They say that if you're going to fail, fail fast.
That's been the calling card for the Seahawks under Pete Carroll and John Schneider, who have made multiple high-profile and aggressive moves in free agency or the trade market only to see several of those deals go down in flames. The latest example is the short-lived tenure of Cary Williams in Seattle, a big-money free agent acquisition over the summer. Seattle gave Williams $18 million on a three-year deal that included $7 million in guaranteed money but was released abruptly after Week 13 following weeks of subpar play opposite Richard Sherman.
What sets Seattle apart from many organizations in failures like this -- and yes, they are certainly big swings and misses, particularly the Percy Harvin deal -- is that once they recognize that an investment is a bad one, they move on almost immediately. Many teams will continue to try to fit square pegs into round holes because of the amount of money tied up in a player, or because of pressure from or fear of the owner, or simply because it's embarrassing, and that tends to exacerbate the issue.
The Seahawks, along with a few other consistently well-run clubs, realize their mistakes quickly, admit them, then move on. They take ego out of the equation, have full trust and support from ownership, and act decisively. They fish or cut bait, so to speak.
The Cary Williams mistake
While many view the Cary Williams deal as a huge flop for Seattle (and it was -- he earned $7 million for about ten months of work), there was also a chorus of praise to go along with that because of Seattle's quick reaction to their miss.
After two weeks on the gameday inactives list, Williams was released. Taking his place on the outside was DeShawn Shead, a former undrafted free agent out of Portland State. Jeremy Lane, a former sixth-round pick out of Northwestern State, provided depth. Both have outperformed Williams anyway.
As Rob Rang put it over at Scout.com, once Williams was inactive two weeks in a row, "the writing was on the wall and rather than keep Williams on the roster as a reminder of an expensive free agency miss, the Seahawks simply elected to go with the younger, hungrier and certainly more physical Shead and Lane at cornerback."
Prior to Cary Williams' benching, Seattle had given up 10 passing touchdowns with only four interceptions through 10 games. They were allowing 19.2 points per game. Since Shead has replaced Williams as the starter, Seattle has only given up one passing touchdown and has picked off the ball six times, giving up just 14 points per game. Opponent completion rate has gone down three points as well.
This isn't the first time the Seahawks have cut a high-profile player. Just weeks into their new regime, Pete Carroll and John Schneider unceremoniously cut T.J. Houshmandzadeh, the team's leader in receptions and yards from the year before, and rumor has it that it was as a message to the team. They cut LenDale White in a similar fashion just a few months after trading for him. They signed Matt Flynn for three years and $20 million with $9 million guaranteed and then went with their rookie third-round pick as the starter, trading Flynn away a year later. The biggest flop though, of course, was the deal to acquire Percy Harvin.
Carroll and Schneider gave Minnesota first- and third-round picks then handed Harvin $25.5 million guaranteed with a $12 million signing bonus. The highly mercurial player lasted about a year in Seattle and played in just eight games, including the playoffs. His biggest contribution was a touchdown return just after halftime in Super Bowl XLVIII.
Behind the scenes, though, there were reports of fights with teammates, there were continuous injury issues, and most importantly, he didn't really fit into Seattle's offense as well as they'd imagined he would. Seattle decided to ship him off to New York after Week 5 last year.
"We took a shot for a highly explosive player," Schneider said after the season. "For a number of different reasons it didn't work out. We knew we had to resolve that situation as quickly as we could so we could move forward as an organization. It was a very hard decision, one we didn't make overnight."
They were ultimately decisive, trading Harvin midseason for what amounted to sofa cushion change. "Quite frankly from the top down, the support of ownership really helps with that," Schneider said. "And then I think being able to communicate too with the staff, the football staff, that's every area of the organization, it's not just the coaches how important a decision this is and why it's happening. And then with Pete, much like everything else he does, he's just so in tune with making everything such a positive and this was a great example. It's other people's opportunity now and I think that's what he did a phenomenal job with.''
Competition for roster spots
Seattle's willingness to move on from failed acquisitions, whether it be from trades, free agency, or the draft, also plays right in tune with Pete Carroll's message about competition. There are countless examples of higher-paid and higher-profile players losing their jobs or losing snaps to unheralded but hungry unknowns in his time with the Seahawks.
As Jim Trotter pointed out this week, the Seahawks' 53-man roster features 25 undrafted free agents, most in the NFL. Many of their top players were mid- to late-round picks.
The Seahawks' center position is a good example their willingness to go with young, unproven players. After dealing away Max Unger in the Jimmy Graham trade, the competition came down to Drew Nowak (an undrafted free agent) and Patrick Lewis (an undrafted free agent). Nowak won the job, struggled badly for five games, then was replaced midseason by Lewis, who has taken hold of his role. The line has really gelled in his six games as starter, and he looks like a potential long-term fit at the spot.
