The most remarkable thing about Pete Carroll is not that he got a third chance to become an NFL head coach without winning a Super Bowl. The most remarkable thing is he’s the third-oldest head coach in the league.
Take one look at Carroll and you don’t think 61. Take a second look and you think there’s a misprint in his bio.
If one watches the way he bounds around the field like a gazelle on uppers, unflaggingly joyous, he seems like a wild-eyed college coach rather than the stoic, joyless statues normally patrolling NFL sidelines. Although easily lampooned, it is refreshing to watch.
Carroll’s approach has always been different. He’s as competitive as anyone in the game but realizes it’s still a game, not a war. He believes a team belongs to its players. They need direction and correction, but in the end, they have to be responsible for themselves and to each other.
That approach didn’t seem to work with either the Jets or the Patriots. He was fired after one season in New York because the Jets did what no Jet can survive: starting fast (6-5) and ending badly (0-5).
He was fired after three mostly successful seasons in New England (27-21, two playoff appearances) because he made the mistake of following a legend, Bill Parcells. As Carroll would learn, it is better to be the man who follows the man who followed “The Man” than to be next in line behind a folk hero.
Parcells was all about East Coast edges. Carroll had rock music blaring from his office. The contrast was simply too much once the winning stopped.
Certainly the team declined on Carroll’s watch. Things trended in the wrong direction not only year by year but season by season, as those teams started off fast (4-0, 4-1, 4-0) but finished slow (6-6, 5-6 and 4-8). Carroll had inherited a Super Bowl team, it was said, and coached it to mediocrity, but that is not totally accurate. Through no fault of his own, he lost Hall of Fame RB Curtis Martin to stubbornness on upper management’s part after Carroll’s first season. After that, the Patriots were not a Super Bowl team any more. They were a team in decline.
By the final game of his final season, he was starting only three of 27 players drafted by general manager Bobby Grier, a result not only of poor drafting but also selecting players who did not fit Carroll’s approach.
One thing a coach must have is talent that fits him, both stylistically and strategically. If he likes tall corners, don’t draft Chris Canty (a miniature cornerback the Patriots took No. 1 in 1997 who started only 12 games in four years before moving on to his life’s work).
After Carroll was fired, he took his family to Disney World. It was the kind of thing his critics pointed to as proof he was too soft, too nice, too interested in being the players’ friend when the true problem had been something else.
He’d inherited a team that was young, felt entitled and didn’t have an inkling of what was required to win consistently. Worse, he didn’t have the power to run the show and they knew it, so they went behind his back to complain to the GM, and when he tried to appeal to their sense of responsibility and accountability they looked at him like, “Really?’’
But Carroll went on to win three national titles (one BCS, two AP) and play for a fourth at USC and seemed to have found his niche. College football, it was said, was where his style worked best.
Then the NCAA decided SC was cheating and Carroll walked before it dropped the hammer to spend the last three years joyously trying to resurrect both the Sea-hawks and his NFL reputation.
This time he has control over personnel and after 2½ seasons, has built one of the league’s stingiest defenses, gone to the playoffs with a 7-9 team and is trying to find an offense.
What he’s not trying to find is himself, because he always knew who that was. In his last NFL shot, Pete Carroll believes he now has what he needs to succeed. He’s re-invented himself without losing himself. He’s “The Man,” but one willing to show the boy inside.
Results alone will decide how pro football remembers him, but it would be nice if the conclusion is Pete Carroll won with joy.
Who would knock that?
Ron Borges is a columnist for the Boston Herald.