PHOENIX – Super Bowl XLIX represents a stage for the reemergence of the Super Coach, a marked departure from the controversy that swirled around the Patriots nearly two decades ago.
The immense – and unusual – authority that Bill Belichick and Pete Carroll possess over their respective rosters represents a striking contrast not only to common practice in the NFL but also to what took place in New England before either Carroll or Belichick became the head coaches of New England.
The issue hovered over Super Bowl XXXI, at times overshadowing the contest between the Patriots and Packers on the game’s greatest stage. And shortly after New England’s loss in the championship game, after Bill Parcells had resigned as coach of the New England Patriots, he offered perhaps the most memorable line in sports history about the working dynamics of a coach and general manager.
“They want you to cook the dinner,” Parcells said on his way out of New England in 1997, “at least they ought to let you shop for some of the groceries.”
The suggestion reflected an ongoing battle for control of the Patriots in the later stages of Parcells’ sideline stewardship. Though Parcells arrived in Foxborough with primary responsibility for roster and personnel decisions, some of that authority had been channeled to director of player personnel Bobby Grier. Parcells bristled and ultimately navigated his way to the Jets.
This Super Bowl, however, represents an alternate universe from that trip against the Packers. There are no apparent coach vs. front office power struggles.
Instead, the coaches of the Patriots and Seahawks are among the most powerful in sports, two of three (along with Chip Kelly) NFL coaches believed to have final say on roster decisions. The responsibility is so far-reaching that it’s almost unfathomable to others who have roamed the sideline.
“It typically doesn’t work,” said former Ravens coach Brian Billick. “I call it the 3 a.m. rule. What are you thinking about when you wake up at 3 a.m.? Are you thinking about who’s going to go in the flat, how deep do you want a receiver’s route? Well who’s thinking about the cap? Who’s waking up at 3 a.m. thinking about getting a backup center off of free agency and all the other minutia that goes with it?
“This is a multi-dimensional game now,” Billick continued. “Bill Belichick and what he does is unique to it. Most others have crashed and burned. It takes a lot of people to build a village.”
That thought prevails in most other sports as well. Asked whether a major league manager might be able to tackle the responsibilities of a GM, Red Sox manager John Farrell (who worked in Cleveland’s front office from 2001-06) let out something akin to a gasp.
“[Because of] the schedule, first and foremost, and the length of the schedule . . . I can’t imagine someone trying to do both,” said Farrell, “I don’t know how anyone could execute that.”
The 162-game, seven-day-a-week regular season – which also features an in-season draft, year-round international signing cycle, as well as responsibility for upwards of 200 minor leaguers – makes a dual role in baseball nearly impossible.
While some NHL coaches have also been GMs (Glen Sather in Edmonton in the 1980s, Mike Keenan in St. Louis in the 1990s), the growing complexity of the CBA and the increasingly global search for talent has all but eliminated those who run practice, manage the bench, and run the roster.
Yet Belichick and Carroll are defying that assumption. Belichick seeks input from trusted front office members such as director of player personnel Nick Caserio, but possesses final authority. Carroll was hired just before Seattle GM John Schneider in 2010 in a way that made clear the coach had ultimate authority over the Seahawks’ football decisions – even as he and Schneider have created what both describe as a tremendous partnership.
“When I went for the interview, it was kind of a question: Is it still a good job? Is it not a good job?” Schneider recalled. “The way it was explained to me was really a selling point because [Carroll] wanted to have his philosophies as like a strong accord of what we’re doing. Every head coach should be that way.”
Carroll’s final say on personnel matters isn’t to be confused with total control of his front office. Far from it. The Seahawks coach makes clear that the fact that he and Schneider see eye-to-eye in a fashion that permits him to limit his involvement to the final conversations over personnel decisions, rather than the minutiae of them. In that fashion, Carroll suggested, he need not compromise his role as a coach.
“I don’t think it’s taken any football off me at all,” Carroll said of his personnel authority. “I absolutely lean 1000 percent on John to do all the stuff – generating information, collecting all we need to know to make decisions of great depth and concern in all aspects of what we do personnel-wise, as well as being my best friend in what we’re pulling off. I think it’s too big a job for one guy. I personally think it’s too big. There’s too much stuff going on. It’s a whole other season of work being done while the football season is going on. Just a football coach wouldn’t be able to handle all of it.”
Yet while he describes his relationship with Schneider as a partnership, Carroll also notes that he might not have been tempted to return to the NFL from USC but for the Seahawks’ offer to make him ultimately responsible for their football decisions.
“That’s why I thought [the Seahawks] would be the only job that I liked, because I felt like it really gave me an opportunity to be at my best,” said Carroll. “When this opportunity came it was expressed and clearly laid out that I could have the same kind of responsibility and the same kind of approach [as at USC].
“I think it’s made all the difference in the world for us,” Carroll added. “It’s what every coach needs, I think, to be at his best. The format and the structure that is generally accepted in the league is not that. I understand why, but this is a football game that we play. There’s a business that goes along with it, but the football, I think, has to be run by the football people, and so I feel very, very fortunate. I thought this was an extraordinary opportunity from the day that I arrived in Seattle to prove that. We’ve set out to kind of show that this is the way organizations can be run.”
That is a view shared by few NFL or sports organizations right now, but the success of the participants in this year’s Super Bowl could offer a compelling blueprint going forward. Perhaps, in a copycat league, the two men who succeeded Parcells in New England will inspire invitations for more cooks to shop for the groceries.
Follow Alex Speier on Twitter at @alexspeier.