"Culture has more impact than scheme. It has more to do with winning than scheme." - Kevin Stallings
One yard-length of sod stood between the Seahawks and football immortality.
The mechanisms that went into that now imfamous play -- from Darrell Bevell's choice to use Seattle's three-wide receiver personnel grouping, to Pete Carroll's apparent directive to his coordinator to throw the ball after seeing New England's defensive front, to the actual play, to the actual throw -- are innumerable. The Jermaine Kearse release on Brandon Browner, the footwork and handwork of Ricardo Lockette, the throw and touch by Russell... we'll probably agonize over the details for months and the despair we all felt when the ball was intercepted will be lodged indelibly somewhere deep in our collective memory ... probably for the rest of our lives. That piercing shot of anguish will blast into our consciousness often, at first, then taper off in frequency as we become distracted with other things, then down the line it will become less of a shooting pain and more of a dull regret.
I watched this vine of Pete Carroll reacting to the interception Tuesday night, writing this article, and I'm guessing if I was hooked up to an EEG machine, it would show that the physical pain I felt was coming from the same spot that the memory of that play lives, and will live, forever.
Seattle's chance for glorious back-to-back Super Bowl wins, one of the most elusive feats in professional sports, seemed like a near certainty as they set up for a 2nd and goal from the one-yard line with 26 seconds remaining. That legacy, that place in the history books, that point of civic pride was hacked unceremoniously and abruptly from our collective futures as Malcolm Butler jumped Ricardo Lockette's route, knocked Lockette's hand out of the ball's trajectory a quarter-second before it arrived, then somehow managed to corral the ball.
Pete Carroll, the architect behind the Seahawks' rise to among the NFL Elite, threw his headset onto the ground in horror, then tried to make sense of what had just happened, hands grasping at each other as that terrible kind of grief-adrenaline pumped into his heart.
I don't know what Carroll said to the team when they trudged into the locker room afterword, but the series of tweets we saw from players -- overwhelmingly positive, upbeat, inspirational -- was, in my opinion, a direct reflection on the type of culture that Carroll has cultivated within his organization.
Carroll will regret that outcome for the rest of his life, but he's equipped to deal with it. He's prepared the team to deal with it. Will they?
I'm speaking of the repercussions from that play. Will the memory of this play, this decision, become a malignant undercurrent that divides players from coaches and sets teammates against each other, or will it become a shared memory that acts as a galvanizing force? That's a very real, very serious crossroads that this team now faces. To go from the brink of incredible "success" in winning it all for the second year in a row to devastating, humiliating, demoralizing "failure" in the blink of an eye could have profound psychological effects on the overall mindset of the team.
I put "success" and "failure" in quotations because it's hard to imagine that coming one yard from becoming world champion the second season in a row, in a league where parity is incredibly strong, is a true failure. But keeping that perspective, and convincing themselves that winning the NFC is a huge feat, that coming back from a flat first quarter, a fourth quarter letdown, and getting themselves into the position to win the game in the closing minute is something to be proud of? That will be the hard, maybe impossible part.
"[We're] a very young team that has a lot of future and a lot of hope and we're going all kinds of places and everybody knows that," Carroll told reporters as he and the team left the hotel to return to Seattle yesterday. "But with that, the shock of disappointment that this game gets away from us and goes another way right at the finish line. It's something that we have to deal with that in the long run of it will make us stronger and we'll be able to put it in some kind of perspective. It's pretty hard right now. I think y'all understand that."
"But the interactions with the players last night and this morning, their determination and their resolve about where we're going and what we're doing is absolutely clear and they're very strong about it and the future is very, very bright for us and we all know that."
Carroll is always, always messaging. Messaging, messaging, messaging. And that's important. It permeates. It gets under your skin.
"So, you know, just disappointed we have to bring this home to our fans that are following and all the families and all that because it was so close to being on the other end of the spectrum a million miles from where we are right now. It's just something we have to just live with."
This is Carroll's process, and it really matters. And, as an aside, I really, genuinely subscribe to Carroll's unassailably positive philosophy and "something good is going to happen" mentality, so maybe I'm just a sycophant but I honestly don't think there's any other way to live life.
