Second-year Seahawks front office far more tuned in

RENTON, Wash. — With the sixth pick in the 2010 draft, Seattle Seahawks general manager John Schneider said that his kids could have made the right selection; the obvious inference being that it's a lot easier to get that future franchise left tackle — as the Seahawks did with Russell Okung — than it is to find the proverbial needle in a haystack later in the process. 

Of course, if getting the early picks right was so easy, we wouldn't still be laughing about Ryan Leaf and JaMarcus Russell.

The key to the process is to have a front office working in concert, and that's something that Schneider and head coach Pete Carroll — also in his second year with the team — seem to have developed. Though both decision-makers may come to the table with different player and positional preferences, Carroll and Schneider seem to have found a system that beats the potential dysfunction polluting the worst NFL front offices. As both men explained in the team's pre-draft press conference on Tuesday, it's like anything else on personnel evaluation — it starts with the same idea of competition that fires everything else in the current organization.

"We spend a lot of time talking through it," Schneider said. "We have a lot of philosophical discussions that aren't finished in two minutes. This is a process that started 11 months ago. Pete and his staff have been drawn into it, and as soon as the season ended, they became more involved. Pete and I will talk though some things, and we'll work it out."

"We operate with the thought that we want to bring out the best of what we have," Carroll said. "So, we put them together, and we work it out, and we keep pounding away at stuff until we get to what we feel we agree upon, and we have never even had an issue with that. Sometimes, you've got to battle back and forth, and you dig and scratch and claw until you find the answers, and we're more than willing to compete to do that. We pool our ideas and our thoughts, and we use our coaches, too. We use our scouts — everybody. We'll take in all the information we can get and we feel comfortable that we can come to a good conclusion.

"To me, it's a competition. You're battling to figure it out, so how many different ways can you look at it? How much information can you draw? How many phone calls … how many ways can you go about looking at the information?"

For Schneider, another key to success is letting his scouts know that the evaluation process is an ongoing one — sticking to a grade you gave three months ago just to appear "right", when circumstances change as quickly as they can among college players, is a fool's errand.

"I would say that everyone feels very comfortable with their role in our football operations department in terms of their opinions," he said. "As long as they've done the work, they're free to express their opinions and philosophies and what they think about a player. There are a lot of talented people in this building, and at the end of it, Pete and I figure it out. And Pete's not the kind of head coach that's going to slam his fist on the table and say, 'This is the way it is.'

"Part of the beauty of our system is that we don't hold our scouts true to their grades throughout the fall. They have the freedom to go back into the school and not have the pressure of saying, 'Hey, I've got to have this guy right, right away,' or 'I'm gonna get scrutinized because I didn't have them.' They have all the way until the middle of January to put a grade on a guy. There's a certain freedom there … we all put pressure on ourselves to do a great job, and this just allows people to be able to constantly go back and review. Once we being the coaches into the process, we do the same thing."

Two common denominators among the best front offices are the ability to hit on small-school prospects, and the intuitive sense of how to balance the risk/reward aspect of the talented player with serious character issues. Schneider and Carroll are heading a personnel department on the way up because they have a system in place for both of these aspects.

"You definitely have to weigh the level of competition, and we do that by conference with the big-school guys [as well]," Schneider said of the challenge in isolating the small-school player with NFL attributes who is destroying the under-talented people around him. "We weigh each guy, depending on their competitiveness and athleticism, their character, and obviously their physical characteristics. If you have a Division III player who's kicking butt and looks like me, we're not going to pay attention to him."

That caused Carroll to chime in once again. "We use the experience of our staff as well. They've seen guys over the years, and they've been able to measure the level of play, and how that translates. That's what the [scouting] combine offers you — an opportunity to get different guys on a level playing field when you can. It's not always possible, so you've got to go with the experience of understanding that level of play."

Carroll created an environment in 2010 that caused some fringe-character players to buy in as much as they had to if they wanted a roster spot, but having that methodology in place doesn't mean that they'd automatically be more predisposed to taking a risk on a player who popped off the tape and goofed off [and up] off the field. It's a finer balance than it seems.

"We're very careful about evaluating our players from all aspects," Carroll said. "What they offer in the locker room, and what they offer character-wise … that's really important to us. I feel like I've coached a lot of different kids over the years, and I've reinforced [personnel decisions made with] John several times — 'I think I understand this guy; let's see what he brings and what he offers. I think I can really help him.' And then, there are other cases where you'll say, 'Ah, this guy is a hard guy to reach,' and he might not be a guy who fits with us. So, it's a very important issue for us, because we want to make this  really rock-solid football team."

The Seattle sports scene is full of first-year wonders; supposed team saviors who found it easier to correct the mistakes of others than their own. If Carroll and Schneider are able to transcend that trend, it will be because they understand their own processes, and respect the value of the people around them. It may sound hippy-dippy, but the holistic approach seems to be working for this new version of the Seahawks.

Soon, it will be time once again to test those high-falutin' theories in the relative 'real world' of the NFL draft.