RENTON — One of the most fascinating elements of the NFL’s best rivalry is that two teams that play such similar styles of football can be led by men with such different personalities.
You can’t argue with the results Pete Carroll and Jim Harbaugh get with their contrasting styles — the Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers are two of the final four teams standing in the NFL postseason. Still, it’s an oddity nonetheless that two teams can thrive thanks to nasty, physical defenses, strong running games and dynamic young quarterbacks, and do so while playing for coaches who couldn’t be more different.
Harbaugh is as no-nonsense as the $8 pleated khakis he buys at Walmart. He and his quarterback, Colin Kaepernick, appear to be competing for lowest word count in every press conference, and nobody is going to accuse him of being a player’s coach.
Carroll, on the other hand, is the youngest 62-year-old you’ll ever meet; the kind of guy who plays catch before every practice and game; who runs up and down the sideline like he still thinks he’s a player; who told Russell Wilson he won the starting quarterback job while working on his jump shot.
“Coach Pete lets you shoot baskets before meetings and have fun and enjoy the game,” said cornerback Richard Sherman, who also played for Harbaugh at Stanford. “He makes the game a lot more fun than it used to be.”
While Sherman clearly has his preference, it’s hard to say either approach is right or wrong. Harbaugh might rub some people the wrong way, but the results say he’s one of the best coaches in the game. But for a young roster full of players who have never been this deep in the postseason, Carroll’s loose approach is one of the best things the Seahawks have going for them this week.
Carroll has preached to his players that every week is a championship week, because as he sees it, that Week 3 win over Jacksonville meant just as much toward earning the NFC’s No. 1 seed as did the Week 17 clincher over a division rival. But with the NFC championship game coming up Sunday, the “we treat every week the same” approach is tested now more than ever.
Thanks to Carroll’s approach, the way he let’s players embrace their personalities, be it Sherman trash-talking and dancing his way through practice, or Earl Thomas going through a Wednesday practice with a level of intensity few can match in a game, the Seahawks are as comfortable in their own skin this week as they would be in the middle of training camp.
“It’s the old saying, it’s different strokes for different folks,” Thomas said. “He allows you to find yourself, he allows you to own your specific role. Everybody has different personalities, but it works, because we love that about each other. Sherm’s sorta crazy, he’s going to say what’s on his mind, and you love that about him and you appreciate it, because you need some fire in some guys like that. It trickles down to the young guys.”
No matter how much Carroll and his team try to make this week just like any other week, they know it can’t be exactly the same. The media obligations ramp up, they’re hearing from friends and relatives they didn’t know existed, and deep down, they understand what’s at stake no matter how much they focus on the daily task at hand.
“You’ve heard ‘every game is the same,’ it’s coach talk,” said a man who’d know a thing or two about coach talk, former Seahawks and Packers coach Mike Holmgren, who now serves as an analyst for Sports Radio 950 KJR.
“It’s not the same. The emotions are different, how you’re sleeping is different. How you pet the dog, everything is different. We’re human beings playing in a very stressful situation with a lot at stake, and you do the best you can to get everyone ready.”
OK, so it can’t be exactly the same, but Carroll has done a pretty darn good job coming close to creating that feeling in his locker room, and his laid-back approach has a lot to do with that.
“He’s already built this routine where, today is just Wednesday, man,” right tackle Breno Giacomini said. “It’s competition Wednesday. I get it that a lot of things are on the line, but really it’s just Wednesday. We’re in January playing for something more than we were in September, but it’s still a championship week, a championship Wednesday. We’re going to go out and compete.”
So the Seahawks had a normal Wednesday, followed by a normal Thursday and Friday, or at least the closest thing possible with a trip to the Super Bowl at stake. If you could go to practice — sorry, they’re a little selective of who gets in this time of year — you’d see defensive backs talking smack to receivers, players dancing between plays as music blares, a quarterback who’s as focused as they come, and it will all be a reflection of a coach who let’s players be who they are, so long as they’re still doing their jobs.
“He’s a real laid-back coach, man, he lets everybody be themselves, and I think that’s what you’ve got to do on a football team, let people’s personalities be their personalities,” defensive lineman Michael Bennett said. “It lets people be themselves. The key to being a great player is being comfortable with yourself. A lot of guys get to be themselves, you don’t have to act a certain way they want you to act. You just get to be yourself.”
Add Sherman: “He’s loose; as loose as you can get out there. He allows his players to be who they are within the confines of the team. As long as it doesn’t hurt the team, he allows guys to be themselves. If you’re a reserved guy that’s always focused, that’s always locked in like an Earl Thomas is, he allows you to be that guy, be locked in 100 percent of the time. If you’re a loose guy who dances at practice like I do, he allows you to be that guy. As long as when you’re on the field you do exactly what you’re supposed to do, he allows guys to be who they are.”
Yes, Carroll and Harbaugh are as close to polar opposites as two men could be while still in the same profession, leading similarly built teams. Their differing styles both produce impressive results, so there’s no point debating which is better. Carroll’s approach is one of the best things the Seahawks have going for them right now, but then again, who’s to say Harbaugh’s isn’t ideal for that team.
“This is just the way we do it,” Carroll said. “So when you have standards and the players continue to meet up to those standards in their performance day-to-day, meeting-to-meeting, walkthrough-to-walkthrough, then you know you’re on course. And in our case we know we can trust that, so we can enjoy the heck out of it, have fun doing it.”
Herald Writer John Boyle: firstname.lastname@example.org.