Carroll's said all the right things. He's taken full responsibility for the decision. He's apologized for it. He has the credibility to bear it. But he has not, nor will he ever, backed down from from his philosophy. Carroll has unwavering, unconditional dedication to positivity.
He's even applied this messaging to the worst play in Seahawk history.
"Let me say this too, we don't ever call a play, I don't ever coach these guys even one time to thinking that they're going to throw an interception, thinking that we're going to fumble the ball or thinking that they're going to do something, catch the ball and take it back for a touchdown. I don't ever think that."
Visualization. Confidence. Belief. Positive self-talk. It's all engrained in Seattle's culture, staring with Carroll, and it's apparent in many of their biggest plays.
"And so, when we make our decisions, just like we make the decision with six seconds left in the half, we're counting on our guys and trusting the process."
"We were doing what we do," Carroll echoed Tuesday with Brock and Salk on 710 ESPN. "We use all those downs, make sure we have every opportunity available to us. Trusting that we're going to do it right. Let me say that, I want you to understand that. We have developed a mentality that is based on: If we prepare ourselves for the situation, we're going to trust that we're going to carry it out. I got a play caller, I got a quarterback, I got a center that's going to snap it right, I got guys that have been through these situations.
"Take it back to halftime - that's exactly what happened at halftime. If guys are like, 'whoa whoa we better kick it' - there were some guys that had that thought, but no, 'we're ok here,' Russell gets it, he knows, he's got six seconds to get the ball up and down, let's take our chance at the touchdown, counting that we'll have our field goal after that.
"That's the same, exact mentality that the people that have watched us here for the past five years have seen. It hasn't changed. We prepare ourselves to succeed. We prepare ourselves to do right by the work that we've put in. And the focus. And the attention to detail so we can."
Trust the process. Trust your preparation. Don't sit there wondering if things won't work out. That plants seeds of doubt. That sabotages positive visualization. It's the death of confidence and playing in the absence of fear.
"That's the thought we want there," Carroll continued. "I'm not worried one bit that we're going to win. 'We're going to win!' I'm just not sure which down it's going to happen on. The throw, the pass, it's a great idea to throw the ball to get their touchdown against those guys, unless it doesn't happen and we have to throw it incomplete, and the clock stops, now we go to the next situation, we call whatever we want, and we use the timeout for the last play.
"That doesn't help people, I know, because they're not as far into this as we are, and you can have all those other thoughts, it's just fine for people to have those thoughts, that's just not how we have prepared oursevles."
They're not as far into this as we are.
For some reason I really liked that exact phrasing. It speaks to the culture Carroll has created -- it's almost indoctrination of positivity and belief in each other, the system, and the process. Indoctrination has a negative connotation but in this sense it's been one of Seattle's core strengths.
You could go through every big play the Seahawks pulled off this year, probably, and figure out a few reasons for why it was too risky or why it was illogical. But we don't do that, because they worked, in a large part because the players had the confidence in themselves and in their preparation, to execute them.
Situational football is a real thing here and perhaps the slant route wasn't the safest play Seattle could've run (I will forever regret their decision to not roll Wilson out instead, or to run play action), but go back to all the mechanisms that went into that being a failed play for Seattle and if you alter even one, we may have a different result. It was a perfect storm.
"We go with what we know and what we've learned and how we can believe in our guys and that's why we do what we do," said Carroll, defiantly.
"And that's why sometimes, you know, we get scrutinized for stuff. ‘Why would you do this? Why would you do that?' It's because we believe that it's going to work. We believe that things are going to happen. Why do you call the fake field goal? Because we believed that it was going to go and that it was going to work. So, that's maybe difficult on the outside to understand that, but that's how we go."
By the way, if A.J. Hawk had not bitten on the Jon Ryan run on that fake field goal, it's highly likely Ryan would've been tracked down and tackled from behind (not by Hawk) before reaching the first down marker. Perhaps Seattle would've lost that game (likely), and the course of NFL history would be different. One variable had to go the Seahawks' way, and they were lucky enough that Hawk determined that he needed to attack Ryan instead of taking Garry Gilliam downfield (he was incorrect). We hail Pete Carroll and Seattle's coaching staff as ballsy and genius for that risky call, but what if Malcolm Butler had hesitated even one half-second before breaking on the pass?
