The New England Patriots will face the Seattle Seahawks in this year's Super Bowl. When looking to the opposing sideline, the team will see a familiar face: Pete Carroll, head coach of the Patriots from 1997 to 1999.
The Pete Carroll Era started after the Patriots' Super Bowl XXXI loss. His predecessor, Bill Parcells, left the team due to disputes with owner Robert Kraft, who – in Parcells' own words – did not let him "shop for some of the groceries"; a hint at the 1996 NFL Draft, when the team, to its head coach's displeasure, drafted wide receiver Terry Glenn in the first round.
With Parcells – the only head coach Kraft has worked with – gone, the Patriots were in need of a new man to lead the team. They found one in San Francisco defensive coordinator Pete Carroll. Not only did he bring one year of head coaching experience (he coached the New York Jets in 1994), Carroll also brought a different demeanor to the team than the one, Parcells brought.
Not only his style stood in contrast to Parcells, the results did as well; even though things started fairly well for Carroll. The Patriots, straight off a Super Bowl appearance, started the 1997 season with a four-game win streak. The team won games by an average of three touchdowns, and even beat Parcells' Jets 27-24 in overtime. After the week 5 bye, however, the Patriots lost five of their next seven contests. They would still finish the year at 10-6, enough to win the AFC East for a second straight year.
The 1997 Patriots would go on to win their Wild Card Playoff game against the Miami Dolphins 17-3, but lost 6-7 in Pittsburgh one week later to end Carroll's first season as head coach.
The following year, the Patriots again made the playoffs. However, they were unable to build upon the last two seasons and finished their 1998 campaign with a 9-7 record and 4th place in the AFC East (which was still enough to earn the sixth playoff seed). The team, which was top eight in scoring on both offense and defense the year prior, finished 1998 11th and 14th in the respective categories.
To make matters worse, starting quarterback Drew Bledsoe broke his finger in November, which led to him being unable to start the team's last two regular season games, as well as its Wild Card game against the Jacksonville Jaguars. Led by backup Scott Zolak, the team went 1-2 during those three games and saw its season end in Jacksonville (10-25 loss).
A month after the loss, rookie first-round running back Robert Edwards – fresh off a season in which he rushed for 1,115 yards and nine touchdowns – suffered a serious knee injury while participating in a flag football game in Hawaii. He never played another down for the Patriots.
At the beginning of the 1999 NFL season, it seemed as if the clock was ticking on Carroll. There was pressure on him from both the media and the players, due to past results on the football field and Carroll's often positive, upbeat attitude off it. However, the head coach's outlook began to change for the better when his team started the 1999 season 4-0 before entering its week 9 bye with a 6-2 record; having lost two games by only three points combined.
Coming off the bye week, the Patriots' season took a turn for the worse. The team lost six of its final eight games and missed the playoffs due to an 8-8 record; it finished 20th in scoring offense and 7th in scoring defense. What was even worse: within three seasons, the Patriots slid from first to last (5th) place in the AFC East.
The day after the season – January 3, 2000 – Pete Carroll was fired as head coach of the New England Patriots. Team owner Robert Kraft had to say the following about firing Carroll:
A lot of things were going on that made it difficult for him to stay, some of which were out of his control; and it began with following a legend.
Three weeks later, on January 27, it was announced that Bill Belichick would become the 14th head coach in Patriots' history.
Was the Pete Carroll era a failure? It depends on the personal definition of success and failure. On the one hand, Carroll's Patriots did never win a Super Bowl – yet, looking at it that way, all pre-Belichick head coaching tenures would be considered as failures. On the other hand, Carroll never had a losing season in his three years in Foxborough and finished with a 27-21 regular season record, while going 1-2 in the playoffs.
One can also look at Carroll's time in New England from a front office perspective. In that case, the results would not look too rosy. On the free agent market, the Patriots failed to secure any high-end players from 1997 to 1999.
The same has to be said about the NFL Draft. The Patriots selected 28 players (one of which in the 1999 Compensatory Draft) in that three year span, yet only one – running back Kevin Faulk (the 46th pick in the 1999 draft) – was awarded a second contract from the organization. Of the team's five first round picks, only two – safety Tebucky Jones (1998, pick 22) and offensive lineman Damien Woody (1999, pick 17) – would go on to win a Super Bowl ring with the Patriots. Jones left the Patriots in 2003, Woody in 2004.
Of course, the blame for the Patriots front office failures cannot be placed solely on Carroll; Vice President of Player Personell Bobby Grier also has to be held accountable.
In the end, it worked out for both the team and the coach. The Patriots hit a home run with Bill Belichick, winning three Super Bowls (thus far) and establishing themselves as the most successful franchise of the 21st century. Carroll, on the other hand, ended up having successful stints in Los Angeles – as head coach of the USC Trojans – and Seattle; winning last year's Super Bowl.
In one week, the New England Patriots and Pete Carroll will meet again. This time, on the biggest of all stages.