Back when Pete Carroll was coaching the New England Patriots, in the late 1990s, he came to a realization that eventually helped him become one of the best coaches in college football, then later a Super Bowl winner with the Seattle Seahawks.
What Carroll figured out in his second stint as a head coach is that his career, and whatever team he was coaching, was not defined by one past failure, but rather by how he or a team responds to it. Yes, Carroll was fired by the New York Jets, then later the Patriots, but he came out better for it.
"It's been a long, hard career, dude," is how Carroll described it at the beginning of training camp. "I've been through a lot of stuff and have learned from a lot of terrific people who have shown me how you have to handle stuff and how you act and how you handle your business. Go ahead and get fired three or four times in your life and see how you like it… There's a freedom that comes from that. You're dangerous once you've been dead already."
Which brings us to the 2015 Seattle Seahawks and Sunday's season opener at St. Louis. Just as Carroll has done throughout his career, the Seahawks are out to show that they are focused on the opportunity in front of them, not a bad memory from their past.
"Being resilient and being able to bounce back from the obstacles and the setbacks and things like that is important," Carroll said. "We're all faced with it; how well you do it and how quickly and efficiently you do it is really what defines you."
Carroll has made a career out of being the most optimistic guy in the room, so to anyone who has been paying attention, it came as no surprise that he didn't linger on Seattle's Super Bowl XLIX loss. Instead he faced it, answered any question thrown his direction, then set about preparing for 2015 no matter how much somebody else might expect him to let one heartbreaking loss be his or his team's undoing.
"People can think whatever they want," Carroll said. "Yeah, the questions continue to come, they try to take us back—they want to know how bad it is, what are you really thinking? I'm OK. That's not to say it wasn't enormously impacting, it just is what it is now and we've put it in place where we can deal with it properly to help us move forward well."
In a lot of ways, winning a Super Bowl helped the Seahawks prepare for moving on after losing one. Just as the Seahawks had to process a loss on football's biggest stage, then move forward, the Seahawks a year earlier had to learn how to ignore the distractions that come with winning a title.
"There's a factor there," Carroll said. "It's the factor of winning, the factor of celebrating. Remember that all the way to the opening game of the season, here comes the Super Bowl flag and all that stuff. It dragged all the way into the next season, so in some regards, we've worked to let this one go faster; we won't be celebrating. The point is we don't need other factors entering into our ability to focus, our ability to put our minds on what's really at hand. That's the whole point, and that's why winning and losing can affect you in an equally challenging manner."
Before there were Super Bowls to win or lose, Carroll preached the importance of focusing on the task at hand from his first days as the coach of the Seahawks. You'll never hear Carroll talk about winning a Super Bowl as a preseason goal; instead the focus is always on helping the Seahawks be the best team they can be on a particular day. This week hasn't been about preparing for another Super Bowl run in 2015, it has been about preparing for the St. Louis Rams.
"If you look at the year before, we had to put winning the Super Bowl behind us; it's the same thing," defensive end Cliff Avril said. "You've got to put it behind you and start over fresh. It's a new season. Nobody is thinking about anything but that game. We don't look past the following week. Just having the mentality of getting better today, right now, that makes the extra noise go away."
And if you're able to do what the Seahawks have already done, which is put a Super Bowl loss in the rearview mirror and focus on the present, you see that this team is as well equipped for success as either of the past two teams that went to the Super Bowl. Yes, there are question marks—no NFL roster is perfect; there's a salary cap in place to make sure of that—the offensive line has two new starters and a left guard who was a right tackle last season, and the secondary is without two starters from last season, Byron Maxwell, who left in free agency, and Kam Chancellor, who has not reported. But the Seahawks still have the nucleus of a defense that has been historically great over the past three seasons; they still have a Pro Bowl quarterback, Russell Wilson, who at this stage of his career should only be getting better; they still have an explosive offense that features Marshawn Lynch and an underrated receiving corps; they added two rookies, Frank Clark and Tyler Lockett, who look like instant-impact players; and oh by the way, they acquired All-Pro tight end Jimmy Graham this offseason.
So yeah, the ending to Super Bowl XLIX was tough, but the Seahawks have too much talent, too much focus on the task at hand, too much of an awareness of their opportunity to do something historic—no NFL team has been to three straight Super Bowls in the salary-cap era—to waste time living in the past.
"We have all the pieces in place," receiver Doug Baldwin said. "We think we have a better team than we've had in the past, and a lot of guys in the system who can be leaders now to the younger players. We have all the pieces in place and we have the experience of going into games and performing at a high level, and I think we will do that as long as we stay healthy."
Yet veterans like Baldwin know that there is more to success than just having the talented pieces in place. Each new season brings new challenges, whether that's getting over a big win or a big loss or an adjustment to personnel changes or, in the case of these Seahawks, the reality of having a team of young stars come into their own. Players who not long ago were up-and-comers on their rookie contracts have now earned much-deserved raises. The challenge then becomes not just keeping a team intact, but in keeping everyone happy, motivated and on the same page when they are in different places in their careers. As Baldwin put it earlier in camp, it's the price of success. Overall, Carroll likes the way his team has handled that transition.
"It adds a whole other factor, a whole other level in there," Carroll said. "It's not just the success you deal with and the recognition, but also the financial effect it brings too and the opportunity, and then whether or not the opportunity comes together. There's a whole other factor that enters in. Doug was right on it, there's a transition available there that you can make or not make. You can make it gracefully or you can struggle through it. We're working through it really well. This is part of dealing with the offseason and heading into another season, and I think we're dealing with it well gauging from all of the indicators that I have."
The 2015 season begins Sunday for the Seahawks, and this game at St. Louis, not what happened last year or even the year before that, is all that matters now.
"We have to have the discipline it takes to go day to day and focus on a day-to-day basis to make the most of every day," Carroll said. "If we do that one day at a time, we can do anything."