It is a moment he will never forget, yet one he will never allow to define him.
Pete Carroll had the chance to win a second straight Super Bowl and cement his legacy as one of the most extraordinary coaches in NFL history by beating two of the best quarterbacks ever in back-to-back Super Bowls. But with a yard standing between Carroll and another title, the Seahawks’ coach signed off on a play that will live in NFL infamy.
Instead of using All-Pro tailback Marshawn Lynch on second-and-goal from the 1, Russell Wilson attempted a quick slant to Ricardo Lockette at the goal line. Malcolm Butler read the play and stepped in front of Lockette to intercept the pass and seal the Patriots’ 28-24 win in Super Bowl XLIX.
On Sunday night at Gillette Stadium, Carroll faces the Patriots for the first time since that game, and returns to New England for the first time since being fired as the Pats’ coach after the 1999 season.
Carroll insists he will be thinking about neither the Super Bowl ending nor any personal memories of his ill-fated three-year run as the Patriots’ coach after a one-year stint as the Jets’ head coach. As painful as the memories may have been, Carroll says none of it matters.
“I never, ever use the matchup or the buildup or the hype or whatever,” Carroll said. “Every game to us is absolutely the most important game we ever play. It might be the only one we ever get to play, and that’s the way we focus. Every game is a championship game to us. We’ve never altered that thought. Every game to us is the most important game in the world, and that’s what this is to us again.”
The stakes, of course, are dramatically reduced Sunday night. Carroll may treat every game as if it’s for the championship, but there is simply no match for the actual title game.
Carroll became a national punching bag over criticism of the play call, but if there is a coach capable of rallying his team from the depths of despair the Seahawks experienced after the controversial finish, it is the relentlessly positive Carroll, who lives life and coaches football at warp speed. He has his team play fast on both sides of the ball, both in practice and in games. He even talks fast, showing no signs of slowing down at age 65.
“I love what I’m doing,” he said. “There’s no heading off into the sunset. I’m having a blast. Just keep pushing, keep driving those guys and having fun with them. Having fun together. It’s about playing, meeting the challenges and getting it done.”
In what could be a preview of a Super Bowl rematch, Carroll’s Seahawks go into Sunday night at 5-2-1 and face a 7-1 Patriots team that seems close to unbeatable. Tom Brady is at the top of his game, throwing 12 touchdown passes and no interceptions since returning from a four-game suspension. The Patriots are 4-0 in that span and well-rested off a bye week.
The Patriots are clear favorites, not only because of their remarkable consistency but because the Seahawks have several question marks, including erratic offensive line play, an inconsistent running game and defensive injuries. Safety Kam Chancellor (groin) is expected to return Sunday night and defensive end Michael Bennett (knee) could be back within a week or two.
Despite the flaws, Carroll said he feels as good about this team as any he has coached. And that includes the group that demolished Peyton Manning’s Broncos, 43-8, in Super Bowl XLVIII at MetLife Stadium — even though the Seahawks no longer have Lynch.
“It’s because of the continuity, the competition on the roster, the players that have come of age that are still right in their prime,” Carroll said of a team that includes Wilson, tight end Jimmy Graham, cornerback Richard Sherman, defensive end Cliff Avril, safety Earl Watson and linebacker Bobby Wagner. “Our leadership is exquisite. All of that doesn’t mean you’re going to win everything, but it means you have a really good shot to win a lot of games.”
Beating the Patriots will take some doing, though. Especially the way New England has been playing since Brady’s return.
“I think it’s a credit to my teammates and coaches,” Brady said this past week when asked how he has been so effective after missing the first month of the season. “I think I’ve come back into a situation where the team is playing really well . . . The offensive line has done a great job for us. All the skill players have been available and healthy. [Offensive coordinator] Josh McDaniels does a great job.”
Brady said of the Seahawks: “They’re obviously an incredible team, a great organization, the best defense in the league, and they’ve been that way for four years. So they’re the biggest challenge of our season so far.”
It will be a terrific matchup of wits between two of the game’s best coaches, and a reminder of just how far they’ve come since that 48-hour span in early January 2000, when their careers became linked through a strange confluence of events.
Carroll, who was fired by then-Jets owner Leon Hess after a 6-10 season in 1994, spent three seasons as the Patriots’ head coach from 1997-99. He had replaced Bill Parcells, who left the Patriots in a contract dispute, joined the Jets and hired Belichick as his defensive coordinator.
Carroll was fired by the Patriots on Jan. 3, 2000, and the next day, Parcells announced he was stepping down as the Jets’ head coach to become the general manager. He named Belichick as his head coach Jan. 4. A day later, Belichick refused to take the job, scribbling on a piece of paper, “I, BB, resign as HC of the NYJ” and making the news official during a bizarre and rambling news conference at Weeb Ewbank Hall.
Three weeks later, Belichick was named as Carroll’s successor in New England. Near the end of 2000, Carroll became head coach at USC, where he led the Trojans to a national championship before leaving in 2009 under a cloud of controversy when the team was hit with NCAA sanctions. He took the Seahawks’ job in 2010 and went on to become only the third coach in history to win a college national championship and a Super Bowl.
Belichick, of course, has gone on to become arguably the greatest coach in NFL history, winning four Super Bowl titles and reaching another two Super Bowls, losing both to the Giants.
Carroll looks back on his days with the Patriots as a great learning experience, even if his tenure ended in disappointment.
“When I went into New England, I was really committed to being able to bring the philosophy and do it exactly the way you wanted to do it and be in control of it,” he said. “It didn’t really work out that way, the way I hoped, until I went back to USC, and when I got a chance to be in charge again and be a head coach, I got to see the philosophy through, from the head coach throughout. I thought that was really important, I had learned that along the way.
“I thought I would be at USC forever, because I would never have a chance to have that much control. Then when we came up to Seattle, I was thrilled to see that we were able to take the philosophy from one place to another and go for it in that manner,” he said. “It worked out. I think it’s really awesome to watch New England. When Bill [Belichick] got the job there, Robert [Kraft, the Patriots’ owner] gave him the chance to take that thing over and run it and do it exactly the way a football guy sees it, and the rest has been a great history and a great success story. I couldn’t have agreed with that approach more and I was thrilled to see it happen.”
The Super Bowl rematch between the two coaches is here, and there will be no more enticing game this season than this one.
Unless there is another one in Houston on Feb. 5.
OF PETE CARROLL
1978 Iowa State staff
1979 Ohio State staff
1980-82 North Carolina State DC
1983 Pacific DC
1984 Bills staff
1985-89 Vikings staff
1990-93 Jets DC
1994 Jets HC
1995-96 49ers DC
1997-99 Patriots HC
2001-09 USC HC
2010- Seahawks HC
OF BILL BELICHICK
1975 Colts staff
1976-77 Lions staff
1978 Broncos staff
1979-84 Giants staff
1985-90 Giants DC
1991-95 Browns HC
1996 Patriots AHC
1997-99 Jets AHC
KEY: AHC: Assistant head coach; DC- defensive coordinator; HC- head coach