“That’s just an amazing football team we have. ... It’s a really good team and we’re just getting started.” Pete Carroll in January of 2013
I won’t belabor this, but I did not believe and do not believe the 2005 Seahawks were victims of a conspiracy. I think they were victims of circumstance, luck and bias. To put it glibly, the Steelers seemed to be playing a home game, and that, on top of them being the more fun, youthful and nationally relevant team, gave them considerable advantage. That for a time was intolerable to me. But then it was my team that was young, charismatic, fun, marketable, nationally relevant, and if less obviously, seemingly favored by those whose favor mattered. This is a brief recounting of how that team was assembled, with particular emphasis on three players who best represented Seattle’s luck, keen eye for talent, and resourcefulness.
Pete Carroll and John Schneider ruthlessly rebuilt the roster. The enigmatic Scot McCloughan deserves credit too, as do the countless other people who played a part in scouting and developing the players of that team, but for the purposes of simplicity I will use Carroll and Schneider pars pro toto—a particularly important part to represent the whole.
Nearly every new front office is lucky in one particular way: The recently fired front office gifted them high draft picks. Years of sustained failure, like we’ve seen recently in LA and San Francisco, can also grant a new front office former high draft picks playing on team-friendly contracts. For all of Jim Harbaugh or Sean McVay’s supposed genius, inheriting Frank Gore, Joe Staley, Vernon Davis, Patrick Willis, NaVorro Bowman or Todd Gurley, Rodger Saffold, Michael Brockers and Aaron Donald helps tremendously. Six, a staggering six, of San Francisco’s starters on offense in 2011 were former first round picks by San Francisco.
Relatively, Carroll and Schneider were not that lucky. The Seahawks concentrated their bad play into two seasons, and from the one class of high draft picks which preceded the Carroll-Schneider era, only Max Unger contributed. Aaron Curry, we shall not talk about Aaron Curry.
But before he was fired into retirement, Tim Ruskell gave the Seahawks a lolly of a gift. In something of a challenge trade, Ruskell proved the smarter horse trader. Josh McDaniel, in his mostly forgotten stint running and coaching the Denver Broncos, traded Denver’s 2010 first-round pick for Seattle’s 2009 second-round pick. This sort of trade, a current second for a future first, occurred again in the very same draft when San Francisco traded a second and third-round selection for Carolina’s 2010 first-round selection. The impatient teams were left with Everette Brown and Mike Goodson (Carolina), and Alphonso Smith (Denver). The patient teams drafted Mike Iupati and Earl Thomas. This was the last time this kind of voodoo economics was attempted, for now and maybe ever.
Contributing to this windfall, Seattle needed what the 2010 draft had. In another year, Russell Okung very likely would not have lasted until the sixth-overall pick, but in 2010 the much better Trent Williams was also available. Likewise, Earl Thomas, who was not as much of a slam-dunk top-ten pick as Okung, fell in part because of Eric Berry. Berry was likely the most hyped safety to come out of college since Ronnie Lott and Kenny Easley. (I research these dumb little claims I make too, and I know guys like Eric Turner, Mark Carrier and Sean Taylor were also massively hyped, but in my self-created nebulous rating of “most hyped,” I would still put Berry first. (Not for nothing, but what tragic lives so many great young safeties have lived. Rest in peace, Turner and Taylor. Stay well, Berry and Easley.))
Keen Eye for Talent
This is surely the most widely recognized talent of Carroll and Schneider’s early years. To demonstrate this, I am going to devise a somewhat novel method. My goal is to contrast the value Seattle was able to derive from, say, Richard Sherman, compared to a typical, or even well-above average performance by a 5th round pick.
(I’ve become less and less enamored of Pro Football Reference’s AV. Consider that in 2013, Paul McQuistan, JR Sweezy and Tony McDaniel, were worth 7, 8 and 9 AV, respectively, while Cliff Avril, Byron Maxwell and Clinton McDonald were each worth 4, and you can see that AV places way too much emphasis on starting. Avril and McDonald actually played in more snaps than McDaniel while playing the more important half of a rotation.)
One reason I do this is because of what Robert Schenk calls “Tournament Theory.” We are inclined to think of draft picks who do not make it as scrubs, but in reality a very small difference in ability is magnified by a winner-takes-all dynamic. A team only has a few spots on its roster for any given position. The best player will play, while a very good player may languish as depth. Given the capriciousness of injury, the economics of signing free agents versus draft picks, the bias most teams have for those picks versus the great pool of unemployed players, and a very good player of potentially great potential may waste his entire prime simply because he is never able to unseat the starter. Which is why something like Washington’s win over Dallas in 1987, though Washington started only replacement (or scab) players, is possible. TL;DR version: it’s not fair to compare Sherman to the many fifth-round picks from 2011 who never made it.
So consider these partial draft classes in comparison to their bizarro, alternate-universe counterparts.
Kam Chancellor - Reshad Jones
K.J. Wright - Colin McCarthy
Richard Sherman - Chykie Brown
Byron Maxwell - Chris Rucker
Malcolm Smith - Nate Bussey
Bobby Wagner - Zach Brown
Russell Wilson - Nick Foles
Good drafting, to some extent, is simply having the need when a good player is available. But if Carroll and Schneider were lesser talent evaluators, it is easy to see how a seemingly similar talent could have been taken, and this whole magical ride would have never happened.
