PHOENIX -- The widely held perception is that they are the Venus and Mars of NFL head coaches, virtually polar opposites in terms of personality, temperament and the way they view leadership, relate to their players and command authority. At a glance, Bill Belichick and Pete Carroll seem separated on the coaching spectrum as far as the East is from the West, or at least the far-flung geographic corners of the NFL map that their highly successful programs occupy.
There’s the rigid and disciplined Patriot Way. And the more open and expressive Seahawks Way. And both well-established approaches are embodied by the men who lead them. Belichick as the dour, all-business authoritarian. Carroll as the relentlessly upbeat and energetic “players’ coach."
But the reality, according to several players who have played for both of this year’s Super Bowl coaches during careers that over-lapped Carroll and Belichick’s head coaching tenures in New England, is that the juxtaposition between them is not all that stark. None too surprisingly, the stereotypes are not quite accurate.
"Actually I think it’s probably fairly different from what most people would expect," said former Patriots quarterback Drew Bledsoe, who played for Carroll throughout the Seattle coach’s three-year stint in New England (1997-99), and then spent the first two years of the team’s Belichick era (2000-01) in Foxboro. "I would say that Pete Carroll and Bill Belichick have far more in common than they have differences. And the differences between the two guys are purely stylistic differences. The substance of the two guys and their coaching styles and their coaching ability is very, very similar.
"They both have built a culture around their teams of extreme competitiveness. In practice they preach discipline and execution, with aggressive defense and winning in the kicking game, preventing turnovers, all of those things. But then when they get in front of the cameras, they look pretty radically different. Pete smiles and laughs and jokes, and Bill is Bill. But people need to also understand that Pete has a hard edge to him, too. I enjoyed playing for both of them. Both guys are all about winning football games and they both know what they’re doing and have been very successful. When you cut through the stylistic differences, they’re very similar guys."
It is one of the most delicious storylines of Sunday’s Super Bowl XLIX, a showdown in the desert between these two glamor teams with dynastic intentions. Carroll and Belichick are the only two men to coach the Patriots over the course of the past 18 seasons, leading New England to a remarkable 14 playoff berths in that span, with just one losing season. And now, in perfect symmetry, the team tasked with stopping Carroll’s Seahawks from becoming the first repeat Super Bowl champion in a decade is Belichick’s Patriots, the last team to accomplish it, in 2003-04.
Taking over the wrong team at the wrong time
Interestingly, New England represented the second NFL head coaching opportunity for both Carroll and Belichick, with Carroll having had a one-and-done shot with the New York Jets in 1994 (going 6-10), and Belichick posting just one winning season and playoff trip in his five-year stay in Cleveland (1991-95).
But while Belichick has set the bar in terms of coaching accomplishment in his 15 seasons-and-counting with the Patriots, Carroll’s era in Foxboro was ill-fated to fall between the franchise’s two most recent Super Bowl coaches: Bill Parcells (1993-96) and Belichick. Coming off the New England Super Bowl season of 1996 in Parcells’ swan song, Carroll’s Pats went 10-6, 9-7 and 8-8 in his three seasons, making the playoffs the first two years. While not too shabby, his 27-21 overall record gave the appearance of regression with one fewer victory each season, and he was fired after his final club in 1999 started 6-2 but collapsed in the season’s second half to finish .500, missing out on the postseason and paving the way for Belichick’s hiring.
"We just kind of went backwards," longtime former Patriots receiver Troy Brown said. "But when Pete took the job in New England, he took over a young team that had just gone to the Super Bowl, and for whatever reason, they just started breaking that team up. Curtis Martin ended up leaving after the first season [to the Jets]. Keith Byars left. A lot of good players left that really helped us get to that ’96 Super Bowl against Green Bay.
"We started losing veterans and getting younger and younger, and the team started to go south. But I don’t put it all on Pete, because when he came in, he wasn’t calling the shots at that particular time. He didn’t get to pick the ‘groceries,’ as Parcells would say. He didn’t have control over personnel. He just took over the wrong team at the wrong time. And trying to win with a young team that was not drafting great talent, that did him in."
Bobby Grier headed up the New England personnel department at that time, after Parcells left to coach the New York Jets when he and owner Robert Kraft could not agree on who should hold personnel decision-making authority (inspiring Parcells’ famous line that “If I’m going to be asked to cook the meal, I’d like to be able to pick the groceries.") Carroll was not given any significant input to the makeup of the roster, and the front office arrangement in New England proved to be a hard-learned lesson that eventually led him to seek only an NFL coaching opportunity that would provide such power.
