NEW YORK – Halloween in New England, 1999. The damn doorbell ringing over and over, interrupting anyone trying to watch the Patriots finish off a 27-3 win out in Arizona.
Four touchdown passes from Drew Bledsoe. A 6-2 record. Pete Carroll’s team heading into the bye looking a lot better than anyone thought they would.
And the Patriots weren’t that far from 8-0. Their consecutive losses were by a total of three points to the Dolphins and Chiefs. Then they bounced back with a 24-23 win over the two-time defending Super Bowl champion Broncos. Now the Arizona win. Then some time off before the Jets.
In his third season as Patriots head coach, Carroll was shutting up everyone who said he was a dead-man walking. And that was a nearly-unanimous opinion entering 1999.
The moment Carroll was announced as successor for Bill Parcells in 1997, Carroll was lampooned for his player-management style (forgiving) and personality (relentlessly upbeat).
Carroll’s act paled in comparison to the Tuna. So did Carroll’s results in the wake of Parcells taking the Patriots to the 1996 Super Bowl.
In 1997, Carroll’s season ended with a hard-luck, 7-6 playoff loss in Pittsburgh.
In 1998, a battered Patriots team lost a playoff game at Jacksonville with Scott Zolak starting in place of the injured Bledsoe.
Two seasons of post-Tuna backsliding. The clock was ticking on Carroll. Carroll knew it. His players knew it.
When the team released veteran safety Willie Clay during training camp, fourth-year safety Lawyer Milloy raged from the front seat of his SUV, “This guy’s coaching for his job and they’re releasing Willie Clay?!”
Carroll met the speculation head-on, memorably saying in a press conference that, “I’m feeling a little dangerous today…”
The danger, Carroll would find after that Halloween win, awaited.
After the bye, the lug nuts on Carroll’s ride were loosened. Parcells’ Jets, following defensive coordinator Bill Belichick’s plan, harassed Bledsoe into three interceptions and a 15 for 36 performance as New York dropped the Patriots, 12-7.
The next week against Miami, Bledsoe went 15 for 34 with five picks in a loss to Miami.
Now the wheels were off.
After the bye, the Patriots lost five of their next six games. Bledsoe threw 15 interceptions in that six game span.
But it wasn’t really over until Adam Vinatieri missed three of four field goals in the second-to-last game of the year against Buffalo and the Patriots lost 13-10. The Patriots were 7-8. A winning record was out of the question.
Even a season-closing win over Baltimore couldn’t stay Carroll’s execution. The Patriots finished 8-8. He was fired the day after the season. Before leaving Foxboro Stadium, he made his way along the fence rimming the players’ parking lot, shaking hands and looking hard into the eyes of the New England media that shanked him frequently.
And so began Pete Carroll’s period of introspection.
“It was really the first time I had some time,” Carroll said Monday. “I was semi-retired for 10 months and I had a chance to sit back and I had to kick into a real competitive mode. In that time, I think that the competitiveness really elevated in me that I needed to get right. I needed to do everything I could to get as prepared as possible. Really, I haven’t been the same since. It was a great change. And it was really about getting close to what was really important to me and hoping to get an opportunity that I could express that.”
Look back on it now. How much changed both in the NFL and college football because of what happened with the Patriots in that period between Halloween and the end of the 1999 season?
Belichick’s game plan against Bledsoe started the franchise quarterback crumbling. It also reminded the Krafts that Belichick – the coach that they’d loved to have hired to succeed Parcells but didn’t because of his Tuna ties – was killing them and Bledsoe annually.
Within four months of that game, Belichick would be hired as Jets coach, resign as Jets head coach, be the subject of a Patriots-Jets tug-of-war that the Patriots ultimately won, paying a bounty of picks for Belichick’s services in the process.
Within seven months, Belichick fired Patriots general manager Bobby Grier, whose disastrous run of bad drafting left the Patriots roster wafer thin.
Within 13 months, Pete Carroll would be hired by USC.
Within 24 months of that game, Bledsoe would be ready to return from a severe internal chest injury (suffered against the Jets) to find he’d been replaced – permanently – by Tom Brady.
Within 27 months, Adam Vinatieri – who missed those three kicks that sealed Carroll’s fate – would be making some of the most memorable kicks in NFL history to propel the Patriots to their first of three Super Bowl victories.
