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Pete Carroll, or why optimism is the new punting from the opponent's 40

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.

Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

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Somewhere along the way, Pete Carroll acquired a reputation as something other than a stereotypical NFL coach.

Maybe the trick is one of peer comparison. Take a Mike Smith, for instance, and place him next to the Pete Carroll. Note the more traditional NFL styling on a Mike Smith, the plush ring of stress-fat piled around the midsection. Note the hair, authoritatively gray with aging, and slicked backwards in the manner that screams "you can trust me, because I spackle my hair for maximum efficiency" to a certain gullible slice of the working world. Examine his gameplans, and find a record of pure, unassailable conservatism.

Mike Smith has been very successful and boring, the paragon of the well-fed NFL salaryman, and is not Pete Carroll. Carroll has never looked like an NFL coach, or even a football coach period. Shock-topped with white hair, prone to rapid gum-chewing and exuberant sideline celebrations, he's way closer to "dynamic physicist in a Bruckheimer movie" than coach. He's lean, and barely eats. Occasionally Carroll went boogie-boarding when he could get away with it at USC, and spent his insomniac night hours venturing into the wilds of South Central Los Angeles to give out his personal cell phone number to random kids. You know: just to talk, if they ever needed him.

Mike Smith might not even have a cell phone. If he does, it is probably a flip phone. Mike Smith went for it on fourth down only 14 times this season, a staggering number given how many situations the 2013 Atlanta Falcons--a horrendous, injury-wracked lump of a team--found themselves behind, and likely needing something, anything to stay in a game. There is another coach who went for it less: Pete Carroll, who for all his vaunted barbarian tendencies steered the Seahawks this season with both hands on the wheel at ten and two, relying on his run game and defense to win games, and only going for it 11 times on the year on fourth down.

The comparison falls apart when you look at other numbers, too. Pete Carroll is somehow eight years older than Mike Smith. (Jesus, genetics are a bitch when it comes to aging, Mike.) Carroll has more years in the league, had more head coaching experience coming back into the league, and has something even Mike Smith didn't even have prior to his hiring in Seattle: the irresistible scent of an NFL retread. Carroll's base defenses are a 4-3 under and a modified Cover 3. By the numbers and by playbook, Carroll is the same bland sedan everyone else in the NFL drives, albeit with a few hacked details that make all the difference.

So this setup was a cheap ruse all along to ask the question: what then, if anything substantial, makes Pete Carroll considered anything like an outsider, maverick, or freak among NFL coaches? A good chunk of it are the cosmetics: the sideline demeanor, the ungelled hair, and the outrageous public policy of making football look like fun. Only one NFL coach in recent history has pulled off an unassisted pimp walk in reaction to a play: Pete Carroll, who wore this monocle and top hat in his mind long before anyone used Photoshop to make it visible to the rest of us.

The rest might be the most controversial of all: that Pete Carroll might be a brilliant coach with an unreplicable way of doing things. "Freewheeling" is one word used to describe Carroll, one that makes him sound something closer to charismatic hobo than coach. It's not entirely inaccurate, but it doesn't do justice to the constant intensity, or the attention to detail, or any of the things that actually make Carroll different. Coming relatively fresh from the college game, he understands the talent coming in, and what motivates them. Coming from an NFL background, he understands how much of the league works in terms of that talent, its management, and the need to fit odd pieces into productive roles in conventional schemes. Like Jimmy Johnson, he remains one of football's perfect survivors, a coach who swam in college and pro football's deep ends with equal comfort.

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If the Seahawks win tonight, Carroll will have a college football title and an NFL championship to his name, joining Johnson and Barry Switzer (BARRY SWITZER, he said, followed by multiple punctuations) as the only coaches to do so. Johnson's locker rooms were similar to Carroll's in one respect: competition was all, and all was competition, albeit a fearsome, ruthless brand where Johnson happily admitted he would treat every player differently based on their talent.

Where Carroll may have more in common with fellow Pac-12/NFL migrant Chip Kelly than the dictatorial Johnson, though, is in attitude. Nick Aliotti, Oregon's longtime defensive coordinator who retired this year, was asked what he missed most about Chip Kelly not being around in the football offices this year.

"He was funny. A lot of people didn’t get to know that side of him. He was a fun guy. 99.9% of the time, he was upbeat. You would come in in the morning and loud music would be blaring just like we have on the field.

That word--fun--may be the great divider here. That a game should be fun, and better for it, may still be an heresy in the NFL, but heresies are a matter of fashion, for the most part. If another hoary old maxim about the NFL stays true--that it is a league of imitators--then a Seattle win will make Pete Carroll, and Chip Kelly and Jim Harbaugh, look like what they may have been all along. He, and other grinning maniacal charismatic NFL assassin-managers of the future, will look like the safest choices possible.

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