The perfect storm: How the Seahawks built a contender

The Seattle Seahawks are united by their supposed deficiencies -- and their Super Bowl aspirations.
January 28, 2014, 12:14 PM

From the Dec. 30, 2013 edition of Sportsnet magazine

Everyone who sees a Seattle Seahawks practice notices how unusual it is. Music blares from on-field speakers. Everything is loud and uptempo. Head coach Pete Carroll, even at 62, moves with the spirit and energy of a 26-year-old. He sprints from drill to drill, high-fiving everyone and everything in sight. The scene is nothing like your typical NFL session, where order and structure reign.

In Seattle, it’s organized chaos, and practices aren’t the only detour from NFL protocol. The Seahawks are unconventional—from the head coach to the quarterback to the structure of the front office and the roster: Up is down and down is up, and it starts at the top. In the NFL, GMs almost always choose their head coaches. In Seattle, the head coach was hired before the GM. Yet somehow, Tod Leiweke created the perfect partnership.

In 2010, Leiweke, then the Seahawks president, decided his team needed new leadership on the heels of a 5-11 season. His first move was to bring in Carroll, the highly successful college coach from the University of Southern California, who was intent on NFL redemption after past failures with the Patriots and Jets. Carroll then sat in on all of the GM interviews and was fascinated with John Schneider, the personnel chief from Green Bay who had significantly more experience than the typical 38-year-old executive. The two hit it off and the foundation of the Seahawks was laid in that meeting; then the house was built by Carroll and Schneider.

Only four players remain today from the roster they inherited in 2010, and their approach has been as unconventional as their hiring process. It’s also been wildly successful. The Seahawks have built the most complete 53-man roster in the league—and the strangest. They rank in the top 10 in offence, defence and special teams. The most surprising thing is the players they’ve been doing it with.

It starts with a pint-sized quarterback who nobody else thought would ever become an NFL star. They’ve brought in castoffs from around the league. They’ve found hidden gems late in the draft. And nearly every move has worked—but still they won’t stop tinkering. In Schneider’s first year as GM, the Seahawks made a league-high 284 roster transactions. “One thing I always knew about John was he was driven to find the best players,” says former Packers executive Andrew Brandt, who worked with Schneider for five-plus seasons in Green Bay. “The Seahawks go through more player transactions and tryouts than any team in the league. And that’s John. He finds a way to find players and he’s not going to stop. He’s relentless in his approach.”

Carroll and Schneider’s most controversial move was also the Seahawks’ defining moment. They were panned when they took five-foot-eleven quarterback Russell Wilson in the third round of the 2012 draft. The consensus around the league was that Wilson was too small to be a proficient NFL quarterback, but Schneider disagreed. He saw a player who had every attribute to succeed at the position other than height. He saw Drew Brees 2.0.

Wilson has delivered on Schneider’s assessment. Since winning the starting job in his first training camp, he has led the Seahawks to back-to-back playoff appearances, tied Peyton Manning’s rookie touchdown record and won more games over his first two seasons than any other quarterback in NFL history.

Except for those missing inches, Wilson is the complete package. He’s a more patient Doug Flutie with better arm strength. Wilson can make all the throws, but his best asset is his mobility. His small stature is no longer a drawback; it’s been turned into an advantage with his ability to move around the pocket, evade blitzers and create passing lanes. His escapability and accurate throws on the run set him apart from most young quarterbacks. Nobody believed, and now nobody can take their eyes off him. “He’s mature beyond his years,” says Hall of Fame quarterback Warren Moon, who does radio play-by-play for Seahawks games. “[Wilson] already had a routine in place—most rookies are trying to find their way and adjust to the NFL—with the way he studied, the way he took care of his body, the way he ate. He’s got the talent to go along with the work ethic.”

Wilson is the most obvious example, but he’s really just a prototypical Seahawk. Seattle is the NFL’s island of misfit toys—they’ve found players who were discarded, either ignored in the draft or cut from the roster, and made them work for the team. The Seahawks have the league’s smallest quarterback, but the biggest pair of cornerbacks in six-foot-three Richard Sherman and six-foot-four Brandon Browner. They have Red Bryant, a 320-pounder, at defensive end. Their strong safety Kam Chancellor is built like a linebacker, and wide receivers Doug Baldwin and Golden Tate look more like cornerbacks.

Carroll learned the value of big corners early in his coaching career. He was fascinated when he attended a practice as a young coach and saw Lester Hayes and Michael Haynes with the Raiders. He wanted the same big, long and physical cornerbacks in Seattle, and the group he found has been better than he ever could have hoped. They hit you in the mouth. They talk trash. They call themselves the Legion of Boom. They interrupt passing routes. They have the ball skills of wide receivers. They’re the core of the league’s No. 1 defence and they act like it. In the words of Sherman, the star of the secondary, “It’s always nice to put on a show.”

