Over the course of the last five years, the Seattle Seahawks and the Arizona Cardinals have both waded through the muck of mediocrity in the NFL to find success. I’m not solely talking about wins and losses in terms of success; I’m talking about organizational success, such as hiring the right coaches, hiring the right front office members and, most importantly, drafting the right players.
Arizona’s success in 2013 has been something the organization has been waiting on for some time now.
Seattle’s has been years in the making. After one 5-11 season under the watchful eye of Jim Mora Jr., Seahawks owner Paul Allen decided to pull the plug after the 2009 season. Allen wanted to hit the reset button after two seasons of chaos that began when Mike Holmgren decided to come back for the final year of his contract.
By hitting the reset button, he knew what the implications would be. Yet, thanks in large part to the stacks of cash he had been sitting on since his days at Microsoft, Allen had just the man for the job. Price didn’t matter; the only thing that mattered was producing a winning football product for the city of Seattle.
So, Allen took the plunge and hired Pete Carroll away from the University of Southern California. He not only hired Carroll as the franchise’s head coach, he also made him vice president of football operations at the sum of $35 million over five years.
The fit seemed perfect at the time. Carroll always enjoyed a good challenge, and Allen needed someone with a fresh approach to the NFL.
Allen got what he wanted, a fresh approach and then some. When Carroll was fired as the New England Patriots head coach, he took a step back and reevaluated his coaching philosophy. From his time of reflection, the “Win Forever, Always Compete” mantra was born.
He took his newfound philosophy to USC for nine years, and it worked wonders. Carroll’s coaching tenure in Southern California finished on a high note. He won 96 games in 115 attempts, while securing two AP national titles along the way.
People often wondered if his “Win Forever, Always Compete” philosophy would fly in the NFL. It’s safe to say it has. When he came aboard, he and Allen made immediate changes. They hired John Schneider away from the Green Bay Packers to be the Seahawks general manger, and they gutted the roster from top to bottom.
Carroll and Schneider had a simple plan: They wanted to get younger at every position, take calculated risks in free agency and build through the draft. As simple as it sounds, it’s often easier said than done. Over the course of their first season together at the top, the Seahawks made 284 roster transactions total.
What was the point of all the continuous transactions? Competition. Carroll told the media on November 7, 2011, that all he wanted to do from the beginning was make the roster more competitive from the bottom up, via SportspressNW.com. He got his wish. Despite all the wheel-spinning, Seattle won the NFC West and garnered a playoff victory in the process.
However, one measly playoff victory wasn’t enough to satisfy Carroll. He had his eyes on the ultimate prize. This, in turn, meant more churning of the roster and home run selections on draft day.
In 2010, the organization drafted left tackle Russell Okung, safety Earl Thomas, wide receiver Golden Tate, cornerback Walter Thurmond and safety Kam Chancellor. Topping that draft class would be hard to do.
Unfortunately for the Seahawks, 2011 featured a lot of strikeouts. Cornerback Richard Sherman and linebacker K.J. Wright have made a name for themselves in league circles, but offensive linemen James Carpenter and John Moffitt never lived up to their lofty draft status. Yet, there is still time for Carpenter to turn things around. Moffitt is a lost cause considering he was traded prior to the season.
A weak draft class and subpar quarterback play doomed Carroll’s second season in the Pacific Northwest. Seattle finished 7-9 for the second time in as many seasons and failed to make the playoffs.
In spite of the talent the team was acquiring on both sides of the ball, the Seahawks were stuck in second gear because of Tarvaris Jackson and Charlie Whitehurst. Neither signal-caller was a franchise quarterback—Carroll knew that.
The NFL is a quarterback-driven league, so it was up to the front office to find one heading into 2012. At first glance, pundits felt free-agent signee Matt Flynn was that guy when the Seahawks gave him a contract that was worth $26 million total with $10 million in guarantees.
Nevertheless, Carroll thrives on competition, and third-round pick Russell Wilson came to training camp ready to compete. At the conclusion of preseason play, Wilson had oohed, aahed and played his way into the starting lineup.
Flynn’s contract wasn’t a concern. Carroll and Schneider believed Wilson gave the team the best opportunity to win, and they were right. Regardless of his slow start, the 5’11” rookie quarterback turned in a magnificent season. He took full command of the offense, led the Seahawks to an 11-5 record and a playoff win.
Seattle’s lengthy process took time, effort and money. Its biggest question is no longer about building a dominant roster, it’s about sustaining a dominant roster. As it stands right now, Coach Carroll’s club has the No. 2 defense in the NFL statistically, a dynamic run game and a rising star under center.
