EAST RUTHERFORD, New Jersey — Not that it matters, but if the next copycat cycle of NFL head coaches tries to replicate Pete Carroll’s rakish ear-to-ear positivity, it will take pulling teeth to force some fabulously uncomfortable smiles from the league’s current coaching stock. Imagine feigned "looseness" from a league that now measures Tom Coughlin as somewhat amiable in his later years.
"That Pete, Pete’s a player’s coach. We always knew that. Took him four years, but we knew it would happen," Earl Thomas Jr. said, his own grin betraying a cool outfit of sunglasses and a cowboy hat in the New Jersey night.
He smoked a Marlboro red under a canopy of MetLife Stadium as trickles of hoarse, happy Seahawk fans wandered past him.
"You think about the Little League games. You think about all of it, getting him to this point," he said speaking of Earl Thomas III, Seattle’s starting safety. He offers a cigarette, admitting that he needed something to settle his nerves, despite his son's Seattle defense immediately suffocating the idea of drama in Super Bowl XLVIII.
Seattle set a Super Bowl record for fastest score (12 seconds) and the longest lead (a consecutive 59 minutes, 48 seconds) when, according to Peyton Manning, the noise of MetLife forced a botched snap turned safety on the game’s first play from scrimmage.
Still, the father Thomas found enough to worry over, as parents do, while the rest of the viewing world settled into accepting a blowout game early on. And then his phone lights up.
"Earl? EARL! I’m outside! EARL!" he gushed, finding his son for the first time as a Super Bowl champion.
Carroll had all night to smile, and so maybe in the derivative NFL, the hugs and hearts and flowers head man will be the new recipe for success. I asked him that in the post game scrum.
"Oh I don’t know," Carroll laughed, playfully dismissing the question. "If that’s the case it’s gonna be hard for a lot of those guys."
What makes Pete Carroll different?
Seattle Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll is just like every other NFL head coach, except for one thing. Spencer Hall takes a look at what sets Carroll apart from his NFL peers.
We want to think that Seattle changed something about the NFL on Sunday, because we need to reconcile that events as big as Super Bowls create lasting change. So, how about a historically moribund franchise in the outer reaches of the country becoming a viable new brand for an internationally expanding league? OK. Maybe. What about the Seahawks' crushing win as return to the game's defensive roots in a masterful, albeit grating display of pass defense? After all, a chatty cornerback has become more popular than his comparatively meek quarterback. Sure, but not really. The NFL is too big, too successful to experience dynamic change.
So if you have trouble appreciating the NFL in its current form — insanely, unreasonably popular, so ubiquitous in American sports culture it seems almost immune to parody or criticism — you can respect the fact that as a sport so writ large it defeats the idea of crappy media narratives.
You learn this at the Super Bowl — that the NFL doesn’t need any of the thousands of worldwide media it coddles with a diet of carefully manicured nothing. Pete Carroll’s breezy, player-focused style could become the new norm. Russell Wilson, once the least likely of the holy zone-read trinity of Robert Griffin III and Colin Kaepernick, could usher in a new standard for quarterbacks. Richard Sherman and his defensive teammates could modernize the bad-guy overtone of the '85 Bears.
But understand that however the NFL spins the Seahawks’ world championship, it could’ve just as easily benefited from a Broncos win. For the NFL brand, the outcome of the games and the style of play are almost irrelevant at this point. And whether that's because of salary cap parity, ruthless marketing or even fantasy football, don't take that for granted: Every other American sport needs a strong show pony, a story or star that builds to the narrative to a marketable norm. Then sometimes that becomes a dynasty that is then torn down and replaced.
But not the NFL.
The NFL can’t lose. Short of a grumpy social media sphere wanting a close game, it lost nothing by Seattle’s Cover 3 turning into a two-high safety lead pipe upside Peyton Manning in what was less than engaging football for hundreds of millions of casual viewers. Maybe in another league the dearth of excitement from a brand name like Manning would cripple or at least embarrass a brand. Not here. The NFL's Jimmy Stewart everyman, seemingly primed to remedy an illustrious statistical career pockmarked by playoff failures fell horrifically short again. And while that's certainly a topic at hand, it's not the flagship conversation piece the way a LeBron playoff loss might be.
Even the once audacious talking point of an outdoor, cold-weather Super Bowl in the nation's biggest market was rendered meaningless, and not just because temperatures broke past 50 degrees before kickoff. The league gleefully announced that over 80,000 people had made their way into MetLife Stadium 85 minutes before kickoff while local media fixated on the failure of the New Jersey train system to handle the crush of fans. Chris Christie jokes, weather worries — it didn't matter, and it was never going to. The NFL was always going to win.
The NFL didn't tame New York City, but it proved it could bend Gotham to its will. All week long the "fan experience attraction" of Super Bowl Boulevard enjoyed wall-to-wall national TV coverage, shutting down Broadway in midtown Manhattan. A security committee's nightmare, the NFL proved it could out-hustle a street built by hustlers, and thousands of the world's most jaded working class flocked to Times Square for what amounted to little more than a bunch of backwoods country carnival attractions slathered in advertising.
It didn't matter — as much as Sunday's game was a tepid wash, fans still turned out in droves, peppered by 30-year-old Jets fans drunkenly joining the children of visiting Denver and Seattle fans to ride a plastic slides or grab a cellphone photo of the Lombardi Trophy.
It's the same reason why Carroll shrugged off the idea of any real kind of change happening among coaches, or that Seattle — or anyone for that matter — could really influence or change the course of the NFL's golden era. Maybe this is some kind of apex — or nadir — of a sport increasingly plagued by the possible revolution of CTE awareness. Maybe the NFL has simply found critical mass with American fans; a saturation point. That's impossible to know right now.
But just as Carroll waved off any serious idea that his world champion Seahawks had changed or influenced anything about the NFL, so too did he give us the best possible response to the size and madness of the Super Bowl: smile and enjoy it, because right now nothing can beat — or change — the NFL.