“You’re either a mistake maker or a life learner.”

pete carroll

Given that over 120 million viewers were watching the end of Super Bowl XLIX this past Sunday, the chances are fairly good that at least some (if not most) of you witnessed the puzzling play calling from Seattle Seahawks’ coach, Pete Carroll. Here was the situation. Down by four points with less than a minute to play in the fourth quarter, the Seahawks have possession of the ball with one yard separating them from the end zone and, most likely, their second consecutive Super Bowl victory. The common-sense call is to run the ball with Marshawn Lynch, a bowling ball of a human being with the nickname “Beast Mode”. Lynch who, on the previous play, pounded ahead for four yards, has already run for over 100 yards in the game, demonstrating time and again that the Patriots can’t mount much resistance when a short gain is required of him. Everyone in the stadium (including this writer) is expecting a safe, off-tackle plunge from Lynch. But then something remarkable happens; the Seahawks’ brilliant young quarterback, Russell Wilson, unexpectedly drops back for a pass and slings the ball over the middle in the direction of wide receiver Ricardo Lockette, knifing towards the goal line. Against all odds, Patriots cornerback Malcolm Butler steps in front of Lockette and intercepts the ball, essentially ending the game and handing New
England their 4th Super Bowl victory.

What could Pete Carroll have been thinking?

TV sportscaster Chris Collinsworth was obviously thinking the same thing when he exclaimed:

“I’m sorry, but I can’t believe the call. I cannot believe the call. You’ve got Marshawn Lynch in the backfield. You’ve got a guy that’s been border line unstoppable in this part of the field. I can’t believe the call… I don’t believe it. I’m sitting here and I absolutely cannot believe that play call. If I lose the Super Bowl because Marshawn Lynch can’t get in from the 1-yard line, so be it. So be it. But there is no way… I don’t believe the call.”

Like much of the sports media, I have to agree with Collinsworth’s assessment – ostensibly, Carroll’s call was a mistake. The odds certainly were strongly in favor of running the ball with Lynch. But Carroll apparently saw things differently. In a press conference after the game, Carroll calmly explained that for the play in question, New England had sent in their “goal-line package”, expressly designed to stop the run. Explains the coach:

“We easily could have gone otherwise. But when they sent their goal line guys in, I know that we have the advantage on the matchups in the passing game, so let’s throw it. It’s OK.”

If Carroll’s decision had worked out, great! The Seahawks pass for a touchdown and everyone calls it one of the gutsiest, out-of-the-box calls in Super Bowl history. And if it fails (as it did), Carroll and Wilson are goats of the highest order, those crazy gunslingers who cost an entire city a chance to celebrate.
What did you think of the call?

For me, the interesting question is not whether the play was a mistake or not, but rather, what Seattle is going to make of it going forward. It would be easy (and not unprecedented) for Seahawks owner Paul Allen to fire Carroll outright, laying all the blame on the coach’s shoulders. In the NFL in particular, winning is everything; coaches have a fairly short leash. It’s “win now or pack your bags.”

America certainly venerates its winners and vilifies its losers. Consider the case of poor Bill Buckner, a star baseball player whose error in game six of the 1986 World Series cost the Red Sox a championship. The city of Boston has never forgiven Buckner for his mistake, essentially running him out town — completely forgetting the player’s hall of fame statistics earned over a long, distinguished career. One wonders how the city of Seattle will treat Carroll and staff over the next few weeks and months.

As mentioned, Carroll hasn’t really apologized for his mistake. He’s sticking with the argument that “doing the predictable thing” didn’t get his team to the Super Bowl. The Seahawks live by the unexpected and die by the unexpected. I get it. What interests me is how Carroll is spinning things with his players. After all, once a coach has lost the locker room, his days as the team leader are over. If the Seahawks, in their disappointment, rise up as one against Carroll and his coaching staff, pointing fingers at the men responsible for their Super loss, it could be a slippery slope for Seattle back to mediocrity.

As a leader, Carroll’s task is to remind people that there are no mistakes; there are only learning opportunities. So what work (and life) lessons can the coach and his team harvest from this year’s Super Bowl loss? How about:

• Whether you win or you lose, you have an opportunity to display class and character.

• When you have a philosophy you believe in (in this case, unpredictability), you stick with it, whatever the consequences.

• As good as it feels to be on top, you often learn more about yourselves when you’re dropped down to the bottom. We certainly feel more compassion and empathy for the world’s down-trodden masses when we’ve taken a hit ourselves.

You get the idea. In the short term, the Seahawks are undoubtedly feeling sad and disappointed this week. After all, they’ve been deprived of their much-anticipated winner’s high. But in the long term, losing DOES build character and engender insight. The most successful people on the planet see opportunity in all experience, enjoying the process no matter what happens. In fact, true visionaries often enjoy when things don’t go exactly as planned; they love serendipity, as it usually opens the door to a new options and possibilities.

Can Pete Carroll successfully convey this message to the Seattle Seahawks? Given what I know about his established rapport with his team, I’m guessing yes. It probably doesn’t hurt, as well, that each player on the losing squad of the Super Bowl gets a $49,000 bonus for simply appearing in the big game. So much for the “downtrodden masses”.