He was two feet away from a second consecutive championship, a man on the verge of a confetti-drenched celebration at the expense of both his former boss and his highly successful successor. It was Feb. 1, 2015 -- midway through an eventful and engrossing decade as the Seattle Seahawks' head coach -- and Pete Carroll could all but touch the Lombardi Trophy on a surreal Super Sunday in the desert.
Then, in an instant, everything imploded: Russell Wilson's pass ended up in the hands of New England Patriots cornerback Malcolm Butler, allowing Robert Kraft, Bill Belichick and friends to seize another Lombardi. And Carroll, who'd just green-lit perhaps the most controversial play-call in NFL history, was left to stand in the smoldering ashes and contemplate a wrenching emotional-reconstruction project.
It was a turbulent and protracted process that threatened to tear apart the core of the locker room, and one which ultimately helped provoke a radical roster revamp that seemed destined to set back the franchise. And yet, despite all of that potential for prolonged malaise, Carroll did some of the most impressive work of his coaching career, guiding the Seahawks to the playoffs in four of the ensuing five seasons to complete a laudable 10-year stretch.
On Monday, Carroll officially joined Belichick as the two coaches on the 2010s All-Decade Team announced by the NFL and the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Three days earlier, when acknowledging the impending honor via a Zoom video conference, the Seahawks' eternally young 68-year-old coach conceded the magnitude of the challenge that confronted him in the wake of the team's Super Bowl XLIX heartbreak.
"It was such an emotional way to lose for everybody, and we had to rebuild everybody's brain," Carroll recalled as he sat in his Seattle-area residence, in conjunction with the state of Washington's stay-at-home guidelines to combat the COVID-19 pandemic. "We just bludgeoned our way through that. I tried to just make sure that I was unwavering. So, that was the challenge: To allow for the grieving and all of that, and then see what the issues were, and then put it back together. Yeah, that was hard. It was a hard challenge. It was really hard on some players. And some of us will never get over it."
For a man who admits he hasn't completely moved past that crushing defeat, Carroll has done a phenomenal job of masking his heartbreak and plowing ahead. Despite playing in a division that has produced each of the past two NFC champions, the Seahawks have remained a persistent and consistent threat to the league's top teams and seem poised to contend for the foreseeable future.
In terms of numbers: Carroll completed the decade with a 100-59-1 regular-season record and a 10-7 mark in eight postseason appearances. To his peers and co-workers, there are many underappreciated layers to the continuing success story.
"Listen -- it's been impressive," said the Saints' Sean Payton, who was undoubtedly among those coaches being considered for the All-Decade honor received by Carroll and Belichick. "Here's one of Pete's strengths: His crisis-management skills are exceptional, and his confidence and positive attitude permeate through the building.
"Pete is the great maitre d' at a nice restaurant. With a great maitre d', there's never a problem. Whenever there's an issue, it always gets solved, and nobody even knows there was a problem. He handles those crisis moments with positivity and energy and composure and just keeps pushing forward. He just gets it."
Carroll's command of his craft has been honed during a coaching journey that has featured its share of upheaval. He had a one-and-done stint as the New York Jets' head coach in 1994, guiding the team into playoff contention before ending the season on a five-game losing streak (beginning with the notorious Dan Marino/Fake Spike game) to finish 6-10. Then-owner Leon Hess explained that, at the age of 80, he didn't have time to wait for a championship; Carroll's successor, Rich Kotite, went 4-28 in two seasons.
For nearly a year, Carroll was out of football and immersed in a period of soul-searching. Had someone told him during that lost 2000 season that he'd be named to an All-Decade Team -- in any decade -- he'd have questioned the person's sanity.
"No, no -- I didn't see it coming," Carroll said, laughing. "There were some times when I didn't know if I was gonna get a job again ... when I said (to myself), 'I don't know -- I'm a long ways away from getting a job, let alone winning for a long time.' But I was strengthened by the defeat and empowered to go for it. [What I've accomplished since is] exactly what I've set out to do, and that's real rewarding."
After landing the USC job in December of 2000, Carroll took the Trojans on a nine-year joyride that included two national championships and seven conference titles. As he wryly noted on Friday: "I might have been coach of the decade in college, too."
They weren't honeymooners as much as extreme-home-makeover artists: Carroll and Seahawks general manager John Schneider's first season together featured an NFL-high 284 transactions. Even after riding the Beast Quake run by newly acquired halfback Marshawn Lynch to a 2010 playoff upset of the defending champion Saints, the duo kept right on tinkering.
