By Dan Pompei
There is a manual for team building that many general managers refer to and adhere to. For some, it is a professional bible. If John Schneider's manual isn't in the paper shredder, it has to be covered with dust. The Seattle Seahawks general manager did not build his team by the book. He built it by feel. And he built it without a pattern.
In four years in Seattle, Schneider has swung for the fences. He's tried to coax walks. He's laid down some bunts. He's gone opposite field. He moved some runners around the bases. And he had some strikeouts. Through it all, he put together a roster that is the envy of the NFL. That's why, in my opinion, there is no one more deserving of executive of the year (no offense to this year's recipient, the Kansas City Chiefs' John Dorsey).
It isn't so much about what Schneider did in 2013 that makes him deserving. It's his body of work, which culminated in a 13-win team that is hosting the NFC Championship game Sunday. His biggest move of this year -- the trade for Percy Harvin -- has gone over about as well as the Lone Ranger remake. But it brings to light the fact that the Seahawks are stocked so well they can afford some flops. That's why signing Matt Flynn didn't doom them, and why using a first round pick on James Carpenter hasn't had dire consequences. The truth is Schneider might have more misses than most -- just because of the volume of transactions he has made. By making approximately 839 roster moves in four seasons, Schneider has given himself an inordinate number of chances, and subsequently has built a roster with extraordinary depth.
Of course, it's the hits that matter. He used high round picks on players like Earl Thomas, probably one of football's best safeties. He went the trade route for earthquake inspiration/running back Marshawn Lynch. Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril, who accounted for 37 percent of the Seahawks' sacks this year, were signed as unrestricted free agents in the offseason. Both were acquired at discount prices after their markets turned soft.
"I like the way he built his team," former Bears general manager Jerry Angelo said. "He's done a really good job with the roster in terms of getting players to fit their schemes. They have acquired size and speed, but it's not just size and speed, it's a combination of players who fit what they do."
Some of Schneider's genius is made possible by Pete Carroll's genius -- the coach who finds ways to use what he is given. But it's Schneider providing those needs.
Injuries necessitated that the Seahawks start eight different offensive linemen this season, two of them at multiple positions. Schneider found two of them as street free agents. Another two were seventh round picks. And another was an undrafted free agent.
Harvin and Sidney Rice were supposed to be the Seahawks' primary receiving weapons along with Golden Tate. Between Harvin and Rice, they started only eight games this year. So Doug Baldwin and Jermaine Kearse, a couple of undrafted free agents, picked up the slack.
Cornerback Brandon Browner was acquired from the CFL. When he was injured and then suspended, he was replaced by Byron Maxwell, a 2011 sixth round pick, who even outplayed Richard Sherman early in his career before injuries derailed him.
The point is, Schneider has found a lot of useful talent in places others have found only cigarette butts and bottle caps. Sherman and Kam Chancellor both were fifth round picks. And both were voted to the Pro Bowl this year.
Other teams have noticed. Over the past year, 23 of the players Schneider had in Seattle were signed to other teams' active rosters.
In a reversal from the norm, some of Schneider's drafts look a lot better years later than they do on draft day. The Seahawks were chastised for using the 15th pick in the draft on Bruce Irvin, and razzed for using a second round pick on middle linebacker Bobby Wagner. "They get crushed on draft day, they get horrendous grades from everyone," former Rams general manager Billy Devaney said. "They have specific types of players they go for. They select players who may not be the whole package but do something that fits their schemes. People say you can get those players later, but those players have value to them, so they don't care."
There were chuckles, too, when Schneider used a third round pick in the 2012 draft on a pipsqueak quarterback. Even those who didn't chuckle -- including Carroll -- at least questioned the move. How could you not? There was no real prototype for Russell Wilson. But Schneider had conviction about him, so much, in fact, that he was willing to use a second round pick to take him before Carroll talked him out of it.
This is what Schneider told me about drafting Wilson the week after he chose him: "He is the closest thing to Drew Brees I've done in terms of sliding, finding lanes and creating things for himself." At the time, Schneider said he thought Wilson could start, and he praised his accuracy, presence, leadership, charisma, poise, quick eyes, anticipation, delivery quickness, arm strength, ball handling skills, movement in the pocket and escapability. He had absolutely no hesitation about stepping out on that limb, and it has turned out to be his signature move.
Hitting on Wilson did more than solidify the most important position on the field for the Seahawks. Given that Wilson's contract takes up a fraction of the budget that similar quarterbacks' contracts take up, Wilson's presence has enabled the Seahawks to use more resources on other players. They couldn't possibly have the depth they do if their quarterback was hogging up $20 million of their salary pie.
The other thing that stands out about Schneider is he has put together a strong front office, and he shows trust in his assistants. That's why losing John Idzik to the Jets wasn't a big deal last offseason. Schneider relies on senior executive Scot McCloughan, the former general manager of the 49ers, as his primary sounding board, and those inside the Seahawks offices say they work well together.
Schneider hasn't done everything right. But he's done so many things right that he's offset whatever missteps he might have had. That's why the Seahawks are as imposing as Mount Ranier.
Said Devaney, "I think he's done an unbelievable job."
* * *
Dan Pompei has covered more than 500 NFL games, including 26 Super Bowls. He is one of 44 members on Pro Football Hall of Fame selectors board and one of nine members on the seniors committee. He was given the 2013 Dick McCann Award by the Pro Football Writers of America for long and distinguished reporting in the field of pro football. Follow him on Twitter @danpompei.