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The Cold War: How Pete Carroll Is Defeating Jim Harbaugh Off The Field As Well

It is no secret that the Seahawks won the Super Bowl thanks in large part to Pete Carroll’s coaching ability. He has proven to be one of the best defensive minds in NFL history while contributing to dominant defenses over four decades. He has become a championship head coach by playing a classic style of football that emphasizes the running game while most teams are passing, and focusing on great defense when many teams chase points on offense. He is not alone in this approach. In fact, the San Francisco 49ers, his team’s greatest rival, follows a nearly identical blueprint under Jim Harbaugh. The greater intrigue comes off the field. Two coaches who mirror each other in playing style, could not be more different in how they deal with people. Carroll defeated Harbaugh between the lines last year, and there are signs he is winning outside the lines as well.

The Marin County outlook

Carroll grew up in Marin County in northern California. It is an idyllic part of the planet that features wealth, beauty, and a generally positive outlook. Optimistic people see the glass as half-full instead of half-empty. People from Marin County see it as 4/5 full. Carroll embodies this with his constant focus on what is possible and on people’s potential instead of what can’t be done and what people cannot do. 
Marin County, CA
His collaborative and positive approach to relationships was so front and center that many people, including myself, questioned his sincerity. There was a lot of cynical questions about whether his “act” would work in the NFL. But it was not an act. He proved that from day one.
Seattle was desperate to regain relevancy after a few dismal seasons in 2008 and 2009. So desperate that they fired their coach, Jim Mora Jr., after one year so they could bring Carroll aboard. He came into the job with a huge reputation and a lot of leverage. The team gave him nearly full control over football operations to woo him out of college coaching. Most coaches assert that authority early to establish their territory. Carroll made a point when GM John Schneider was hired to emphasize their equality and partnership. He spent a ton of time with Schneider to build a rapport that went beyond the professional to the point of friendship. As old school as Carroll’s team plays on the field, steps like this away from football defy convention.
General managers and coaches often butt heads. The system almost forces conflict. One man is responsible for supplying talent while the other is responsible for maximizing the talent he is given. When something goes wrong, the first natural place to point the finger is at the other guy. Carroll had lived that reality too many times, and came out the worse for it. He took steps to remove that friction from the system from the start. 

The Toledo, Ohio outlook

Harbaugh was born in a place that differs greatly from Marin County. The Sun does not shine as often. The money does not flow as freely. Manufacturing is the big industry there, and like most places in Ohio, a blue collar life is more respected than a white collar one. Toughness is a virtue. Glamour is a sin.  
Toledo, OH
Harbaugh appears to value toughness over all other attributes. He seems to crave conflict as a way to prove toughness. Where Carroll looks at each new relationship as an opportunity, Harbaugh seems to see an adversary. Where Carroll heaps praise and respect on his opponents and coaches, Harbaugh is careful to avoid praising other teams and has provoked feuds with more than a few coaches. His is grating. He is gritty. He is a winner. The question is whether his approach can be sustained. He has never been the head coach somewhere for more than four years. There is no love affair between him and his GM, Trent Baalke. Harbaugh enters the season on the fourth year of his contract with no guarantees he will be back if he does not win big, while Carroll was signed to an extension.

Silent signals

Given the choice, most NFL players, coaches, fans, and media would choose the hardass coach over the infamous player’s coach. Football requires discipline, attention to detail, and extraordinary courage. A kick in the butt feels more logical than a hand on the shoulder. But consider what has happened since Harbaugh and Carroll have joined their respective teams in the NFL.
Players generally have to fall in line with their coach while under contract if they want to play and they want to maximize their earnings. Free agency is the moment when players can choose where they want to go based not only on price, but on culture and opportunity. 
No team has played undrafted free agents more in the pre-season since 2010 than the Seahawks. Seattle has turned this into a selling point to attract young players. Conversely, Doug Baldwin played for Harbaugh in college and part of how he chose to sign with Seattle as a undrafted free agent was the opportunity to play against his former coach twice per year. 
It is not just young free agents who see a difference. Kevin Williams and Antoine Winfield are talented veterans who have turned down more money for a chance to play for Carroll in Seattle. Winfield actually chose to retire rather than play for any other team. Michael Bennett was among the top free agents this past off-season and took less money to stay in Seattle instead of playing with his own brother in Chicago. Golden Tate publicly stated that he would take less money to stay with the Seahawks, but the team chose not to offer him close to what he ended up receiving from Detroit. A player like Walter Thurmond III had considerably more value elsewhere and more opportunity to start, but kept trying to find a way back to Seattle before eventually accepting a job in New York with the Giants. There are no such examples of quality veteran talent taking less money to play in San Francisco with Harbaugh that I am aware of. 

The road ahead

Both teams will be challenged to keep their talent edge on the rest of the league after needing to pay their talented young quarterbacks. Carroll will be there to see it through. The future is not as clear for Harbaugh. The perception is that the relationship is strained enough between him and Baalke that it will be an either/or scenario for 49er ownership. 
Players are clamoring to be a part of what Carroll has built in Seattle. There are far fewer signs of that in San Francisco. Their best example might be Anquan Boldin choosing to bypass free agency and re-sign. Gone are Delanie Walker, Donte Whitner and Dashon Goldson. Alex Boone is holding out and may not come back. Frank Gore, Michael Crabtree, Mike Iupati, Chris Culliver, and Glenn Dorsey could be gone next year. Justin Smith is nearing the end of the road.
Toughness is a valuable personality trait, but when combined with abrasiveness, it tends to push people away instead of drawing them closer. As his talent advantage starts to fade, the question becomes whether Harbaugh has the soft skills necessary to recruit players and guide them through more evenly matched games. It would require patience and collaboration with the front office; two traits he has not demonstrated with any consistency over his career. 
Carroll has proven he will play young players and jettison veterans. His formula produced the youngest Super Bowl winner in history. His talent advantage has lessened since last year, but the roster is in much better shape to stay together than what Harbaugh has in San Francisco. The fact that players are willing to sacrifice to play in Seattle only helps Carroll’s cause. His relationship with his general manager has allowed the ultimate in collaboration where draft picks and free agent signings perfectly mesh with the coaching staff’s ability to find productive roles for players of varying skill sets. 
Carroll will continue to field a conventional team on the football field that runs the ball and plays tough defense. That is only part of his formula for success. It is his unconventional approach off the field that is truly separating him from Harbaugh and his ilk. Expect more people to understand this as the Seahawks continue to win and the league tries to understand why. What they see now is tall cornerbacks. Bill Belichick can sign Brandon Browner. But can he replicate the way Carroll treats his players, coaches and his partners in the front office? By the time the league realizes how far they are from what Seattle is doing, Carroll may have a handful of rings and Harbaugh might be asking another locker room who has it better.

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