ORLANDO — How do you repeat as a Super Bowl champion, or at the very least, avoid a letdown season in an encore effort? Every NFL coach who wins a Super Bowl gets asked some variation of that question throughout the ensuing offseason. Some reject the notion their teams are at risk for complacency. Others admit to not knowing the answer. Most say they’ve consulted, or plan to consult, with men who have won back-to-back titles—the Bill Belichicks and the Jimmy Johnsons of the coaching fraternity.
What say you, Pete Carroll? Will you reach out to Belichick, or better yet, John Harbaugh, who potentially learned some valuable lessons from Baltimore’s disappointing 2013 season?
“No, I don’t do that,” Carroll said Wednesday at the NFL’s annual owners meetings.
So what will the head coach of the Super Bowl-winning Seahawks do next year? Red Bryant, Chris Clemons and Brandon Browner were among several key contributors lost in free agency. The stars of the team are enjoying the media circuit, their popularity amplified by a dominant victory over Denver at MetLife Stadium. Does the message change for the coach who lives by the motto win forever?
Carroll pondered this question in 2001, as it became clear his USC teams would be in the national championship conversation year after year. At the time, Carroll established a kinship with John Wooden, the 10-time national championship-winning basketball coach at UCLA, who was living in the area and teaching a spring class on campus.
“I asked coach Wooden, ‘After all these years, do you change your philosophy year to year?’ ”
Wooden looked upon the freshly-50 Carroll incredulously.
“I thought, Oh God, why did I ask that question? God dog it,” Carroll says. “He said, ‘Coach, you don’t change your philosophy; the players change.’ That’s my feeling now. You either have your philosophy or you don’t. You stay with what you believe in, you bring it to light as creative as you can. The philosophy never changes—sometimes the look of it changes, because the players change. The players will become more in tune to what’s expected of them. I think that’s how this works. We’ll see.”
“The most important thing that will happen is if we can recapture the work ethic that made us what we are,” Carroll says. “Nothing else really matters.”
Carroll’s feeling is this: If you demand the best out of your players every day, putting the emphasis on performance over winning, and players know their jobs are on the line if they don’t bring it, they’ll never get complacent. That was the design behind his open quarterback competitions in the summer and early fall, which predated the arrival of second-year quarterback Russell Wilson in 2012. When Wilson arrived as a third-rounder, Carroll saw the battle between Tarvaris Jackson and expensive free agent signee Matt Flynn as a tremendous opportunity to demonstrate his Seahawk meritocracy, provided Wilson should outplay the veterans. And he did.
Carroll has experience winning back-to-back titles in college (the 2003 AP National Championship and the since-vacated 2004 BCS National Championship), yet the NFL presents a unique challenge. The monstrous year-to-year roster upheaval of pro football is nothing new to Carroll, but the size of the personalities and the influence of the fame that comes with winning a Super Bowl can be unwieldy, especially for an NFL team accustomed to a relatively small media market.
The last coach to have success in a similar situation was Green Bay’s Mike McCarthy, whose Packers won a Super Bowl in 2010, then followed up with a 15-1 finish in the lockout-shortened 2011 season. He looked at his roster six months after beating the Steelers and rewrote his script. “I think the message is different every year, because every football team is different,” McCarthy says. “The goal is the same, but the path and message of how you get there is something different. That’s the way we’ve always approached it.”
Jimmy Johnson, winner of Super Bowls in 1992 and 1993, had a way of dealing with success that appears to contrast Carroll’s. In an interview with Fox Sports 1 in advance of the Super Bowl, Johnson shared an anecdote that spoke to the subtle and damaging influences of success. After the first Super Bowl, his running backs coach, Joe Brodsky, was laying into Emmitt Smith’s backup but giving the star a pass.
“When you have that kind of success ... you know these assistant coaches, they become very comfortable with these players,” Johnson said. “[Brodsky] was just wearing Derrick Lassic, this running back, out—a backup, and not saying anything to Emmitt Smith. I said, ‘Joe, you got to coach Emmitt Smith’ ... and Joe says, ‘He’s been there before.’
“The more success you have, the more you’ve got to demand it out of them. ... I was an SOB that second year, that second Super Bowl. I would have been a bigger SOB the third year. That’s the only way I could get it out of them.”
Pete Carroll and Richard Sherman interacting in the locker room gives a glimpse of the coach’s style. (Rod Mar for SI/The MMQB)
Being abrasive has never been Carroll’s style; he lets the players do it for him. He fills the locker room with “dogs,” says cornerback Richard Sherman, and teases the adversarial nature in each. For instance, safety Earl Thomas and wide receiver Doug Baldwin share one of the most intense intra-team rivalries in football, with repeated one-on-one matchups, jawing and heightened physicality. Carroll encourages it, quietly.
Says Sherman, “He’ll go to Doug and say, ‘Earl was talking about you earlier. He said he’s got you today. What do you think?’ And Doug will get mad. Or he’ll do the same thing with Earl. And then Doug and Earl go at it.”
It all speaks to a mantra Sherman shared early last season when he wrote “we compete against ourselves” as an explanation for avoiding a letdown against an underperforming club on the heels of a big-time division win. Seattle followed up Sherman’s September column for The MMQB with a 45-17 thrashing of the Jaguars. The goal for 2014 is to turn micro into macro; every team won’t be the Broncos, and few will be as good. So how will the Seahawks continue to dominate for the entire season without Carroll turning up the volume or changing a mantra his players probably recite in their sleep?
New York Giants coach Tom Coughlin (winner of Super Bowls XLII and XLVI) says maybe it’s not about changing the philosophy; just the way it’s delivered.
“You’re constantly looking for new themes, new buttons to push. New ways for them to relate,” he says. “You have to challenge them after a Super Bowl year. The media is quickly going to throw the complacency thing in their face, which in reality gives you an opportunity to work your team with that.”
Listening to Carroll speak on Wednesday, you could tell he was already pushing buttons. He was blunt in describing the circumstances surrounding the departure of Browner, the cornerback Seattle let walk in free agency. Last season was likely the best in Browner’s NFL career before he ran afoul of the league’s substance abuse policy and was replaced in the playoffs by backup Byron Maxwell.
Says Carroll: “Byron Maxwell played so well that we were able to move on.”
And just like that, the Legion of Boom defensive backfield was no more. If an established starter like Browner, a Pro Bowler in 2011, can be jettisoned based on the performance of a third-year special teamer with five starts on his résumé, what message does that deliver to the rest of the roster? What does it mean for running back Marshawn Lynch, with 2013 second-round pick Christine Michael on his heels (Carroll has heaped praise on Michael all week), or Michael Bennett, the defensive end whose four-year, 28.5 million contract signed this offseason could end up being worth little more than the unfulfilled three-year $20.5 million deal Flynn received? What does it mean for Sherman, the current face of the franchise and media/endorsement darling of the 2014 offseason?
Come August, bring it.
“We set a direction on having the greatest offseason of our lives, individually,” Carroll says. “That doesn’t mean you cant go out and have fun and live the life. You can work out and still be on the Tonight Show. The most important thing that will happen is if we can recapture the work ethic that made us what we are. Nothing else really matters.