SEATTLE -- It's not something Pete Carroll talks about unless he's asked, but the weight of it still remains. Following the 1999 season, the New England Patriots fired Carroll after three years and a 27-21 record. The team Carroll left was a financial disaster, filled with overpaid and underperforming players. Patriots owner Robert Kraft hired Bill Belichick to replace Carroll, and the NFL's next great dynasty was born.
For Carroll, it was a year of licking his wounds and re-doing his philosophy about everything, several successful (if controversial) seasons at USC, and another shot at the NFL with the Seattle Seahawks. When he was hired by Seattle before the 2010 season, Carroll was on the other side of the equation -- this time, as Belichick once had been, he was charged with the rehabilitation of a team shockingly bereft of talent.
After Seattle's 24-23 win over the Pats in Carroll's new home, the coach said that bygones were bygones.
"I hadn't even thought about it," Carroll told one reporter, who asked him if there was any additional thrill in beating his old team. "You know, that was a long time ago, and there have been a lot of games. I really love [Patriots owner] Robert Kraft, he's a great man and he's been great throughout the years about our separation, of sorts. I respect the heck out of him. But, I'm a competitor, and heck yeah, I want to win against those guys. I'm not going to tell you I'm not. I wouldn't. But I hadn't thought of it until you brought it up there."
In Carroll's third year in Seattle, he finally got the ultimate litmus test -- he got to set his new team against the team Belichick built after his departure. He had build a dominant defense and an offense designed to avoid mistakes. Knowing full well that he'd need more big plays to counter New England's hyperactive offense, Carroll set rookie quarterback Russell Wilson loose, and bagged an important victory for his 4-2 team.
Wilson, taken in the third round by the Seahawks in the 2012 NFL Draft, had his best day as a professional -- he completed 16 of 27 passes for 293 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. He also ran five times for 17 yards, and kept the Patriots' defense off balance all day with his ability to move effectively in and out of the pocket.
Meanwhile, Seattle's defense played as advertised. They came into this game as the NFL's top unit by measure of yards allowed, and though the Pats were able to traverse the field in typical fashion, points were harder to come by than some might have expected.
The Seahawks, a young team growing in confidence by the day, did not seem surprised.
We studied [Tom] Brady all week," said cornerback Richard Sherman, who played at a Pro Bowl level through the game as he has through the season. "Everyone knew their assignments. They're going to get catches and gains, but we stood up in the red zone. Everyone did their part. There was Kam [Chancellor], Earl [Thomas], BB [Brandon Browner], me, everybody had a hand in it. The pass rush was getting pressure on him."
It wasn't just Seattle's pass rush -- the Patriots, who have enjoyed great success running the ball all season, went nearly exclusively with their passing game, despite the fact that the contest was close all the way through. Tom Brady completed 36 passes in 58 attempts for 395 yards, two touchdowns, and two interceptions. He learned what every team playing the Seahawks this season have learned -- you must take your gains when you get them, because this is a young and hungry 11-man unit that plays hard -- and plays together.
"They are a good defense -- no doubt about it," Brady said. "They can rush the passer, and they have been doing that all season. They can cover well. We had quite a few yards, and we moved the ball up and down the field, but we squandered some scoring opportunities. That's what the game came down to; a one-point game, and opportunities in the red area for a touchdown. We just didn't do it."
There were no such claims for Wilson, who was finally allowed to make plays downfield in an offense that had constricted him before. Over and over, he made stick throws into tight areas, and opened up lanes in and around the pocket with subtle movement. His advancement as a player really became apparent in the Seahawks' second offensive drive -- the first one in which they scored a touchdown. Wilson completed a 50-yard bomb down the seam to Doug Baldwin on third-and-9 from the Seattle 16-yard line, and finished off the drive with a 24-yard touchdown to Baldwin.
"We have been coming through with the throwing game, and we've found that Russell really does throw the ball well downfield," Carroll said. "All day long, he was battling and making things happen. So, hopefully, we keep moving ahead, keep running the football, take our shots when we get the chance, and try to create some problems for our opponents."
In the middle of the drive, he had what may have been his most impressive play -- a nine-yard scramble from the New England 28-yard line in which he started left, went right, used the back judge as a pick, spun around a Patriots linebacker, and headed upfield for a first down on third-and-4.
"Pretty close to it, I'd say," Wilson said when asked if that was the longest nine-yard run of his career. "I made a move and just decided to slide there at the end, because I knew they were coming pretty fast. I just wanted to make sure I got down in time."
Perhaps adjusting to Seattle's defense, the Patriots didn't just stay away from their preferred run-pass balance; they also severely limited their percentage of no-huddle plays.
"That really wasn't an issue," Carroll said. "They did not up-tempo it but a few plays; they didn't go that was for whatever reason. we were ready for it. We were able to substitute and we moved our guys in and out. We rushed three guys a lot in this game to try to cover them down, and they continued to find openings. They made a bunch of great catches in the game. To their credit -- they're a fine group."
But on this day, Pete Carroll's group was just that much better. And though he refused to say that it was on his mind, you'd have to believe there was a special satisfaction in the sense of turning full circle.
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