Written by Kip Earlywine
Fellow blogger compatriot Brandon Adams of Seahawks blog 17power, posting under the moniker MontanaHawk05, had a nice writeup earlier today in which he critiques the Seahawks current regime. After reading through it, I figured I’d give my own, since I see things through a bit of a different prism than Brandon does, even if I agree with most of his substance on the subject.
You might want to grab a cup of coffee, this will be a long post. Since its going to be so long, I might as well talk about how I go into an evaluation. Knowing the reviewer is as important as knowing the review. For example, a thumbs up from Simon Cowell always meant something different than a thumbs up from Paula Abdul, because they had different standards and criteria to go by. I don’t believe that I can convince everyone to my point of view, but instead I only hope to reach out to like minded thinkers and become a useful source of information, or at the least, an entertaining, thought-provoking read.
Everyone thinks differently. Its biological- every brain is a little different and develops differently, so for you to understand how I rate something, I’ll try to explain my thought process first. First, the way my mind operates is a little different than most people. I had childhood seizures, which temporarily shut down parts of the right side of my body. Seizures are known to cause brain damage to specific brain nodes. This in turn can lead to altered brain development, especially when it happens to children. Perhaps because of those events, I’ve developed into a right brain dominant thinker. In extreme cases, this kind of unbalanced development can produce “idiot savants”, e.g. people like the Rain man: People who possess one incredible gift but are so lacking in everything else. I’m not an idiot savant, but I guess you could say I fall on that side of the spectrum.
Only 5% of people are right brain dominant. 95% of people are left brain dominant. Left brained people feel most natural with logical arguments and facts. They prefer compartmentalized thinking. They look at problems and break them down into smaller, more manageable pieces to solve them, kind of like that scene in Pulp Ficton where “the wolf” (Harvey Keitel) shows up to help Jules and Vincent clean up Marvin’s brains splattered all over the back of their car by breaking the overwhelming reality of the situation into smaller, easier to accomplish tasks.
By contrast, right brain dominant people (like me) struggle with compartmentalized thinking (I bombed out of engineering school, twice, because of issues solving complex multi-step processes), and strongly gravitate towards holistic thinking instead. Holistic thinking means to view something as a whole. Holistic thinkers simply look at something and just “know.” Idiot-Savants often don’t understand how they are producing their amazing results, and when asked how they calculate unfathomable math problems in their head, they simply say that the final answer just appears in their mind. This is why I hate when people bash things like the ” ‘it’ factor” because they are unwittingly bashing the usefulness of holistic thinking. Even left brained people still rely on their right brain functions a lot, and you don’t have to be the Rain Man to benefit from its powerful abilities. Sometimes the most potent observations are the ones we just know, even if we’re not exactly sure why.
Because most people are left brain dominant and therefore innately logical, grounded to facts, and compartmentalized in thinking, its common to see a review for something that breaks down the subject into parts and then gives a final score based on the sum of those scores. So for example, if you were reviewing a movie, you might give it an 8/10 for directing, a 7/10 for acting, a 5/10 for cinematography a 4/10 for music and a 10/10 for story, and therefore add those pieces up for a 34/50 overall score. But if you asked people who just walked out of the theater what they thought, they’d probably think that score was way too low because the story carried the movie. As the saying goes, some things are greater than the sum of their parts.
To me, I think its an over-reach to suggest that Seattle’s current regime deserves a 7/10 or an 8/10 based on a handful of petty flaws. I think for some people, they view a perfect score as something mythical that should be approached but never reached. Scouts are known to use an evaluation scale from 1 to 8. Because scouts are trying so hard to remain fully objective they often add up the scores of the parts when giving the evaluation. As a result, prospects that score an 8/8 are extremely rare because almost everyone is weak at something. A scout may go his whole life without giving a player an 8. Even 7s are pretty rare.
Giving this front office a lukewarm grade for stuff that really doesn’t matter is akin to giving The Shawshank Redemption 3 stars because the pacing was too slow, or downgrading The Dark Knight because it’s a comic book adaptation (name your own example). Sometimes you just know greatness when you see it. That’s not to say that I think people who grade that low are wrong, everyone is entitled to an opinion. But because of the way I think, I might agree with 99% of what someone says and still give this regime a 10/10 while they give a 7/10 or an 8/10.
I don’t see the need to be so stingy with a grading. Even the very best front offices (and I believe Seattle is easily one of them) have a few small mistakes here and there. Green Bay is considered to be one of the best, if not the best drafting teams over the last several years, but they have made plenty of iffy 1st round picks, including Jamal Reynolds and Justin Harrell, who were both epic busts. Rather than try to grade Seattle based on every move they’ve ever made, I take a much shorter route by simply looking at the direction of the team two years ago and looking at it now. Even to the untrained eye, the difference between those two trajectories is enormous.