Things are on the up and up in the Emerald City.
The Cardinals, on the other hand, haven’t had the same rich fortunes as Carroll and Schneider. Yet in all fairness to them, change and action in terms of constructing the roster are still underway. Arizona shouldn’t be classified as a team in “rebuilding” mode. It is simply reassembling the roster, especially on offense.
When the Bidwill family hired head coach Bruce Arians this past offseason, they hired him for two reasons. He’s a winner, and he can coach up an offense. Sure, Arians was possibly an impulse hire after an impressive stint as an interim head coach for the Indianapolis Colts, but the Cardinals have been so bad on offense since Kurt Warner hung up his cleats that the hire made sense.
More specifically, the hire made sense because Arians has a good track record with quarterbacks. And we all know how bad that position has been over the course of the last three years for Arizona.
Fans and media members alike have to also tip their hat to the job Arians and general manager Steve Keim did in the draft and free agency.
Even though they failed to select a quarterback in the draft, Arians and Keim made it a point to upgrade the team’s least talented group of skill position players, the running backs. Clemson’s Andre Ellington was a steal in the sixth round, and Stanford’s Stepfan Taylor has all the necessary tools to be a productive back in the league.
According to the analysts at Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Ellington is currently the fifth-best running back in the NFL. He has come in and contributed immediately. Really, those are the types of players Arians was looking for prior to the draft.
Back in April, he shed some light on his and Keim’s draft philosophy, via Daria Del Colliano of ArizonaSports.com. “We feel pretty good about this draft. We think that at every pick whether it's one through seven, we're going to get a guy that can come in and help us and contribute.”
For the most part, even outside of Ellington, they have gotten some sort of contribution out of their rookie draft class. Defensive back Tyrann Mathieu is playing like a vested veteran, linebacker Alex Okafor is making his presence felt on special teams and tight end D.C. Jefferson has blocked well on limited snaps.
In addition to drafting contributing rookies, Keim said the front office’s strategy also includes drafting the best players available in accordance to their draft board. Undoubtedly, it’s easy to see that part of their strategy worked on multiple occasions during the draft.
Offensive guard Jonathan Cooper, Mathieu and Ellington were all the best players available in their respective draft positions. It’s too early to tell on some of the other selections, since it’s only the first year of their careers. As we all know, some players take longer to develop than others.
Drafting the best available players in the draft means free agency is all about filling holes and team needs. The approach may slightly differ in comparison to Seattle’s philosophy, but that’s okay because the Cardinals have gotten plenty of production from their free-agent additions as well.
Running back Rashard Mendenhall is the team’s leading rusher, linebacker Karlos Dansby leads the team in tackles, and defensive lineman Matt Shaughnessy is the team’s best run-stopper up front. Arizona’s principles may come off as plain and elementary to some, yet there are times when plain and elementary are better than overcomplicated and incomprehensible.
With a developing draft class, accountable free agents and a 3-3 record, the Cardinals are in contention for a playoff spot. Even if there are 10 games left to go in the regular season, the NFL is a week-to-week league predicated on progress and growth.
|Thur, Oct 17||Seahawks||5:25 PM (PT)|
|Sun, Oct 27||Falcons||1:25 PM (PT)|
|Sun, Nov 10||Texans||1:25 PM (PT)|
|Sun, Nov 17||@ Jaguars||10:00 AM (PT)|
|Sun, Nov 24||Colts||1:05 PM (PT)|
|Sun, Dec 1||@ Eagles||10:00 AM (PT)|
|Sun, Dec 8||Rams||1:25 PM (PT)|
|Sun, Dec 15||@ Titans||10:00 AM (PT)|
|Sun, Dec 22||@ Seahawks||1:05 PM (PT)|
|Sun, Dec 29||49ers||1:25 PM (PT)|
As long as Arians and Keim keep this team in contention, they will regularly be viewed as a successful tandem. Yes, things can often change in a heartbeat, but the proof is in the pudding. Whether it’s four years or nine months of experience on the job, both organizations have proven that they hired the right coaches, front office members and players.
Furthermore, the Cardinals-Seahawks game on Thursday Night Football will show us that polar opposite approaches to building a prosperous franchise can and will work. In the end, it all comes down to talent. Without talent, the best schemes, approaches and philosophies are useless.
Moreover, an exceptional philosophy and scheme is only as good as the players who execute it. Good thing Arians and Carroll both have a keen eye for talent. If they didn’t, the NFC West wouldn’t be where it is today.
There isn’t a team inside the division that has a sub-.500 win percentage. Expect that to be a reoccurring theme for years to come in the West.