He'd have been carried into the endzone by Ricardo Lockette and we'd be living in an awesome, joyous alternate dimension where Seattle is back-to-back champs.
"So, there was a not a thought in my mind that we would make a mistake on that play. And really, the "mistake" was a tremendous play by the guy on the other side. He made just an unbelievable decision and choice to make a play that changed a game and that won them their championship."
This cannot be understated.
"That's what it feels like. That's the kind of thoughts that we have."
That's football. Period. There are a thousand decisions that go into every single game. Agonizing over one decision, one step, one throw, one second of indecision or one minuscule mistake will drive an athlete or coach crazy. Seattle cannot afford to let this happen. Russell Wilson has been through some of the most incredibly crushing losses in his career -- back at Wisconsin when he lost a shot at the national championship when his team lost on a hail mary, back in 2012 when Seattle lost a shot at the NFC Championship Game when Atlanta made a miraculous comeback to hit the game-winning field goal. He's used these moments to get better, and I think his team will follow his lead when he does it again.
Hearing Russell describe the play gives you an idea of his mindset.
"He made a great play," Wilson said Tuesday. "It was one of those bang-bang plays. That's how it usually is in a goal line area, a red zone area. The guy played a great game, honestly. A guy that I think was undrafted just made tons of plays. Play after play. You've got to give him a lot of respect. He won the game for them right there."
"It looked wide open-open enough, I shouldn't say wide open-but it looked open enough to get it in there and make the play. I thought we were going to. When I threw it, I was like, ‘touchdown, second Super Bowl ring, here we go.' And it didn't happen. You just learn from experience. That's why you play the great game, because you look forward to the next opportunity. Win, lose, no matter what the circumstances are, that's the way I've always been. I always look forward to the next opportunity I have to have the football in my hand. Every time I'm in that situation again, I believe I'm going to have success again."
"I think that's where our mindset is, that's where my mindset is, ‘Okay, how can I move on in the future?'" he continued. "Just like last year when we won the Super Bowl - I was already thinking about the next opportunity. Even though we lost the game, we felt like we should have won it. Okay, now it's to the next opportunity that we had and that's how we've always been ever since I've been here and thinking about it. . . .
"I always kind of write down stuff," said Wilson, "and I wrote down this, ‘Let's keep the focus on the future, not what's behind.' I think that's a really, really important thought in terms of staying positive. What can I do for the next opportunity that I have? What can I learn? Good or bad - if we had won the Super Bowl or if we had lost in the fashion that we had. I would still be thinking the same way and I think keeping that consistent approach to life in general and this is a lot bigger than obviously, losing the game is tough but any life circumstance - losing my dad. What do I do next? How can I learn from the lessons of losing him? And obviously losing a game is completely different than losing a family member.
"Those are the type of things that I think about. That's how I try to prepare my mind for the next opportunity that I have - the next thing that I have in my life that comes up."
Again, huge. There is literally nothing you can do to alter the past and there's nothing you can do to change things that are out of your control. What you can control is how you react to things that are immediately and forever in the past. Wilson's mindset is exactly in line with Carroll's, and that's why Wilson is so important for this franchise and why he's a de facto coach as the quarterback.
When asked what Carroll said to Wilson after the game, he replied, "We have a common dialogue about stuff that keeps us in the mindset that we know things are going to work out, and they're going to work for us. He feels that way, and I feel that way. That's why we've been in such concert for so long. I can't tell you why that happened -- I didn't teach him that -- he came to us like that."
"But we sat in the locker room in my office for a half-hour after the game," Carroll continued, "the two of us, just trying to figure it - let our feelings come out and just talk it through, and try to get to a sense of it. Then it was about 4:30 in the morning, that was the next communication with a text, then it was first thing in the morning, just working our way through it. To try to make sense, and try to help the people around us understand that we can see our way to the next step. We can see the next step that will allow us to be strong, and move forward. But we needed to know and we needed to help others. That doesn't mean it didn't hit us. It hit him like a ton of bricks that next morning. He didn't sleep. It hit him like a ton of bricks today. It took days for me to get to that point where I would let that feeling wash over me, because I needed to respond and come back and help, you know?
