked 23rd of 32 teams in scoring and 28th in yards gained. If they keep doing the same on D and improve the O just a little, the Seahawks can go from 7-9 to at least 9-7.

If defensive end Chris Clemons, who has skipped offseason activities because he wants a new contract, isn't a training-camp holdout, he'll join an improved defensive line (first-round draft pick Bruce Irvin, free agent Jason Jones) that could lessen the defense's most glaring weakness — the pass rush. The Seahawks tied for 19th in the NFL with 33 sacks a year ago.

The offense is much more of an issue. Carroll has declared an open competition at quarterback, with incumbent Tarvaris Jackson pitted against free-agent acquisition Matt Flynn and third-round draft pick Russell Wilson. They will battle without the help of an established receiving corps (numerous jobs up for grabs there). They'll also work with an offensive line that is talented but has three starters (Russell Okung, James Carpenter and John Moffitt) coming back from injuries.

The Seahawks are exactly what a rapidly emerging team should be: Exciting but scary. They're talented enough to finish 10-6 and make the playoffs. They could also go 7-9 again, or even slip to 6-10, especially if a starting quarterback doesn't emerge.

The Seahawks are ahead of the rebuilding curve. This season will define whether they truly ditch the R-word or are left to answer tough questions about why they're not there yet.

At USC, Carroll learned the art of meeting expectations. It's time to apply those lessons with the Seahawks. It's time to prove their progress is more than a fleeting dream.

Jerry Brewer: 206-464-2277 or jbrewer@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @JerryBrewer.

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