Reflections By and On Pete Carroll

Pete Carroll smiles at practice earlier this year.
Some of you may be here after reading this Q&A that ran in today’s print edition.
If you want more context, a longer transcript is available after the
jump (welcome to the blogosphere, where column inches are so last century).

I spoke with Carroll after practice on Tuesday to address some of the issues that readers of this blog have brought up. The interview started with the questions for this post about his coaches.

It evolved into a bit more. He seemed to have a lot on his mind. Tuesday is a busy press day, so maybe that was behind it. Rather than just pull a couple quotes and use it to fluff up a post, as he suggested might happen, it was a lot more telling to publish “Pete Unplugged.” The best spokesperson for Pete Carroll is Pete Carroll. This wasn’t a Gundy-esque rant (something I asked him about earlier this season). He was just showing a more reflective side than we usually hear in Sports Center sound bites.

Carroll was composed the whole time. I want to put that out there since one internet message board was pondering if he was going off — “really, really, really Tasmanian Devil-angry.” Nope. Quite the opposite.

His candor was a little surprising, but his sincerity was very typical. Pete Carroll has always struck me as an earnest dude. I also like the fact that he sounds comfortable using the word “dude.” That’s part of the reason he’s labeled a “player’s coach.” If you watch the videos or listen to the press calls posted on this site, you’d know by now that he’s straightforward, open, and down to earth. I frequently find a short blooper for the end of videos that shows Carroll goofing around. It demonstrates his charisma (which is much more evolved than, say, Mark Sanchez).

Just because he’s a likable guy doesn’t mean he’s merely a happy-go-lucky coach. His work ethic is legendary. His willingness to jump into the middle of plays in practice is telling. His philosophy is unique.

In the interview below, I think he was on-point throughout — with the exception of special teams performance this year. I really respect what he said. I’ve seen some people on internet forums suggest that he was making excuses. If you read the full thing, it’s apparent that these are not excuses, but explanations. He said as much himself in the interview. That’s not even counting the Stanford mea culpa, which he has never shied away from. “I’m the one that screwed it up” is the opposite of an excuse.

Standards were incredibly high — scratch that — ridiculously high before the season. Carroll operates his team in a vacuum, trying to keep a strict focus on the next game. But sometimes the job of a leader is to put the past into perspective …

Editorial note: The following was preceded by this Q&A.

Q: You’ve lost a lot of talent over the years … Chow … Orgeron … of the guys you’ve lost in coaching, who do you miss the most?

A: I think we miss Lane the most. He’s been here since the first day. The fact was that he was on offense, and I’m on the other side of the ball. He’s an extraordinary coach.

You guys were [complaining about] him last year, too. You’ve been [complaining about] everybody forever. That’s the way it is. I know the whole point of this article is to try and come up with reasons why we’re not doing as well. We lost a game, man, you know. We really blew it against Stanford. We screwed it up because we played a guy that was hurt. I made a mistake on that. That was me. That wasn’t Norm [Chow], or Lane, or Eddy-O [Ed Orgeron], or any of those guys. That was me screwing it up and not recognizing it, and sitting on the football at the end of the game. We kept throwing it with a guy with a broken hand.

Really that’s what’s happened. That’s it. It isn’t about the guys that aren’t here, it isn’t about any of that stuff. It is what you have to try and answer questions to, and try to create reasons why, and in essence position blame. But that’s really not what’s happened. These guys are freaking gifted. Johnny Mo [Morton] is such a good football coach. He’s so much more experienced at coaching receivers than Lane was. He adds another whole dimension to those guys. It’s a extraordinary what he’s up against with these young guys.

Q: It’s his first time dealing with college kids … [Speaking of mea culpas, Morton coached at San Diego in 2005.]

A: No. Every kid in the NFL is a college kid, dude! Every one of them. They’re just a couple years older. He’s had rookies. Every one of them — they’re the same thing. It’s not different. People don’t understand that. Until guys get into their sixth and seventh year, then they become NFL veterans, those guys are different. But for the first three, four or five years, they’re just a couple years older. They just went from here and stepped over there. What changed? If anything, they’ve become more stupid because they’re not in that game. That’s all. It’s not because of anything else. Overrated.

