Bill Belichick tends to be as grumpy and terse as Pete Carroll is affable and loquacious. When Belichick replaced Carroll as New England’s coach in 2000, his prime agenda was perceived to be toughening up a Patriots team that had it too cushy under the laid-back Californian. Carroll once had to tell the New England press corps that he did not, in fact, own a surfboard.
Twice fired as an NFL coach, Carroll’s coaching future was in doubt when the Patriots let him go. Maybe Carroll’s ethos of making football fun, and letting players be themselves, wasn’t cut out for the highest level. The Jets hadn’t thought so, either.
Having been canned himself by the Cleveland Browns, Belichick was no guarantee to thrive in New England. Certainly, few could have predicted that the most decorated career in NFL history lay ahead, or that Carroll would reinvent himself at USC and forge his own NFL redemption in Seattle.
On Sunday night these two coaching fixtures and generational peers will be on opposite sidelines at CenturyLink Field. Never before in NFL history has the cumulative age of two opposing coaches been higher. Carroll turned 69 on Tuesday. Belichick turns 69 in April. Their combined age on Sunday will be 137 years, 16 days, which is long enough to acquire several dressers full of hoodies, untold packages of gum and a combined 408 victories, 11 conference titles and seven Super Bowl victories.
The preponderance of those wins and titles belong to Belichick, of course. Carroll acknowledged the disparity this week when he talked, in a conference call with New England writers, about how the two old war horses share an adherence to fundamentals and a dogged belief in a particular way to play the game. The details of their philosophies differ, but not the unwavering certitude.
“If you don’t, then you’re up and down and you’re all around, and you don’t have anything that you stand for,” Carroll said. “I think that’s where we’re similar — and they’ve been able to do it better than we have, so we’ll see what happens this weekend.”
History says it will be a rousing barnburner of a game. Belichick has faced the Seahawks three times in Carroll’s tenure in Seattle, and each matchup has produced a last-minute result. Carroll has won two of them, both coming in the regular season (2012 and 2016). But he’d trade them in an instant for the win on Feb. 1, 2015 in Super Bowl XLIX, when it all unraveled for Seattle at the 1-yard line.
“There was a grieving process you had to go through,” Carroll said of coping with arguably — check that, inarguably — the most agonizing loss in NFL history.
When looking at Carroll and his accomplishments, the words flow in uncharacteristic torrents from Belichick, oozing admiration. He praised Carroll’s ability to keep the Seahawks successful despite massive turnover of personnel, and the consistency and ingenuity of his approach. Belichick said he covets players who come to New England from the Seahawks’ system because he knows they will have desired qualities.
“When you have a player that plays for Pete, you know you’re getting a certain type of player,” Belichick said in a conference call with Seattle writers. “If the guy doesn’t really love football and want to play football and play hard, and you know is passionate about it, then Seattle’s probably not the right place for him. New England’s probably not the right place either.”
No one has been able to sustain success longer or better than Belichick, who has won 11 consecutive division titles and been in double figures in victories for 17 years in a row. That’s simply unheard of in the free-agency era when the rules conspire against dynasties.
“Bill’s done a great job over the years consistently adapting and changing and staying at the cutting edge of what’s necessary, and they’re continuing to do it,” Carroll said.
Now comes the biggest challenge of all. The constant through Belichick’s stretch of nine Super Bowl appearances and six titles in 18 years was, of course, quarterback Tom Brady. Now Brady is gone, replaced by Cam Newton, and we might finally get an answer to the age-old debate over who was chiefly responsible for the Patriots’ success, Belichick or Brady.
I’d say there was a symbiotic genius that elevated both parties — but that doesn’t mean Belichick can’t thrive with a new signal caller in Newton. Brady, at age 43, doesn’t really get a fair shake at showing that he doesn’t need Belichick to prosper. Father Time remains undefeated … which brings us back to Belichick and Carroll, who both seem immune to the ravages of age.
Belichick was asked if he could have imagined him and Carroll of them still going strong, 20 years after they were ships passing in the New England night.
“At that time, I was just honestly trying to figure out how to win games,” he said.
That mission was accomplished with soaring success. And Carroll, simultaneously, was doing the same thing, but off the beaten track. He took a year off from coaching after New England fired him, undertaking some intense soul-searching to cement what kind of coach he wanted to be. He also vowed that he would never take another job where he wasn’t able to implement his ideals without interference. At USC and Seattle, Carroll found the autonomy he felt had been missing in New England.
“When I got my next chance, I was able at USC to do it the way I wanted to do it,” Carroll said. “The fact that it didn’t work out there (in New England) sent me into a mode of really uncovering the philosophy, really a greater depth than ever, and we’ve done things the same for the last 20 years at SC and here, in our approach and mentality and how we treat people. There’s a fixation on the standards of the program that were all developed really coming out of the New England experience.”
Carroll told the New England writers he’s on a five-year plan when it comes to coaching. “Five years from now I’ll figure it out, and I’ll reassess,” he said, attributing that philosophy to the influence of writer David Brooks.
With Belichick, meanwhile, it looks like his stature as the league’s best coach might be eternal. As different as Belichick appears to be from Carroll in personality, both of them cited a long list of similarities, too — including, Carroll was quick to point out, their Croatian heritage. More to the point is the defense-first mindset they were weaned on, and a tried-and-true blueprint for success.
“You know, the fact that we’re still coaching and our paths are still crossing, I guess, means we’ve done pretty well, or someone would have replaced us,” Belichick said.
Or, as Carroll put it: “Neither one of us are fly-by-night guys.”