The three starters to bridge the gap from collapse to contention were Unger, Brandon Mebane and Red Bryant. Those three players were drafted by Ruskell in 2007, 2008 and 2009, respectively. Everyone else was traded, cut or strongly encouraged to find somewhere else to play. Well, except for Jon Ryan, who Ruskell signed to a six-year deal before his ouster...
Among those three starters, Bryant is likely the least notable or revered. But for those of us who also bridged the gap from collapse to contention, the unorthodox way in which he was repurposed, and how that rescued a colossal but foundering talent, represents one of the lesser recognized triumphs of the Super Bowl champion Seahawks.
Big Red was so damn talented. He was rare large with a naturally broad frame, long arms and surprising quickness. He’s also Seahawks royalty, being the son-in-law of Jacob Green. What he didn’t have though was any kind of position to play. He wasn’t an end, having little talent for pass rush, and his weight was situated too high for a typical defensive tackle, leading to furious and frenzied defeat as even lesser guards pushed and turned and even toppled the big man.
Carroll and Schneider had every reason but one to let the big man go. And that reason was, to some extent, inherited from Jim L. Mora’s failed tenure: The West Coast Defense. Seattle’s great defenses of the early 2010s were some of the most specialized and lopsided defenses to ever exist, as peculiar and seemingly problematic as Buddy Ryan’s 46. If an opposing offense could do anything it wanted, it seemed so very easy to counter Seattle’s weird plan, but NFL football, like chess, from its infinite possible ways of being played, seemingly only has a comparatively small number of viable ways to be played. Teams ran at Seattle even when the Seahawks were in their base defense. Teams still ran toward Seattle’s “big” side. I don’t know if a 4-3 has ever started a bigger base defensive end than Red Bryant. Starting a non-factor pass rusher at the arguably second-most important pass rush position seemed batty, but it worked.
Redeeming Bryant is only part of Carroll and Schneider’s resourcefulness. Seattle found a way to squeeze value out of almost every asset they inherited. Unger was moved back to center, where his iffy playing strength was less of a liability. Boy was I wrong about that. Mebane was re-signed. Players we (I) entrusted entirely too much hope into, Darryl Tapp, Lawrence Jackson and Josh Wilson, were traded. Rather than dispute the individual return of each player, it’s most fair to say all three were not worth as much as Chris Clemons alone. Clemons, like Bryant, was reborn in Seattle’s weird defense, becoming a borderline star.
I am a fan of Agadmator’s chess channel on YouTube, and the other day he mentioned in passing a Russian saying which I remember as “saving a drowning elephant.” The point being, as I understood it, that a person can become hopelessly entangled with a lost cause, risking personal disaster attempting to save it. Carroll and Schneider, to their credit, let the Ruskell-Mora elephant drown.
In doing, they didn’t just open the possibility of acquiring great players, they opened the possibility of players of great talent realizing that talent. To support this assertion, I offer a left-field analogy.
I’m not much of a gamer, in fact in the past I’ve suffered from compulsions, but recently I have enjoyed a multiplayer first-person shooter with my wife. It’s couch co-op, and we’ve played some hundreds of hours together while sheltering in place. A few weeks ago I recognized a phenomenon I think which could have profound implications. It works like this:
When my wife and I first started to play, I was a little bit better than her at the game. I had more experience playing first-person shooters, but we’re both pretty good. For the most part, we’ve only played together, but because every objective is mutually shared, mostly the objective of blowing monsters to pieces, I have consistently borne more of the burden of our success. This initial advantage led to greater responsibility and, essentially, more chances at practice. Little by little, I got better and better and better than her, until our separation in ability was stark. No offense, Honey.
In this time in which we are so concerned with leveling opportunity, and determining why persistent inequality exists, I offer this humble and kind of stupid analogy as a means of explanation. Something which marked the 2013 team, and all of Carroll’s teams early in his coaching tenure in Seattle, was a willingness to cut or trade established starters, bank on potential, and open the possibility that anyone, of any draft pedigree, any reputation, any degree of achievement, could win a starting job. What if Matt Flynn, with all his millions guaranteed, was, as is typical in just about every field of endeavor, given every opportunity to keep his job? What if Russell Wilson didn’t cut his teeth beating the Legion of Boom in practice? Or losing to it, for that matter? None of this happens. None of this happens.
Pete Carroll and John Schneider were lucky, undeniably luck, and undeniably less lucky than some. They also shot the moon a few times in the draft, but more than anything, building this amazing team realized an amazingly progressive vision about what fair competition actually means. It’s almost an anti-humanist vision, brooking none of the tolerable inefficiency which goes into retaining good employees past their prime, much less those sinecures who dot every organization of reasonable size. Yes, it was ruthless. But what is often unkind to those we know, those names we know, those who are entrenched, who were given the opportunity, those we may feel personally invested in, those who no longer earn their position but also have not earned their termination, is greatly kind to those we don’t yet know. Ten years ago, we didn’t know almost any of the players who would win Super Bowl 48. Three years later, they populated the greatest football team on earth.
Tomorrow: Games 1-8 of the 2013 Regular Season.