The day the Seahawks drafted Russell Wilson — April 27, 2012 — general manager John Schneider was intense. “His head was about to explode,” says former Seahawks owner John Nordstrom, who sat in the draft room that day.
Schneider had fallen hard for Wilson. He liked him so much that he wanted to draft him in the second round before coach Pete Carroll talked him out of it. The plan was to take Wilson in the third round.
Carroll and his staff liked Wilson, but Schneider loved him. “We were just trying to understand what he could see in a guy who was undersized at that position,” offensive line coach Tom Cable says.
Football is a funny business. No one gets into it lacking ego. In fact, many people get into because they have ego. And herein lies a question that can torpedo franchises: Where’s the line between a healthy ego that fortifies your convictions and a prideful one that clouds judgment?
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Schneider, of course, eventually netted Wilson in the third round with the 75th pick. But just as important is what happened next.
When Wilson arrived in Seattle, Carroll and his staff immediately saw why Schneider wanted him. The way he prepared, his ability to scramble and make all the throws, came alive.
“Blown away,” offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell says. “He was going to be great, or he was going to die trying.”
Carroll holds the most power in the organization, and Seattle had signed free-agent quarterback Matt Flynn for $26 million the month before. But Carroll didn’t blink. Shortly before the season, he named Wilson his starting quarterback.
“I’ve been in other organizations where that probably wouldn’t have been the case for a lot of reasons, whether it’s ego or money,” Bevell said. “Because all those things came into play in that situation.”
ONE OF THE FIRST THINGS the Seahawks asked of Cable surprised him. Cable had agreed to become Seattle’s offensive-line coach in 2011 after a messy three-year stint as the Oakland Raiders’ head coach.
Upon arriving in Seattle, Cable was asked to do something he’d never done before.
“If you’re in Oakland, this is who you take: The fastest guy, the biggest guy,” Cable said. “But coming here, the first thing they said was, ‘Would you go spend some time with the scouts and let them know what it is you’re looking for? Describe the linemen you’re looking for.’ And I was like, ‘Heck yeah, I’ll do that! That’s awesome.’ ”
The Seahawks have become one of the NFL’s best teams for a lot reasons, but many of them begin with little moments like that: Go talk to the scouts so they know what you’re looking for.
That starts with Carroll and Schneider, the men tasked in 2010 with turning the Seahawks around.
“Each of those guys wants to give the other credit,” Nordstrom says. “That never happens. Everybody’s scared about their job. Trust me, they are. That’s their No. 1 thing: self-preservation. Not with those two.”
The byproduct is flexibility. Scouts and personnel people don’t have to operate within rigid parameters, and the coaching staff is pliable enough to adapt their scheme.
Whereas many teams are looking for a square peg to begin with, the Seahawks are willing to make the hole once they get the peg.
“You just hope they can maintain it,” says Ron Wolf, former Packers general manager. “Because at some point that bubble is going to burst. When that happens, it’s how you react to that.”
THERE’S A MISCONCEPTION about how the Seahawks assemble their roster. The common thinking is that they look for players who fit their system when in reality they’re just as likely to find players they value and then adapt.
There are times the Seahawks look for specific traits. They like big cornerbacks, so they added Richard Sherman, Brandon Browner and Byron Maxwell. They like powerful running backs, so they drafted Robert Turbin and Christine Michael.
But then there are guys like K.J. Wright and Bobby Wagner. They had all the traits the Seahawks look for in linebackers, but Carroll and his staff weren’t quite sure where they fit.
“Our style is attacking, our style is aggressive, our style is fast and our style is smart,” linebackers coach Ken Norton Jr. says. “If we can find a player that fits that style, we can find them a place to play.”
In the case of Wagner, the Seahawks had a pretty good idea of where he’d play. Seattle had lost middle linebacker David Hawthorne and needed a replacement. Wagner fit the mold.
But the Seahawks didn’t immediately pencil him in. Wagner ran the 40-yard dash in 4.46 seconds, and that speed also made him intriguing at outside linebacker.
“When we say we didn’t know exactly, we didn’t pinpoint him as our next middle linebacker,” Norton says. “He was going to have to come in and show us that he can play that spot. And he did.”
Because of Wright’s size — he is 6 feet 4 with long arms — he projected as an edge rusher (think what Bruce Irvin does). When he stepped on the field, though, the Seahawks were surprised by his instincts and coverage ability. So they moved him.
Before a foot injury sidelined him in Week 14, Wright was a valuable outside linebacker who could handle some of the league’s best tight ends.
“People talk about traits, but we just look for different styles of players,” defensive coordinator Dan Quinn says. “And then when a guy has a good style, how can we feature that in our stuff?”
RED BRYANT IS ONE of Seattle’s most interesting cases.
In six seasons, he has never had more than 32 tackles or 1.5 sacks. Even his position — defensive end — is misleading because it conjures images of speed rushers hellbent on quarterbacks.
Bryant couldn’t be further from that, and yet he’s crucial to Seattle. He plays like a defensive tackle but lines up at defensive end. He is told not to worry about sacks. His job description is simple: Knock the guy in front of you backward and stop teams from running your way.
Bryant is a square peg who was once jammed into a round hole. Only when Carroll arrived did he fit.
Quinn was the Jets’ defensive-line coach the year Bryant came out of college. The Jets liked Bryant’s size and thought he could be a good fit as an end in their 3-4 scheme.
