They called Pete Carroll's first New York Jet training camp the Good Ship Lollipop and, sure enough, everywhere you looked around the team's Long Island practice fields there were players picnicking, coaches shooting hoops and fans applauding blocking drills. "It's the stuff we're putting in the Gatorade," said Carroll, the Jets' rookie coach, behind an impish grin.
When his first-round draft pick, Aaron Glenn, fumbled three punts in the second preseason game, Carroll didn't holler at him, he hugged him, for cryin' out loud, and later said, "I guess we've got to catch a punt before we get to Buffalo." When his best receiver, Rob Moore, broke his left wrist in the same game, Carroll said, "I'm happy because it gives some younger guys a chance." Once he even scrapped a team meeting to take his players bowling.
The Gotham press dubbed his outfit Team Happy and mobilized to burst the bubble, opting for the surefire quarterback controversy, sacking Boomer Esiason in print and anointing journeyman Jack Trudeau the savior. After the final preseason game in Tampa one tabloid headline screamed BOOMER WHO? Carroll grinned and told the writers, "You're not bad people, you just have a bad job description." He did everything but bus tables...well, he did that, too.
Carroll, who replaced Bruce Coslet last January after four years as the Jets' defensive coordinator, explains his unique approach by saying, "I like to have fun, and if something's not fun, make it fun." It was a loose team that Carroll brought to Buffalo on Sunday, and that looseness showed as the Jets rubbed out the four-time defending AFC champs 23-3, giving New York only its second victory against the Bills in their last 14 meetings.
Carroll obviously didn't receive his coaching diploma from Lombardi College or Halas U. He considers himself a disciple of Bud Grant, whom he studied under when he was the Minnesota Viking secondary coach in 1985. While the ebullient Carroll will never be confused with the stoic Grant on the sidelines, Carroll watched Grant flee his Viking training camp now and again to go fishing and learned how to balance business with pleasure. Carroll never ditched his Jet campers, but he did toss a football around with his 15-year-old son, Brennan, after most practices, played three-on-three hoops with his assistant coaches and constantly dribbled a basketball up and down the hallways of the Jet headquarters between meetings. The team could have used his office for storage.
Carroll has always been like this. He likes to tell the story of the night when he was a backup quarterback for the Redwood (Calif.) High Giants and was sent in to run out the clock in the final minutes of a certain victory. His coach called a running play, but Carroll decided to spice things up by throwing a pass. He then threw another pass and another until he'd driven his team deep into opposition territory. It turns out he called one pass too many because he tossed an interception in the end zone that was run back for a touchdown after Carroll, a starting defensive back, blew the tackle. Luckily for Carroll the Giants won the game anyway.
Maybe that was the night Carroll's aggressive coaching philosophy was born. His first job in the NFL was with Buffalo, where he was the defensive backs coach in 1984. Ten years later he returned to Rich Stadium for his first game as a head coach, and after 15 minutes he had to make a crucial call. As the second quarter began the Jets faced fourth-and-goal on the Bills' one-yard line. Carroll didn't hesitate. "It was an indication that Pete has great confidence in our offensive line and running backs, because if we don't make it, there's a momentum swing," Esiason said. "It was a gutsy call, but there was never any doubt in his mind."
Running back Richie Anderson jammed the ball past the goal line to give the Jets a 7-3 lead, and then Esiason, the target of the tabloids, took over. He finished 14 of 28 for 214 yards, including five completions to the quickly rehabilitated Moore. Esiason also made several important third-down conversions in the first half. Meanwhile, the Jet defense intercepted Jim Kelly twice and held Thurman Thomas to five yards rushing on seven carries. If truth be told, the Bills peaked when they won the coin toss.
In the Jet locker room afterward, Carroll struggled to contain his enthusiasm. "This is an excellent moment for us right now," he said. "We're trying to bury this Jet image that something bad is always going to happen to this team and we'll do that by winning games like this one."
Image is everything for Carroll. A month ago the Jets were grounded by bad weather in Detroit after a preseason game, and Carroll, everybody's favorite camp counselor, pointed the team bus toward a local T.G.I. Friday's for some munchies and beers. When the huge Jet contingent arrived, Carroll realized the restaurant staff was overburdened, so he began taking orders, dashing in and out of the kitchen, busing tables and passing out checks. "Nothing he does surprises me anymore," says Jet defensive end Jeff Lageman. "When I saw him serving food I just said, 'Hey, Pete, where's my fajitas?' "
Hence, it was hardly shocking to anybody on Team Happy when they witnessed Pete Carroll on Sunday hugging every Jet in sight, having heaps of fun and taking care of some Bills.