In the vast world of coaching, sometimes a coach will cut his teeth with an organization for a short time before becoming their bitter enemy many years later. This was the case with Pete Carroll. In 1995 and 1996, he served as the 49ers' defensive coordinator, cutting his teeth in defending against the increasingly complex passing offenses in the NFL while dreaming of the day that he would lead his own team to victory. San Francisco would wind up being the last spot that Carroll would serve as a coordinator before becoming a head coach. More than a decade later, he would return to the Pacific Northwest as the head coach of the Seattle Seahawks. From then on, he and the 49ers would forge one of the league's best rivalries.
Pete Carroll was down in the dumps. Having spent several years as the New York Jets' defensive coordinator, he thought that he was ready to be their head coach. But after a 6-10 finish in 1994, his first year at the helm, Carroll was fired. Humbled, he went looking for work.
It was just his luck that the defending Super Bowl champion San Francisco 49ers were looking for a new defensive coordinator. After an initial interview, Pete Carroll had the job. But it wouldn't be a seamless transition. Their former defensive coordinator, Ray Rhodes, had been well acquainted with the organization since he played for them back in 1980. From 1981 through 1991, Rhodes served as a defensive backs coach for the 49ers, instilling his vast knowledge of the inner workings of the league unto his charges. After a two-year stint as the Packers' defensive coordinator, he returned to San Francisco in 1994 just in time to enjoy a massive spending spree earmarked for their fifth Super Bowl championship.
It was a year full of bliss and wonder for Ray Rhodes as he had the incredible luxury of coaching some of the most recognizable names in the game including Ken Norton Jr, Rickey Jackson and Deion Sanders. But many of those players were signed to one-year deals, meaning that 1995 was destined to be a very different year for the 49ers' defense.
As expected, they performed at a championship level in 1994 and won their fifth Super Bowl. Amidst the glow of the sport's ultimate triumph, their coaching staff was raided by other teams searching for their own championships. As a result, they lost Ray Rhodes as he left to become the Eagle's head coach.
When Pete Carroll arrived, both defensive end Richard Dent and tackle Rhett Hall were on their way out, having spent just a single season in the City by the Bay. In his first season as a defensive coordinator, Pete Carroll didn't do much to bolster his defense as he was still trying to get to know the players that he inherited.
Like many great partnerships, Carroll and his defense took some time to warm up to each other. They underperformed in their first game against the Saints, giving up 22 points and barely getting out of New Orleans with a two-point win. The next two games were much better as they gave up just ten points against the Falcons and three points against the Patriots, two teams that were on the rise.
They lost their first game of the year against the Lions. Even though they maintained Detroit's best weapon, Barry Sanders, and held him to just 24 yards on 17 carries, the Lions quarterback Scott Mitchell constantly befuddled the 49ers' secondary, completing 28 of 42 passes for 291 yards and a touchdown.
After being stunned by a sub-par quarterback, the 49ers next played against the lowly New York Giants. The 49ers' defense was suffocating from start to finish. allowing just six points and sacking quarterback Dave Brown twice. What's more, they limited New York to just 33 yards on the ground.
After their bye week, Pete Carroll's defense readied themselves for the league's biggest surprise of the year, the Indianapolis Colts and their brash quarterback, Jim Harbaugh. Years later, Carroll and Harbaugh would wage one of the sport's spiciest rivalries which would stretch from Southern California all the way up to San Francisco and Seattle. Their first matchup would be a small window into a rivalry that would change both college football and the NFL.
The game was a defensive struggle as the powerful 49ers offense consistently took the ball deep into the Red Zone, only to be turned away by a resilient Colts defense. Meanwhile, the 49er defense held the Colts to just two field goals in the first half but failed to pressure Harbaugh on a consistent basis. By the second half, Harbaugh had figured out the Niner secondary and began picking it apart while enjoying a clean pocket throughout the afternoon. Throughout the second half, rookie tight end Ken Dilger constantly knifed through the 49er's underperforming secondary and ended the day with seven catches for 129 yards and the Colts' lone touchdown. It was the little things that ultimately cost Pete Carroll his first shot at Jim Harbaugh as his defense could only sack him once. The 49ers lost a 18-17 stunner.
After that disappointing loss, Pete Carroll's defense went on a tear the next three weeks, giving up a total of 34 points as the team beat the Rams but lost to the lowly Saints and the expansion Carolina Panthers in low-scoring affairs. The problem wasn't with his defense, the offense was struggling with injuries and was failing to find momentum.
