RENTON, Wash. — Pete Carroll laughs at himself now. Ask him about the absence of his riverboat-gambler tactics lately, and he looks like a kid who remembers tipping over the cookie jar.
"That's a good question," Carroll said, grinning.
It's good because the Seahawks coach doesn't require much second-guessing anymore. He doesn't need to explain himself much, either. You don't hear him lamenting about being too "hormonal" after risky decisions to go for it on fourth down. You definitely don't have to listen to him reference "a flash of hormonal upsurge" after erroneously challenging an official's call.
And you don't have to hold your breath as he instructs his kicker to try a 61-yard field goal to win a game when there's still time to attempt one more pass.
Remember that one? When the Seahawks played Atlanta last season, they lost a 30-28 game in which, with 13 seconds to go, Carroll opted for Steven Hauschka's leg over a hot Tarvaris Jackson, who threw for 319 yards that day.
Hauschka's kick fell way short, and Carroll was criticized for one of the many questionable decisions he has made during his three seasons in Seattle. Back then, when the Seahawks were still raw and uncertain, you wondered if Carroll would ever remember that he's not at USC anymore and use sharper judgment.
Now, more than a year later, it has been weeks — no, months — since the coach has had to explain such an incident. The Seahawks, who play Atlanta in the NFC divisional playoff round today, have matured in stunning fashion over the course of this season, and so has their 61-year-old head coach. At his core, Carroll remains the same, aggressive, risk-taking coach, but he has tightened up his decision making.
Sure, he's still prone to some wince-worthy moments. He is, after all, the coach who called an ill-timed and unnecessary onside kick in St. Louis, which the Rams recovered and turned into a 60-yard Greg Zuerlein field goal. The Seahawks went on to lose that game 19-13 last September.
But as the Seahawks have improved, the coach has, perhaps inadvertently, streamlined his approach. He seems to have learned the NFL game again. He seems to have realized there is a difference between aggressive and reckless. He also has assistants, including special-teams coach Brian Schneider, who make sure he realizes all the consequences of each choice.
"Really, we've just been playing the game," Carroll said. "I have guys that jump in my face, and get nose to nose with me when those decisions come up, so that I think clearly. Because I always like to go for it. I've got a little format. You watch Brian Schneider. He jumps right in front of me, grabs me by the ears and makes me rethink it."
Carroll laughs at himself again. When you're coaching a team that has won eight of its past nine games, it's easier to be introspective.
It's not that the coach is arrogant. He often gambles within games because he's too hopeful. Carroll is the ultimate optimist. And during his USC tenure, that optimism often resulted in dramatic success.
"I got going for nine years straight of going for it every single chance you get — forever," Carroll said.
But he is learning that, in the NFL, being conservative is both a virtue and a life saver.
"I think we've cleaned things up," Carroll said. "We've got a good formula for doing it. It's interesting: It hasn't come up as much. We haven't had that many dramatic opportunities to go for it or not."
You get the feeling that, if the Seahawks advance far enough in the playoffs, Carroll will have to make some tough choices under great scrutiny. Will he continue to play it safe? Or will the riverboat gambler in him sneak out?
The coach inspires more confidence that he'll do the right thing. But that doesn't guarantee he'll do the safe thing.
"We've got guys talking in my ear," Carroll said.
He laughs at himself again. Then he leans into the microphone and provides the perfect, scariest cliffhanger.
Said Carroll: "But we're looking for those chances."