These are the surface-y things. Those are the things that everybody wants to know … but that’s not the real stuff. “You need another coach” … that’s not what’s going on. What do you think happened to us this year? Do you think I’m not as smart as I was? Have I lost my edge? None of our guys have. We transitioned to a backup quarterback. It’s really hard to win games with your backup quarterback. We’ve won two of the three. It’s really hard when he’s never played before, too. Look what happened to Cal. Remember Cal? It doesn’t have anything to do with talent. It’s experience at that position. And watch the NFL. What happens when the backups come in? Looks what’s happened in Arizona without Matt in there … That’s just the way football goes. It’s almost impossible to overcome that loss. And when you can … we almost did it, ya’ know? The screwed up part is we played a guy when he was hurt. We should have got Mark in there. That’s where we messed up. And then we go against these guys in Oregon, they’re really, really good — and really good on that day.

Q: In your years here, has the level of competition improved a lot?

A: What happens is guys have their time. Right now, Dixon is in his senior year. You look at senior quarterbacks, [they] usually are the key in the Pac-10. For the most part that’s been consistent the years before we got here. He’s emerged as one of the best players in the conference at what he does. You put him together with Jonathan [Stewart] and it’s worked out beautifully. They were lucky they got us without John [David Booty] playing. It’s when do you play people, it’s not who you play, it’s when do you play and who’s available to you. You noticed he couldn’t throw the ball for anything. You have to make that team throw the ball. Arizona State couldn’t handle it.

Q: If there’s one play I look back to all season, I go back to Washington, I go back to the play you lost O’Dowd and Rachal on the same play.

A: For whatever reason, that was a big impact. It affected John [David Booty] a lot.

Q: It was a mental edge. You asked me what I think happened. I think you’ve been playing a tougher Pac-10. I also think when you look at the number of injuries — yeah, everyone has injuries — USC has had more and at more key positions. It tore apart your offensive line.

A: It hurt John a lot. He lost his snapper and he lost his guard … it’s the factor in the back of your mind that you’re playing without them. You’ve got things that are really secure, and then all of a sudden … You remember we fumbled a snap in the first couple plays. He [Matt Spanos] caught his elbow brace on his knee brace. So that’s in the back of his head. Tiny [Alatini Malu] jumps offsides — that’s back-to-back plays. All that happened in the first five or six minutes that these guys were in. Absolutely, that’s in John’s head.

Q: Do you think that John and everybody else felt more human after that? It’s easy to be cocky in college … walking around on top of the world, then all of a sudden seeing players go down. Realizing you not only lose the rhythm, but that you can get hurt …

A: I don’t think it’s about being cocky as much as just being reliant. John’s a guy that wants everything all right around him. He was concerned when the center went down. He was concerned when he lost Sam [Baker]. He knew in this game [Oregon State] he didn’t have Sam playing. That means a lot to him. They had the best two ends that were going to rush against us all year. Those kinds of factors do weigh in and you have to find a way to overcome it. Anything that divides your focus basically has a chance to change your performance. If you have this much focus [holds his hands wide] and now there’s only this much [narrows his hands] because something else is in the way, then you have a chance to perform under what you’ve able to. That’s in all sports, in all performance art that’s how it is. It doesn’t matter what form it comes in. People think that you’re going to play bad because you’re playing a lousy team, or you’re playing away, or it’s a loud crowd. What is it? Something distracts your ability to focus fully and completely. It comes in different shapes in sizes. That’s been an issue. This guy, that guy, young receivers. Think of the difference when John had Steve [Smith] and Chris McFoy and Dwayne [Jarrett]. They knew everything in our offense. They knew every split, every alignment, every adjustment, every call, every hut. Now, he goes out there and he’s reminding guys about these things because it’s the first time they’ve ever seen them before. That factor weighed in, too. It’s weighed in on his ability to perform really well because what he’s counting on, he’s not sure of sometimes. Does that make sense? Those are the reasons that it looks different right now.

