In today’s NFL, innovation is the key to success.
Gone are the days in which every team lined up in the same defensive formations every snap. It was ancient history when the same running back was on the field, regardless of the down and distance.
To survive, coaches and personnel men must learn to adapt to unique situations: zig when others zag.
Last year’s Super Bowl matchup featured two teams that did not do things in direct accordance with the rest of the NFL. With Colin Kaepernick under center, the 49ers engineered an explosive offense that featured the zone-read and “pistol” formations, which all centered around a dominant running game that ranked fourth in the NFL.
Meanwhile, while the rest of the league was busy trying to find the next “elite” passer, the Ravens built themselves a balanced attack that was predicated on running the ball with Ray Rice.
Three years ago, the idea of using anything but a high-flying offense with an “elite” quarterback to reach a Super Bowl was viewed as preposterous. Now, the rest of the league is rapidly trying to catch up to the Harbaughs.
Nonetheless, as fun as it was to watch the 49ers and Ravens climb their way to the top last season, the Seattle Seahawks are the true pioneers and innovators that will set trends on both side of the ball. If the Seahawks build on their success in 2013, it will change the way teams build NFL teams.
The 49ers certainly changed the league from a schematic standpoint with their success with the read-option, but the rest of their roster was built in a very standard fashion. Their defense is built from the inside-out, using high draft picks to find their stars.
While trading for an accomplished player in Anquan Boldin gives them depth at receiver, the 49ers are not going to be a drastically different team than a year ago on either side of the ball.
The real trend-setting, league-redefining team resides in Seattle.
Just a few months removed from coming within a Matt Ryan comeback of an NFC title berth, John Schneider’s unique reclamation project is nearing its completion stage, just three years into his general manager position.
The Seahawks did not get to where they were because they were blessed with an Andrew Luck or Robert Griffin III to re-start their franchise. Rather, they were simply willing to take on flawed players that they were able to build their team around, not force them to become players they simply were not.
Re-Thinking the Secondary
The backbone of Schneider’s success has been his ability to not only find valuable players in the later rounds of the draft—he has also been able to find star players where other teams are just looking for part-time players and special teams aces.
While the rest of the league was busy combing through the draft for athletic, smaller cornerbacks, the Seahawks elected to have one of the biggest secondaries in the sport.
Take a look at this comparison between three of Seattle’s biggest starting defensive backs in relation to what would be a “normal-sized” cornerback or safety:
|Kam Chancellor||6'3" 232 pounds||6'1" 205 pounds|
|Richard Sherman||6'3" 195 pounds||5'11" 195 pounds|
|Brandon Browner||6'4" 221 pounds||5'11" 195 pounds|
Richard Sherman and Kam Chancellor are now among the best at their respective positions, having both reached the Pro Bowl.
Both were taken in the fifth round.
Before the success of these players, defensive backs this tall were often viewed as being unable to turn and run with quicker receivers.
As it turns out, with the increased use of press-man coverage, these tall, physical players are able to overpower their opposing receivers. In addition, having a monstrous safety in the mold of Kam Chancellor allows the Seahawks to match up physically with some of the bigger tight ends in the league, including Vernon Davis in San Francisco.
This trend has already started to catch on with other teams and changed the way cornerbacks are drafted. Florida State product Xavier Rhodes was a first-round pick of the Vikings largely because of his 6’1”, 210-pound frame.
Because of their willingness to think outside the box, the Seahawks have changed the way the league goes about building their secondary.
Russell Wilson had just about everything you wanted in a potential franchise quarterback when he came out of Wisconsin—accuracy, poise, arm strength and plenty of mobility to give defenses headaches.
In a sense, the 5'11" Wilson was about two inches away from being a first-round pick.
The Seahawks took a flier on Wilson in the third round—so don’t give them too much credit for drafting him. Had they thought he would be the player he turned out to be, they would have traded up into the top five
Instead, give Pete Carroll credit for putting his job on the line by doing what not many other coaches would have even considered when he chose Russell Wilson as his starter after handing Matt Flynn $10 million in guaranteed money.
Matt Flynn gets $26 million, Russell Wilson gets starting job. Pete Carroll's devotion to competition http://t.co/JTSoPZlw— Dan Wetzel (@DanWetzel) August 27, 2012
A lot of teams preach the idea of competition and speak as to how money and draft position does not go into their supposedly “honest” evaluations. In reality, such factors are the driving force of many of their decisions.
Pete Carroll is one of the few coaches who is willing to put his job on the line in the name of actually starting the best 11 players.
After all, Carroll could have easily started Flynn and switched to Wilson at any point in the season—but he knew that was not best for the team in terms of winning games for the immediate future.
Just how serious is Pete Carroll about his idea of continuous competition at every spot? Serious to the point where even Russell Wilson himself needs to fight to keep his job:
talk'inw/Pete Carroll-he said the QB competition continues and Wilson knows Flynn is still competing. Wilson has to fight to keep the job— Pat Kirwan (@PatKirwanCBS) October 3, 2012
Why is this bold way of making personnel decision enticing to watch? As the Seahawks continue their success, more and more teams will follow suit in playing the best players on their roster, no matter how much money they make.
The On-Field Product
Even tossing aside the massive league-wide effects Seattle’s success will have on the future of decision-making in the NFL, the Seahawks are going to be an incredibly fun team to watch in 2013.
Pete Carroll’s squad was hardly a bore last season, as Russell Wilson took the league by storm, dazzling with his Fran Tarkenton-like improvisational skills. With a whole year of experience under his belt, there is no telling what Wilson is capable of in 2013—especially with an enhanced arsenal of weapons to work with.
Despite the steep cost of a first-round pick and a hefty contract, the addition of Percy Harvin makes this offense virtually unstoppable.
After all, with Marshawn Lynch in the backfield, Zach Miller at tight end and Sidney Rice outside, how can one possibly field a defense that is prepared to stop their skill position players—all while accounting for Wilson’s mobility?
Here is just one formation the Seahawks can line up in, with Wilson in the pistol:
The possibilities are endless as to what they can do with Harvin, Miller and Rice with Wilson pulling the trigger.
There will be plenty of exciting teams to take an NFL field this season, but given their unique composition and the manner in which the team is built, the Seahawks are clearly the team to watch in 2013.
Not only is their playoff-caliber team comprised of players from the "Island of Misfit Toys" at their respective positions, but they are one of the few teams that actually put their mantra of competition in action.
If the Seahawks are able to build on their success and win a Super Bowl in 2013, they will truly re-define what it takes to build a team capable of winning championships because of their willingness to break the mold in a league that is entrenched in primal philosophies.
The Seahawks are this year's team to watch not because of Tebow-like drama or a coach on the hot seat, but because how Seattle performs this season will have a long-lasting impact on how business is conducted in the NFL.