It was November 15, 1999. The New England Patriots were playing the New York Jets and had just closed the gap to 24-17 with 8:10 remaining after quarterback Drew Bledsoe found Troy Brown for a 31-yard score.
The energized Patriots defense finally clamped down on the Jets, giving Bledsoe and the offense three chances to tie the game, but they went completely cold. Bledsoe was 1-of-9 over the final three drives and couldn’t even gain another first down.
Pete Carroll might not have known it at the time, but this was the beginning of the end of his three-year stint in New England.
The loss dropped the Patriots to 6-3, allowing them ample time to regain their momentum from an impressive start to the season, but they’d never be able to find their swagger again. They dropped five of their next six games and Carroll was fired at season’s end, ejected from the “hot seat” he’d occupied for nearly a year, despite the fact that he had taken New England to the playoffs in his first two seasons at the helm. Though the Pats finished with a top 10 defense, Carroll was out and Bill Belichick was in.
Fifteen years later, Carroll and Belichick meet in Super Bowl XLIX, with Carroll getting an opportunity to not only exact revenge against the organization that dumped him, but prove that his goal of building a dynasty in New England wasn’t merely a pipe dream.
In fact, imagine he had pulled it off.
Carroll finished .500 in his last season with the Patriots, but he had some bad breaks along the way. In Week 5, New England lost 16-14 to the Kansas City Chiefs, when Adam Vinatieri missed a 32-yard field goal with 9 seconds remaining. The next week, they went down to the Dolphins on a late touchdown pass from Damon-freaking-Huard. The loss to the Jets was close. A month later, there was a 20-15 loss to the Indianapolis Colts, where a late Bledsoe drive stalled at Indy’s 30-yard line. Two weeks after that, Vinatieri missed a 33-yarder that would have beaten the Buffalo Bills in regulation – and then missed again from 44 in overtime – in a 13-10 defeat.
Theoretically, Carroll was two missed field goals from the “most clutch kicker in NFL history” from having gone 10-6 in 1999, which means New England would made the playoffs and would have faced off against – you guessed it – the Seattle Seahawks. Instead, the Dolphins got in and traveled to Seattle, where they beat a weak Seahawks team 20-17. Would the Patriots have really fired Carroll after three playoff berths, a 10-6 record and a playoff win?
Probably not, which means Carroll would have returned to New England for the 2000 season – and sent Belichick’s career on an altogether different trajectory.
In 2000, Belichick had become the head coach of the Jets after longtime mentor Bill Parcells resigned. Belichick stunned everyone by quitting, stating that he didn’t want to become the head coach of the Jets while they were going through an ownership change during the transition to Woody Johnson, who bought the team in 2000.
What ended up happening was a trade with the Patriots so that both teams could be compensated, because if Belichick wasn’t able to get out of his contract, then he would have to sit out a year. New York ended up getting three draft picks, including New England’s first rounder in 2000, and the Patriots got Belichick. But what would have happened if the Pats job wasn’t available?
An obvious landing spot would have been the New York Giants, where Belichick had coached for a decade, including a lengthy run as Parcells’ defensive coordinator that included two Super Bowl wins. That would have seemed obvious, of course, had Jim Fassel not improved his 7-9 record from 1999 and taken the Giants to the Super Bowl in 2000, where they lost to the Baltimore Ravens, who used to be known as the Cleveland Browns – the franchise that fired Belichick just before they moved to Baltimore.
A bevy of jobs were available in 2001, enough to make you believe that Belichick would have been back in the league that season. And that he probably would have had his pick of the lot: The Cardinals, Redskins, Browns, Bengals, Lions and Chiefs were all possibilities, but perhaps the team that made the most sense was the Buffalo Bills.