Wednesday, January 2, 2013

What the Seattle Seahawks can teach us about building successful teams

In 2010, Pete Carroll and John Schneider were hired by the Seattle Seahawks to turnaround a flailing franchise. The previous two years saw the team lose their iconic football czar Mike Holmgren to a 4-12 season, before hiring Jim Mora and watching him guide the team to a 5-11 season that got him fired.

So in came a superstar college coach, and a guy who just won a Superbowl to change the face of a franchise whose best players were an aging Matt Hasselbeck, TJ Houshmandzadeh and Lofa Tatupu. Remember, this isn't even three full seasons ago yet.

Since the new regime took over, only five players remain on the team: Max Unger, Ben Obomanu, Red Bryant, Leroy Hill and Brandon Mebane. For those who aren't too familiar with football, the skinny is that everyone named except Ben Obomanu are starters- Obomanu is a depth receiver. Max Unger made the pro bowl this year, Brandon Mebane is a pro bowl caliber player, while Leroy Hill and Red Bryant are serviceable players that contribute positively, but nothing special. In essence, on a roster of 53, only five players are hold overs going into the third season of a new regime.

So in three short years, without a draft pick no higher than sixth overall, Carroll and Schneider have turned a 5-11 team, into an 11-5 Superbowl contender.

They have done numerous things to get there, many of them football related only, but there are three things every franchise should takeaway when it comes to how to build a team properly.

1- Acquire players built to play a specific system

Seattle's D-line is not conventional, to say the least. They line up four players along the line with two DE's and two DT's, which is pretty standard. However, on the left end they play a defensive end who weighs nearly 325 pounds, is 6'4, and his main job is to basically seal the edge and stop the run. On the opposite side is Chris Clemons, who weighs 255 pounds and is 6'3, and his job is to rush the passer. To give you an idea of what a prototypical high end D-line man is, look at a guy like Julius Peppers who is 6'7 and weighs 290. Obviously, neither player is anywhere close to having Peppers physical ability, but they work.

Red Bryant wasn't even a starter on Seattle's 5-11 team under Mora, but he's started every game under Carroll. In fact, Bryant was playing on the inside of the line at DT versus playing DE before Carroll got to Seattle.

Chris Clemons was acquired straight up for DE Darryl Tapp, and the Seahawks got a 4th round pick out of it, too. Since then, Clemons is one of only three D-linemen to get double digit sacks in each of the last three seasons. The others? Eleventh overall pick Demarcus Ware of the Cowboys, and Jared Allen of the Minnesota Vikings who was acquired for one first round pick and two third rounders.
Chris Clemons went from after thought in Philly,
to stud in Seattle.
Tapp, the player the Seahawks traded to bring in Clemons AND a fourth round pick, didn't even start this year for a 4-12 Eagles roster.

Then in the 2012 draft, the Seahawks used their 15th overall pick to draft Bruce Irvin, a pick that was largely deemed to be a reach. He's a 6'3 DE who weighs 248 pounds. Sound familiar? Irvin went on to lead all rookies in sacks with eight.

This year, Seattle's defense ranks first in fewest points allowed, and fourth in fewest yards allowed. They have the third best passer rating on defense, too. Bryant and Clemons are a huge part of that, even though they were afterthoughts before Schneider and Carroll acquired them.

How Seattle approaches their D-line is but a small example on how to bring in players to play a specific system. Players like Julius Peppers who are 6'7 and can play the run and the pass, do not grow on trees. Not every team has a Sidney Crosby, or a Lionel Messi, or a LeBron James. When teams do not have the advantage of superstars that can make up for most other problems on the roster, they need to do other things. Build an identity, nail down a specific way of playing, identify the kinds of roles that you want each player to play, and then go out and acquire them.

In other words, judging all players evenly, whether by metrics or scouting reports or whatever, isn't always the best way to build a team. In fact, we have talked about this before here with the Phoenix Coyotes.

2- Highlight strengths, not weaknesses

"Our nature is to look for the good stuff. Our nature is to count on our ability to draw it out of guys."
- Pete Carroll

Often when people evaluate players, be it a prospect or a pro, the initial instinct is to bring up the players weaknesses first. What he has to do to be better, basically. 

That's fine. In fact, it's understandable. However, the first questions should really be, "what does he bring to the table? How does he help us?"

Much has been made of Seattle's rookie QB Russell Wilson. He was drafted in the third round this year after a 33TD, 4INT season in his only year in Wisconsin. He had a 72.8% completion rate, 3,175 passing yards, as well as 338 rushing yards and 6 more rushing TDs. In fact, he set an NCAA record with a 191.8 pass efficiency rating. By comparison, second overall pick and Heisman winner RG3 had 37TDs, 6INT, 72.3% completion rate, 4,293 yards, 699 rushing yards, and 10 more rushing TDs. Yes RG3 obviously had better numbers -he did win player of the year- but Wilson put up first round numbers.
Seattle focused on Russell Wilson's strengths, not
his weaknesses.

Yet he dropped to the 75th pick, and we all know why: He's 5'11.