I hoped we could make it to the midway point and find Joe [McKnight] (we knew he was awesome), get him to surface, and find out what the running back thing was. It turned out to be Stafon [Johnson]. He got hurt, went out, and that’s just the way it is. But the season isn’t over. Our job is to overcome this. Those aren’t excuses — that’s the reality. What you have to do is find ways to minimize those factors. It’s not the obvious things that you would think. It’s just the reality of what you have to deal with. You’re juggling balls, you’ve got to move around and hope you do it right. I had a chance in the Stanford game. I talked to John about three different times. “You OK? You feel comfortable? You don’t look right.” Then you come back and “zoom!” he zings one in there. I’m sure he’s OK. He says he’s OK. He looks OK. But then all of a sudden — he threw four picks in the second half. What am I thinking? You know? Yank [him]! Don’t make him throw it! We’re still confident throwing the ball! If anything really was a factor, it was my cockiness that there was no way we could lose a game. It didn’t matter — we could keep running our offense, keep working on stuff, and they would never beat us. And sure enough — all of a sudden — you’re kidding me! 4th and 20 they made it? All they have to do is throw one more ball out of four chances? And they did.

I felt the same way in the Washington game. Which really isn’t the best way to feel, but it’s the way I’ve felt for so many years and it’s helped us stay on course.

Q: So you’ve got a different paradigm now. Do you enjoy this more? When it’s more of a challenge, do you like that?

A: Every season is like that. You wouldn’t realize that sometimes when things are going really well there are just as many or more distractions. Every year has a whole bucket full of stuff. You’ve got to work your way through it, and try to clean it all up and not allow it to be a factor. Think about how much I’ve talked about it — I minimize the factors that people bring up, whether it’s playing somebody who beat us three years ago, or last year we played Oregon State and they beat us — “are you going to be all uptight?” I totally am on guard to dispel those kinds of factors. I don’t buy into them. One, so that I can minimize the factor in the newspaper, which the players may read or their parents may tell them about, to make sure those questions don’t go back to them where it becomes an issue to them. To keep myself consistent and continue to minimize all the issues so that when I present stuff to them I’m clear and I’m on point so that things don’t get transferred to them as concerns. All of that stuff — it comes in different sizes and shapes and forms. I think it’s really weak that guys point to a coach that isn’t there, or point to Jimmy Harbaugh’s comments, or whatever you want to go to. Any of that stuff …

Q: It’s more complicated?

A: Of course it is. But … the quarterback was hurt. He’d never thrown four picks in his life in a half.

Q: Or four picks in a game?

A: No! Nobody has around here, ever. Broken hand? What was I thinking? I’m the one that screwed it up. He’s a warrior. He’s the one telling me “I can play.” That’s what he should be telling me.

Q: That’s the college cockiness?

A: No! Ever NFL competitor will tell you the same freaking thing. They’d all tell you they’re not coming out of the game. “I’m playing!” In essence, we foster and breed that mentality so that they can overcome the setbacks and issues they have to deal with. With our wisdom, we have to be able to see through that. Sometimes we can’t see. I missed one. I missed a big one. It cost us a game that really cost us the flavor of this season. We’ve been tainted ever since, for obvious reasons. We gave away a game to a team that’s won two or three games. Amazing. But it’s awesome for football, it’s awesome for Stanford and all that. Great for those guys. Sucks to be us in that regard. We screwed it up.

Q: We’re try to show what it’s like being in your shoes – even if none of us really have a clue – and try and simplify it down to something an audience is going to consume.

A: Be aware of the tendency to have to “blame-fix.” Be aware of that. If you’re going to do it, you’re going to do it. But know that you’re doing it. That’s the easiest, cheapest form of critique. Just blame something. Our whole world does it. What happens when the fires go off? The first thing they ask, “Who set it?” The Governor says he’s going to be the Governator and go find the guy. Everybody has to always blame everything. All of a sudden a politician does something wrong and says something wrong — like what Hillary just did. They rip ’em on all the reasons why … that’s a sense of reporting. Sometimes you have to do that, but I don’t think that’s calling it like it is.

Kyle Bunch

Partnerships for R/GA Ventures. Raised in California, adopted by Texas. Opinions expressed here are mine and they are fantastic.

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