And Carroll would be on his way to two National Championships and a third appearance in the title game with the Trojans, spurning offers to return to the NFL until he could be sure he’d be the one in control of his roster.
He found it in Seattle. And now he’s coaching in the Super Bowl.
What went wrong in New England? Two of Carroll’s former players say Carroll’s style following Parcells doomed him.
“Pete was a great guy and obviously knew football very well but – I don’t mean this as a negative in any way - but he was a real rah-rah guy,” Vinatieri told me Monday night. “He was more of a friend than Parcells and Belichick who managed with a little bit of fear. Pete was more like your big brother. Kinda Tony Dungy-like. He’d give a hug more than a kick. Both (Carroll and Dungy) are exceptionally great coaches. But I felt that with that team, you needed to have a degree of being hard-nosed.
“Older vets don’t need extra motivation but sometimes young guys take advantage and I feel like, to a certain degree, that happened a little bit,” Vinatieri added. “Parcells was such a strict guy you were always on eggshells and that was gone when Pete was there.”
Ted Johnson, who – like Vinatieri – played for Parcells, Carroll and Belichick – said, “Pete had it tough (in New England) from jump, no question about it. From the people I’ve talked to in Seattle, Pete is still the same kind of positive, upbeat, Type A, positivity guy that he always was. But there’s more of a culture of accountability now with the Seahawks (than there was in New England). He has open competition now for starters at certain positions. No job is safe.”
The notion that Carroll didn’t succeed in New England because he was too nice is certainly not the reason he’d cite.
It didn’t work because he wasn’t picking the players.
Asked this week why the personnel side works so well in Seattle, Carroll said, “It comes from not having anybody over me to tell you the truth.”
Carl Smith has been one of Carroll’s closest friends since they coached together at NC State in 1982. He was the Patriots quarterbacks coach from 1997 to 1999 and he’s been the Seahawks quarterbacks coach since 2011.
He bristled at the idea Carroll’s message wasn’t received or that Carroll’s changed.
“He hasn’t changed at all,” said Smith. “He just got a better job. First he got it at USC where he had the control, where you’re the CEO.
“I think we had some pretty good teams (in New England) and did a pretty good job,” Smith stated. “To win huge in the league it’s from top-to-bottom. And when they got Bill (Belichick) and gave him all the powers from soup-to-nuts – a true football guy who could make the daily decisions all year long, during the season, during the offseason, about staff, about personnel, about offensive and defensive schemes, that’s when it turns. And it really takes that. The guy that’s making the decisions is important. He has to know football. He has to know the team.”
Smith respectfully steered clear of stating the obvious. Carroll never got that in New England. So when the Patriots were going 6-2 prior to Halloween 1999, they were doing it with Terry Allen as their lead back (3.5 yards per carry and 896 yards for the season) and the mercurial Terry Glenn (60 catches) and Shawn Jefferson (40 catches) as the main receivers. Bledsoe took 55 sacks that year. He was never a rapid decision maker but with Ben Coates in decline and the offense of Ernie Zampese playing away from Bledsoe’s strengths and trying to make him a timing quarterback relying on accuracy, things went awry.
Vinatieri acknowledged that as well, saying, “One layer more into that onion was the whole setup. Bobby Grier was GM and that played a big role too. The head coach gets all of the good stuff when things are going well and the negative stuff when it’s bad. (The decline was related to) GM and personnel decisions as much as Pete.”
On one hand, exhuming the second half of the 1999 season to figure out what went wrong is just kicking through 15-year-old rubble. Carroll is 61. He’s long since proven himself as a coach and a builder of successful football programs. He’s a great coach.
But that period of time spurred the Patriots to move in a different direction and caused owner Robert Kraft to allow Bill Belichick to run his own show. That worked out.
It also caused Carroll to examine how he wanted to proceed in the business of coaching.
“I love Pete Carroll,” said Johnson, now a radio host in Houston.“ And I will take the Pete Carroll the way he is now in Seattle. Nobody’s safe. You can still be a happy positive guy but it carries the message where guys know they aren’t totally safe. You want to motivate a guy in the NFL? Take away his snaps. Make him accountable.”
Pete Carroll wanted to be the one held accountable. In New England, he never was. Ever since, he has been. That’s worked out too.