What this regime walked into and how they performed despite it:
Pete Carroll and John Schneider inherited a 5-11 team, but that’s deceptive. The previous year’s team had lost its final four games by a combined score of 123-37. The combined record of those final four opponents was just 31-33. Only one of those four teams would make the playoffs. That stretch also included a 24-7 loss at home to a 1-11 team that prompted this heated yet appropriate headline. Football Outsiders formula for the 2009 Seahawks “estimated wins”, which is based on how well the team actually played, was only 3.7 wins. The Seahawks true talent level was a 3 or 4 win team that was sharply trending downward. That continued a trend that had been going on for years under Tim Ruskell:
Estimated Wins (football outsiders):
This is the situation Pete and John walked into. The Seahawks were already one of the worst teams in the NFL and the horizon was even bleaker. The roster was full of old veterans and devoid of difference making talent. The roster had very few good young players to build around. There is a reason, a damn good reason, why the Seahawks were a hot tip to “earn” the #1 pick before the 2010 and 2011 seasons. With such an incredibly crummy roster, fans braced for the worst. The first two years were a near certainty to be harrowing. Instead, this happened:
Estimated Wins (football outsiders):
To say “not bad” would be a tremendous understatement. The shambolic 2009 team this regime inherited posted a horrific -42.4% weighted DVOA, a number that would be good enough for worst in the NFL some years. Weighted DVOA is a measurement of how well or poorly a team played relative to the rest of the league that year, measured literally play by play. Only the 1-15 Rams and 2-14 Lions were (barely) worse that season. In 2011, Seattle’s weighted DVOA was +8.7%. It was the 12th best such number in the league. This regime inherited a team that was among the very worst in the league and trending downward. In just two years, they not only avoided becoming the worst team in the league, they turned it into a fringe contender that is trending further upward.
So now that we know what happened, lets take a look at why:
What are this regimes strengths?
#1: A creative and thorough approach to free agency
The biggest strength of this regime is their combined effort to unearth talent in unlikely places. While the rest of the league is obsessed about signing the Mannings and Williamses of free agency and not missing on their 1st round pick, the Seahawks instead focused on attacking market inefficiencies and finding talent that could be had for almost nothing. Last year, the Seahawks had a historically strong haul in undrafted free agency that included Doug Baldwin and preseason standouts Josh Portis and Jeron Johnson. I can’t help but suspect that Seattle was aided by the fact that due to the strange nature of last offseason (lockout), undrafted free agency began at the same time as normal free agency. While most of the teams in the league were burning up the phone lines to bring in top free agents, the Seahawks were going full court press for UDFA’s like Doug Baldwin instead. Because the rest of the league’s attention was diverted, Seattle held a tremendous advantage in undrafted free agency that year.
Seattle also finds great value by breaking free agency into multiple phases. To most NFL teams, there is only one phase of meaningful free agency, and it lasts for about two or three days in March. To the Seahawks, meaningful free agency is a nearly year round endeavor. This approach is the main reason why Seattle turned the team around so quickly. Seattle added quite a few good players from the 2010 and 2011 drafts, but they added dozens of quality veterans in that span from their approach in free agency. They didn’t add very many star players from this approach, but they added multiple solid starters and enough depth to actually get better after suffering a wave of injuries in 2011.
During the main thrust of free agency, this regime is patient and shops for value instead of shopping for big names.
#2: An inclusive approach to the draft
I wrote an article about this subject a few months back, but to express the idea in a sentence or two, the Seahawks astounding success in their first two drafts (already as many pro-bowlers as Tim Ruskell drafted in five years, and should be more) is not purely luck nor an accident. The team doesn’t exclude any player, whether it be for character reasons, experience, injury, or school size. By doing so, the team works with a much larger pool of talent and with a larger pool of talent, and is able to make better picks in every round of the draft, particularly the late rounds.
It doesn’t hurt either that both Pete and John know their stuff when it comes to evaluating talent.
#3: Coach/GM/scouting cohesion
Usually a GM/Coach relationship will include a dictator and dictated to. In some cases, like Holmgren and Ruskell, both parties believe they are the dictator. Pete Carroll may wear the pants in the relationship, but he treats Schneider like an equal and trusts his evaluations and hard work. One of the insider info things I’ve heard in the past is that when the team reviews players, they sit down with everyone in attendance (including assistant coaches) and all watch multiple game tapes together, then go around the room to get opinions. Seattle acquires players based on what the coaches need to run their scheme, that’s why they made trades like dealing Tapp for Clemons and a 4th. Tapp was a better pass rusher than his stats, but Clemons fit the LEO role better and the regime smelled an opportunity.
