Written by Kip Earlywine
Back in the early to mid 90s, I was a young, displaced Seahawks fan growing up in Arizona. I’d be lucky to see three Seahawks games in any given season, especially since the Seahawks were consistently lousy back then. While my access to the Seahawks was limited, my access to the NFL draft was no less restricted than anywhere else. Because of that, the draft took on a pretty big level of importance in my sports-fan life from a young age.
Of course, this being the early to mid 90s, the internet wasn’t really around yet, especially in the small, isolated town I grew up in. I didn’t watch a ton of college football, either. Despite the fact that I enjoyed the draft so much, I’d go into it every year a completely blank slate. As a result, I pretty much hung on every word megastar draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. said, and “Mel Kiper’s best available” turned every pick into a developing news story. Being uninformed only deepened my desire to see Mel Kiper’s hyped players slide to Seattle’s picks in each round. Kiper brought a lot of positive energy with his analysis and it was easy to buy into the hype he was selling. His coverage made it feel like every pick impacted the Seahawks, even picks by other teams. It was especially excruciating when Kiper’s best available fit Seattle’s biggest needs. I was entranced and unquestioning.
Don’t get me wrong, I like and admire Mel Kiper, and I hope that some day he’s in the NFL Hall of Fame as an analyst. His big hair and bigger personality helped make the NFL draft a national spectacle. Given how miserable the Seahawks were for the first decade of my fandom, I may not be a Seahawk fan today without all those fun NFL draft seasons he covered. But that said, by relying so much on Kiper’s lists, I fell into a trap, like millions of other fans. I’d see a player on Kiper’s best available list twenty picks away from Seattle’s next selection, and root for him to slide. I’d become completely focused on that one guy, celebrating each pick that he wasn’t selected. I’d celebrate like crazy if Seattle actually got the player (which almost never happened), and be royally pissed off if that player reached Seattle’s pick and they passed on him (which happened a lot). It was as if the other 500-1000 draftable players didn’t even matter. They weren’t on Kiper’s list, so they must be nobodies. “That” guy on Kiper’s list, the one that’s been his BPA for 20 picks now, he’s almost to us! Cross your fingers!
I didn’t realize it then, but I know now that building a Superbowl team is about more than drafting Mel Kiper’s top players. I’m sure most of you have long realized that as well. But it wasn’t until last night that I realized the reason why this is true.
It occurred to me while I was stumbling through Dan Kadar’s draft site: Mocking the Draft. I was reading this six round mock draft someone had posted a couple days back. I had some time to kill and I was bored, so I looked at each Seahawks pick in this mock draft and replaced his picks with players I would have considered for the Seahawks (my personal choices, as well as my best guesses for the FO’s, are at the bottom of their comments section, if anyone is curious).
While doing the exercise I had a bit of an epiphany moment. Among players Rob and I have highlighted here at Seahawks Draft Blog, only Quinton Coples had left the board before our first pick (Seattle was picking 12th). Doug Martin and Ryan Tannehill were there in the 2nd. Derek Wolfe, Sean Spence, and Chris Polk where there in the 3rd. Kirk Cousins and Brock Osweiler very nearly reached our 4th round pick. I went into this exercise with a very large list of players, and as a result, there were consistently multiple good options at every pick.
I’m just an ordinary fan with limited knowledge and resources. My bright ideas dry up around the 4th or 5th round. Imagine viewing the draft from the front office’s point of view. Not only is their base of knowledge of prospects several times larger than our own, they also have inside knowledge into the Pac-12 thanks to Pete Carroll. That inside knowledge allowed Seattle to get a franchise corner with a 5th round pick last year and a budding star receiver in undrafted free agency. At every pick through the first four rounds, I actually struggled to choose just one player. For this front office, they must feel that way too, but where my options die off around the 5th round, they probably have an abundance of options all the way to the end, and even into undrafted free agency. Suddenly it makes a lot of sense why there was so much urgency in John Schneider’s voice regarding undrafted free agency last year.
Rob has written a couple of articles now highlighting John Schneider’s philosophy of “not panicking” for a quarterback. Today I realized that this isn’t the whole story. John Schneider doesn’t just fail to panic for quarterbacks. He fails to panic for every other position too.
In Schneider’s first two years, not once has Seattle traded up for a player. Trading up has been rare for Schneider’s mentor in Green Bay as well. This isn’t to say that trading up is stupid. Seattle’s draft history is full of trade ups that produced excellent results (off the top of my head: Walter Jones, Lofa Tatupu, John Carlson, Max Unger). However, by having such a broad list of options, trading up becomes a luxury instead of a necessity, since you almost never find yourself having to get “that” guy. If that player you covet doesn’t reach your pick, there are still many other great options to consider. Moving up to ensure getting a great player is fine, but doing so comes with a cost. By taking a broad brush approach, the Seahawks have gotten comparable talent without having to pay anything extra.
And to me, that highlights the real reason why the Seahawks fell apart under Tim Ruskell’s drafting and have thrived under John Schneider. Schneider is one of, if not the hardest working GMs in the NFL. If there is talent to be found, he will find it. BCS schools, non-BCS schools, FCS schools, Division II schools… CFL… out of football for a couple years… he doesn’t care. Eagle scout, model citizen, leader, loner, donut thief, toker, stealing credit cards, walking out on bar tabs… he doesn’t care. The only thing he cares about is if you have talent and if you have a place on this team to play.
