The Specialty of Versatility

Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Originally published in 1776, Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations was largely concerned with economic growth. In order for growth to occur, Smith argued that a division of labor was necessary—in other words, jobs would become more and more specialized as a means of increasing efficiency. These ideas seemed prescient 100 years later as the world was in the early stages of the industrial revolution, and nobody embodied them more than Frederick Winslow Taylor. Factories sprouted up throughout the country, but lacked a clear and efficient means of organization. Enter Taylor. Factories became “Taylorized” by his system of scientific management, whereby people were assigned highly specialized jobs that met their skills. Henry Ford even consulted with Taylor in the planning of his Model T factory. The result was lower production costs, higher wages, and lower prices for consumers.

This isn’t just history, though. In 2011, The Harvard Business Review referred to our current economy as the “Age of Hyperspecialization”. Just last year, Forbes Magazine argued that the concept of a job is starting to go away. Instead of a “job”, say as a software designer, we are moving toward “roles” (such as coder, designer, etc.) where expertise is more important that experience.

The modern NFL is no stranger to specialization, either. For starters, take a look at coaching staffs. The Seahawks have one of the largest coaching staffs in the league, with 23 assistant coaches. This doesn’t count scouts, video experts, team physicians, psychologists, yoga instructors, and many other specialized positions that are crucial to the success of the team and organization. Some jobs are highly specialized--Brad Childress was hired by Kansas City to be a “Spread Game Analyst” this year. The Philadelphia Eagles even have a sports scientist on staff, whose precise role is somewhat shrouded in secrecy. There’s a very interesting read about him here.

All of these coaches are necessary because the game itself has become increasingly specialized. Here’s Chiefs coach Andy Reid as quoted in a New York Times article from earlier this year:

“You look at the game and the way the game has evolved, it has become specialized,” said Andy Reid, who moved to the Chiefs after a 14-season run in Philadelphia, which, like Kansas City, has 22 assistants. “You break it down and you have red zone, short yardage, nickel, and then you have all these different personnel groups, and so you try to hire teachers to teach all these things you want to do.”

This specialization of the game has also been influencing offensive trends over the past couple of years. It seems that an ever increasing number of teams are starting to move to a no-huddle, hurry up offense. This is especially true at the college level—I was particularly pleased to be at Husky Stadium last Saturday to watch UW unveil their new up-tempo offense. On Thursday night I watched Peyton Manning march his team up and down the field with nary a huddle to the tune of 49 points. There are several reasons for this increase, including an attempt to dictate the pace of the game and the philosophy that running more plays increases your chances of success, particularly if you have a good offense. In general, the more times Tom Brady drops back to pass, the greater the chances are that good things will happen. But another reason for the shift towards more no huddle is to make it difficult for the defense to get their desired personnel on the field for the particular down and distance. All of this tilts the odds in favor of the offense.

I found it interesting that as we all debated who should make the final 53 for the Seahawks, player versatility was a recurring talking point. To a certain degree, this is true for all teams, as everyone has to find players who excel at special teams in addition to their other positions. My perception though (which I admit could be colored by the fact that I am much less familiar with the inner workings of other teams) is that the Seahawks, in an age of specialization, value versatility more than most teams.

This desire for versatility helps explain why we invested so much draft capital and cash in order to get Percy Harvin. Though we’ll have to wait to see it, he has the potential to totally revolutionize our offense. In addition to returning kicks, Harvin can be lined up inside, outside, or even occasionally in the backfield. We can put him in motion, run screens for him, or hit him on a go route after play action. It’s a bummer we’ll have to wait, but I guarantee it’ll be worth it.

To a lesser degree, versatility also came into play in the Bennett and Avril signings as they can be lined up in different spots and fill different roles as well. Of course, other than versatility, these three acquisitions were driven by talent.

But we also look for versatility in the back half of our roster—in fact, it’s even more important there. We seem fairly intent on transitioning our FB position into more of an H-back/hybrid position. The Phil Bates experiment, Spencer Ware, and the occasional lining up of Luke Willson at FB in the preseason are all a testament to this seeming eventuality. Jermaine Kearse and Walter Thurmond both earned their spots on the field, but their success in the return game made those decisions even easier. We just signed Jameson Konz to the practice squad again, not just because he’s a freak athlete, but because he’s capable of doing several things on the field. Offense? Defense? Special Teams? He has experience with the team in each phase of the game. Alvin Bailey was so highly thought of in the preseason not only because he looked good, but because he can play guard or tackle. We could go on and on.

The Seahawks are obviously an excellent team because of their talent level. I would argue that the versatility of our players is also an important factor. A final factor is the type of players that we look for at positions in which versatility isn’t as important. Take cornerback and the offensive line as two examples. We look for different types of players at those positions than other teams. We zig when they zag. At corner, we value size and pressing ability more than speed and coverage ability—opposite of most teams. This has enabled us to find Browner and Sherman, and we’ll see what becomes of Tharold Simon, who nobody else seemed particularly interested in. On the offensive line (where versatility is important—see Alvin Bailey above) we look for quicker, zone blocking scheme lineman while most teams are looking for beasts and bruisers. It’s because of this that we can take a defensive lineman and turn him into a starting caliber guard within a year or two.

So, while the Seahawks are clearly flat out good, I think that a less talked about reason for their impending success is that while most of the NFL is doing things one way, they do it another. Hurry up spread offense? Let’s pound the ball and use play action. Increasingly specialized player roles? Emphasize and value players that can do more than one thing. Rest of the league looking for a specific type of player at a position? Find players that fit your particular scheme and look at what a player can do rather than what he can’t.

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