More friends than rivals, Pete Carroll and Mike Shanahan are on a collision course that will culminate with a first-round playoff game Sunday afternoon between the Seattle Seahawks and the Washington Redskins. Afterward, there will be a brief but firm handshake, without either coach needing to ask: “What’s your deal?”
The weaving career paths of these guys have been crisscrossing for decades, which is not to say they are clones. Carroll, a defensive mastermind, is ebullient and animated, with a tendency to talk in sentences that can last longer than a drum solo. Shanahan, whose specialty is offense, answers questions with all the interactive flair of a cop jotting down a ticket for an expired parking meter.
And yet their professional lives – and to a certain extent, even their personal lives – mirror each other.
Carroll is 61, Shanahan is 60. Each played college football during the early 1970s, using guile to compensate for their unprepossessing size.
As a graduate assistant at Arkansas, Carroll worked for the one and only Lou Holtz. As a graduate assistant at the University of Oklahoma, Shanahan worked for the one and only Barry Switzer.
Between 1978 and ’83, Carroll bounced around the country as a defensive assistant at Iowa State, Ohio State, North Carolina State, then as an offensive coordinator at the University of the Pacific, his alma mater. Shanahan bounced around as well, from Northern Arizona, to Eastern Illinois (where he once played as a wishbone quarterback) to Minnesota, to Florida.
In 1984, Carroll took his first NFL job, as defensive backs coach for Buffalo. That was the same year Shanahan took his first NFL job, as offensive coordinator for Denver.
Ten years later, Carroll was hired – and then fired, after one season – as coach of the New York Jets. Among the first calls he got was from Shanahan, who’d just been introduced as coach of the Broncos. Shanahan was looking for a proven defensive coordinator, and offered the position to Carroll.
Carroll accepted, sort of.
“I thought I was going with Mike,” he recalled Wednesday. “I was thrilled, after getting bounced from the Jets, that somebody called.”
While Carroll was in Denver discussing details of his new gig, he got another call – and an offer he couldn’t refuse. George Seifert, coach of the defending Super Bowl champion San Francisco 49ers, wanted Carroll to oversee the defense.
A Bay Area native who grew up watching 49ers games at Kezar Stadium, Carroll relished the chance to return.
“Pete came in and we looked at different living areas,” Shanahan said Wednesday, “but I understood why he would want to go back to San Francisco. Being in this coaching profession for a very long time, you understand what’s important to the family as well as your profession.”
The admiration Shanahan had for Carroll didn’t wane.
“Pete was doing a lot of zone (coverage),” Shanahan continued, “and he was well ahead of the curve, with four people weak (on the weak side) and four people strong (the tight end side). Offenses couldn’t really pick it up, and it took a few years to adjust.”
Shanahan understands the notion of assembling playbooks that are ahead of the curve. With the Broncos, he implemented a zone-blocking scheme taught by nonpareil offensive line coach Alex Gibbs. The talent of veteran quarterback John Elway – revived once defenses were forced to honor the featured running back behind him – led to two Super Bowl championships.
Although Carroll would go on to acclaim as one of the most successful college coaches in history at USC, he paid attention. Upon his third foray into the NFL as a head coach, he hired Gibbs to oversee the Seahawks’ conversion to a zone-blocking scheme.
Gibbs always was wired tight. On the eve of the 2010 season he concluded the wires were shot, and quit. But Carroll remained faithful to the scheme, and when Tom Cable – a Gibbs disciple – became available after the Raiders fired him as head coach two years ago, the Seahawks’ emergence as playoff contenders took flight.
Never bashful about borrowing Shanahan’s offensive concepts, Carroll saw how the 2012 Redskins were using Robert Griffin III on the occasional option play and realized it was an idea lobbed into Russell Wilson’s wheelhouse.
Football coaches are different from the rest of us. When their innovations are poached, they’re flattered. Game days might find their sideline communications as guarded as a CIA operation, but over a cocktail napkin, away from the fray, they’ll exchange insights about the eternal chess match between offense and defense.
Carroll and Shanahan are from the same post-World War II generation of baby boomers. They stress the same practice-week edicts on players. (Be prompt for meetings, or else). They’re enjoying the riches of lucky-for-life contracts with some humility: They’ve both been fired as NFL head coaches, twice.
Even the titles of their motivational books are similar. Carroll called his “Win Forever: Live, Work and Play Like a Champion.” Shanahan’s title, typically, was more terse: “Think Like a Champion.”
There can only be one champion in any NFL season, of course, and the odds are long that the Seahawks or Redskins still will be standing come Feb. 3.
But count on a handshake Sunday, and count on it conveying the mutual respect of friends who know what the deal is.john.mcgrath@ thenewstribune.com