In fact, draft "expert" Mel Kiper said that Wilson was a late-round draft pick at best, pointing out that of the 32 starting quarterbacks in the NFL, 28 were 6'2 or taller and none were under 6-feet.

It is said that some teams, in fact, would remove a player of that height from their draft board altogether. Former Dallas Cowboys executive Gil Brandt said you'd subtract 15 points off of Wilson's rating due to his height in his system.

Want to know the funny thing though? All the signs were there that Russell Wilson would be able to excel at the next level.

He played behind the biggest offensive line in college football, yet still tore up the league. In fact, the line he played behind in college is literally bigger than Seattle's current one. Furthermore, he played four of the nations top 15 college defenses according to the FootballOutsiders website, and still produced. The physical advantages taller quarterbacks tend to have such as larger hands, longer limbs and the strength that usually comes with size equaling more control of the ball and the ability to launch it farther down-field were all present with Wilson. Wilson's arm-length was measured at the combine at 31", just behind Griffin (32 1/4") and Luck (32 5/8"). His hands (10 1/4") were actually bigger than Griffin's or Luck's (9 1/2" and 10", respectively). Literally, all his measurables added up cause he can throw a deep ball, is accurate, can run, and so on. Look at this draft overview. His weakness was size, that's it.

So, really, what did Seattle do? They focused on his strengths. Just like Pete Carroll said they tend to do with players. It is a team game, after all, and the main line of thinking has to be how to combine many players specific talents in a system in which they can all work together to win games.

In fact, this is something Tampa Bay Lightning coach Guy Boucher preaches as well. He tells his players to practice mainly on what they are good at, and only a little on their weaknesses. Let's face it, there are very few "complete" players in every sport, but, if a player can master one or two things -like the way Stamkos has mastered the quick release of his shot- then that is generally the best way to succeed.

Look, I understand the need for complete players. I'm not oblivious to the obvious. However, there is nothing wrong with looking at a players strengths as your main focus, and then figuring out if there's a place for that strength within your roster. As mentioned, sports like hockey, soccer, basketball and football are team games. If a player can do one or two things very well, and not much else, there's a good chance he can contribute to your roster in a meaningful way. Too often we count out players because they are bad at something, instead of looking at what they are good at and figuring out a way to implement it.

3- Look for players everywhere and give them opportunities

Carroll and Schneider inherited a very bad roster. There was no star running back, no star QB, no star defensive players. There was nothing to build a team around, really. What did they do, then? They went to work.

First thing is first, Seattle built a large segment of their team through the draft. In three drafts they have added a pro bowl left tackle, two pro bowl safeties, a possible offensive rookie of the year and franchise QB, a possible defensive rookie of the year and franchise LB, and maybe the best cornerback in football. And that's just the star power they drafted.

People talk all the time about building through the draft for a reason. It's the easiest, and cheapest, way to add talent to your roster.

Seattle found their top two corners rather unconventionally
But Seattle's roster makeover doesn't end there.

They added Brandon Browner -a pro bowl corner back- from the CFL.

Their star running back, Marshawn Lynch, was a cast off in Buffalo and Seattle acquired him for two late draft picks.

Their starting right tackle, Breno Giacomini, came from Green Bay's practice squad.

And, of course, they signed a few marquee free agents such as Sidney Rice and Zach Miller.

They also did things like bring in Terrell Owens for a tryout, were in on trying to trade for Brandon Marshall, and they even traded high draft picks to try Charlie Whitehurst at QB. Seattle had over 200 transactions in Carroll's first year at the helm. Not everything worked, but nobody can say they haven't searched far and wide for talent.

But bringing in players is only half the battle. The other half? Actually playing them.

At this point in time, Seattle is a good team. Before this, though, they acquired a lot of players, threw them in the lineup and decided where to go from there.

There is nothing more ridiculous than organizations who have talent right under their nose, and never actually give it a chance. Seattle searched far and wide for any players they could find who had even an ounce of talent, and then they threw them in the lineup to see what they could do. Practice can only tell you so much. The ultimate test is seeing players play real games.

It sounds simple, but there are so many organizations who fail to do it. Sure, they may search far and wide for talent, but do they give it a far chance? Not only do young players need to be given an opportunity, but they need to be put in positions to succeed.

Nobody knew who Richard Sherman was when Seattle started him toward the end of last season, now he's arguably the best cornerback in football.

There are many ways to skin a cat. Seattle hasn't reinvented the metaphorical wheel when it comes to building a franchise from the ground up. What they are, however, is a reminder of some of the solid, fundamental things, organizations can do to build their team to be successful.

Seattle has drafted well, they have built a system and acquired specific players to play specific roles within their system, they've given players opportunities to excel, they have taken chances, acquired players unconventionally, and they have played to players strengths instead of weaknesses.

The Seahawks haven't won it all yet, but they have put themselves in a position to succeed for not only this season, but the foreseeable future as well. It will be interesting to see where they go from here.

For now though, we can look to them as an example of what to do when you start from the ground and need to work your way up.

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