Carroll opened Pandora’s Box by not only making mind-boggling decisions, but by offering a frightening glimpse into his thought process for how he got there. The decision to start Whitehurst despite having a healthy-enough Tarvaris Jackson available was one of the worst coaching mistakes I have witnessed in the NFL. This was not just about starting Whitehurst. It was a collection of flawed choices that led up to the decision. Whitehurst is not an NFL starter, and is questionable as an NFL back-up. Playing him when there is any other choice calls into question Carroll’s ability to appropriately assess his players. Announcing Jackson as the starter, but then starting Whitehurst, does not set either up in the best position to succeed. Telling people in the post-game press conference that he made the decision, in part, because he “wanted to see if we could get away without playing Tarvaris for another week,” leaves the impression that he thought the Bengals were so inferior to the Seahawks that Carroll’s team could win with one hand tied behind their backs. The Bengals are the team that entered the game 4-2, and the Seahawks were the ones who sat at 2-4, coming off an unspeakable loss one week prior.
The coach also showed a tone deafness to reading the fans. CenturyLink was already somewhat subdued to start the game as fans were pissed after last week’s game, and the Bengals are far from a marquee match-up. Whatever excitement was in the stadium was sucked out when Whitehurst trotted on the field. People were confused, angry, and depressed. This game would have played out much differently if Jackson had run onto the field to a loud ovation and led the team to an opening score. There is no proof to say that would have happened, but Carroll robbed the team, the player and the fans of that chance. This could have been Jackson’s moment to connect with fans by saving them from the depths of Whitehurst.
One also has to now question previous and future Carroll decisions to sit or play his players. How do we know Jackson could not have played last week? As upset as people were that Jackson could not go, that emotion was harmlessly vented into the ether because there was nobody to blame. Now, what is going to keep fans from questioning whether Carroll held back a healthy-enough player?
Almost all of Carroll’s poor choices appear to stem from his relentless glass half-full perspective. He sees hope for Whitehurst where there is none. He believes his team is good enough to beat a decent opponent without their starting quarterback when they are not. He assumes his offense can run for a touchdown from five yards out when they have averaged under a yard per carry. He thinks his kicker will be the first player in CenturyLink to kick a 61-yard field goal when the chances are nil. Carroll may not be a glass half-full guy. His decisions paint a picture of a person who sees a glass with a drop of water in it as almost full. By some measures, that is called delusional.
The loss to the Bengals does not matter in the grande scheme of where this franchise is going. Carroll and John Schneider have assembled one of the most talented young rosters in the league in very short order. Nothing that happened yesterday changes that. This team is destined to be very good in the next few years in large part because of the personnel philosophy of Carroll the front office guy and Carroll the defensive coach. What needs to be determined is whether Carroll the head coach is good enough to lead a team to a Super Bowl. To get there, he needs to rid himself of the indecisiveness he showed on Sunday. Do not apologize for running the ball before half if that is what you thought was the best way to win the game. Bill Belichick didn’t apologize for going for it on fourth down in his own territory on the road in Indianapolis a few years back when that backfired. Have the courage of your convictions. Don’t talk about what we will be in a few years. Instill that mentality right now. Take responsibility for those decisions, but do not apologize for them. All coaches have to make tough choices, and will always be second-guessed. Carroll’s biggest challenge is being confident enough to make that hard decision and stand behind it without equivocation. Leaders do not have the luxury of showing that kind of weakness.
This week was all about the head coach. There were areas of game play worth reviewing that will come later. For now, there is some broken glass that needs to be cleaned up, and a leader that must never let it break again.