EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — After the Super Bowl, in the concrete corridor connecting the locker rooms of the Seattle Seahawks and the Denver Broncos, players and coaches came and went.
Peyton Manning and John Elway went one way, separately, a pair of aging quarterbacks left searching for their dose of validation.
Pete Carroll came the other. The coach of the Seahawks, he stepped into the locker room to a raucous celebration: players and team employees posed with the Lombardi Trophy and the introverted running back Marshawn Lynch danced to celebrate Seattle’s 43-8 victory.
Carroll called his players to the middle of the room.
“We have done everything the way we’ve wanted to get it done,” Carroll, his voice hoarse, shouted through the din. “I’m so proud, fellas, I’m so proud, that we are standing here, right now, in this moment.”
The moment felt like a change in direction for the National Football League. The league, built in tradition, had brought the Super Bowl to its New York metropolitan area headquarters and staged a game in the outdoor elements, a throwback to the pre-Super Bowl age. It provided the perfect backdrop for a pair of icons representing the league’s past 30 years — Manning, the 37-year-old Denver quarterback, and Elway, the Hall of Fame quarterback now running the Broncos — to stamp their storied careers.
On this evening, they were headed one way.
Then Carroll and the Seahawks came the other — all youthful enthusiasm, rah-rah coaching philosophies, a roster of overlooked players representing a ravenous fan base looking for its first championship to celebrate.
“What about this defense?” Carroll shouted, hoisting the trophy and eliciting cheers from the circle around him. He moved on to the offense, then the special teams. He listed players by name, he cited the power of the team’s fans in Seattle, and he implored the players to do something rarely suggested by a coach: He told them to stay up all night long.
Carroll, 62, is coaching his third NFL team but his first since lifting Southern California to college dominance and a national championship in the last decade. When he joined the Seahawks in 2010, he brought that collegiate enthusiasm and a belief in positive thinking to the NFL, where fun long has been considered a weakness to be eradicated by discipline.
General manager John Schneider overhauled Seattle’s roster, dotting it with heavy doses of undrafted players, the kind hungry to prove their worth. He drafted quarterback Russell Wilson two years ago in the third round, after all of the other teams overlooked him presumably because his height — 5 feet 11 inches — was deemed too short for an NFL quarterback, nothing at all like Manning. Or Elway. Even Manning’s backup in Denver, Brock Osweiler, was drafted ahead of Wilson.
“So many people told me I couldn’t do it,” said Wilson, who completed 18 of 25 passes for 206 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions, a performance that far outshined that of Manning, who on Saturday was named the NFL’s Most Valuable Player for the fifth time.
Seattle has one of the youngest teams in the NFL. Only three Super Bowl champions have had a lower average age: the 1974 Pittsburgh Steelers, the 1981 San Francisco 49ers and the 1985 Chicago Bears. The Steelers won four Super Bowls over six years, the 49ers won three in the 1980s, and the Bears were a powerhouse for several seasons.
The Broncos may well return to the Super Bowl next year, particularly if Manning returns, which seems likely — though that could change pending offseason exams of his surgically repaired neck.
But Denver feels like a team trying to squeeze something out of the present. The Seahawks feel like a team at the start of something big.
“If we stay together — we’re young, we’re talented — we feel like we can keep doing this and doing this and doing this,” linebacker Bobby Wagner said.
Against the Broncos, the Seahawks got touchdowns from five different players. One was Doug Baldwin, an undrafted receiver. Another was Jermaine Kearse, also undrafted.
Linebacker Malcolm Smith, who returned an interception for a touchdown, recovered a fumble and was named the game’s MVP, was a seventh-round draft pick in 2011. He had started three games before this season. Asked after the game about his 40-yard dash time at the post-college scouting combine, he said he was not invited.
Seattle’s top-ranked defense dismantled Manning and Denver’s record-setting offense, shutting out history’s highest-scoring team until the final play of the third quarter. The performance elicited instant comparisons to defensive champions of the past, like the Steelers of the 1970s, the Bears of the 1980s and the Baltimore Ravens of a more recent vintage.
It is a defense rooted in fundamentals and built on speed. During the season, the Seahawks practice tackling at Tuesday practices. During the Super Bowl, they made Denver look old and slow.
“We’re fast, we’re physical, and we played this game on our terms,” said Seahawks defensive coordinator Dan Quinn.
Many players credited Schneider and, especially, Carroll, for taking a chance on them and believing in their abilities when so many others did not. A recent poll asked NFL players which coach they would most like to have. It was Carroll, seemingly wired for the current generation amid a fraternity of old-school coaches.
“He’s the most positive, forward-thinking coach for the players of today that I’ve seen,” the Seahawks’ owner, Paul Allen, said in the locker room. “It’s just amazing.”
It was shortly after Allen gushed about his coach that Carroll, fresh from a news conference and other interviews, bounded into Seattle’s locker room.
Sometime before the team returned after the game, a banner had been hung that pronounced the Seahawks the champions. Carroll stood below it as he addressed the team.
“One more thing,” he shouted. “As close as we are right now, we will never be separated from this moment.”
The Seahawks finished with their usual routine.
“We all we got!” a player shouted.
“We all we need!” the chorus, including Carroll, sang. The refrain was repeated three times.
Then, in unison, a full-throated final question: “What’s next?”
The answer: a victory parade scheduled in Seattle on Wednesday, and a league left trying to figure out how to be more like the latest, newest Super Bowl champions.