-- FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Pete Carroll swore he was not thinking about Super Bowl XLIX on Sunday night, you know, the one he handed to the New England Patriots as sure as Roger Goodell handed them the Vince Lombardi Trophy. He said he was not rewinding the past, only living for the moment, all that blah, blah, blah.
And then the 65-year-old coach of the Seattle Seahawks left his postgame microphone inside Gillette Stadium and skipped toward his locker room hollering and whooping in a liberating way, betraying the words spoken to a roomful of reporters. Sometimes Carroll acts this way as the NFL's answer to the late, great Dick Clark -- the world's oldest teenager. But this was different. Carroll wanted this one badly, even if it's part of his job description to never, ever admit it.
The NBC cameras caught him acting out on the sidelines, and these regular-season scenes in November reminded me of a regular-season NBA night in January in 1995, when Pat Riley, coach of the Knicks, downplayed his first game in Houston since his team blew a 3-2 Finals lead there the previous June. To punctuate a crucial made basket in that Knicks victory in January, Riley let out a primal scream the likes I hadn't heard from him before or since. This was the sound of a coach who had allowed his guard, John Starks, to shoot 2 for 18 in Game 7 the previous June and had been having a hard time forgiving himself for it.
Two years ago in the Arizona desert, Carroll made a much bigger mistake on the goal line. He needed to give the ball to Marshawn Lynch in the closing seconds to win his second straight Super Bowl title, and instead he ordered his quarterback, Russell Wilson, to throw a slant pass to Ricardo Lockette. Lynch had run for 1,306 yards and 13 touchdowns that season, and Wilson had run for 849 yards and six touchdowns. Pressured by Belichick's stunning decision to let the clock bleed away precious seconds, Carroll decided he wanted to get the ball to Lockette, who managed 11 catches all year. An undrafted New England rookie out of West Alabama named Malcolm Butler beat the receiver to it.
"There's really nobody to blame but me," Carroll said that night.
He has had to live with it ever since, just like Riley had to live with leaving in Starks in '94, and Grady Little had to live with leaving in Pedro Martinez in 2003. Carroll has done a good job of it, at least publicly. It sure seems he has taken the hit like a man.
Only this return match with the Patriots was a wonderful opportunity to vent, to flex his considerable coaching muscles, and to let loose a scream or three from his toes. Pete Carroll wasn't just the coach who made the worst call in Super Bowl history to gift wrap Bill Belichick his fourth championship ring. He was also the coach fired by Robert Kraft after the 1999 season so Kraft could steal Belichick from the Jets.
In the leadup to this game, you could hear the hurt in Carroll's voice. He said he'd planned on having control in New England but that "it didn't really work out that way, the way I hoped, until I went back to USC and when I got a chance to be in charge again." He pointed out that he was a smash hit at USC -- except with NCAA investigators -- when he had the power over his program that Kraft didn't give him in Foxborough. He pointed out that Kraft did give Belichick "the chance to take that thing over and run it and do it exactly the way a football guy sees it, and the rest has been a great history and a great success story."
So Carroll had so much invested in his first game back since Kraft fired him all those years ago. It was a wonderful back-and-forth football game, too, not unlike the epic Super Bowl encounter between these two teams. Tom Brady opened with a nine-play, 75-yard touchdown drive that culminated in the first LeGarrette Blount's three scores, and the Seahawks started to work the problem from there.
Wilson ended up outplaying his legendary counterpart, throwing three touchdown passes to Brady's none, but the night came down to -- what else? -- a questionable decision by Carroll and a goal-line stand. First, the questionable call. After his team took a 31-24 lead on a beautiful Wilson throw to Doug Baldwin with four minutes and change to play, Carroll decided to attempt a two-point conversion rather than the safer kick that would've forced the Patriots to score eight points to tie.
"Why would they go for two here?" Belichick was caught asking into his headset.
"We wanted to see if we could put it out of reach," Carroll explained, "and make it a two-score deal." It was an unnecessary gamble, and one that predictably failed. New England drove the ball down the field and to the Seattle 1 with only seconds to play. Everyone in the building had a flashback. Some 2,700 miles from University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Arizona, the Patriots and the Seahawks and Belichick and Carroll would battle again over a very small piece of real estate.
The most recognizable Pats fan in the house Sunday night, Mark Wahlberg, recalled before the game that he was in Kraft's suite for the Super Bowl. He described the chaotic endgame scene of security officials entering the suite and preparing to escort the winning owner and family and friends down to the field for the coronation before Jermaine Kearse made his absurd catch in the same building where David Tyree made his to beat New England in Super Bowl XLII.
"It was sheer devastation," Wahlberg told ESPN.com as he was promoting Tuesday's debut of his USA Network show, "Shooter," for which he serves as executive producer. "We saw [Kearse] bobble it and we thought he dropped it and we were all cheering, and then we saw the replay on the Jumbotron. ... But we went from crying tears of sadness to tears of joy after the Butler interception. It was one of the craziest rides I've ever been on."
Wahlberg says he keeps a picture on his phone of Carroll working a drive-thru window and reaching out to deliver an order to a customer. "Should I just hand this to you," the mocking Internet caption reads, "or step back five yards and throw it for no reason."
The Patriots didn't throw it until fourth down, after Blount and Brady failed to barrel it in. Brady threw a fade pass to Rob Gronkowski, who was tangled up with Kam Chancellor, and the presiding official made a good no-call. When it was over, Carroll said the Patriots had worked on that very play with Chancellor and a tall practice squad receiver, Marcus Lucas, in the week's final practice. Just as Butler had worked on jumping the slant before the Super Bowl.
"It was a big moment in practice," Carroll said of Chancellor's victory over Lucas.
It was a much bigger moment in the game. Belichick gave a warm hug to Carroll on the field, and then raved about Seattle's program the way he has done in the past. Carroll called Brady and Belichick the best of all time, and spoke of how much the Patriots had going for them entering this game: their relatively good health, the fact that they were coming off a bye week, the fact that they weren't traveling across the country, the fact that they weren't coming off a short week (Seattle played Monday night), and the fact that they never, ever lose at home.
"It can't get any better than that," Carroll said.
In the winners locker room, Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman fielded a question about the Super Bowl and decided the similar finish in Gillette Stadium was "more ironic than anything." He said he thought the Seahawks might see the Patriots again this season, in February. He said that potential rematch would do far more for his coach's legacy than Sunday night's.
"It's not going to eliminate the criticism [of Carroll]," Sherman said of the victory. "This game is not even close to the significance of the Super Bowl. I think he gets that it's a different year and he's kind of moved past it as much as you can."
As far as making good on his worst night as an NFL coach, Pete Carroll still as a long way to go. But he did gain ground Sunday night.?He did pick up a good 10 or 15 yards on the ghost that will haunt him from here to his next championship parade.