When Pete Carroll and John Schneider arrived in Seattle, most people had an idea as to how they would rebuild this team:
a.) Draft a quarterback
b.) Build around that quarterback
A lot of teams have taken this route in the last few years. The Atlanta Falcons drafted Matt Ryan with the #3 pick in 2008 and built around him – adding a left tackle, signing Michael Turner in free agency then bringing in other pieces like Tony Gonzalez and eventually Julio Jones. St. Louis turned down the chance to draft Ndamukong Suh because they believed they needed a quarterback – Sam Bradford – to begin yet another rebuild. The Lions drafted Matt Stafford after going 0-16, hoping he would be the focal point of a more successful era in Detroit.
In the last five drafts (2008-12) ten quarterbacks have been drafted in the top-10. Conventional wisdom says you need a quarterback to succeed. Conventional wisdom also states you sit that quarterback for one or more years, but more and more teams feel obliged to start their latest top-10 pick as a rookie. Instead of drafting the quarterback and then sitting him while you build from the inside out, teams are now throwing their rookies to the wolves and hoping for the best (see: Miami).
Some have been more fortunate than others. Matt Ryan had the benefit of a smart front office that knew it had to do something to protect the rookie, which is why they made an aggressive move to draft a tackle (Sam Baker) and add a running back of Turner’s quality. Joe Flacco – a slightly later first round pick who started in year one – had the benefit of an elite defense in Baltimore keeping games close. Mark Sanchez had a poor regular season as a rookie, but again benefited from a good defense and ground game.
In each case, Atlanta, Baltimore and New York knew what they were doing. Sure, it was a risk starting a quarterback that early. But it was a calculated risk given the quality surrounding the team.
Other quarterbacks haven’t been quite so fortunate. Sam Bradford has taken a pounding playing for a wretched Rams outfit. Stafford came good last year, but only after two seasons collecting injuries because Detroit couldn’t protect the guy. A lot of people love to get at Blaine Gabbert, but really what chance did he have in Jacksonville throwing to… ??? The Miami Dolphins and Cleveland Browns appear destined to struggle with their rookies for similar reasons.
One quarterback has been talented enough as an individual to make up for a poor supporting cast, and that’s Cam Newton. A lot of national pundits wouldn’t have touched Newton with the #1 pick as they mentioned a lot pre-draft, but few are willing to admit it now.
Seattle didn’t go with conventional wisdow (can you see that recurring theme?) and spent needed time putting themselves in the Atlanta/Baltimore/New York bracket instead of the St. Louis/Miami/Cleveland group.
Starting a rookie or even a second year quarterback is all about the situation you put them in. It is the most important position, everyone knows that. But having talent at that position alone is rarely enough. The Panthers may get by because of Newton. Indianapolis will probably experience years of success purely because of Andrew Luck, just like they did under Peyton Manning. All those guys were #1 overall pick. The Seahawks have never owned the #1 pick to draft a guy of such quality that alone can define a team.
Getting a quarterback and building around him is the presumed the way of doing things, but the Seahawks didn’t play that hand. Many people questioned that decision. I should know, because I was one of those people. I often wrote on this blog about quarterbacks, about needing to make the big push up the board and selling out to get that centrepiece. It was frustrating to see the team drift along with an out-of-sorts Matt Hasselbeck, Tarvaris Jackson or Charlie Whitehurst. Something had to be done. Why weren’t they doing something?
All along Carroll and Schneider knew what they were doing, even if we didn’t understand it at the time. There was a lot of hand wringing when Schneider uttered the words ‘we will not panic‘ time and time again in post-season interviews. Not panicking translated to us as not doing enough. Sitting on your hands. It was only once a solution emerged via Russell Wilson, that people (including myself) ‘got it’. And hey, I’m not the only one. You’re probably reading this and relating to what I’m saying too. And there’s nothing wrong with a front office needing to prove what they’re doing is right, just as long as we accept it when that the evidence is there.
Even if Wilson doesn’t succeed, Carroll and Schneider’s way is worth persevering with. Drafting a rookie and starting him in the 2010 version of the Seahawks would’ve been chaos. When you consider the options (Tebow, McCoy, Clausen), it’s pretty obvious why they didn’t pull the trigger despite owning two first round picks that year. In 2011, the options were Dalton or Kaepernick. Again – would you feel more comfortable now with one of that trio as your long term investment as a round one pick? After a lockout? After you’ve just changed offensive coordinators? Or was rolling with Tarvaris Jackson for a year (he knew the system and coach) a good option after all? Was any long term damage created by going 7-9 last year?
Now we look at a team that is overwhelmingly superior to the 2010 outfit that somehow made the playoffs. The defense is seemingly on the brink of elite status. The offensive line is stronger. The run game is much better. It’s a better environment for a young quarterback to prosper. And now the supporting cast is in place, they’re giving a rookie quarterback a chance to show what he can do.
The Miami Dolphins have basically done the opposite of Seattle – drafting a rookie quarterback in the top ten, naming him the starter and then proceeding to make life as difficult as possible for him. They’ve traded away a solid albeit controversial receiver in Brandon Marshall. They traded away a useful cornerback for draft stock. They’re basically hoping Ryan Tannehill avoids long term damage – physically or mentally – before they start a proper rebuild next year. Good luck with that.
Cleveland – led by a President a lot of Seahawks fans wanted back in Seattle – started in a similar vein to the Seahawks building a good defense with some incredibly solid picks. But then they panicked. They draft a soon-to-be 29-year-old rookie quarterback in round one because they feel obliged to force the issue. Brandon Weeden has no weapons, so they then spend a second round pick on Josh Gordon in the supplemental draft and hope he can offer an immediate impact. It has to be said – a lot of what Holmgren and GM Tom Heckert have done so far has been positive. There’s potential with the defense and the offensive line. They have a future star at running back. And yet they’ve got the quarterback position so wrong because they panicked. Weeden looked completely out of his depth in pre-season and time is not on his side.
Let’s not forget, the Browns and Miami could’ve both signed Matt Flynn. They were probably the favorites to do so. But they wanted to use the draft to solve that problem. Seattle not only signed Flynn, they benched him when their rookie looked better. How different would life be for Cleveland and Mike Holmgren right now if they’d gone Flynn-Wilson and spent the 22nd overall pick on – for example – David DeCastro, Dont’a Hightower or made a small move up the board for Kendall Wright?
The Seahawks took a different approach and didn’t panic. There was no desperation move in the draft, no losing of cool as they took Bruce Irvin or James Carpenter in round one despite some criticism. The team is better for that approach and while this franchise may be a year or two away from maxing out its potential, it’s still a club that’s on the right track.
I suspect in years to come the Seahawks might be used as a role model. If Seattle succeeds and if Wilson succeeds, it may lead to a trend away from the conventional wisdom of drafting a rookie quarterback as stage one of a big rebuild and then being obliged to start them. It is quite staggering how far this team has come in two and a half years and teams will take notice of that. Whatever happens in 2012, without doubt the Seahawks are getting it right.