#4: Due diligence
Does any team in the league kick as many tires as this one does? Similar to the draft, where Seattle is successful because they keep so many options open, the Seahawks’ secret to success in free agency and trade is also keeping as many options open as possible.
#5: A willingness to learn from mistakes and evolve instead of stubbornly sticking to dogma
This regime has made mistakes, almost all of them in 2010 when they thought they knew the roster they were inheriting but really didn’t (more on that later in the negatives section). If Pete Carroll was an egomaniac, Aaron Curry would still be here, and Pete Carroll would still be wasting his time trying to turn Curry into Julian Peterson. Instead, Carroll cut Curry loose as soon as it was clear things weren’t working out, and did it while Curry still had enough value to net two draft picks in return.
Carroll is a proud Monte Kiffin disciple, and you have to believe a big draw for him coming here was Seattle’s existing Tampa 2 defensive scheme complete with zone coverage. Unfortunately, Seattle’s zone coverage in 2009 was an abomination and it actually got worse in 2010. Rather than stubbornly stick with zone coverage, which he has used pretty much his entire career, Pete went with the polar opposite type of coverage the next season, press man coverage, to stunningly positive “not in your wildest dreams” results.
The team initially liked Colin Cole and used him through the 2010 season. They played Brandon Mebane at the 3 tech despite his being impotent at the position the year before. It was a mistake close observers of the team (including myself) were frustrated by. Thankfully, Carroll did not persist in his mistake. He released Cole the next offseason and moved Mebane back to 1 tech (after signing him to a nice 5 year contract). When asked by a reporter why he did this, Carroll replied by saying (paraphrasing) “We didn’t know back then, but now we do.”
When Seattle badly missed on the Whitehurst trade, they didn’t stubbornly insist that he was our figurative if not literal messiah. If anything, they did just about anything they could to keep Whitehurst from ever playing, including several games where Hasselbeck or Tarvaris Jackson played very hurt. Whitehurst’s two years are up, and this regime made no misguided attempt to redeem the move by keeping him any longer and hoping things change. Instead, they upgraded to Matt Flynn.
Every mistake this regime has made, they have taken intelligent and timely efforts to rectify those mistakes.
#6: General creativity
How else can you explain the team starting a 330 pound failed defensive tackle at strong side end and getting good results? Or turning 37 year old Lawyer Milloy into an effective player again by using him more like a linebacker? Or rewriting the epitaph on Brandon Browner’s NFL career? Or getting what was by far the best season of Raheem Brock’s life when he had already been cut by not one but two teams previously that year due to his age?
#7: Developing players through coaching and proper scheme adjustments
The last few years I’ve studied the draft in much greater detail as part of writing for Rob’s website. One of the things I’m slowly becoming convinced of is that talent evaluation is only half the battle. Drafting a “can’t miss” player is one thing, but guys like Kam Chancellor and Richard Sherman were 5th rounders for a reason. Pete Carroll and his assistant coaches not only trained those players well, but they intimately understood those players strengths and weaknesses and built roles in the defense which would maximize the strengths and hide the weaknesses as much as possible.
#8: Outstanding halftime adjustments
Seattle’s performance improves more after halftime than just about any other team in the NFL.
#9: Eye for coaching and front office supporting talent
Ever notice that every time the academy awards roll around, almost all of the best acting performances are in the supporting actor category? Likewise, in the NFL having a strong supporting cast is not paid much attention, but its quietly a very important aspect of almost every successful team. Pete and John have shown a strong appreciation for this and have put a lot of effort in making their supporting cast as strong as possible.
When Ted Thompson became the GM in Green Bay back in 2005, he wanted to bring Scot McLoughan with him, but the 49ers snatched him up first. When McLoughan resigned in 2010, John Schneider, whom he had connections with, brought him in as a senior personnel executive a short while later. McLoughan had a checkered past as a GM, but he was still once a prized talent evaluator for both the early Holmgren era Seahawks and the Green Bay Packers before that. This regime is always looking to get better, and because of that, they added an ace personnel guy that even Schneider’s mentor couldn’t get five years prior.
Likewise, Pete Carroll has put plenty of effort into his supporting coaching staff. Alex Gibbs was a superstar get, and Jeremy Bates was a young creative offensive coordinator with future head coach potential. Both didn’t last long for reasons that are still unclear (although there are some rumors out there), but regardless, both were excellent hires. The team retained Gus Bradley and Dan Quinn from the previous regime, acknowledging that while the regime that proceeded them was a royal mess, there was some talent worth salvaging on its coaching staff (Quinn has since taken a job promotion to be the defensive coordinator of the Florida Gators). He brought in former all-pro LB Ken Norton Jr. to be his linebacker coach at USC, where he helped coach up multiple future pro-bowl linebackers before leaving USC to follow Carroll to Seattle. And when Tom Cable was fired and down on his luck, Pete made a hard sell to get him here, remembering what it was that made Tom Cable a headcoach in the first place- his outstanding ability to coach the offensive line.
