Washington Redskins head coach Mike Shanahan and Seattle Seahawks head man Pete Carroll will go against each other with their game plans in Sunday afternoon’s wild-card matchup, but almost two decades ago, the two longtime coaches were almost together on Shanahan’s staff in Denver. Shanahan was hired in 1995 to replace Wade Phillips as the Broncos’ head coach, and he had Carroll — who had just been fired as the head coach of the New York Jets — in mind to run his defense.
In the end, Carroll went to the San Francisco 49ers instead and ran their defense for two seasons before the New England Patriots hired him in 1997. Shanahan went with defensive coordinator Greg Robinson instead, and won Super Bowls with Denver in the 1997 and 1998 seasons as Carroll was trying unsuccessfully to keep New England rolling.
This week, Shanahan remembered why he wanted Carroll, and why he wasn’t surprised that the Bay Area native went a different way.
“Pete came in and we looked at different living areas, and when he did have the opportunity to go back there, I understood why he would want to go back. Being in this coaching profession for a long time, you understand what’s important to the family as well as your profession. And then we wound up getting Greg Robinson, who was on Pete’s staff at that time … Greg came in and did a great job for us.
“At that time, Pete was running a lot of zone blitz, and he was a little ahead of the curve with four people weak [side] and four people strong [side on the defensive line]. Offenses couldn’t really pick it up and it took a few years to adjust. Back then he was ahead of the curve, in my perspective.”
Carroll was flattered by Shanahan’s interest, but the combination of being close to home and the opportunity to work with Bill Walsh was too much for anyone else to match.
“I thought I was going with Mike,” Carroll recalled. “I was really thrilled, after getting bounced [from] the Jets, that somebody called. I was on my way to the airport going to Denver, and I got a call in the car from [49ers head] coach George Seifert … The 49ers had just won the world championship, and Mike’s opportunity was one that was new and fresh and all that.
“I needed to go to San Francisco because I needed to know where they were with their system and all of that. Coach Bill Walsh came back in my second year as a consultant so I had access to George and to Bill and that has been extraordinarily meaningful to all of the things that we do today. Had I not had that chance it would have been through Mike, which would’ve been great too, but I got to go right to the source of what I always wanted to understand and learn. That’s why it was so important and such a big move. At the time it worked out great, and I’m forever grateful that I did do that.”
So, Carroll had the opportunity to work with some very talented people either way. Moreover, it gave him a boost after he was fired by the Jets after just one season. That’s bad enough, but when you’re replaced by Rich Kotite … well, ouch.
“Getting fired gets you pretty down,” Carroll said with a laugh. “The Jets thing was just a mess. It was right in the middle of nowhere, and all of a sudden they asked me to be a head coach. I just said okay, I’ll go for it. So I did, and it didn’t last very long. The San Francisco thing, that challenge was a great opportunity to go back to the source that I always wanted to, and learn from the masters of it, so that was hugely important because I had studied the system, but it was different being behind the doors. And then Bill was unbelievably gracious about hanging out and talking and answering the questions. It’s been a huge factor in making sense of what we do it now.”
What he does now is coaching a stellar rookie quarterback in Russell Wilson, and trying to best set his defense against another outstanding first-year quarterback in Robert Griffin III. Had it gone differently, who knows? Carroll and Shanahan might still be coaching together after all these years.
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