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.
The Bills went 8-8 in 2000 under Wade Phillips, and they finished third in total defense, including fourth in passing yards allowed and sixth in rushing yards allowed. Not unlike the situation in New England a year earlier, Buffalo’s 7-4 start was marred by a 1-4 finish, and with the right coach in place perhaps they could have realized their full potential in another couple of seasons. Instead, in 2001 they hired Gregg Williams, who went 3-13 in his first season with the Bills, before trading for none other than Bledsoe in 2002.
Bledsoe was dealt to the Bills by the Patriots after he had lost the starting job to Tom Brady, taken by Belichick in the sixth round of the 2000 Draft at the behest of quarterbacks coach Dick Rehbein. Would the Buffalo Bills have become a dynasty had Belichick been their coach and Brady their QB? And, in this bizarro universe, would their AFC East battles with Carroll’s Patriots have been the de facto decider for home-field advantage in the playoffs?
And what would have happened to the landscape of college football?
Dumped by the Patriots, Carroll eventually ended up at the University of Southern California, where he’d turn the Trojans into a powerhouse. Over nine seasons at USC, Carroll won two AP national championships and seven bowl games, as many bowls wins as the Trojans had in their previous 22 seasons. He got out before the NCAA dropped the hammer on the program, but without him, it’s unlikely that USC enjoys nearly the same amount of success, and could possibly be mired in the same slump that other former powerhouses often find themselves stuck in (see: Florida, Michigan, Texas).
Finally, where would we be in 2015 if New England didn’t fire Carroll?
Perhaps the Patriots were never going to be the right fit for Carroll, and without Brady, maybe they don’t enjoy the same kind of success. After all, New England wasn’t giving Carroll the autonomy he gets from Seattle, something he always cited as the issue that led to his downfall with the Patriots. (And something owner Robert Kraft later said was probably a mistake.) Maybe Belichick and Brady aren’t the kind of magicians that would have been necessary to turn the Bills into a dynasty. I mean, Buffalo was 3-13 in 2001. Would they have been good for an extra 10 wins?
So perhaps Carroll and Belichick hang on for a while, making the postseason regularly with their respective teams but never getting over the hump. Until finally Carroll is fired, rebuilds his brand as a defensive coordinator somewhere, then gets hired to replace Jim Mora in Seattle in 2010. And then as New England begins a search for their own head coach, they reach a deal with Belichick, the one who got away years earlier, and his first move is trading for his old quarterback, Tom Brady.
Until finally both teams move in the exact right direction that they had always hoped for, reaching the mountaintop and facing off against one another in Super Bowl XLIX.
No matter what happens, it seems all roads lead to this.