It's a powerful message to the players that if you can produce, you'll play. The front office is proud of that too.
It doesn't go unnoticed by agents either. NFL agent Greg Linton spoke to this on Twitter, noting that the "Seahawks give players opportunities and put players in positions to succeed. Other fan bases are constantly clamoring for top picks," which pressures coaches and front office people to play those guys. Instead, he said, the Seahawks are "very good at cutting dead weight while other teams hold on to guys. Their coaches support and coach up players -- last year a high priced receiver wasn't a fit and this year a cornerback wasn't. Instead of sticking with them, they let them go.
"It doesn't matter if they're a draft pick or an undrafted free agent. If you can play, you will get an opportunity. It's for that reason they get the best UDFA players."
Getting production out of homegrown draft picks has been an enormous part of Seattle's program under Carroll and Schneider. But, the fact is, they're also very aggressive in the trade market and free agency. Even after the Percy Harvin debacle, Seattle went out and made the Jimmy Graham deal this past summer. They're nothing if not fearless.
It's a little unexpected though, to be honest, maybe not on Pete "Big Balls" Carroll's part, but definitely with John Schneider.
Seattle's GM was schooled under Ron Wolf and Ted Thompson, the latter of whom is renowned for his aversion to outside free agency. With Wolf, though, Schneider surely remembers the integral trades and free agent moves that acquired Brett Favre and Reggie White, building blocks to their Super Bowl team in 1996 (Schneider was a scout for Green Bay at the time).
So, there's obviously a bit of a balance between two highly influential people in his development as a personnel man. Maybe you could call it a devil and an angel on each shoulder.
Bill Polian talked to the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel about Thompson's famous restraint in free agency, "Over a six-year study, Polian determined that 50 percent of free-agent signings panned out. Or, as he put it, the same rate as (much) cheaper, smart NFL draft picks."
It's all about familiarity with your players, said Thompson.
"If we wanted to be honest, we all have a tendency to drift toward that that you know better. If you know Player A that's been on your team or practice squad for X number of games as opposed to Player B who might have a chance to be better but you don't know him as well, I think you have to weigh that. That's the conscious decision that you have to try to make. It's my nature to be a little conservative."
There's definitely a little bit of that in John Schneider's nature in the fact that he consistently hoards draft picks and aggressively attacks undrafted rookie free agency. But like Wolf, whom he considers a father figure, he'll make a big move or two if it means landing a true impact player. Marshawn Lynch has been that kind of player. Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril, two outside free agents, have been foundational players for Seattle.
Jimmy Graham may end up being that kind of player as well, but the jury is still out. The injury to his knee could have long-term repercussions and there are still questions as to his "fit" in Seattle's offense as more of a true tight end in more of a blocking role. But, prior to his injury he'd really come on in the passing game as a nice middle-of-the-field option for Russell Wilson, something Wilson really hasn't had in his pro career. Graham's target share as a piece of the overall passing game pie was actually higher in Seattle this season than it was in New Orleans last year, and he was effective on third downs.
But, and this is a big deal, Graham's touchdowns and overall red zone effectiveness plummeted in Seattle. It's a concern. Only time will tell if this trade ends up on the "hits" side of Schneider and Carroll's ledger.
Adding some intrigue to that, interestingly enough, Graham's injury sent him to the injured reserve during Seattle's passing game explosion. Even with Graham out of the picture for the past two and a half games, Russell Wilson has been absolutely dialed in. He's done so without Graham, without Marshawn Lynch (enter Thomas Rawls, another undrafted free agent!), and he's thrown eight touchdowns to Doug Baldwin, a former undrafted free agent, in three games. Things have really come together for Seattle and much of their success can be attributed directly to their "homegrown" players.
That said, they may need Lynch, whom they acquired in a trade a few years back, to be a huge force for them as the playoffs roll around. It's always a balance with Schneider and Carroll.
"In the long run," Wolf said, "it's better to keep your own players. So I guess you could say that, in my opinion, it's better to build through the draft."
But, he added, "When I was here, I used trades and the waiver wire quite a bit."
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Schneider, channeling his two biggest influences, rides the fence between keeping everything internal and going into the dangerous waters of trades and free agencies to try to change his club. The foundation is borne from the draft, and Schneider often sees a capstone in big-time free agency or trades like Harvin or Graham. Carroll, who is ultimately the final word, evidently shares the same philosophy.
They're certainly not afraid to take those shots, and they'll most likely continue to do so when the right opportunities arise. But, importantly -- if and when they miss, they also aren't afraid to admit they're wrong and move on. Next man up.
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