RENTON, Wash. -- One of the most interesting things about the draft process is how very easy it is for teams with good talent in their scouting and coaching staffs, and all the best intentions, to still get the draft wrong on a pretty consistent basis. For every Baltimore Ravens organization that seems to hit on most of their targets every year, there's a much higher number of teams looking like they're using the blindfold/dartboard method even if they're not. If your front office isn't aligned, and aligned in the right ways, it doesn't take a Matt Millen to goof up a draft and put a team in a hole.
After five years of draft weekend shenanigans from former team president Tim Ruskell, the Seattle Seahawks are getting back on the right track with the combination of head coach Pete Carroll and general manager John Schneider. While Carroll got the higher authority in order to draw him away from USC, Schneider -- the longtime Green Bay packers personnel man who is highly respected in those circles -- has established himself as one of the NFL's better talent evaluators, especially in the second half of the draft and in the market for undrafted free agents. Through their two drafts in Seattle, Carroll and Schneider have uncovered late-round gems like cornerback Richard Sherman, linebacker K.J. Wright and safety Kam Chancellor. In 2011, receiver Doug Baldwin became the first undrafted player since at least the 1970 NFL-AFL merger to lead his team in receptions and receiving yards. Cornerback Brandon Browner, who last had a real shot at the NFL in 2005 as a Denver Broncos camp body, was saved by the Seahawks from a long span in the CFL and played at a Pro Bowl level in his first season as an NFL starter.
When asked about their philosophy on Monday, Carroll and Schneider made it clear by their demeanor as much as their words -- these are two guys who enjoy each other's company, see football very much the same way, and respect the process they've set up. Many teams will go too far one way or the other -- they'll either refuse to consider any player that doesn't fit their "type" (a mistake Ruskell made far too often), or they'll draft pure athletes with no thought of the schematic fit. Striking a balance is tough, but these two seem to have it together. And the divide that can exist between coaches and scouts doesn't seem to come to play with the Seahawks, because Carroll and Schneider moderate and manage the process.
"I think utility and versatility is huge for coaches," Schneider said. "Personnel guys see that one dynamic trait and they just want to jump all over it. That's just been a personal experience. Sometimes you need to pull yourself back and say, 'What's the whole picture? What's going to be his role? How can he fit in for us?' And there are a lot of guys that have a uniqueness about them because of their versatility. Usually that one dynamic trait — while we all get excited about it — doesn't carry over exactly what the coaching staff needs."
"We want to see unique qualities in guys and the uniqueness can be — as John said — the variety of things that a guy can do," Carroll said, seeing things from the scouting side. "But it just depends. We take them all independently, so if the guy's got something we really cherish about him that's part of his makeup that we know we can find, especially for him, then we could go on that. But it could be a guy can do so many things that he offers a lot of things to us. So we have to look at each guy individually as we go through it."
The quarterback position, of course, is the toughest one to evaluate. Carroll had a feeder stream of signal-callers to the NFL during his decade at USC, and Schneider helped oversee the seamless (at least, in terms of production) transition from Brett Favre to Aaron Rodgers. That said, the Seahawks are still trying to find their franchise quarterback and hoping they've done so in former Green Bay backup Matt Flynn. Flynn is actually a pretty good example of the crapshoot element of the quarterback decision-making process -- he was taken in the seventh round of the 2008 draft, and he's the one with the big second contract. Brian Brohm, taken in the second round of the same draft (and projected by some to be the first overall pick had he come out in 2007), hasn't done much in the NFL at all.
"There is not a very good batting average now," Carroll said of the percentage of legit NFL starting quarterbacks versus the washouts. "If you look at the numbers historically — we've done a little study — few guys make it. Your best shot is with the guys that go in the first round. There's very few guys that even wind up with their own clubs after a few years. It's such a demanding position that calls for everything in all of sports to come together in one spot, there's just not very many guys that can do it. So it's pretty difficult. And sometimes the intangibles outweigh all of the things that you could measure and those guys make it through and fight their way through it and create great careers for themselves when you would not have seen that coming. So that's the X factor that you try to figure out and try to predict, it but this is a very challenging science."
