Praise be our glorious and benevolent leader Chairman Brandon Lee Gowton for bringing me on board to BGN.
The Super Bowl will be a clash of not just wildly contrasting styles on the field, but also in the front office. The Broncos are built from the top down, with Peyton Manning the keystone to the entire organization. When injuries pile up a top heavy team can crash and burn with this approach, as the Falcons saw this year. But when it all comes together, a team can go to the Super Bowl, as it has for the Broncos. This is the standard operating procedure for the NFL: get your franchise QB as soon as possible and then build around him. When it fails, just fire everyone and repeat the process. When everyone is going one way, sometimes it pays to go the other.
The Seahawks have done just that, taking a very different but equally effective approach, building their roster almost from the bottom up. An incredible 70% of the Seahawks 53 man roster are players that were acquired on day three of the draft: 16 players were drafted in the fourth round or later and 21 were undrafted free agents. Seven of their starters on defense in the NFC Championship Game were day three picks or journeymen veterans, together with an offense that had five such players, the Seahawks are loaded with inexpensive players. The cheap contracts they are on give the team the illusion of great cap management and allow them to take high reward risks such as trading for Percy Harvin. From his first day in charge of the Seahawks Pete Carroll, himself an NFL head coach journeyman, stressed competition to his players and they bought in from the get-go. The results have been nothing short of excellent, the Seahawks are one of the deepest teams in the league, are well coached and are deservedly in the Super Bowl.
The NFL, we like to say, is "a copycat league." Someone has a great idea that works and they are lauded as a genius, in invention this is called "the hero theory," that individuals are considered singularly responsible for extending man’s reach, and labeled as a genius, or hero. Football is not much different, one person’s idea rises above the rest and they are hailed a genius, then coaches around the league assimilate it and everyone moves on to the next big thing.
There is a counterpart to this theory: "multiple discovery," that ideas spring up completely independently and simultaneously by multiple people. This is an usual occurrence in the NFL where at any given time a third of the coaches and GMs are on the hot seat. The league may be on the verge of another blueprint to copy. Should the Seahawks win, their approach will be lauded as the New New Thing that other teams would be wise to do until something deemed to be better comes along. What they will not realize is that some teams are already independently operating in a similar fashion.
A front office making shrewd roster moves turning over every stone they can to build a deep and balanced roster, coupled with an ultra competitive coach with a trademark philosophy getting the most out of the castoffs and rejects given to him. That is not an easy combination to find, but it is not unique to Seattle. It sounds a lot like the Eagles.
Chip Kelly may get all the attention but the much maligned Howie Roseman deserves it too, because this process started under him. Since 2010, when GM John Schneider and Pete Carroll took over the Seahawks (coincidentally when Roseman was named GM), Seattle has made a ridiculous 800+ transactions. Roughly 250 were in the first year, when the Seahawks overturned 75% of their roster, but this season alone they have made 49 transactions just to the practice squad. Howie Roseman has not made quite that many, but he has been extremely active in making roster moves, with particular attention to the bottom of the roster. Dick Vermeil infamously worked his players to the bone to find the last five guys on the roster, Roseman and his staff do much the same, using every avenue available to them:
Scrap heap signings
Evan Mathis transformation from journeyman free agent to All Pro fits right in with the Seahawks ability to find diamonds in the rough. Bradley Fletcher, Cary Williams, Donnie Jones, Connor Barwin, James Casey, Brad Smith were all unwanted and all played a role this year. The wider the foundation you build, the higher you can go.
The Seahawks and the Eagles are the most active trading teams in the NFL, with the Seahawks making 21 trades since 2010 and the Eagles 31. They do not all work out and many are just trades of castoffs for castoffs, but one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.
Draft day three finds
The majority of the Seahawks roster is made of late picks or undrafted free agents and players plucked off the scrap heap, and the Eagles roster is not much different. The Eagles have only 20 players drafted in rounds 1-3, Seahawks have 16, and seven of the Eagles 20 were acquired in free agency or in a trade for day three picks. On the other end of the spectrum the 49ers have 13 1st round picks and the Broncos have 11.