"Pete was a great coach and I wish things had gone differently for him in New England," Bledsoe said. "The biggest thing that hurt Pete was that we had a ton of draft picks we got when Parcells left and then Curtis Martin left, and those draft picks didn’t pan out for whatever reason. Robert Edwards gets hurt playing volleyball on the beach in Hawaii, other guys were busts, and there were a lot of things that didn’t go right from a personnel standpoint.
"I think that’s what you see with what Pete has done in Seattle. He made sure that he had control over those personnel moves, and it’s really paid great dividends for him there."
Two contrasting coaching styles, but both result in winning
Former Patriots cornerback Ty Law was drafted by Parcells in the first round of 1995, became a star under Carroll with his first trip to the Pro Bowl in '98, and won three Super Bowl rings with Belichick in the 2001, '03 and '04 seasons.
"It’s true that Pete didn’t get to pick the groceries that Parcells talked about, but with the groceries he was given, I think he cooked the hell out of them," Law said. "And that’s all you can ask. We went to the playoffs twice in three years under him. When he left, it was a huge blow to me personally, because I thought he was doing a hell of a job. I loved playing for him. If you don’t want to run through a wall for Pete Carroll, something is wrong. I thought he got a raw deal.
"Bill Belichick is by far the best coach when it comes to scheming X’s and O’s. Nobody can touch Belichick in that respect. None of them. He’s above the rest. Point blank. You can’t out-coach Bill Belichick. But to get people to rally around each other, to get everybody on the same page and united in one goal, Pete Carroll is a hell of a coach. I think they’re both great. Two different styles, but it all ends up the same, with winning."
Ironically, Carroll’s struggles in New England underlined to Belichick how important it was to have autonomy in personnel matters, which has been a staple of his ultra-successful tenure with the Patriots. Carroll’s downfall in Foxboro started when some of his players exploited his lack of total authority, and made their way upstairs to Kraft or Grier’s office to complain about his coaching decisions. Going over the coach’s head is always a recipe for disaster in the NFL, and leads to a locker room that in some quarters has tuned out, eroding a coach’s authority.
Patriots star receiver Terry Glenn and offensive tackle Bruce Armstrong were reportedly two of the team leaders who helped grease the skids for Carroll in New England, but there were other discontented players in the locker room as well.
"It was a bit out of control," Brown said. "With some guys on their own program, going above his head to upper [management]. Those type of things were happening to him and when that starts to happen, even if you’re the head coach, what can you do? Those people aren’t going to have your back, and you lose your authority in the locker room a little bit. Guys aren’t stupid. They realize that, if you’re sitting in the same meeting room that guys are getting up walking out of, and you come out and those same guys are still allowed to be in the starting lineup, without missing a beat, that’s trouble.
"Some guys were like, 'Oh, it’s no big deal if I come in late this morning. Oh, it’s no big deal if I come in a little tipsy this morning,’ and it just kind of snowballed on him. It wasn’t really Pete. It was [that] he was used to having guys who policed themselves and were accountable and professional. But he had some guys who did their own thing, and then when people turned a blind eye to it, it comes to a point where you can’t reel it back in. But I thought he was a great X’s and O’s coach and a defensive-minded guy who put guys in position to make pays. It just didn’t work out for him in the long run there."
Brown said one of the key differences in Carroll and Belichick came in how they responded to players who had violated team rules, or broken the trust of his teammates or coaches.
"Bill does a lot of talking to you, and there’s not a lot of yelling and screaming at you," Brown said. “You don’t want to disappoint him. With Pete, I’ve seen him disappointed by some of the guys he thought were leaders on the football team, with them coming in late for meetings or on travel days, that kind of stuff. He handled it very differently than Bill would handle it.
"When Pete handled it, he got up and made a speech about how disappointed he was in those guys being late. It was more of an emotional pleading with the guys, telling them how disappointed he was with them. I’ve seen Bill in that situation and he’d just tell that guy to leave, and then send them home. If you do the job the way he asks you to do it, there’s really no problem with him. Do you disagree with some of the things and how we does them? Of course. But you don’t agree with everything your parents say and do either."