You’ve seen “the run.” Everyone’s seen the run. Marshawn Lynch takes the rock in the fourth quarter against the New Orleans Saints in the playoffs. The game is in Seattle but the Saints—an 11-5 wild-card team travelling to face the Seahawks, NFC West winners by default at 7-9—are heavy favourites. The ground shakes, Saints defenders become bowling pins, and 67 yards and eight broken tackles later, a legend is born. There hasn’t been another run with that kind of force since. It registered seismic activity in the Seattle area and garnered a million YouTube hits. It’s the moment the Seahawks’ rebuild began to bear fruit.

From the day he was hired, Schneider wanted to turn the Seahawks into a big, physical team in the same mould as the Ravens and Steelers. He knew Lynch was the perfect piece. And because the Seahawks collect players whose value goes unrecognized by other teams, all it took was a couple of mid-round picks to acquire Schneider’s favourite runner from the Buffalo Bills, where Lynch had fallen out of favour. He was in trouble off the field and his on-field productivity was diminishing. While others saw a declining, risky player, Schneider viewed Lynch as an undervalued commodity. “I remember being in the draft room [in Green Bay with Schneider] and Marshawn was someone he really liked a lot,” Brandt says. “The Bills took him a couple picks before us and I remember how upset he was.”

As a Seahawk, Lynch quickly became one of the best running backs in football. He is en route to a third straight Pro Bowl and has more rushing yards than any other back since the middle of the 2011 season. He embodies everything about the Seahawks philosophy: Talent is everywhere, if you know where to look. Carroll spent close to a decade recruiting college players, many of whom the Seahawks now employ.

Seattle found Chancellor, a Pro Bowler, in the fifth round of Carroll and Schneider’s first draft. A year later, they added linebacker K.J. Wright in the fourth round, found Browner in the CFL and brought in undrafted free-agent receiver Baldwin—who quickly became the first undrafted rookie to lead his team in receptions and receiving yards since 1960. “One of the things he did so great at USC was find talent,” Moon says of Carroll. “If he didn’t find them, he knew who they were. He had been in their homes. He had visited their parents. He knew their backgrounds. He kept files on all these players.”

That background info helped during preparation for the 2011 draft, when the Seahawks were scouting a raw cornerback named Richard Sherman, who spent the majority of his college career at Stanford playing wide receiver. Carroll was one of the few college coaches who recruited Sherman to play cornerback, so it was no surprise when the Seahawks selected him in the fifth round. Thirty-one cornerbacks were taken that year before Sherman—and he remembers. “Five rounds of teams just passed, passed, passed, passed,” he said in February. “I know every single one of them. I know everyone who went ahead of me.”

At USC, Carroll learned the value of putting young players on the field. The Trojans played more freshmen than any team in the Pac-12 and it paid off with one of the best seven-year stretches in modern NCAA history. Schneider shared that view, coming from a Packers team that ranked amongst the youngest in the league. The Seahawks have taken on that same identity and it’s paid immediate dividends, as Sherman, Wilson, Bruce Irvin, Bobby Wagner, Baldwin and 2013 draftee Luke Willson have all contributed as rookies.

In Seattle’s eye-opening victory against the New Orleans Saints on Monday Night Football, the depth of talent was obvious, but so were their unheralded origins. Three of the Seahawks’ four starting wide receivers were undrafted free agents, and the defence that shut down Drew Brees was starting three players in the secondary who were drafted in the fifth round or later.

The rest of the league has noticed—15 of the players Seattle released in 2013 were signed by other NFL teams. That’s a validation of the type of competitive roster Schneider and Carroll promised to build. It’s a drastic shift from the previous regime under GM Tim Ruskell, which shied away from prospects with any sort of risk. Ruskell’s administration drafted only one Pro Bowl player over his entire five-year tenure. In Schneider and Carroll’s first draft, they found three (Earl Thomas, Russell Okung and Chancellor). Last year they had six players at the Pro Bowl. This year they’ll have more.

When you swing for the fences, though, you’re bound to miss sometimes. Seattle brought in Charlie Whitehurst, Tarvaris Jackson and Matt Flynn at quarterback before settling on Wilson. They drafted underwhelming guard James Carpenter in the first round. But the positives have outweighed the negatives. Carroll and Schneider aren’t scared of taking chances and that attitude has built the Seahawks into a Super Bowl contender.

Moon sees the second coming of the 1990s Dallas Cowboys. They have the great young quarterback mixed with young talent. They have the fiery coach everyone believes in. Now all they need is the trophy.

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