Pete Carroll has always been an unconventional coach. Maybe that’s why he is having unconventional success in his return to the NFL.
Steve Spurrier couldn’t cut it. Nick Saban couldn’t stand it. Each took their national championship resumes to the pros and wound up back in school. Even Jimmy Johnson, who had big-time success with the Cowboys, was 1-15 his first year until the draft kicked in. Carroll, though, has built on success at Southern Cal to get the Seahawks back on track and in position to win the NFC West after a 4-2 start. What’s more, he’s done it in his unique way, given total freedom by owner Paul Allen.
“It’s been one of the big priorities since the day I got here, to stand for something and make sure everybody is with it,” Carroll said over the phone the other day. “We continue to learn and grow with all the lessons during the course of the season. Hopefully somewhere along here, we’ll really be strong, we’ll really understand and we’ll maximize our chance to play the best we can play every time we go out. There’s a lot of stuff that continues to surface and come up but there has been a lot of teaching that has been going on, yeah.”
If Carroll sounds like the leader of a self-help seminar, that’s because it’s what he does – to get everybody to buy in, even as he makes wholesale changes.
And so, when the Giants emerge from their bye next week, they’ll find their trip to Seattle is suddenly tougher. Aside from the noise at Qwest Field, they will meet a team transformed from the one that lost 23 games the two seasons before Carroll took over.
Less than half the ’09 squad is back. The current does not include the leading rusher (Julius Jones) and three leading receivers (T.J. Houshmandzadeh, Deion Branch and Nate Burleson) from last year. The defense is without the first four defensive ends on the ’09 depth chart. Veteran quarterback Matt Hasselbeck is the main holdover, but even he is playing a different way under Carroll, who says he wants him to be the point guard, not the engine, of the offense.
The man who was groomed by quarterback guru Mike Holmgren has converted to a new religion.
“I think he’s pushed me and stretched my mind in ways that I couldn’t have done on my own,” Hasselbeck said recently, even before the Seahawks got on their recent run. “He does things that are just very outside the box, make you think and get discussion going. He can change the way things have always been done.
“This team is being shaped the way Pete wants us to be shaped.”
It began with a tough sell, although it had a lot to do with the force of his personality.
“The way he goes about things is a little different and I think that’s how he keeps our attention,” says longtime DB Marcus Trufant. “He keeps things light but at the same time he keeps us focused. It’s just a different feel all the way around. He brings such energy to it that it kind of sets us up the same way. The mental part is just different.”
So is the physical part on both sides of the ball, even though Carroll made his rep as a defensive coach. But after allowing others to run the offense during his first two NFL coaching stints with the Jets and Patriots, Carroll determined at USC he was going to be his own man.
“If this is the last coaching job I ever have I’m going down with the stuff that I want to be my offense,” Carroll vowed.
He believed in a two-back system, one back to pound, the other to bust loose. He wanted a big post-up receiver on the outside and he wanted his quarterback to manage the game with as few mistakes as possible. With Marshawn Lynch’s arrival as a physical presence and the emergence of former Trojan wideout Mike Williams on the outside, he is close to having that fully installed with the Seahawks.
Defensively, Carroll is using his famed elephant defense, with its roving pass rusher, while making liberal use of his old bandit defense, where seven DBs can rush or cover in passing situations. It’s a more varied bend-but-don’t-break approach with a physical touch.
It didn’t take long for the results to kick in and the last two games may end up being watershed moments for the team.
The Seahawks had been through two blowout losses at Denver and St. Louis and had won only three of their previous 20 regular-season road games as Carroll assessed the situation during a bye week and before the team pulled into Soldier Field. He drove the point home that things had to change away from home. After beating the Bears, 23-20, Hasselbeck said it was the most emotion he’d ever seen the team bring into a road game.
“So much of the game is mental,” Carroll said afterwards. “So much of the team game is mental, and coming together and believing and trusting and all those important principles that make up a team that can consistently play at their level. This was one of those opportunities for us. There’s no question.”
A week later, the Seahawks overcame another mental barrier when they hosted the Cardinals to see which team would control the division. In taking over the series the last couple of years, the Cardinals out-muscled the Seahawks. Carroll made sure that wouldn’t happen again but, in an interesting twist, he read the riot act to his offensive line because they were getting baited into dumb, over-aggressive penalties. A waste of energy, he called it. The Seahawks weren’t soft and they weren’t stupid, either.
So far, the Seahawks’ start is disproving the popular theory Carroll is better suited for the college game.
“I don’t think it matters. I can see why people thought that. It was obvious we had a lot of success in college after getting bounced a couple of times. It would be natural for people to say that. I never really felt like that was the case but I can see why people did.”
Coaching is coaching?
“Yeah, I think so,” he said. “You know what you want to do and it evens everything out.”
You could say Carroll never got a fair shake in his first two NFL head jobs or you could say he just wasn’t ready. He was Bruce Coslet’s energetic successor on the 1994 Jets and got the team off to a 6-5 start before Dan Marino pulled the fake-spike play on them in Week 12. He seemed to lose control of the team after that and the team headed into a tailspin that culminated in a bad season-ending loss in the Astrodome.
Owner Leon Hess was suddenly unwilling to give the young coach any slack. “I’m 80 years old. I want result now,” he announced before the disastrous hire of Rick Kotite.
In ’97, he was back at the helm of the Patriots after Bill Parcells high-tailed it on Robert Kraft to coach the Jets. An initial AFC East championship was followed by a Wild Card-loss in ’99 and missing the playoffs in 2000. Kraft reluctantly fired him.
“A lot of things were going on that made it difficult for him to stay, some of which were out of his control. And it began with following a legend.”
Carroll would soon begin building his own legacy at Southern Cal but not before seminal stop as the Seahawks cornerback coach.
“From where I now to then, I didn’t have my act together. I didn’t have my whole system where it needed to be,” he said of his experiences with the Jets and Pats. “The year after New England before going to SC, the opportunity to prove the philosophy was really a great experiment for putting it all together. I was just clearer on what’s important to me and what’s important to get across and how to handle things.”
He left the Trojans, he insists, not because of any brewing NCAA sanctions. Nevertheless, it got him in the right place, out of the spotlight with total control as the Executive VP in Seattle.
“It’s really about being true to yourself, being what you’re capable of being, and living the philosophy every single day so that the players have no choice but to live with it,” Carroll said before the season began. “We have very strong, clear, definitive thoughts and beliefs of how we’re gonna do things, and we’re gonna stick with it. And nothing’s gonna knock us from doing it that way.”