As NFL free agency bled the Seahawks of valuable players from their Super Bowl-winning roster, fan panic was palpable. But general manager John Schneider didn’t have to read websites or listen to talk radio to know. He just had to take a call from his father.
“His blood pressure was up,” Schneider said, chuckling, then quoted him: “‘John, what are you going to do? You gonna lose everybody?'”
Schneider offered up his Cheshire-cat smile, the one that comes from the Seahawks eating alive the Denver Broncos on the world’s biggest media stage and the largest audience in the history of American television.
“It’s a good thing when people want to acquire our players,” he said. “It’s a credit to our staff to coach them up to go with other clubs.
“And it’s a great opportunity to keeping doing it the way we have, with young people at every position and never shutting the door on anything.”
Nothing spectacular about those words. But they explain casually the Seahawks’ simple plan in the attempt to sustain pro football excellence.
- Stay young.
- Coach hard and well.
- Assume little from a player’s history.
Nothing in those ideas is revolutionary. What is unusual is the commitment to them by the Seahawks.
Speaking to writers last week, Schneider talked in general about the approach to the draft that begins Thursday. As of now, the Seahawks have the lowest first-round pick in their history, 32nd, the reward for being the best a year ago.
In a draft regarded by most experts as one of the deepest ever, the Seahawks have six picks, tied for the fewest in club history, while the rival San Francisco 49ers have 11, and the division-mate Rams have the second and 13th picks in the first round.
Important as Seattle’s six choices will be for 2014, they aren’t quite as big for the Seahawks as they are for most other teams.
Here’s a question that close followers of the Seahawks probably can answer:
What do WRs Doug Baldwin and Jermaine Kearse, FB Derrick Coleman, OLs Alvin Bailey and Lem Jeanpierre, DL Benson Mayowa, LB Mike Morgan and CB DeShawn Shead have in common?
They are undrafted free agents signed in the first four years of Schneider and coach Pete Carroll’s regime who were part of the Super Bowl team.
All but Shead, Mayowa and Bailey have started at least a game in their Seattle careers. And Bailey played a key role in the most intense, electric game in Seahawks history: The 23-17 NFC title game triumph over San Francisco.
Rookie Bailey was given about a dozen snaps as the sixth offensive lineman in a jumbo set with which the Seahawks crossed up the 49ers and allowed RB Marshawn Lynch to rush for 109 yards.
Bailey had TV time because he was announced upon entry by the referee as an eligible receiver. The Seahawks never went there. But as Schneider said, they never close the door on anything.
Every team finds a nugget or two among the undrafted. But Schneider said his staff was completing research that he believed would show that the Seahawks had more undrafted free agents on their roster than any team in the NFL.
What is known is, with an average age of 26 and change, they were the youngest team to win a Super Bowl. It’s all deliberate: Young players are cheaper, and help create salary-cap flexibility to re-sign crucial veterans such as Earl Thomas, Richard Sherman and Russell Wilson.
“Undrafted free agents are incredibly important for us,” Schneider said. “We take pride in competing to find those guys.”
Schneider’s pursuit of the margins has the endorsement of Carroll, who enjoys rooting around among the scorned for talented players who have a built-in anger (see Baldwin) and are susceptible to the charms of Carroll’s “always compete” belief that allows jobs to be won free of house politics (see Matt Flynn).
“Pete can’t wait for the draft to get over to get on the phone with these guys and start recruiting,” Schneider said, grinning. “He’s phenomenal. I would have gone to USC if I had the chance.”
Identifying and signing inexpensive young talent are two things. Making them productive players, be it special teams or starters, is another. With his great success at USC, Carroll and staff, unlike like some other teams — notably the John Elway-run Broncos — believe that, coached properly, talented first-year players can contribute at every position on the field.
“This coaching staff is used to playing with young players,” Schneider said. “There’s no preconceived notion you need a veteran. The hardest thing to do is take a young player and spend time coaching him up and getting them ready to play. This staff has shown an ability to do that, year in and year out.
“That was part of partnership with Pete and I: Accentuating these people’s strengths, and compensating for their deficiencies, so they reach their ceilings as quickly as they can.”
Finding overlooked players with specific talents is a fundamental part of Moneyball, which Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane deployed to great effect in baseball, helping transform thinking throughout his industry. The principle applies in pro football, although Schneider insists that it’s not the main way to construct a team; it is one way.
“Don’t get me wrong, the draft is the primary way to build your team,” Schneider said. “But there’s a lot of great avenues to build your team. Our pro staff is working all the time evaluating other teams’ players, what situations are on the horizon in terms of (salary cap) casualties, what veterans can be let go, the Canadian Football League, punters, kickers, long snappers. We value all.”
NFL.com this week took a stab at choosing each team’s all-time best draft class. For Seattle, the first draft under the Carroll/Schneider tandem, 2010, was selected. That year brought LT Russell Okung and FS Earl Thomas (first-rounders), WR Golden Tate (second), CB Walter Thurmond (fourth), SS Kam Chancellor (fifth) and TE Anthony McCoy (sixth). Given the Super Bowl results, it’s hard to argue with the choice.
But the Seahawks are demonstrating that the attention given the seven rounds, while irresistible, is a two-dimensional picture of a three-dimensional scene, and probably four dimensions when time is included.
“It’s kind of like having pillars, if you will, then building around (the high-end draftees),” Schneider said. “It gets back to coaches wanting to work with young players that have smaller salaries, (yet) are expected to contribute right away.
“Then be cognizant of what’s coming in three to four years.”
The plan is hard to see day-to-day, or even month-to-month. The blood pressure of Schneider’s father, as well as a few hundred thousand other Seahawks fans, has taken a beating.
But a team that can thwart the 49ers’ formidable defense with a rookie tackle-eligible stunt, and get a Super Bowl MVP, Malcolm Smith, out of a seventh-round pick, is entitled to a little slack.
Until they throw the ball to Bailey.