RENTON — For the first time, Carson Palmer and Pete Carroll will be opponents, facing each other a little more than a decade after they helped shape each other’s careers.
On Thursday night in Arizona, the 10-year veteran will face his old college coach; a Heisman Trophy winner turned No. 1 overall draft pick and eventual Pro Bowl quarterback against the head coach of one of the hottest teams in the NFL.
And while both have had distinguished careers well beyond the two seasons they shared at USC, this reunion serves as a good reminder that neither may not have enjoyed the same success had the other not been around at USC in 2001 and 2002.
When the Trojans and Palmer were struggling in their first season under Carroll, he considered benching the junior quarterback in favor of Matt Leinart. However, Palmer and the team finished the season strong. And after Carroll revamped his team’s offense, both quarterback and offense took off a year later, helping Palmer become a Heisman winner and top draft pick, and helping Carroll revive a career that now has him back in the NFL leading a Super Bowl contender.
“The biggest transition that we made, the most significant time it happened, happened between the first year and the second year when we changed the entire offense and restructured everything,” Carroll said. “We built it around the running game that you see now, and the passing principles that we have now in our own system right here with the standards and expectations and all. Carson just lit it up. When we made that transition, he won the Heisman Trophy, and we won almost every game, and he got us underway. … He was really the whole show in terms of that growth. He had a lot of good players around him obviously. It was a big turn for our program there and a big turn for his career also.”
Perhaps as significant as revamping the style of his offense was Carroll deciding in that first offseason at USC that he was no longer going to be the kind of head coach who only focused on one side of the ball. Carroll’s background is as a defensive assistant, and during his earlier head coaching gigs with the New England Patriots and New York Jets, he focused on defense and left the other side of the ball to his offensive coordinator. But knowing USC might be his final shot as a head coach if he didn’t get it right, and knowing he had ideas on what makes an offense hard to stop, Carroll made a point of getting involved with every aspect of his team.
“That’s when it all changed,” Carroll said. “We were so bad in the first year I felt like, ‘OK, if this is the last time I’m ever a head coach I’m going down the way I want to go down.’” … The balance, the running game, the mixture of the way we throw, the play passes, and the movement of the quarterback, all of that stuff came out at that time. It was something that was always sitting there, I just had always acquiesced to the guys that were in charge, and then I didn’t do that anymore.”
For Palmer, the change in Carroll was very noticeable between those two seasons, and the change in his game was evident to anyone watching USC emerge as a college football power. As a junior, Palmer threw for 2,717 yards, 13 touchdowns and 12 interceptions while completing 58.6 percent of his passes. A year later he completed 63.2 percent of his passes for 3,942 yards, 33 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. And while Palmer deserves plenty of credit for that growth, another factor was the changes Carroll implemented in the offense, many of which came from his knowledge of what can give a defense trouble.
“I saw it happen before my eyes,” Palmer said on a conference call. “I saw him taking more control of the offense. He’s a defensive guy, his past is defense, but he’s such an intellectual guy and he’s so smart and so advanced in so many different things, and he knows offense too. Through learning the defense the way he’s learned it and the guys he’s learned it from, he’s learned about offense over the years. I think he kind of looked at it like, ‘What a waste to not have some input on offense and not be able to put things in that I hate having to defend.’”
And that involved-in-everything approach is a part of Carroll’s coaching now more than ever. Sure Carroll’s biggest impact, schematically, is on Seattle’s defense, but watch how often he interacts with Russell Wilson during a game. In fact Wilson and Carroll carry that over to Monday’s when the two spend around an hour of one-on-one time talking football.
“I just kind of sit with him for about an hour and just talk football, talk about the next opponent and what they’re trying to bring defensively, and how we can attack them offensively, just so I can kind of hear his voice and understand what he’s thinking,” Wilson said. “Then we always talk throughout the game as well.”
Wilson obviously spends a ton of his time with offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell and quarterbacks coach Carl Smith, but says, “Whenever I have a chance to sit down with Coach Carroll and just ask him about the defense and ask him about defensive techniques and what safeties and linebackers and corners are trying to do, I think that really helps me understand the game of football. I’m trying to learn as much as I can — this is only my second year — so as much as I can learn offensively but also defensively, understanding why they’re trying to do it, understanding the whys of football, then that helps me play at a higher level.”
Carroll’s relationship with his current quarterback couldn’t be stronger. It also might not exist if not for the success he had with his first quarterback at USC, a player, who, for the first time, he’ll be trying to stop on Thursday night.