"It's about resiliency," Carroll said. "You have to face these types of difficult times to be as strong as you can possibly get. This team, our community, and our following, will be able to walk with us as we restructure, and reconstruct. The mindset that allows us to be really powerful moving forward. To do the things we're capable of doing. And it ain't easy. It ain't going to be easy. It's hard on everyone. We'll hopefully help guide the way.
"I think through doing the right things, getting to the truth, getting through the pain, coming back out of the discomfort that we all share, allows us, in time, to make this right. And, we'll make it right. Because, all of the rest of the plays - the thousand, eleven-hundred plays we went through this year to get us to this point, all of the work we did to position ourselves, two inches away from walking away with the trophy and all that, that is who we are. This moment should not define us.
"What should define us is this process. This journey that we've been through, and the attitude, and the approach, and the mentality that allows us to move forward, no matter how difficult it is, no matter how hard, how tough it is, we will outlast this. We will be on the other end of this. It's just going to take some time. When you don't have that, when you can't quite feel that, maybe you lean toward those that can sense they do. That's all we're really asking.
"I believe, that in time, we will be stronger than ever," he continued. "The messaging with these guys -- I've been with these guys since we flew back the night after the game, there was a great sense of where we're going and what we're doing in the future and all that. They know.
"They know through our language and our upbringing, we want to move to the next thing."
Our language and our upbringing... Again, speaking to the creation of Seattle's culture. And, Carroll brings up a good point, here, because as we saw last year, even if you win a Super Bowl, there's a minefield of psychological issues that you have to navigate as well. So, either way, it's going to be tough (though in totally different ways).
"Even if you win, you've got to move to the next thing," said Carroll. "Because, if you get trapped in it, and you get lost in it, you lose your way. It's just the other end of the spectrum this time around, and we'll deal with it really well."
"Everything has helped," Carroll replied when asked if his experiences in the past will help with this process. "Everything I've ever been through has added to the mentality that's there now. I'm in charge of this deal, you know? I've got to be clear about it.
"I need to hopefully skillfully share this with the guys around so they can hopefully use their power of resiliency, they can go to the grit that is the makeup of this team of players, and they can bounce right back, in the way that we need to bounce back. We're going to be stronger for this, we're going to be better for this. It's just cruddy right now that we have to feel this. It is what it is and we're going to do that. It's just going to take some time."
What's important here is that the same mindset that Carroll carefully cultivated over the past five years, which helped Seattle win it all in 2014, will also help them bounce back in 2015 after losing on the biggest stage, especially in such a crushing manner. He has created a collective mindset that has his team on another plane of confidence.
The constant messaging starts with Carroll, and filters down through his coaching staff, then through the team leaders, and has created an incomparable team chemistry and vision. From the top-down, the coaches and players have been conditioned into that culture.
And, Carroll said some things to reporters on Monday that I think will be important this offseason.
"I have said for a lot of years with these guys that when we are right, it takes extraordinary things to beat us."
"Somebody is going to make a big play that you couldn't explain. I always go back to the Vince Young night (when USC lost the National Title game to Texas), because that's when I first realized it, that if we are on our game and we play like we play, and this has been a long time, then things like happened last night have to happen. Otherwise we are going to find a way."
(Butler was that guy on Sunday for the Patriots. Seattle will have to try to bounce back and get back to being who they are. USC, following that devastating loss, remained among the nation's best teams the next three years).
"And that's the way we believe and that's the way we operate," said Carroll. "And I don't think that maybe that's understood. And I don't think that's cocky. I think it's based on what's happened. And that's why our belief is so strong and we really have to do some wacky things to give up things or somebody has to make a great play. And Butler made a great play. He made a great play. That's how it goes."
Carroll echoed this with Brock and Salk on Tuesday. "That game was one where you're on the precipice of winning a third straight national championship, 19 seconds left on the clock, 4th and 7, so, that play then, those 20 seconds now, they don't define who you are, what defines who you are is how you step forward after that, and how you respond to that. That's what we're charged with, and I know this might sound crazy, but we're fortunate that we are where we are, and we can go ahead and do this and we can show people how we get this done, so we'll do this in hopefully and exemplary fashion."