Overall, this front office has worked its ass off and left no stone unturned, emphasizing performance in many areas that are afterthoughts to most other teams.
#10: Creating an awesome, championship level environment
Our free agents want to stay here. Other team’s free agents want to come here. Even the free agents who don’t come here talk about the “energy” in the building when they visited and how it impressed them.
What are this regimes weaknesses?
None, really. This front office has made a few small mistakes here and there, but there are no glaring weaknesses or repeated failures. But for the sake of being as fair as possible, I’ll mention some mistakes they’ve made.
#1: The mistakes cited above that were later rectified. Colin Cole, Whitehurst trade, etc.
#2: The Wilson and Sims trades. Josh Wilson was arguably the Seahawks best player in 2009 and was trending upward. Rob Sims was in the discussion too, having improved every season and had become unquestionably the best player on Seattle’s offensive line. Both were still young. Seattle traded Sims and a 7th for Robert Henderson and a 2010 5th. They traded Wilson for a 2011 5th. No matter what anyone tells me, there is no way I’ll ever believe Seattle got even respectable value in those trades. Wilson was a 2nd round pick and Sims was a 4th round pick, and both played above their draft expectations. I wouldn’t have traded either one at all, much less for that kind of return.
But here’s the funny thing. That 5th round pick we got for Sims? That pick turned into pro-bowl safety Kam Chancellor. The 5th round pick we got for Josh Wilson? That pick turned into should-have-been-a-pro-bowler Richard Sherman. Lets not forget either that Seattle got Clemons in the Tapp trade. Those were the three moves this regime made that infuriated me the most, and all three of them somehow made the team much more talented as a result.
#3: Drafting James Carpenter over Mark Ingram in 2011. According to our source, Darrell Bevell, bless his heart, pounded the table for Mark Ingram in war room meetings before the 2011 draft, but Seattle opted to draft Carpenter with the #25 pick instead. Ingram has had a slow start with the Saints, but he’s (IMO) one of the five best running backs in terms of game tape to come out of the draft in the last decade. Seattle did need a running back too, and in fact, is going to draft one fairly high in the upcoming draft anyway. They could have addressed running back last year instead when terrific value was staring them in the face, and they’d be none the worse for it, as Carpenter didn’t make a positive contribution last year. Even still, this serves as a very weak critique as its still way too early to judge either player. Still, Ingram’s situation falling in the draft was highly reminiscent of Steven Jackson falling into the late 1st round many years ago. The Rams jumped on their chance. This regime didn’t, and when its all said and done, they might regret it.
#4: In-game coaching gaffes by Carroll. Some of them are overblown, like Carroll’s decision to go for it on 4th down near halftime in the Bengals game. There was also that decision to attempt a 61 field goal with enough time remaining to attempt 1 more quick play for yardage. Carroll makes a sub-optimal decision maybe 3 or 4 times in a season, which may or may not have actually cost the team anything. Its overblown. That said, its easy for casual observers to latch onto and make a really big deal out of.
And that’s pretty much it for criticisms. I don’t think this front office is fair game for how their QB situation has turned out. All things considered, I think the way Seattle has handled quarterback is a strength not a weakness. Both in 2012 and 2010, there was exactly one quarterback worth drafting who could be traded for and in both cases the Seahawks would have to swing a trade with the one team who hates them more than anything in the world to make it happen. In other words, it was an impossibility. The closest I can come to criticizing their strategy at QB was their “failure” to not somehow trade up from #25 to #1 for Cam Newton, but that’s ridiculous.
Seattle hasn’t used these excuses to do nothing at quarterback. They signed Tarvaris Jackson cheap and got better than expected performance from him. They brought in Josh Portis and are excited about his potential (as am I). Now they’ve signed Matt Flynn. Seattle might not have a great starter, but I’d take their #2 and #3 quarterbacks over any in the league.
Seattle has a brilliant front office and coaching staff that has already accomplished much more than was expected and has a very bright future ahead of them. Seattle isn’t just one of the NFL’s more talented teams entering the 2012 season- they are the 2nd youngest team too. The degree to which Pete Carroll and John Schneider will go to find talent has in many ways been completely revolutionary. Not only did they exceed my expectations, but they fundamentally changed the way I look at front offices in general. A few years from now, when the Seahawks are unquestionably one of the elite franchises in the league, other teams will be copying Seattle’s blueprint and copying John Schneider’s tricks. If I’m wrong, I’m wrong, but I think Seattle might just have the very best combination of coaching, scouting, and general managing in the league right now. On a scale of 1 to 10, I’d give them a 10 without a second thought. Not because they are literally perfect, but because you couldn’t realistically ask for much more.