When Pete Carroll coached at USC, students and fans used to chant a ribald nickname for him that implied an admirable competitive audacity.
During his time there, he was conditioned to going for it on fourth downs and challenging conventional coaching wisdom because it tends to work at a high rate when you have one of the best teams in the nation. The risk is marginal and the reward a reminder of your physical superiority.
In the 2008 season, for instance, his USC team averaged 37.5 points a game. Scoring opportunities must have seemed endless.
Before Sunday’s win over Arizona, his 2010 Seahawks team was averaging 16.2 points a game. Points were precious.
That’s why it causes fans to scratch their heads when Carroll continues to apply his Pacific-10 Conference instincts to NFL situations.
Against Arizona, facing fourth and inches at the Cardinals’ 16 late in the second quarter, Carroll sent quarterback Matt Hasselbeck on a quarterback sneak that got stonewalled. They were ahead 17-10, and an almost automatic field goal would have given them a 20-10 lead with them receiving the kickoff to open the second half.
The line had been doing a good job of pass protecting, but had done very little to get any push for runs, compiling 8 yards on 8 carries.
The decision was pure gut instinct for Carroll, and pure wrong. It would all seem trivial in the wake of the Hawks’ 36-18 win, except that Hasselbeck suffered a wrist injury on the play that will require him to be in a cast/splint for weeks.
Give it to Carroll, he stands up and takes the fall for such things.
In an interview on 710-AM radio Monday, Carroll talked about the decision, with the most cogent remark being this: “If I could kick my own butt I would have.”
Hey, maybe that’s how he injured that knee. Kicking your own butt can be tough on knee ligaments. That’s why we have to do it for coaches so much of the time.
Look, the Hawks are 5-4 and have about as many wins as a lot of us thought they might get all season. They’re on top of the division; they’ve added some talent and fitted the pieces together into schemes that have been inconsistent but surprisingly effective much of the time.
So, abundant kudos to Carroll and all others responsible. They’re grading out well.
But this is not a small thing; it’s a trend, and it could be costly. Some chancy decisions have popped up in several games already, but they haven’t yet been game-deciders.
Carroll could see the questions coming after the game and brought up the topic on his own.
“I’d like to think we’re going to make that, and that’s my nature about wanting to make it, and sometimes I have to work against my nature,” he said. “It didn’t work right, and I’m glad the guys responded and played well, and not let that be an issue in this game.”
Carroll said that it was a topic much easier to discuss after a win. He has said that before, though, after unconventional decisions went bad. He talked about recalibrating his instincts because there are so many fewer scoring opportunities in the NFL.
It didn’t cost them against Arizona. So it would be easy to envision Carroll continuing to follow that nature until it comes at a dear price some Sunday.
He points out there are two sides to these decisions, too. And that’s absolutely fair to note. And it’s some of the very positive part of what you get from Carroll. Being bold sometimes pays an actual return with a successful play, but it often supplies some ancillary energy and enthusiasm to players. It shows his confidence in them; tells them he believes in their ability.
But here’s the contradiction: Carroll repeatedly – and correctly – points out that his team has a slender margin of error. Especially given the injury and manpower situation, and the ineffectiveness the offense has battled. So, when this team gets a shot at three points, it’s time to kick the ball and not ask questions.
He’s a smart guy. He has done an impressive job thus far.
So fans may hope he’ll soon decide that he’s tired of kicking his own butt.