Sources: Falcons want to interview USC's Carroll for head coaching vacancy

ATLANTA -- Having so far limited their search to current NFL assistants, the Atlanta Falcons may be about to move outside the box and significantly raise the profile of candidates for their head coaching vacancy.

Multiple sources told ESPN.com late Tuesday night that the Falcons are pursuing Pete Carroll for an interview. If Carroll agrees, and the logistics can be arranged, the Southern California coach could huddle with Atlanta owner Arthur Blank by the weekend. Carroll, who has previously been a head coach in the NFL with the New York Jets and New England Patriots, would certainly become the biggest name on the list of Atlanta candidates.

Carroll, 56, recently completed his seventh season at Southern California with a resounding victory over Illinois in the Rose Bowl. He has led the Trojans to two national championships and compiled a 76-14 record. The 14 defeats have been by an average of just 4.1 points.

Southern California was 11-2 this season and many observers felt that, had it not been for injuries, the Trojans might have vied for the national title. Carroll's .844 winning mark at Southern California is the best in the nation among active coaches with at least five seasons of experience.

Over the past few seasons, there has been rampant speculation that Carroll might be lured back to the NFL, but he has rebuffed all overtures to return to the pro game. Conventional wisdom is that Carroll would only consider an NFL job if he had full control over the football operation. That likely would not be the case in Atlanta, where Blank is seeking a new general manager as well as a head coach.

But sources said the Falcons might be willing to grant Carroll far-reaching responsibilities and that the USC coach, who could assemble a very strong staff, could be intrigued by the challenge of resurrecting a franchise that has been through a turbulent year and has become all but irrelevant on the Atlanta sports scene.

In his first NFL head coaching stint, Carroll lasted just one season with the Jets, taking the team to a 6-10 record in 1994. He coached the Patriots for three seasons, 1997-99, and was 28-23, with one division title and two playoff berths.

The Falcons suffered a bad experience this season with a coach hired from the college ranks, when Bobby Petrino, formerly of Louisville, resigned with three games remaining to fill the Arkansas vacancy. But unlike Petrino, who had been an NFL assistant for three seasons, Carroll has prior head coaching experience in the league and was an assistant coach and defensive coordinator for 12 years as well.

On Tuesday, the Falcons continued their simultaneous searches for a general manager and head coach.

Franchise officials interviewed two more general manager candidates, New York Giants vice president of player evaluation Chris Mara and Jacksonville Jaguars director of college scouting Gene Smith, in Atlanta on Tuesday. That raised to five the number of men with whom the Falcons have met about their GM job.

The Falcons on Monday interviewed Philadelphia Eagles general manager Tom Heckert for the same position, and there is a strong sense in league circles that the veteran talent scout is the front-runner for the job. Heckert, 40, has been highly recommended by Eagles owner Jeff Lurie.

Last week, Blank and team president Rich McKay interviewed a pair of Green Bay scouting officials, director of pro personnel Reggie McKenzie and personnel analyst John Schneider, for the general manager position. The two were set to meet with Indianapolis vice president of football operations Chris Polian last Thursday about the GM job, but he opted to remove himself from consideration.

The general manager vacancy was created when Blank three weeks ago announced that McKay would lose oversight of the personnel department. McKay last week agreed to a two-year contract extension, through 2010, to remain on board as the team president.

On the head coaching front, the Falcons sought and received permission to interview Tennessee Titans defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz. One of the league's brightest assistants, and a runner-up for the San Francisco 49ers head coach spot a few years ago, Schwartz is expected to meet with the Falcons later this week.

The Falcons also sought permission to interview Giants defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, who is in his first season in that capacity. Despite reports that New York officials denied permission for a meeting with Spagnuolo, that is not entirely the case. The Giants, who are in the playoffs and preparing for a division-round matchup against Dallas on Sunday, only asked that the Falcons delay an interview until their season is over.

Spagnuolo is a former Philadelphia linebackers coach and worked with Heckert while with the Eagles' organization.

The Falcons have interviewed four head coach candidates: Dallas assistant head coach Tony Sparano, Cowboys offensive coordinator Jason Garrett, Indianapolis assistant head coach Jim Caldwell, and former Baltimore defensive coordinator Rex Ryan.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer with ESPN.com.