Instead, former general manager Tim Ruskell and the Seahawks drafted Bryant in the fourth round as a defensive tackle. Bryant is 6 feet 4 and has 36-inch arms, but that length made it hard for him to get leverage. As a result, he struggled.
When Carroll arrived in 2010 — Bryant’s third year — he retained Quinn, who had been Seattle’s defensive-line coach under Jim Mora. Carroll’s scheme requires a big defensive end capable of stuffing the run, and in Bryant he saw a perfect match.
The height and reach that led Bryant to struggle on the inside became an advantage against offensive tackles on the outside.
“If you’re a tackle and I’m on you and I get here on you,” Quinn says, fully extending his arms to show Bryant’s reach, “that’s hard to deal with. That’s what makes him a really valuable guy outside.”
Schneider drills his scouts to focus on what a player can do instead of what he can’t do. Seattle’s roster is littered with examples.
Safety Kam Chancellor faced questions about his speed and coverage ability. But the Seahawks liked his size, so they play him close to the line of scrimmage.
Irvin was viewed as a one-dimensional pass-rusher. But the Seahawks liked his rare combination of size and speed and decided they could find him a role.
“You’re looking for the nuances of why they’re successful and other teams aren’t,” says former Bears general manager Jerry Angelo. “They have the discipline to have a blind eye for the weaknesses.”
WHEN CARROLL AND SCHNEIDER took over in 2010, the Seahawks were too slow, too old and too small.
Joe Pawelek was an undrafted linebacker in camp that year, and when the idea of Carroll and Schneider changing the culture is raised, he laughs.
“They weren’t changing a culture,” he says. “They were creating their own culture.”
To do that, they became the grim reaper. In that first season, the Seahawks made an astonishing 283 roster moves. That revolving door set the tone for the way the organization would operate. Underneath the positive vibes and music at practices is a cutthroat tenacity.
“The thing that I see that’s happening so well is that John and Pete are not afraid to admit mistakes,” former Redskins coach Jim Zorn says. “And the way they admit mistakes is they move guys on.”
The most obvious example is Flynn, but there are plenty of others. Just this year the Seahawks cut rookie receiver Chris Harper, a fourth-round draft pick. He was one of the highest-drafted rookies released this season.
The Seahawks let go of fourth-round defensive end E.J. Wilson before the end of his first season. Same with fifth-round safety Mark LeGree. Receiver Kris Durham (fourth) and defensive lineman Jaye Howard (fourth) each lasted only a year.
“We’ve always tried to run our stores like Pete runs this team,” Nordstrom says. “The minute you give people a lot of negative, beatdown stuff, in our case we thought the customers could feel it. What we tried to tell the salespeople is, ‘We trust you, we’re not going to tell you how to do it. We want you to come up with your own way to do it.’ Football is obviously a little different, but what happens is without even trying people produce twice as much when they feel like that. That’s what Pete and John do.”
“But I’ll tell you what, when somebody doesn’t perform” — he rips his thumb backward — “they’re going to make a change.”
AT ONE POINT DURING Earl Thomas’ rookie season, Carroll approached his young safety with a warning.
“You know, Earl,” Carroll told him in 2010, “I might have to sit you down because it’s getting to the point where you don’t know what you’re going to do next.”
Thomas is a natural playmaker, and he’s fearless. But he lacked the experience to make educated guesses, and he gambled big.
“He made tremendous plays,” Carroll says, “but he made some good ones for the other guys at times, too.”
Carroll didn’t sit Thomas, but his message stuck. Thomas has turned into a serious candidate for defensive player of the year this season.
The other side of the Seahawks’ willingness to admit mistakes is their patience with young players. Carroll wasn’t like that during his first two stints as a head coach in the NFL. He relied on veteran players because he believed young players lost games.
But after his successful run at USC, when he routinely counted on freshmen, Carroll changed.
“He’s been rooting for me since he drafted me, and I appreciate that,” says receiver Golden Tate, drafted in the second round in 2010. “That’s something a lot of organizations wouldn’t have done. It took me two full years to really come on as a big part of this offense, so you have to be thankful for a head coach whose tail is on the line to be patient like that.”
Of Seattle’s 22 starters, 16 were either drafted by the Seahawks, signed as undrafted free agents or have been with Carroll all four years. The defense starts nine homegrown players, and five of Seattle’s six Pro Bowlers are guys Carroll and Schneider drafted.
“Bill Walsh used to say, ‘It takes five years before you can really bank on the experience of being together,’ ” Carroll said. “He referred to that as the reservoir of experiences that you have and can draw on, so when you’re faced with adjustments and adaptations, you’ve been through it before. So, four years, we’re getting there.”
NOT LONG AFTER WILSON was named the starter, Nordstrom told Carroll he admired his guts.
“Oh, no,” Carroll responded. “This didn’t take any guts. This was a no-brainer.”
The reality is the Seahawks likely wouldn’t be competing for a Super Bowl had they not drafted Wilson. As good as the defense is and as much as they run the ball, Wilson was the final piece. He is also emblematic of how the organization has come to power: a collaboration between a savvy front office, a coach willing to trust what he sees and, of course, a little luck.
“If you don’t have Russell Wilson,” former Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren said, “it’s not happening the way it is.”
Jayson Jenks: 206-464-8277 or firstname.lastname@example.org