By 2012, the Seahawks were an up-and-coming power that reached the Divisional Round of the playoffs. In 2013, they pulverized Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos' record-setting offense in a Super Bowl XLVIII blowout victory. At the time, they were the second-youngest team ever to have reached the Super Bowl, and free agents were flocking to play for Carroll in an employee-friendly atmosphere that star defensive lineman Michael Bennett likened to "the Google of football."
Though he has remained friendly with Kraft and has immense respect for Belichick, Carroll's competitive fire should never be underestimated. When I mentioned that he and Belichick were the two coaches chosen on the All-Decade Team, Carroll replied, "Is he the defensive coordinator, and I'm the head coach?"
Yes, he was joking. That said, as he is acutely aware, the Seahawks were less than a yard away from creating an alternate universe that might have seen the decade end with Carroll and Belichick each having captured two championships. That they didn't get those two feet -- and that Carroll signed off on a play call that kept the powerful Lynch from getting the football on second-and-goal from the 1 -- compelled a lot of very proud competitors to chafe and second-guess and blood-let and try to pick up the pieces.
"Pete called it a grieving process," Schneider recalled last week. "I thought Pete did such a great job coming back from that game, everything as a leader that he had to go through, and then to lead that team to the divisional round the next year. ... It was like, holy cow."
The 2015 Seahawks started 2-4 before rallying to finish 10-6, and their Divisional Round defeat to the eventual NFC champion Carolina Panthers was like a microcosm of the season. Carolina went up 14-0 on linebacker Luke Kuechly's pick-six a mere 3:32 into the game and led 31-0 with 6:26 left in the half; at that point, the Panthers held a 213-17 yardage advantage. The Seahawks kept fighting and mounted a charge, scoring 24 consecutive second-half points before running out of time and losing by a touchdown.
Lynch's subsequent retirement (one that he ended in April of 2017, when he was traded to the Oakland Raiders) began an exodus of stars that intensified after a late-season defeat to the Los Angeles Rams essentially decided the 2017 NFC West title and all but ensured that Seattle (which would finish 9-7) would miss the playoffs for the first time since 2011.
The 2018 Seahawks took the field without longtime defensive standouts Bennett, Richard Sherman, Kam Chancellor and Cliff Avril; perennial All-Pro safety Earl Thomas broke his leg in Week 4, went on injured reserve and departed via free agency after the season. Carroll had also replaced his offensive and defensive coordinators, and offensive line coach, following the 2017 campaign.
To most of the football world, it looked like a radical rebuild. To Carroll, it was another chance to embrace a challenge and exceed expectations. The Seahawks went 10-6 and reached the postseason, stunning virtually everyone but their head coach and general manager.
"We just did what we always do -- just keep competing, you know," Carroll said. "When people saw it as a rebuild, or this or that, whatever they thought it was gonna be -- that's you guys talking, not us. We just did what we knew how to do: keep battling and not give in to anything and not make any projections like, 'Let's do something for the next two years or three years.' We went for it again, and that's really the only way that we'll ever do it. And so, I was never surprised. I liked that you guys were gonna be wrong, [at least] I hoped; other than that, I didn't care."
Seattle got even better in 2019, coming within a few inches of capturing the NFC West title in storybook fashion. Decimated by injuries to their top three running backs, the Seahawks turned to Lynch -- who, late in his first tenure with the team, had gone more than a year without speaking to Carroll or Schneider -- for an unlikely reunion, and they nearly squeezed out a division-deciding victory over the eventual conference champion San Francisco 49ers in the process. Lynch would score four touchdowns in three games, but another Seahawks comeback fell short in a Divisional Round clash against the Packers at Lambeau Field.
Afterward, as Lynch praised the organization effusively during a postgame speech in the Seahawks' locker room, Carroll agonized over the squandered chance to do something special in conjunction with the running back's dramatic return.
And to be sure, the missed opportunity of a lifetime in Super Bowl XLIX still haunts the coach who has absorbed the blame for its occurrence, even as it helps drive him into the start of another decade -- and the requisite standard he refuses to relinquish.
"I would say this to you: Knowing the pain of that (Super Bowl defeat) and the discomfort of that helps me, in a sense," Carroll said. "It always has. It's like, I've got a few things that have happened in the past that make me what I am and make me do what I do and hold the edge and fight to be what I'm capable of being, and that was one of those moments.
"It's a challenge. That's what it does: it challenges your approach and your philosophy and your guts and all that. And that's good -- it's a good thing. It's what makes you stronger. And I don't ever want to lose and learn; let the other guys learn the hard way. But when you've got that situation, it's how you deal with it."
By all measures, Carroll dealt with the disappointment in commendable fashion over the balance of the decade. To the NFL's oldest head coach, however, commendable isn't enough.
"We ain't got back (to the Super Bowl) yet," Carroll said, his voice rising. "We've still gotta get back there and go get that game again. And it's coming."