GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Pete Carroll was going to be the happy face of the NFL, the guy who put the fun back in the No Fun League. He was one Marshawn Lynch yard away from talking up his back-to-back championships with Jimmy Kimmel or Jimmy Fallon or David Letterman -- or all of the above -- and showing the world you can create a pro football dynasty while acting like a child loose in a candy store.
All Carroll had to do was apply a little common sense to the final seconds of Super Bowl XLIX, and no, it wasn't too much to ask. Carroll had already won it all with the Seattle Seahawks and the USC Trojans. He had earned the unconditional respect of his opponent, Bill Belichick, who knew Carroll as a closer who had inspired Seattle to "compete relentlessly as well as any team and any organization I've ever observed."
Carroll just had to make a decision any Pop Warner coach worth his whistle and drill cones would have made. Lynch was in full you-know-what mode, barreling his way through the New England Patriots and carrying the Seahawks to the league's first two-peat since Belichick and Tom Brady pulled it off in a different life. Lynch already had 102 rushing yards and a touchdown to his name, and he had just planted Seattle on the Patriots' 1-yard line.
It was over. Game, set, overmatched. Brady and Belichick were going to lose their third consecutive Super Bowl after winning their first three, and they were going to lose in University of Phoenix Stadium on a catch by Jermaine Kearse that might've been more absurd than David Tyree's in this same building seven years back.
Carroll wasn't only about to prove he could rule a violent game with a sunshiny disposition; he was also about to prove he could take the X's and O's game from one of the greats. Seattle snapped the ball and handed it to Lynch for the team's last rushing play of the night with 1:06 left, and Belichick inexplicably failed to call one of his two remaining timeouts after the 4-yard carry, which allowed the Seahawks to bleed the clock down to 26 seconds before executing the obvious play.
Carroll and his offensive coordinator, Darrell Bevell, would give the ball to this generation's answer to Earl Campbell, and Lynch would score the winning touchdown and make the statement he was dying to make to his BFFs in the media: Now you know why I'm here.
But a not-so-funny thing happened on the way to a delirious flight back home. It rained on Seattle's parade. Instead of notarizing his standing as Belichick's equal, Peter Clay Carroll made the dumbest and most damaging call in Super Bowl history.
He asked his quarterback, Russell Wilson, to throw the ball. Wilson tried to hit Ricardo Lockette on a quick slant, and an undrafted rookie out of West Alabama named Malcolm Butler jumped the route and intercepted the ball to deliver the Seahawks the kind of crushing, endgame blow they'd delivered to the Green Bay Packers in the NFC Championship Game.
"There's really nobody to blame but me," Carroll told his team in the locker room.
He'll have to take this one to his grave too.
"I made the decision," Carroll said in exonerating Wilson and Bevell. "I said, 'Throw the ball,' and we went with the play that we thought would give us a chance to get in the end zone. We had great matchups for the call that we made, and it didn't work out. They made a better play than we did."
As much as Carroll did the honorable thing in assuming full responsibility, he also claimed he made the right call. The Seattle coach said he sent out three wide receivers for that fateful play, noticed New England was stacking the box for Lynch and decided to throw on second down, then run it on third and fourth down, if needed.
"We were going to win the game," Carroll said.
He meant on this pass play to oblivion. If the throw ended up an incompletion, Carroll figured it was no biggie.
"It's not the right matchup for us to run the football," he said, "so on second down we were throwing the ball really to kind of waste that play."
Yes, Carroll actually said that. With less than half a minute to play down 28-24 in a Super Bowl, he thought it was sound strategy to kinda, sorta waste a play. Lynch was ready to clean up the mess, anyway.
But every coach and player and fan knows an incompletion isn't the only unfortunate thing that can happen when a quarterback looks to pass. He can get sacked. He can get stripped of the ball. And he can get outsmarted by an undrafted rookie out of West Alabama.
"I knew they were going to throw it," Butler said.
So he cut in front of Lockette and won New England's first Super Bowl title in 10 years.
"When I let it go," Wilson said, "I thought it was going to be game over."
He was right. Brady would be named MVP after throwing four touchdowns and erasing a 24-14 deficit in the fourth quarter, and Carroll would assure his devastated players it was all his fault.
It didn't have to end this way. Butler didn't have to be the undrafted hero everyone was talking about. Carroll had a receiver, Chris Matthews, who had never caught an NFL pass yet was making like Jerry Rice all night, picking up where he left off after recovering that onside kick against Green Bay. Matthews had a job working at Foot Locker when Seattle called him. You know, like Kurt Warner had a job stocking groceries at a Hy-Vee before he won his ring with the Rams.
Carroll killed his own fairy tale.
"It was a really good play," he insisted of the throw that was picked off.
It was the worst Super Bowl play of all time.
Carroll once had Reggie Bush on the sideline -- instead of in his backfield -- at the end of a breathless national championship game he'd lose to Texas. Other smart guys have done some really dumbfounding things.
Gregg Popovich had Tim Duncan on the bench near the end of that disastrous Game 6 loss to Miami a couple of years ago. Grady Little left Pedro Martinez on the mound in that Game 7 in 2003 at Yankee Stadium. Rick Pitino didn't put a man on Grant Hill for that three-quarters-court pass to Christian Laettner that decided Duke-Kentucky in 1992 -- maybe the greatest college game ever played.
But this was the mother of all screwups. Pete Carroll, the successor to Dick Clark as the world's oldest teenager, got all silly and reckless at the worst possible time.
He cost his team the Super Bowl, and there was nothing even remotely fun about it.