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Pete Carroll makes football fun again for Seattle Seahawks

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SEATTLE -- Pete Carroll began Friday night's team meeting with a joke.

It wasn't one of his ostentatious gut-busters. This wasn't the time he coaxed the team into pranking Terrell Owens only to employ Owens as a double-agent, using the receiver's acting skills in a reverse prank that flipped the joke on all the original pranksters (it ended up a staged showdown with then-Seahawks receiver Golden Tate about Owens' old No. 81).

This was much more subtle. It was perfect.

He locked in a half-serious stare at Ricardo Lockette, a young wide receiver with a penchant for being juuuuuussssst in time for the team bus, while he relayed Saturday's itinerary. Everyone knew what he was doing, and Carroll still had his comedic timing at 63.

So, the game is at five. Usually, it's earlier and the bus leaves earlier. Saturday, the bus leaves at 2:30 p.m. Two-thirty. So Ricardo ...

Laughter.

Everyone can slump back in their chairs and soak in the message: "Don't hype this (expletive) up so much. What's the big deal?"

Carroll's team certainly played that way the next day, Saturday, sustaining a surprisingly inspired first half of football by the Panthers. There was no panic and, really, no incredible adjustments. Marshawn Lynch was eventually going to get going, so they kept running him (See: Lynch's stiff-arming 25-yarder in the third quarter). Carolina was eventually going to give Russell Wilson back his deadly running lanes, so he took them when they opened (See: Wilson's 14-yard scramble to get Seattle out of dangerous field position). Cam Newton was going to need to hurl the ball at some point without the constant veneer of a read-option fake, so when he did, they blitzed him (see: Bruce Irvin flying off the edge on Carolina's first play of the fourth quarter).

They're now in the conference title game for the second time in as many years.

But back to the joke for a second.

The fact that Carroll was in this kind of spot on Friday, to tease and tweak his players without fear of retribution, was a minor miracle considering where his team was emotionally just a few months ago. The Seahawks were 3-3 at one point this season and their beautiful cocktail of personality and talent that led to a Super Bowl title in 2013 was about to devour itself.

The rumors of their demise varied. Some bordered on fantastical, but the truth was that a wet blanket wrapped itself around the franchise. There was a void. There was a fear that the carefully constructed vibe was tarnished; that something was very, very wrong with the unstoppable Seahawks.

"I won't say that there wasn't any truth in those rumors," Doug Baldwin told NFL.com at the team hotel on Friday, a rare opportunity for introspection amid a tireless season. "Obviously, for rumors to get started, there has to be something ... it wasn't all rainbows and butterflies."

Baldwin went to Carroll. Richard Sherman went to Carroll. About a half dozen more all stepped into the coach's office with the same thought: Football wasn't fun anymore, and something needed to change.

Baldwin said he's kept in touch since. He and his coach discuss the root of motivation often. He appreciates the ability to have those talks amid a season in which each game takes on an increasing level of importance. On second thought, something like that -- the little things one often takes for granted -- was the reason everything was looking bright again.

It wasn't just one moment or play or meeting. A heart-to-heart doesn't immediately inspire 53 entirely different people.

It was a slow, plodding realization of how good they've really had it.

It was the feeling the team would get just before curfew if they knew linebackers coach Ken Norton, Jr. was doing the bed checks. Someone was going to have a story the next day. Everyone would laugh about the ruthlessness and unintentional humor with which Norton conducted his duty.

It was the way Russell Okung felt when he came to work on Wednesdays -- Reggae Wednesdays. When he's having a bad day he can look forward to the moment when he and center Max Unger crank their favorite songs by Peter Tosh, Collie Buddz and Bob Marley. The feature has snowballed of late, with more players joining in each week. Okung has no doubt that it is the product of his environment, though maybe it takes a step back to realize what is actually happening.

"Work is fun," Okung said. "I mean, I love coming to work."

Work is fun again, and it was as simple to spot on Friday night in the team's hotel lobby as it was 24 hours later. Wilson high-fived nearly every player in the locker room before getting to his locker. Players sang in unison to O.T. Genasis' "CoCo." Baldwin perched atop his locker and admired the crowd forming around his bunkmate, Jermaine Kearse, who was finally getting some credit after a one-handed catch that went 63 yards for a touchdown.

It all falls under the guise of Carroll's new slogan, an oft-repeated generality about how everyone should play for one another. But many in the locker room already know: It was simply about taking a step back and remembering how perfect everything can be.

"You don't have to take it seriously as long as you're doing that," tight end Cooper Helfet said.

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