The Seahawks head coach said living through USC's National Championship loss has him even more confident he can guide Seattle to a similar bounce-back from a tough defeat.
In what can seem like one of sports’ stranger contradictions, those who experience the greatest of victories also often suffer the most bitter of defeats.
It’s a fate thrust on the Seahawks, who a year after capturing the Super Bowl in one of the more dominant performances in the game’s history lost a chance at a repeat and football immortality with a play call that will be questioned as long as the game is played.
On second-and-goal from the 1-yard line with 26 seconds left and the Seahawks trailing 28-24, they chose to pass instead of handing the ball to Marshawn Lynch. The pass was intercepted by the Patriots’ Malcolm Butler.
Rough losses in sports history
The Seahawks are attempting to bounce back from one of the more memorable defeats in sports history. Showing that it’s possible, here are a few teams that suffered brutal defeats along the way to being champions in the future.
1986 Edmonton Oilers
The Wayne Gretzky-era Oilers were going for a third consecutive Stanley Cup in 1986. They seemed on their way, playing host to Calgary in Game 7 of the second round of the playoffs. But late in the game, defenseman Steve Smith’s attempt to clear the puck hit goalie Grant Fuhr and bounded into the net, giving the Flames a 3-2 victory — and the series triumph — on an embarrassing own goal. It bothered the Oilers so much that they came back to win the next two Stanley Cups, and even another in 1990 after Gretzky had been traded.
1967-1971 Dallas Cowboys
In another era, the Cowboys were known as the team that couldn’t win the big one, losing in the NFL title game or the Super Bowl three times in a span of five years from 1967-71, twice on essentially the final play — the 1967 Ice Bowl against Green Bay and in Super Bowl V against Baltimore. But after finally settling on Roger Staubach at quarterback, the Cowboys shed their label of big-game losers to beat Miami 24-3 in the Super Bowl, and advanced to three more Super Bowls in the next six years.
1962-70 Los Angeles Lakers
There once was no more hard luck team than the Lakers, who lost in the NBA Finals seven times from 1962-70, twice in Games 7s that were decided in the final seconds. But Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West and crew finally won it all in 1972.
Before the Sonics could win it all they lost a heartbreaker, dropping Game 7 of the 1978 NBA Finals at home to the Washington Bullets, 105-99. The Sonics came back to beat the Bullets in five games the next year for their only NBA title.
In the days, weeks and months following the game, Seahawks coach Pete Carroll drew on an eerily similar experience from his past — a last-minute defeat in the 2006 Rose Bowl when USC was attempting to win a third consecutive national title.
As in the Super Bowl, that game turned with a questionable play call — a run by LenDale White that fell short of the needed 2 yards on fourth down at the Texas 45-yard line and 2:13 remaining. USC led 38-33, and Carroll wanted to get the first down and run out the clock rather than give Texas another shot. Instead, the play failed, a strategy that drew even more questions due to the fact Heisman Trophy winner Reggie Bush was not on the field. Texas then pulled out the victory.
Though USC never got back to a national title game under Carroll, the Trojans won the next three Pac-10 titles and Rose Bowls.
Carroll said living through that has him even more confident he can guide the Seahawks to a similar bounce-back from a tough defeat.
“I needed all of those experiences,’’ Carroll said. “Those experiences were grand experiences on a big stage and the continued attention, focus, stress to stay on top — all of that I think really helped. I’m comfortable as we go through this thing that we have ways to return to the focus that you need. It’s not easy. But it doesn’t feel like it’s the first time.’’
As he did at USC, Carroll attempted almost immediately to turn the attention to what was next rather than dwelling on what had just been missed.
A key part of that was publicly taking credit for the play call and refusing to second-guess it.
“He’s the guy who put his whole body on that grenade and wore it,’’ said Yogi Roth, a Pac-12 Networks analyst who was an assistant for Carroll at USC and the co-author of his Win Forever book. “He didn’t put the blame on anyone else. That’s what head coaches do.’’
As the season has neared, Carroll has taken to saying that the challenge of regaining focus last year — when the team spent the offseason being constantly feted for winning the Super Bowl — might have been more difficult than what the team faces now.
“I was really aware of the impact of winning and the hangover from that, all the way through to the ceremony at the stadium at the opening game, I was still concerned about it continuing to be a part of our mentality that I wish we could have left behind,’’ Carroll said. “I think this one won’t linger in the same manner because of the ceremonies and the hype and the hoopla and all that kind of stuff.’’
Players have begun to express that same thought, saying the motivation of coming off a defeat might spur them more greatly than if had they won.
“I believe that winning the Super Bowl we had more of a chance of not playing as well versus coming off of a loss,’’ linebacker K.J. Wright said. “So I believe we can be even better than we were last year because we did come up with a loss.’’
Unlike at USC, where Carroll could be intimately involved with the players in the days and weeks following the 2006 Rose Bowl loss, the Seahawks scattered after the Super Bowl defeat against New England.
In that time, the players took some of the healing into their own hands. A group of 35, led by quarterback Russell Wilson, spent roughly a week in Hawaii in April before the team gathered again for its official offseason program.
One day, Wilson took the team to a cliff where players talked and Wilson told them to throw any lingering ill feelings about the Super Bowl over the edge.
“I think a lot of guys get over it at different times,’’ Wilson said. “I think ultimately when we got together in Maui, we experienced one another, felt one another in the sense of our energy and our focus with one another in what we’re going to do. When we threw all the other stuff off the cliff into the ocean in Maui we kind of just focused on what we’re going to do to move forward and how we’re going to focus on each other and build each other up. And how we’re going to try to win a lot of football games and continue to do the same thing. We were on the 1-yard line. We don’t need to change much. I think that’s kind of our focus.’’
How much of an impact any lingering mental effects of victories or defeats, of course, also varies from person to person. Some think it hardly matters.
Former NFL coach Brian Billick, who led the Ravens to a victory in Super Bowl XXXV, said such story lines make for good fan and media fodder but don’t really mean much once players get between the lines.
“Whether you win a Super Bowl or lose, there’s always going to be some perceived obstacle to your mindset to make the next step difficult,’’ he said. “Players get over things pretty quickly and are able to compartmentalize a loss like that. I can’t see it having a visible effect on the season or creating self-doubt. If anything else it would just make you mad enough so that you want to get back and win it.’’
The odds are long — only two teams have played in three consecutive Super Bowls. Carroll is confident, though, that if the Seahawks don’t buck those percentages, it won’t be because of one play in February.
“This is a real test for our approach,’’ he said. “But last year was a real test for the approach and we were able to take it down to one snap. So I know that we are on the right track. This is a different circumstance we are dealing with, yet I think it calls for the same mentality. So that’s why I believe we can do this.’’