Contrast that with Tim Ruskell, who screened out character concern players, non-BCS college players, and preferred four year starters. Tim Ruskell believed that his process would work because it would remove players who were bad bets, but he didn’t seem to appreciate the value in having a large pool of players to choose from. More than anything else, that is why the Seahawks talent grew thinner and thinner with each successive year during his regime, while the opposite is occurring for John Schneider. Just look at the draft record of both regimes from the 4th round on. In just two years, John Schneider already has more mid-to-late round success stories than Tim Ruskell had in five years. In other words, the more options you have, the more talent you’ll ultimately end up with. Especially later on when the pickings are slim.
Seattle will not likely draft a quarterback early in 2012. I know plenty of reasonable people who freak out at this concept. After all, Seattle really should have drafted their quarterback 3-5 years ago, so waiting yet another year feels inexcusable. However, I’m no longer terribly worried about it. I’ll tell you why.
It may have quietly passed by everyone else, but in Claire Farnsworth’s interview that Rob linked yesterday, there was one quote by John Schneider that shot off the page. I found it incredibly revealing:
“[Not making a big move for a QB] may disappoint fans, because they want to see an instant guy and have that instant success,” Schneider said. “But really, you’re better off continuing to build your team. Initially when I got here, I thought we were going to plug the quarterback in and we were going built around him.“
You catch that? When John Schneider first came to Seattle two years ago, his initial intention was to grab a quarterback right away. It was around this time two years ago that Pete Carroll gushed about Sam Bradford, much in the same way that he (allegedly) gushed about Courtney Upshaw in a random pickup basketball game. Not long after that, it became clear that the Rams had locked in on drafting Bradford, and Seattle never had a chance. Seattle’s best QB options in that draft were Jimmy Clausen and Tim Tebow. The Seahawks passed, and were wise to do so.
Andy Dalton was very successful by rookie standards. But even if he goes on to have a great career- and he probably won’t- that won’t change the fact that drafting Dalton at #25 last year would have been a dangerous and ill-informed decision. Colin Kaepernick was the only other serious option at that point, and he would have been a reach pick and a long term project quarterback. Seattle would ultimately get Josh Portis in undrafted free agency, and for the long term project quarterback role, Seattle is not much worse off despite spending their 1st elsewhere.
Its now clear to me that Schneider’s decision to avoid the quarterback position in 2010 and 2011 had nothing to do with the team not being ready, nor was it because he thought quarterback was unimportant. It was because any quarterback he could have realistically drafted in those drafts would have been a mistake pick. Drafting Clausen, Tebow, Kaepernick, or Dalton… drafting any of them would have been like a repeat of the Whitehurst trade, except we’d be giving up a 1st rounder instead. Does anyone really think that’s a good idea? Personally, I respect the fact that John Schneider isn’t willing to do something stupid just for appearance’s sake.
Rob and I have made one thing pretty clear while covering the draft over the last several months: this was going to be a three quarterback draft. Then Matt Barkley went back to USC. Luck remained a #1 overall lock and is going to a team that won’t trade the pick. Its looking likely that Robert Griffin will be traded at #2 overall, and the selling team hates the Seahawks more than any other team in the sport. In other words, getting the kind of quarterback we all want this year is all but impossible. The best quarterback we can draft at #11/#12 this year (Tannehill) is an awful lot like the best quarterback we could draft last year at #25 (Kaepernick).
If you want to blame something, don’t blame this front office. Blame people like us for helping to overhype the crap out of Robert Griffin. I know. It sucks. It’s like we’re at the final table in a Texas Hold’em Tournament, and we’re a winning hand from the championship, but the dealer just keeps giving us one crummy hand after another. That doesn’t mean you should go all in when the dealer keeps giving you two-seven off suit over and over.
John Schneider has taken a “when life gives you lemons, make lemonade” approach to these situations. He used the lack of quarterback opportunity in 2010 and 2011 to focus instead on the offensive line and secondary. I’d say that’s worked out pretty well. This year, he’s going to spend his energy on the pass rush and running game. He’s not avoiding the elephant in the room. He knows perfectly well how badly this team needs a quarterback of the future. The only thing he’s waiting for is a wide open shot.
Just remember that John Schneider is a master of keeping his options open. From that philosophy we’ve already seen so many good things happen to this team. When Seattle had won five out of six games and looked like one of the more physically dominant teams in football last year, did anyone really care that they passed on Kaepernick? Even Andy Dalton, in a performance that I don’t think he’ll sustain, had a QB rating only two points higher than T-Jack’s last year.
With the inclusive system of talent evaluation John Schneider uses, the Seahawks will always come out draft winners, even when it feels like the universe is conspiring to keep franchise quarterback’s out of this city. Eventually, John Schneider will get his guy at quarterback. And in the meantime, he’s going to do the best he can with the hand he’s dealt. He’s not going to get tunnel vision the way that I did as a young fan watching Mel Kiper, or the way Tim Ruskell did when his short list of screened out players reached a trickle. And maybe its just me, but I’m thankful for that. Even if the journey itself is a little frustrating at times. We all know where this franchise is going and its a very good place. And the reason we are heading in that direction is precisely because John Schneider has shown patience and inclusive thinking in his process. I think we’d all be a little smarter (and a bit more sane) if we all did the same.