It was the most watched Super Bowl in the history of the game, and the audience was rewarded by the most exciting finish ever. For good or bad, the exciting, down-to-the-wire contest is even more memorable for the way in which the Seattle Seahawks lost to the New England Patriots. The controversial decision to take the ball out of Marshawn Lynch's hands and try to throw for the touchdown has been criticized widely. That is, of course, the lot of an NFL coach. When things work you are a hero. When they don't, you are Pete Carroll trying to make sense of his decision.
The criticism from the outside is to be expected. The unassailable belief of both sports media and fans that they know far more about how to call and play the game than the actual coaches and players is part of why we follow the game so passionately. What is remarkable about this particular situation is the open and widespread questioning of the coaching staff by the Seahawks players. It was immediate, with multiple Tweets from reporters who were hearing the discontent of the players before they could get completely off the field. There is even one anonymous player who floated speculation that the play call was more about showing preference to Russell Wilson over Lynch than trying to find the best way to win the game.
This was a jarring thing. It is hardly uncommon to hear grumbles of incompetence and expressions of no confidence in the coaching staff from NFL players, but this usually happens on teams in disarray. Usually it is something that only emerges as the handwriting on the wall becomes clear, as happened to the Dallas Cowboys in 2010. Evidence became overwhelming that the team had given up on head coach Wade Phillips and his staff, forcing Jerry Jones to fire Phillips and turn to the presumptive head-coach-in-waiting, Jason Garrett, to lead the team back to success.
But the Seahawks were playing in the Super Bowl as the defending champions, and missed back-to-back Lombardi trophies by one misbegotten play. Up until the puzzling end to the game, Seattle was being upheld as a model of how to turn around a dismal franchise, and Pete Carroll was at the forefront of the latest crop of head coaching geniuses (a group whose membership has always been subject to instant changes). The open disagreement with Carroll and his staff, however, gives at least the impression that the players do not have all that much faith in the coaches.
Contrast that with the way things have been in Dallas. Even during the seemingly endless 8-8 seasons (proof that time is different in sports, where three years become an era), all that you ever heard from the vast majority of the players was that they believed in what Jason Garrett and crew were doing. With the exception of a very small handful of malcontents who were not long for the roster, like Martellus Bennett, Kyle Orton and Jay Ratliff, everyone on the team seemed to buy completely into the now famous process and expressed nothing but faith that it would eventually pay off with success. People were generally not thrown under the bus. Over and over we heard how united this team was, and how much they believed in themselves.
"Intangibles" is a word that is thrown around a lot. Given its definition, it is not a very concrete idea, but this looks like one of the places where it may be in play. It is another reminder of just how the culture has been completely revamped in Dallas. Even in the dynasty days of the 1990s (another example of time dilation in the NFL, where "dynasty" and "four-year stretch" describe the same period), there were players who were not exactly all about the team. Charles Haley was perhaps the clearest example, although his since diagnosed and treated mental issues were certainly a factor. But Michael Irvin, who was a leader on the team, was also seen as bigger than the team with his frequently publicized and questionable extracurricular activities.
Name one player like that on the Cowboys today. The man Irvin refers to as his son, Dez Bryant, has completely cleaned up his act and gives no indication that he ever wants to be anything other than a Cowboy, albeit a very well paid Cowboy. From all reports, he is also one of the most popular players on the team, largely because he makes a deliberate attempt to connect with everyone in the locker room, no matter if they are a star or emergency backup scrub. DeMarco Murray, leading rusher and Offensive Player of the Year, is not exactly a colorful personality. Faced with the chance to cash in on his dominant performance in 2014, he still is stating openly that he really would like to continue wearing the Star. He even dropped hints that there might be a home town discount available, something that his agent was no doubt delighted to hear.
The Cowboys did not make it to the most recent Super Bowl. They were one of the series of unfortunate losses in the NFC side of the playoffs and have some reason to feel that they could have played the Patriots just as well as Seattle did - and would probably have not gone to a slant from the one-yard line. (Not only would they have had the leading rusher in the league behind one of the best offensive lines, but if they had decided to throw the ball, a back shoulder fade to Bryant in the corner was the most likely choice.)
Now, it may appear that the Cowboys are also better poised for success than the Super Bowl runner-up. Whether it is justified or not, Lynch has become a distraction because he continually shows open hostility and disrespect to the media, where all good controversies are born and raised. The team also has made public comments about Wilson becoming the highest-paid quarterback in the league, which is going to come with obvious cap implications.
But the possible rift in Seattle between the coaching staff and the players is what may be the most interesting to watch. Teams have had great success in the NFL only to suddenly slide into the nether regions of the standings in just a season or two. The Oakland Raiders went from 11-5 and a Super Bowl appearance to a 4-12 record, and they have a slight reputation for discord and conflict within the organization, or so it is rumored. It bears watching to see if the team from further up the West Coast is headed in the same direction.
For Cowboys fans, the fact that there is currently no sign of such issues can only be encouraging. It looks like that five year extension for Garrett was a very smart move by Jerry Jones, who has been making more and more of those lately (see: Passing on Johnny Manziel, AKA Johnny Rehab, to take Zack Martin, AKA All-Pro Rookie Offensive Guard).