PHOENIX — When Bill Parcells’s incurable wanderlust and desire to fill his own grocery list led him to abandon the Patriots for the Jets
before during after Super Bowl XXXI, Pete Carroll was Robert Kraft’s choice as a change-of-pace successor.
A relentlessly eager and optimistic coach, Carroll had the fortune to inherit a young, richly talented roster that had been one Desmond Howard kick return from possibly stealing a Super Bowl victory. He also had the misfortune of following Parcells, whose charismatic command of every scene and situation made him an impossible act to follow.
And he was. Carroll was lauded as a players’ coach upon his hiring — a shot at the controlling Parcells, whose voice had grown tiresome to the likes of quarterback Drew Bledsoe.
It turned out that the evaluation was spot-on in all the wrong ways. Carroll gave his players freedom. He treated them like men. In turn, they treated him like a strutting, gum-chomping pushover, a camp counselor who would cite the rules but would always come up short of enforcing them.
On his watch, a tenure that lasted three increasingly maddening seasons (1997-99), the 11-win AFC championship team he inherited fell from 10 wins to 9 to 8. It was a gradual, painful bloodletting, one that saw some of those promising young players stagnate (Willie McGinest, Bledsoe), others turn insubordinate (Terry Glenn), and others follow Parcells to New Jersey (Curtis Martin).
There’s an irresistible narrative at play this week in the buildup to Super Bowl XLIX. Bill Belichick, who cleaned up the mess — a depth-free roster in salary-cap hell — that Carroll and inept general manager Bobby Grier left behind, is going for his fourth Super Bowl title with the Patriots. Standing in his way is Carroll, his predecessor here who has gone on to great success with Southern Cal before leading the Seahawks to the first Super Bowl victory in franchise history last year.
It’s a compelling successor/predecessor angle … and one I fear that is going to be misrepresented by those who did not watch — make that endure — the Carroll era in New England. It would be easy to glance at that decent won-lost record (27-21), and presume that someone did him wrong here, that he was the excellent coach then that he is now.
That would be a misguided presumption. Carroll wasn’t a bad coach. He was the wrong coach, a woefully poor fit with his rah-rah California Pete good cheer, something Tedy Bruschi addressed diplomatically earlier this week.
“It’s a different deal out here in New England,” said Bruschi, one of few Patriots to improve on Carroll’s watch. “And his mentality is, the way Pete handles things was so different than Coach Parcells. And I thought we had some players that were much older and a lot of players that were very young that only knew one way and that was the Parcells way. Old school Jersey, if you will.
“I think that just that team was in a place where they weren’t ready to accept what Pete was trying to give and whether that’s them being in the wrong place in their career, not at the right time, maybe, with me, or maybe just being stubborn and too set in their ways. But those combination of things could be a factor in terms of it not working out.”
That gradual realization that it wasn’t working, that a team that seemed on the precipice of something great had backslid to also-ran status three years later was as disappointing as most of Grier’s draft choices.
During those contentious Jets showdowns, Carroll was often outwitted by Parcells (and Belichick) despite having a far more talented roster. He wasn’t exactly the picture of stoic, reassuring poise, either. When something went wrong, he had a stock look of mouth-agape bewilderment that became all too familiar. He was the face of casual, hapless underachievement, and it wasn’t supposed to be that way.
Oh, of course it wasn’t all Carroll’s fault. When Grier wasn’t wasting draft picks on bums like Chris Canty, he was leaving the door open for veterans to come in and complain about Carroll. It became a toxic situation, on rectified only when Robert Kraft saw the error of it all and cleaned house in January 2000.
“Pete is one of the truly great guys in the coaching fraternity and I didn’t give him all the support he needed,” explained Kraft years later in Gary Myers’ book “Coaching Confidential.”
“Pete was inclusive. Look, in the end, I needed someone to make me feel good. It was good for me to have a guy like Pete Carroll because he’s my kind of guy. I mean, we loved Pete. You want Pete to marry into your family. I love the guy to this day. He is an awesome guy.”
He was an awesome guy. Right to the aggravating happy-happy-joy-joy end. Remember Carroll’s final scene with the Patriots? Already eliminated from the postseason, they concluded the 1999 season with a 20-6 win over the Ravens, giving them an 8-8 record and a last-place finish in the AFC East.
Apparently this was some cause for celebration for Carroll, who — metaphor alert! — tripped and fell on his face racing on to the field after the final gun, then ran around the periphery of Foxboro Stadium to high-five fans who were excited to … well, I have no idea why they’d be excited to high-five that oblivious nincompoop in that particular moment in time.
“Our whole deal was to have some fun playing today and we did,” he explained afterward. “I want to look at the moment in front of me and enjoy it to the fullest. That’s the way I am. I’m savoring it. That was a great event and I wanted to make sure I felt it in my heart.”
As a human being, that’s a lovely sentiment and a fine way to approach life. But Carroll wasn’t supposed to be a human being, not at that place and time, not every autumn Sunday afternoon. He was supposed to be a football coach. Those traits and responsibilities are often mutually exclusive.
I’ll admit I do love that Carroll said this the same day: “Sometimes we get caught up because of some guy on the radio or a writer who is critical. Sometimes, in the bitterness, we miss the fun and why we are here to play the game and to have fun with the game itself. I know our fans love and support our team. But sometimes we get on a subject or a topic and it gets so nasty and cynical.”
It’s the West Coast version of Rick Pitino’s negativity-stinks-and-sucks rant! Also, I think he foreshadowed the rise of Felger and Mazz there.
I’m sure Carroll would tell us, now as he did then, that it’s water under the bridge and a learning experience and, gosh, didn’t it all just work out for the best anyway?
And he’d be right. It’s worked out for the best for Carroll, and it sure as hell worked out for the best the Patriots. Perhaps if Kraft had hired Bill Belichick immediately after Parcells left, we wouldn’t be talking about nine AFC Championship games and six Super Bowl appearances in 15 seasons. Or perhaps the dynasty would have begun in 1997 rather than in 2001. We don’t know how the whole sliding-door scenario might have played out, but it’s hard to imagine anything better than what we have right now, and what we’ve had for 15 seasons now.
So I suppose we can say thanks, Pete, for your indirect and accidental contribution — a three-year descent toward mediocrity that helped make this era possible. But that’s where the line should be drawn. If Super Bowl XLIX is going to be portrayed as some sort of referendum on whether the Patriots did Carroll wrong or a factually inaccurate reconsideration of his aggravating time here, spare me.
Over the past 22 seasons, the Patriots have had three extraordinary head coaches. Only two were extraordinary with the Patriots. Should you believe otherwise, I can only assume you were one of the folks high-fiving a certain about-to-be-fired coach after a few final and meaningless winning hours of an already lost season.