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Coming off brutal losses to end 2014, NFC coaches plot teams' comebacks

Pete Carroll wasn't the only NFC coach who suffered a gut-punching loss in the 2014 playoffs. Jason Garrett, Mike McCarthy and Jim Caldwell discuss their tactics for helping their teams move past last season's brutal endings and focus on what's ahead.

In the Aug. 3, 2015 issue of Sports Illustrated, Greg Bishop wrote about how Pete Carroll is moving past Seattle's brutal loss in Super Bowl XLIX. But the Seahawks aren't the only team who suffered a gut-wrenching end to the 2014 season—three other NFC coaches are also navigating how to help their teams overcome tough losses at the end of last season, and open 2015 with a clean slate.

On a June morning at the Cowboys' training facilities in Valley Ranch, coach Jason Garrett addressed his players for what would be the final time before they returned for training camp. The wounds from their 26–21 loss to the Packers in the playoffs last season were still fresh, but Garrett was determined to get his players' minds right about 2014 before they moved ahead to '15. So he had a couple stories to share.

The first was about the guy you’d meet at a cocktail party who also used to play football. He was headed to Notre Dame on a scholarship before he tore his knee up and the scouts pulled off him.

“The guy’s 65 years old and he’s talking about something that happened 45 years ago,” Garrett said to his troops.

Then there was the gentleman who was going to be a bonus baby drafted by the Dodgers before his dream was ended by a torn rotator cuff.

“He’s 70 years old,” Garrett said. “That was over 50 years ago.”

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That’s when Garrett brought it home.

“We’re going to address this head on,” Garrett said, his voice rising. “We didn’t get the job done. We’re not going to be the trick knee guy, we’re not going to be the rotator cuff guy talking about this 40 years from now about how that was our chance to go to the Super Bowl and we got screwed. 

“There are no excuses, there are no explanations. We had 60 minutes to go up there and win a ballgame. We had 56 minutes before that play, we had four minutes after that play and we didn’t get the job done. Period. And now we’re onto the next chapter.”

Similar conversations, but with different approaches, were also happening in Detroit, Green Bay and Seattle. All four of those NFC playoff teams suffered just brutal season-ending losses. They led by a combined score of 84–41 in the second half. Those four teams were outscored a combined 65–3 to finish each game. And every team can point to one play to place the blame (and the fans surely will). 

The Lions, who led 20–7 late in the third quarter, will have a tough time forgetting that referee Pete Morelli picked up a pass interference flag against Cowboys linebacker Anthony Hitchens that would have given Detroit a first down in Dallas territory leading 20–17 with 8:25 remaining. The Cowboys won 24–20.

Tight end Brandon Bostick, who was released by the Packers, botched an onside kick recovery with just over two minutes left in the game to setup the go-ahead touchdown. The Seahawks won 28–22 in overtime after the Packers led 16–0 at halftime, and 19–7 late in the fourth quarter.

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And, of course, there was the interception that Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson threw on the one-yard line with Beast Mode himself, Marshawn Lynch, standing in the back field. One of the most controversial play calls in Super Bowl history allowed the Patriots to become the first Super Bowl team to erase a 10-point fourth-quarter deficit and win 28–24.

In the NFC, this is the woulda, coulda, shoulda off-season. And like the Cowboys, every team is making a serious effort to move on.

Both NFC North coaches, Mike McCarthy and Jim Caldwell, treated the game as any other. They made the initial corrections in the wake of the game, and that’s the last time the game will be spoken of. McCarthy and Caldwell were so adamant about not looking back that both refused one-on-one interviews on the topic.

“You’ll have a setback one week and then the next week you have to get that thing out of your mind and move on,” Caldwell said. “That game, that last game of the year, is so far back in our rearview mirror we don’t even talk about it. We’re focused in on what’s ahead. Besides that, the thing about the league is your team changes about 35% so a lot of these guys don’t even know what you’re talking about. They have no idea; they weren’t in the game, they weren’t involved in it. So what we do is we focus in on the things that are ahead of us, the things that we can do something about and not some things that we can’t control.”

McCarthy took it a step further.

“Hell or high water, we’re not going to run out there and come up with some slogan, ‘Remember Seattle,’” McCarthy said. “I’m not going to do that.”

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Seahawks coach Pete Carroll has long had “Tell the Truth Monday,” after games, giving everyone the opportunity to say what they need to say. While Tell the Truth Mondays help players put the previous week's game behind them more quickly, Carroll said after the Super Bowl loss, he encouraged his players to grieve the situation and take time to deal with it. The post-Super Bowl installment of Tell the Truth probably went on for a while.

“I’ve always talked about how big wins can be just as challenging as big losses,” Carroll said. “And whatever affects you needs to be dealt with. Last year it was the celebration all the way through the off-season and the distraction of all that. This year it’s dealing with the loss and giving the game away and how we’re going to handle that. And we’ve done it.

“We don’t ever have to get over it. I don’t. Like I said, it fuels me. There’s a lot of things in my coaching days that have. And I have never minded the fact that I know there’s a place where I don’t want to go again. I hate learning the hard way. But some of the greatest lessons come from it. That’s how it works for me.”

Even within a team, players will deal with a tough loss differently. In Dallas, cornerback Orlando Scandrick and tight Jason Witten were polar opposites. Scandrick didn’t even want to entertain the topic.

“It’s over. It’s over,” Scandrick said.

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But do you…

“No. We didn’t make enough plays.”