Law still bristles at some of the labels that Carroll had attached to his name during his brief stint with the Patriots, or that others have painted the "players’ coach" description with a negative connotation. He said both Belichick and Carroll were coaches who knew how to consistently get the best out of the players, and challenge them to greater heights of production.
"I have the utmost respect for both of them," Law said. "They are different, but not as different as people perceive them to be. Coach Belichick is only going to give you what he wants to give you when the cameras are on. That’s not his thing, and he’ll just shut it down. But Pete, he’s an energetic, happy guy, and its infectious in the way he’s always positive.
"Some guys might have thought he was soft, but that was definitely not the case. I heard some rumblings about that, that people said Pete Carroll was soft. But there’s no way in hell this guy’s soft. And tell me, what’s wrong with being a players’ coach as long as you get the results? He’s a players’ coach right now, and he’s in the Super Bowl again. He was a players coach when he was winning national championships at USC. I’m so happy that Pete Carroll is finally getting the respect that he deserves in the NFL. He had to go another route to get it -- going back to college coaching -- but it’s kind of ironic that it’s coming full circle and he gets to play his old team, the Patriots, in the Super Bowl."
Being always willing to think outside the box
Belichick, 62, has flashed a rarely seen soft side at this year’s Super Bowl in news conference settings, talking stuffed animals and monkey puppets with kid reporters and waxing nostalgic about his long-held appreciation for Jon Bon Jovi music. Could some of Carroll’s enthusiasm be rubbing off on the man who made “It is what it is" and monotone answers the backbone of his media strategy?
"Personality wise, Pete fits better in the Northwest than he did in the Northeast," said Bledsoe, a native of Washington who played collegiately at Washington State. "And then Bill, his personality, or at least his public personality, or lack thereof, works just fine in the Northeast. But the thing that people don’t know about Bill is if you can get him out of the office or get him out of the work environment, he’s actually a pretty funny and engaging guy. It’s just when he’s at work, it’s all business and that’s it.
"I was out there [in Foxboro] for the Dolphins game [in mid-December], and I was on the field and he came jogging over with a big smile on his face and gave me a hug and said hi and talked for a minute. And I said, ‘Woah, wait a second, who’s this guy? He looks like Belichick but he’s certainly not acting like him.’ But I do think he’s starting to enjoy the ride a little bit more these days."
Bledsoe’s insight to what works so well for the team culture Carroll has developed in Seattle is also valuable. Carroll has established a positive and work-intensive environment, but just as Belichick has done in New England, he has his players understanding that nothing is guaranteed when it comes to their status or standing. Everything must be continually earned.
"When Pete went to Seattle, he had to have some control over personnel, and then watch what he did with it," Bledsoe said. "I think they set records for the first few years there for the amount of turnover on their roster. But he makes it a fun place to be. Guys really want to play in Seattle, and once you’re there, you really want to stay there. He treats everybody very well, but he also lets guys know you’ve got to compete for your job every single day, because he’s always looking for the next guy. So it’s an interesting environment, because you really, really want to be there, but you better earn it every single day on the practice field."
The success Carroll and Belichick have enjoyed has also led to another commonality between the two coaches, or perhaps sprung from it. They are unafraid to do things their own way. They trust their own judgment above all else at this point in their long careers, and defy easy description in terms of the teams they’ve built.
"They don’t necessarily get caught up in conventional wisdom, if you will," Bledsoe said. "The Patriots probably more than anybody else, they’re willing to think outside the box, and try different things. You watch the playoff game against the Ravens and all of a sudden they’ve got only four offensive linemen on the field. Completely legal but not something anybody had done, in such a copy-cat league.
"For both coaches, it’s simply about winning the game. It’s really all that matters and it doesn’t matter to them what way you do it. The Patriots some games, they’ll throw it 60 times, and the next game they’ll run it 50. They’re not hung up in trying to have one identity, and both coaches are very similar that way. It’s just about winning the game. It’s not about trying to prove a point outside of that."
But with one more win on Sunday against the Patriots, the team that fired him, Carroll’s coaching identity will be even more closely aligned with the man he preceded in New England. He’d be a multiple Super Bowl winner, just like Belichick, with his three rings. And Carroll, at 63, would be the first coach in history to win two national championships and two Super Bowls. Both would perhaps have only each other for company in the game’s elite class of coaches, at the very top of their profession.
Carroll and Belichick. Different and yet the same. In ways that even just the quickest of glances is starting to convey.