Pete Carroll was fired from his first two NFL head coaching jobs. And the third one was looking shaky as his record with the Seattle Seahawks dropped to 9-15 halfway through his second season.
Carroll has recounted his thinking at that time. If he was going under, he wanted to do it his way, to emphasize the things that worked for him in the college ranks at the University of Southern California.
While much of the NFL was spreading the field to facilitate the passing game and devising complex defensive packages, Carroll decided they would focus on running the ball and playing great defense by mastering simple schemes.
They finished 5-3 in the second half of that season in what was the first of the effective revisions and adaptations that have brought Carroll to the position he occupies today: One win away from 100 career NFL victories.
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The 99 wins include 91 in 10 regular seasons with the Jets, Patriots and Hawks, and eight more wins in the playoffs.
Seven of those playoff victories have been with the Seahawks, which matches the total postseason wins in the 35 seasons preceding his arrival in Seattle.
Mike Holmgren (86-74, .538) and Chuck Knox (80-63, .559) won more often in Seattle than has Carroll at this point (58-35 in Seahawks regular seasons), but not nearly at Carroll’s rate — .623.
His career win total is seventh among active NFL coaches.
His style and effectiveness are so highly regarded that it’s common to see head coaches from other pro sports and college teams popping in on the sidelines at practices to try to decode the methods of Carroll and his staff.
Some elements are fairly clear, and they might be common to other successful teams.
The Seahawks play big when it counts the most. Carroll’s teams are 15-3 in prime time games, and 7-3 in the postseason. He claims it’s because they treat every week as if it’s a championship game. But it seems as if the brightest lights energize the competitive nature of this team.
Good teams that are well-coached seem to improve as the season advances. Carroll’s teams are 29-8 in the second half of seasons starting with 2011. And their November and December records since 2012 are an NFL-best (26-5) since 2012.
The key to strong finishes? Players say that Carroll eases the physical work load in the final quarter or the season, rarely asking them to put on pads or practice with contact. Carroll believes that keeps their legs fresher for longer.
Youth might be a key to the stamina, too. When the Seahawks beat Denver in Super Bowl XLVIII, they did it with the youngest roster in the history of Super Bowl winners.
Carroll always gives young players the chance to play early, and as the season lengthens, he knows what he has in them, and they have enough experience that they’re not playing like inexperienced rookies down the stretch.
The players who prove they can play get on the field. To Carroll, it doesn’t matter where a player came from or how he got on the roster. Of the 22 starters last week in Baltimore for the win over the Ravens, six entered the league as undrafted free agents, and seven others were drafted in the fourth-round or lower.
And the players who can’t perform, or don’t buy in? Well, it doesn’t matter how much they make or where they were drafted, either, they’re gone.
Sometimes that’s an element in Carroll’s success, too. It’s a mastery of adapting to circumstances, to the strengths of the roster, to the talents and personalities of the players.
In 2014, high-priced receiver Percy Harvin was not fitting in. He was a mistake costly in salary and draft picks.
But it wasn’t until he was cut that the team found its functional identity. They went 9-1 and rolled to another Super Bowl.
How few coaches would have had the nerve to ship out the highest-paid player? Of course, how few would have had the full support of a general manager like John Schneider and owner Paul Allen?
This season, they’ve dealt with the constant questions about the hangover from the Super Bowl loss, and the early holdout of Kam Chancellor, and the lagging effectiveness of quarterback Russell Wilson behind a porous offensive line.
And, recently, the adversity included the injuries to Marshawn Lynch and Jimmy Graham.
But the offense has rallied behind a surging Wilson, the defense regained its consistency and tenacity, and they’ve won six of their last seven after starting 2-4.
In his press conferences during those difficult early weeks, Carroll preached patience and stressed his belief that they could get this season turned around. Once again, he knew what he was talking about.
Carroll is chronically overlooked for coaching awards. I doubt that he’s offended by the oversight.
The Seahawks are heavily favored to beat the Browns. And if they do, it would be timely and appropriate to give Carroll the game ball, and maybe have “100” painted on it.