Leave it up to the Cowboys to reignite the competitive flame that lay dormant within the 49er locker room. With a stagnant offense missing its leader in Steve Young and a defense that was picking up all the slack, the 49ers were not expected to beat the Cowboys, let alone in the venerable Texas Stadium. But they exceeded expectations on the game's very first play as Jerry Rice took Elvis Grbac's first pass 81 yards to the end zone. On the ensuing drive, 49ers safety Merton Hanks got his hands on a Cowboys fumble and took it 38 yards to the house. Suddenly, the 49ers had new life and they rode the momentum of those two early touchdowns to victory over the eventual Super Bowl champions. The Cowboys never stood a chance as the 49ers constantly harrassed Troy Aikman and Wade Wilson, sacking them a combined three times and forcing three interceptions. The game got so out of hand for Dallas that towards the end they were using little-known third-stringer Jason Garrett to take the final snaps of the upset.
It only got better from there for San Francisco as they went on a six-game winning streak. It wasn't so much that the defense was overly dominant, but all phases of the game seemed to click for the 49ers as they raced to the playoffs. Along the way, Pete Carroll's defense boasted six Pro Bowlers including defensive tackle Dana Stubblefield, linebackers Lee Wooddall and Ken Norton Jr. as well as defensive backs Eric Davis, Tim McDonald and Merton Hanks. With talent such as this spread so evenly, it was truly a wonder that anyone scored on this defense at all.
But when it comes to the playoffs in the NFL, something funny always seems to happen. The intensity intensifies to an extreme level and it exposes entire teams of what they really are. The 49ers were felled by the underdog Packers 27-17 in the opening round of the playoffs.
Even with six Pro Bowlers from his unit, Pete Carroll still wasn't quite ready to take ahold of an entire franchise. He still needed some seasoning. In that year's Draft, the 49ers added defensive ends Israel Ifeanyi and Daryl Price to a deep rotation. Though they drafted linebacker Sam Manuel with the Draft's final pick, they elected not to keep him as their linebacker unit was already pretty talented. Ultimately, none of these picks panned out and the 49ers' defense would soon pay the price.
Things started off well for Pete Carroll's troops as they gave up just 11 points in their first two games. But after their bye week they were caught napping in North Carolina as the upstart Panthers obliterated them 23-7. Even though he was sacked thrice, veteran quarterback Steve Beuerlein picked apart the 49ers' secondary, completing 22 of 31 passes for 290 yards and two touchdowns.
It appeared that the Panthers had awoken a sleeping giant the following week as the 49ers consistently harassed the Falcons' Bobby Hebert, sacking him twice and forcing three interceptions. Their offense was on fire throughout the game and Atlanta's 17 points were largely due to San Fransisco subbing players to prevent injury.
Two weeks later, the 49ers traveled to Green Bay. Even though they were undermanned, with Steve Young out with a concussion, the 49ers put up a valiant effort against the league's best. The defense kept them in the game as they completely shut down the Packers' run game, forcing Brett Favre to throw a career-high 61 passes. It wasn't a clean pocket either as they sacked him twice and forced two interceptions, including one by Dana Stubblefield. But alas, their effort was for naught as the Packers' depth ultimately won the game in overtime 23-20.
Even though they lost the game, the 49ers were brimming with confidence the following week as they played the dregs of the league, the Cincinnati Bengals. However, the Bengals surprised the 49ers, going up 21-0 by the middle of the second quarter. From there, the 49ers put together a solid all-around effort, ultimately winning 28-21.
From there, the rest of the season was pretty up and down for Carroll's defense. While their run defense was stellar up until the final two weeks, the pass defense was another story. Entering their Week 15 matchup with the Panthers, the two teams stood tied atop the NFC West. Faced with their last best opportunity to win their division, the 49ers faltered under the brilliant passing display of Kerry Collins who passed for 327 yards and three touchdowns while being sacked just once.
The 30-24 defeat would prove to be a stumbling block that the 49ers could never get over. As a result, they lost the division title and were forced to enter the playoffs as a wild card. But even as a wild card, they entered the playoffs on a hot streak, having won their final two games of the year while giving up 29 points between the two contests.
San Francisco's first opponent in the 1996 playoffs was the Eagles. This was perhaps Pete Carroll's finest job as a coach in the City by the Bay as the Eagles' offense was stifled all day and was held scoreless underneath the overcast clouds of Candlestick Park. The 49ers weren't as fortunate in Green Bay the following week and crumbled under the tremendous passing performance of Brett Favre. Weeks later, Pete Carroll was hired as the coach of the New England Patriots.