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Originally published September 8, 2012 at 8:06 PM | Page modified September 8, 2012 at 10:03 PM

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Carroll applies the finishing touch on Hawks

Seattle returns 10 starters from last year's defense, nine from its offense, and for the first time since Carroll arrived, introductions were not necessary when training camp began.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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Don't look down, Pete Carroll.

Not while you're up on that high wire, inching across the gulf that separates the NFL teams that are rebuilding from those that are contending.

There's no net. Not this year. Not with a rookie starting at quarterback, a city expecting the team to build upon the second-half improvement of a year ago and a coach who's ready to move beyond the growing pains felt during two straight 7-9 seasons.

"It feels like it has been three years of work to get to this point," Carroll said the day Seattle began its training camp this season.

Carroll and his general manager John Schneider have put this roster together piece by piece, player by player. That incremental approach is what makes the past four months so surprising as the methodical additions have given way to some more daring moves and greater uncertainty.

Seattle traded for Kellen Winslow from Tampa Bay, spent more than three months preparing for him to be the No. 2 tight end and dropped him eight days before the regular-season opener. The Seahawks white-knuckled through the uncertainty that followed Marshawn Lynch's DUI arrest.

Once training began, they signed Braylon Edwards, who has played for three teams the previous three seasons, and while he caught 50 passes for a playoff team two years ago, he wasn't on a roster when 2011 ended.

When Carroll named Russell Wilson his starting quarterback two weeks ago, it was perhaps the biggest in a series of strategic gambles that have raised the stakes on this season while also heightening the risk.

Carroll is the ringmaster of the operation. The team has been built to his specifications and there isn't a chance the Seahawks have taken that he doesn't feel he and his team can handle, even as Seattle faces playoff expectations for the first time in his tenure.

"This is the style of play that we've been looking for," Carroll said. "I like the hard-nosed part of it. I like the attack part of it. I like the way we're created."

Some assembly required

Pete's Big Top wasn't assembled over night. It required more than two seasons of heavy lifting. The Seahawks made trades, scoured the waiver wire and did everything but shop at Goodwill to get younger, bigger and faster.

They let free agents leave, even one as integral to this franchise's history as Matt Hasselbeck. They cut big-money veterans like T.J. Houshmandzadeh and long-term leaders like Lofa Tatupu. Seattle made decisions with an eye toward long-term change, even if there was a short-term cost.

The Seahawks used two first-round picks on offensive linemen. They waited out Buffalo, getting a former Pro Bowler in Marshawn Lynch for a fourth-round pick. They experimented, moving defensive tackle Red Bryant to defensive end. They took Chris Clemons, a backup linebacker in Philadelphia, and turned him into a top-shelf pass rusher. They signed free agents, but preferred those in their mid-20s with Pro Bowl credentials like tight end Zach Miller and receiver Sidney Rice.

Seattle drafted safeties Earl Thomas in the first round in 2010 and Kam Chancellor in the fifth. Thomas is 5 feet 10 and one of the fastest safeties in football, Chancellor is built more like a linebacker, and they play behind two of the league's tallest cornerbacks, 6-foot-4 Brandon Browner and 6-3 Richard Sherman.

"Coach Carroll sees his vision," Thomas said. "Drafting players that nobody thinks can fit, but they come out here and make plays. The defense that we've got right now could be one of the best."

It was last season. The Seahawks ranked No. 9 in total defense, the first time they ranked in the top 10 since 1997. Thomas went to the Pro Bowl as a starter and Chancellor and Browner were injury replacements.

Lynch went to the Pro Bowl, too, after rushing for more yards than anyone else in the league the final eight weeks. Seattle went 5-3 the final half of the schedule, and when the season was over, Carroll could look at those final two months and nod his head in approval. This is what he wanted, a team with a steel-toed defense and a punishing ground attack. This is why the Seahawks made hundreds of transactions in the first two years.

For the first time since Carroll arrived, this past offseason wasn't about addition, but preventing attrition. The Seahawks had players they not only wanted to keep, but needed to hold onto. It wasn't just Lynch and Bryant, who were re-signed. It was offensive linemen Paul McQuistan and Breno Giacomini, guys who were afterthoughts when they were acquired but who will be starters to begin this season.

Seattle returns 10 starters from last year's defense, nine from its offense, and for the first time since Carroll arrived, introductions were not necessary when training camp began.

"We have made some huge steps," Carroll said, "made some declarations of who we're going with and the players we want to play."

That's not to say there weren't changes. Seattle needed someone to pressure the quarterback, which is why the Seahawks drafted defensive end Bruce Irvin from West Virginia in the first round. The Seahawks needed a new quarterback, too, and they went out and got two, signing Matt Flynn from Green Bay and drafting Wilson in the third round.

Wilson was the fourth significant quarterback addition in Carroll's time as coach, and his selection seemed to settle the team's offseason agenda. The Seahawks had a projected starter in Flynn and a younger quarterback to develop behind him.

The Seahawks were rebuilt. It was a question of how long this team would take to ripen into a contender, but the moment when Seattle seemed ready to coast into next season was about the time its coach stood up on the gas pedal and burned rubber.

Up, up and away

Carroll stepped onto the high wire without much prodding.

It was a Sunday afternoon in the second week of May, and his rookies had just concluded a three-day minicamp in which Wilson had made just about every throw.

"He showed us enough," Carroll said. "He's in the competition."

If this had been a party, the needle would have skipped, the music stopped and everyone stared. Yes, it was that dramatic. Football coaches are generally allergic to even discussing a quarterback controversy and here was Carroll making his even more complicated by inserting a third-round draft pick into a competition that already included two veteran quarterbacks, Flynn and incumbent Tarvaris Jackson.

It was the first in a series of moves as Seattle veered from the path of slow and steady and opted for big and flashy. The Seahawks acquired Winslow, who averaged more than 70 catches in his three years in Tampa Bay, but had a balky knee and a salary of $3.3 million. They signed Edwards, who has made a Pro Bowl but had also played for three teams the previous three seasons and was unsigned into July. Seattle brought in Terrell Owens to see if he had something to offer; the Seahawks wouldn't so much as take a look at him two years ago before he signed with Cincinnati.

This was not the same incremental approach the Seahawks took to rebuilding the team. These were not building blocks so much as finishing touches. An attempt to find the player or two who would push this rebuilding project over the top.

But Owens was cut after three weeks, Winslow dumped after nearly four months and Jackson was shipped to Buffalo. Now the Seahawks head into this season with a rookie quarterback at the helm of an offense that ranked No. 28 in yards gained last season.

Carroll is placing faith in the locker room he has assembled, the culture he has built.

"When I first got here, it was kind of looking to Pete for a lot of the leadership, a lot of the direction," fullback Michael Robinson said. "He was seeking our input at the time, and a lot of guys didn't know how to respond to that. Now, a lot of the veterans on this team have definitely taken it over."

This team is built around its defense and its running game, a combination that demands the quarterback avoid mistakes above all else. And even knowing that, Carroll begins the season starting a rookie quarterback, the first time the Seahawks have done that since 1993. He sees Wilson as a playmaker, not a babysitter, and he's handing the keys to him.

And so Seattle enters this season on that high wire, the expectations and the risks higher. Carroll said he is confident this team is more prepared than in previous seasons.

"There's no question," Carroll said. "We're so much tighter with what we're doing, the messaging and the philosophy is embedded. Our style is clear. Now, I don't know if it we can bring it to life in the real season. I don't know that. But we're going to try."

Just one thing, coach. Don't look down.

Danny O'Neil: 206-464-2364 or doneil@seattletimes.com.

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