Well, as a team, do you…

“That team is gone. There’s no point in even talking about that team. We’re starting from ground zero. We’re trying to work on our goals this year.”

There’s no lessons to be learned if you get into the same spot?

“That team is gone. DeMarco [Murray]’s not here. Bruce Carter’s not here. Sean Lee’s back. [Rolando] McClain is going to be playing. We have [Randy] Gregory, Greg Hardy, Byron Jones. It’s just different guys.”

On the other hand, Witten wanted to bask in the hard lessons learned as long as possible.

“I 100% use it as fuel,” he said. “It’s easy to say move on to next year. No, no, no. You have to go back and look at it and say why did we lose in those situations and you have to use it as fuel. Those are great learning tools for your football team.”

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If recent NFL history is any indicator, the Seahawks, Packers, Cowboys and Lions now face long odds to overcome their losses and improve this season. The track record of teams that lost control of postseason games is not good.

The 2013 Chiefs led the Colts by 28 points and fell 45–44. Kansas City started 0–2 and 2–3 the next season before missing the playoffs at 9–7.

The 2002 Giants led the 49ers 38–14 with 4:27 left in the third quarter. San Francisco scored the final 25 points to win. Jim Fassel’s squad started 2–4 the following season, finished 4-12 and he was fired.

The 2002 Browns led the rival Steelers by 12 with 10:17 left and lost 36–33. Cleveland went 5–11 in ’03 and Butch Davis posted a 3–8 record in ’04 before being relieved of his coaching duties.

The 2003 Packers took a 14–0 lead against the Eagles and led 17–14 with 1:12 left as Philadelphia faced fourth-and-26 on its 26-yard line. The Eagles converted and won 20–17 in overtime. Green Bay started 1–4 in ’04 before rallying to make the playoffs. It lost 31–17 at home to the 8–8 Vikings. Coach Mike Sherman was fired after a 4–12 mark in ’05.

Sherman was definitely in the old-school camp of make the corrections, and move on. “Every season is an entity unto itself,” the former coach said. “Winning the Super Bowl doesn’t guarantee success the next season. A failure at the end of the season doesn’t guarantee failure the next year. You have to look at both sides of the coin.”

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And in the postseason defeat against which all others is measured, the 1992 Oilers led the Bills 35–3 early in the third quarter but lost 41–38 in overtime. Houston started 1–4 the next season but reeled off 11-straight victories to grab the AFC’s No. 2 seed. Despite the bye and a 10–0 halftime lead, the Oilers fell at home to the Chiefs 28-20. Jack Pardee was fired after a 1–9 start to the ’94 season.

“The approach we took was, ‘Let’s not dwell on it. We’re a good football team. It’s a new season,’” said Kevin Gilbride, the offensive coordinator for Pardee that season. “There was no doubt that there was a residual affect the next season. We had a rematch with the Bills the next season and even though we were a better team, we got beat worse (a 35–7 loss that dropped Houston to 1–4) because we were still thinking about that game.

“I don’t know what the right approach is. You certainly can’t dwell on it once the season starts. It depends on what kind of team you have and what kind of loss it was. Do you think it will linger with your team or do you think you have a team like a New England or Baltimore that’s looking for a chip to fuel the whole team? If I’m a team like Seattle with that defense, or Dallas, I’m using it.”

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So what exactly does it take to come back and succeed after such a crushing loss? Let's take a look at one of the few teams to blow a postseason game one season and then go further the next: the 2012 Ravens. That year, Baltimore avenged a brutal loss to New England in the 2011 AFC Championship Game by beating the Patriots and then winning Super Bowl XLVII against the 49ers. The Ravens led the Patriots 20–16 in the fourth quarter before receiver Lee Evans dropped a game-winning touchdown catch, and kicker Billy Cundiff missed the game-tying field goal.

How did the 2012 Ravens start 5–1 and go on to win the Super Bowl when so many others before them endured long hangovers? According to two members of that team, defensive tackle Haloti Ngata and safety James Ihedigbo, coach John Harbaugh let the players police themselves, and the elder statesmen would not let the others forget that feeling.

“[Harbaugh] definitely let us use it,” said Ngata, whose team had to return to the scene of the crime against the same opponent to break through. “There were plays we thought we should have made. Watching the film when we lost to the Patriots, we were like, ‘Man, we could have done this different and this different.’ So I think the next time when we got back there, we didn’t take it for granted. We made sure that we made the plays that would should have made the previous year.

“It definitely helped us when we went back there. We pretty much dominated [28–13].”

Ihedigbo was a Patriot when they defeated the Ravens, and then switched sides to help topple New England.

“It came from Harbaugh but it came from the leaders on the team,” Ihedigbo said. “Guys like Ed Reed and Ray Lewis gave us the mind-set of ‘Let’s use this off-season to outwork everybody so there’s no doubt the following season that it’s going to be our time and we’re going to win.’”

Ngata and Ihedigbo are now Lions, and they’ll be applying the lessons learned in Baltimore. Caldwell might not want to look back, but the players will make sure the rest never forget.

“We went into New England and every player said, ‘I’m going to be that guy to make the play that we didn’t the year before,’” Ihedigbo said. “If we’re in Dallas or Green Bay next year or wherever we are playing in the playoffs, we’ll all have that mindset on offense and on defense that I’m going to be that guy to make that play.”

Or else, they could become fodder for another coach’s preseason lecture like Garrett’s in the future:

"Back in the day when I was an NFL player, if the ref hadn't made that call..."