Given a choice, players pick Carroll

Given the opportunity to articulate what they'd want in a head coach, most players would say similar things. They'd covet honesty, fairness and intelligence above all else. Dictatorial is a quality they'd do without. Players basically desire a coach they can trust -- with their careers and with their dreams -- and they'd relish the chance to find such a man. That probably explains why Seattle's Pete Carroll is held in such high regard. No coach in the NFL can make players feel so good about coming to work.

A survey recently conducted by ESPN.com of 320 players revealed that Carroll is far and away the most appealing coach to play for these days. Carroll received 72 votes, or 23 percent of the final tally. Those numbers are more revealing considering that the second-ranked coach on that list, Pittsburgh's Mike Tomlin, received only 44 votes, and the third, Denver's John Fox, garnered 25. Rex Ryan of the New York Jets ranked fourth with 23 votes. New England's Bill Belichick, a man with three Super Bowl victories, wound up fifth with 22 votes, tied with Kansas City's Andy Reid.

What these results tell us is that the bottom line isn't the most important factor in determining player happiness. If all they cared about was winning a championship, they wouldn't have picked five head coaches in the top seven who haven't hoisted a Lombardi trophy. Many players want to enjoy the journey as much as the final destination. This is where Carroll's true genius resides.

Carroll has gone out of his way to separate himself from nearly every other head coach who has worked in this profession. One visit to the Seahawks' offseason practices should tell an outsider that much. Carroll will blast music from players' iPods during full-team drills, interact with guests who come by to watch and carry himself as if he's the host of a house party instead of the multimillion-dollar face of an NFL franchise. He seems capable of having more fun in one afternoon than most coaches have in an entire season.

That unbridled pleasure is something players notice and share with their peers around the league. It leads to inspiration and interaction while creating a bond that is the foundation of Carroll's success in Seattle. He hasn't built the NFC's best team this season solely by knowing what kind of talent he needs to win. He also has done it by understanding the optimal way to use that talent once it arrives.

Carroll has introduced his team to such outside-the-box ideas as brain-performance testing. He has worked with a team psychologist who keeps "status profiles" on players -- charts that track how much sleep they're getting, how they're coping with stress and whether they're reaching their goals. Yoga and therapy are sold as reliable ways of maximizing potential. It's almost as if Carroll should be strolling the sideline in a tie-dyed T-shirt and Birkenstock sandals.

The beauty of his approach is that he isn't just experimenting with new methods. Carroll fully believes that compassion is a vital factor in winning football games. His mantra is Always Compete, and he applies that mindset to everybody who works in the building. In the end, Carroll comes off as a man who ultimately wants to see the best come out of everybody, mainly because of how much joy he would take in seeing somebody else attain that level of success.

The players who have watched him from afar see the results. Carroll led the Seahawks to the NFC West title in 2010, his first year with the team. The skeptics who belittled that success -- Seattle won the division with a 7-9 record -- were more impressed last season, when the Seahawks became one of the league's most improved teams before losing to Atlanta in the NFC divisional playoff round. This season, there's been little question about how dangerous the Seahawks have become. They've been the best team in their conference all season and a clear-cut favorite to reach this year's Super Bowl.

Carroll would be the first to say Seattle's rapid rise has plenty to do with the faith of Seahawks owner Paul Allen. Carroll was considered too quirky in his previous NFL head-coaching jobs (the New York Jets in 1994 and the New England Patriots from 1997 to 1999), a man whose exuberance and easy-going style were believed to be better suited for college football. It was only after Carroll won a national championship at USC that he found a franchise willing to let him do things his way. In fact, the first major decision he made in Seattle was to overhaul the roster until he had exactly the types of personalities he needed to compete.

Carroll has acknowledged that timing has had everything to do with his success. He needed to be fired from those other NFL franchises, to hear critics slam his tactics and to redefine himself as a college coach. His time at USC allowed him to see fully what his approach could do when he had all the power. When he returned to the NFL, he had the confidence and the control to take his ideas to the next level.

What Carroll has attained today is something that is much harder to do than it looks. The Jets' Ryan might be as likable, but his act wore thin in that city two years ago. Belichick has the titles, but he also has stifled individuality within that franchise and never revealed much personality to the general public. There are plenty of other men on this list who have strong traits and successful résumés -- including Denver's Fox, Kansas City's Reid and New Orleans' Sean Payton -- but they are missing something Carroll clearly has.

That doesn't mean they are lesser coaches. It's only proof that they haven't made the same impression around the league that Carroll has. That's largely because Carroll has mastered the art of giving everything of himself and baring his soul as much as any head coach can. It's a rare feat for any man running an NFL team to attempt. It's quite remarkable to see somebody pull it off as effectively as Carroll has in Seattle.