Schneider agreed. "Especially at that position, it's not their fault. That year we took Brohm, after the draft, we were [given] A-pluses. And it's not Brohm's fault. I mean, he was supposed to be the first pick in the draft the year before. The same thing happened to Jake [Locker]. Jake was supposed to be the first pick in the draft. Well, why? Who says? You know what I mean? You never truly know, especially at that position, there's so much value and there's so much going on, it's the hardest position to play."
Carroll picked that thought up right in step. "One of the things that happens is the circumstances of how a guy begins his career can weigh in heavily in how it turns out. I would think that there's a number of quarterbacks who, under different circumstances, would still be playing the game but they got exposed early on and didn't really have a chance to really find their confidence, which is so crucial at this position. The guys that are interesting are the guys that don't do much or struggle early in their career and they outlast time and they come back around in years eight and nine.
"Steve Young is one of the great examples of that. Rich Gannon, [Vinny] Testaverde, there's all kinds of guys who looked like they weren't going to be able to play the position. They outlast that first cycle and they stay and they learn and the game slows down and they become very, very obvious students of the game and now their talents come back again. There's a ton of guys like that. It's almost more likely than the guys that hit it and go. That's why it's so extraordinary when a young guy comes in and hits it and does so well. Cam Newton was just an extraordinary example of a guy who hit it from day one and did just amazing things and it'll be unlikely that somebody can match that for a long time. It's just such a rare occurrence."
Schneider reminisced to the days when there was a developmental step between college and the pros for those trying to break in at that position. "Not having an option like NFL Europe hurts, too, where you put guys in and see how they play, see how they develop. Kurt Warner, Jake Delhomme — there's a whole group of guys."
One of the key shifts in Carroll's mindset is the ability to not only play, but to really trust and challenge younger players. The Seahawks have one of the younger rosters in the NFL, and that's not something Carroll favored during his less-successful stints as an NFL head coach in the 1990s.
"Yeah, I think part of the thing that I know John [Schneider] liked about the way I look at it is we're trying to play young guys and we need to find out where they fit as soon as possible," Carroll said. "So we force those guys to the front to get an evaluation on them whenever we can — preseason for sure, in camp for sure. The young guys that we draft are going to go with the first group. They're going to get shoved in there. We want to see how they fit in and how they handle it and all that, in hopes of getting the information that you need in order to make those kinds of decisions. To me, the more we can get them into the games, the real games, and see what they can do in anything, any kind of a role, it gives us feedback and information to see if we are on track and where we need to go with a guy. Hopefully we won't miss it because of those guys.
"I'm really excited about Brandon [Browner] and Richard [Sherman] coming back and picking up where they left off. I can only imagine those first-year guys, they have to be able to improve now. That thrills me, the thought of that. But we've still got to develop our guys. Hopefully we'll do a good job. It's really my job to make sure that we give guys competitive opportunities and create the situations where we can see them and get good information. If we don't do that, then I'm failing John [Schneider] here because we've got to figure out where these guys fit in. I'm committed to it. Through all those years at SC (University of Southern California), I totally shifted from the old coach's perspective of that. Being the head coach and GM and all that, kind of, in college, I forced young guys to show us where they fit. When we first started talking, that's something we were excited about. We both saw eye to eye on that deal and we're going to continue to do it."
In the overall sense, it's the fit between Carroll and Schneider that makes it work, and when former team CEO Tod Lieweke was putting the new football management group together after Ruskell and former head coach Jim Mora were shown the door, the emphasis was on putting like minds together. There's no question that's been accomplished.
"I think it's one of the primary reasons they brought us together," Schneider said of the fit. "Coming from USC and all the success they had there with Coach Carroll -- all the guys that were first-round draft choices and came in the league and people saw those guys play right away and how they were coached, how they were taught. And [me] coming from Green Bay where our philosophy was that we were the youngest team in the league."
"It all fit together nicely for us."