The third day of the draft under Roseman has been productive as well: Brandon Boykin in the 4th round, Riley Cooper and Earl Wolff in the 5th, Jason Kelce in the 6th and Bryce Brown in the 7th; along with undrafted free agents Cedric Thornton and Chris Polk, and nine other players acquired as undrafted free agents dressed for the Eagles this season.
The front office did not rest once training camp was over. Najee Goode was picked up off waivers at the end of camp, Roc Carmichael was signed from the Texans practice squad and Brad Smith was brought in off the street. Roseman got value out of Isaac Sopoaga who would have otherwise been cut, swapping him in exchange for moving up a round in the draft. Not every move is going to work out, but turn over enough stones, which have no cost, and eventually a team will get value with a few gems. Brad Smith ended the season as the kick returner, Najee Goode was the primary backup at ILB and started a game, Roc Carmichael started two. None are key players but were improved depth.
The draft, trades, free agency, waivers… every method to acquire players has been repeatedly used by the front office to bring in competition for Chip Kelly to use.
All men are created equal
In his first year, Carroll replaced most of the roster and had everyone earn their jobs. Matt Hasselbeck had to beat out Charlie Whitehurst, Marshawn Lynch was brought in during the season because the running backs were not getting it done, castoffs Chris Clemons and Raheem Brock combined for 20 sacks and Mike Williams was pulled out of a junkyard and was the team’s leading receiver. Williams and LenDale White were USC reclamation projects, but Carroll showed he had no bias when he cut White a month after trading for him. By bringing in what was perceived to be "his guys" and making them earn every minute of their playing time, he showed the rest of the team that he backed up the talk of competition. It continues to this day, Russell Wilson had to beat out Matt Flynn, and despite a strong defensive line bolstered by the free agent addition of Cliff Avril, the Seahawks drafted four defensive linemen. To Carroll it does not matter where you come from, it only matters what you do.
Chip Kelly is no different. Kelly backed up his talk by wiping clean the depth chart in OTAs, having DeSean Jackson practice with the third stringers and every QB take reps with the first string. Like Carroll, the culture shock was immediate and it earned him the respect of his players. He gave Nick Foles and Mike Vick every opportunity to prove they were the better man for the job to open the season, which sets the tone for the rest of a team: if the QB’s job is not safe, then you better believe yours is not either. The staff had no qualms replacing veterans with developing young players on defense in the middle of the season and vice versa when the young Damaris Johnson showed no signs of improvements and they brought in veteran Brad Smith. Kelly could have easily cut the unproductive and radioactive Riley Cooper in camp with minor stir, instead he gave him a chance to earn his job. And like Carroll he brought in a handful of former players but gave them no benefit.
Any advantage is an advantage
There are limits on what a team can do on the field and how a team can construct its roster. There are very few limits though on what a team can do off the field or how it constructs its staff, and the Eagles take advantage of this. Competition is not just for between the players, but also for inside them too. Kelly’s prescience and dedication to sports science has given the team immediate results, the 2013 Eagles were incredibly healthy during the course of the season. The increased fitness and endurance was one reason why the Eagles lost only one game they led at halftime all year. "Big people beat up little people" and big people with stamina beat up tired big people. And it is not just the players where advantages can be had, the Eagles along with, you guessed it, the Seahawks, have the largest coaching staff in the league. Knowledge is power.
"We’re from Philadelphia and we fight"
The Seahawks are a rough, tough, physical team, exemplified by the bruising runs of Marshawn Lynch and the hard hitting defense, the antithesis of "we are from Seattle and we recycle." The whole team plays with the chip on its shoulder of being largely a band of castoffs and rejects and Carroll would not have it any other way. The Eagles are not much different, with an attitude that comes from the man in charge: "we’re from Philadelphia and we fight."
The similarities of the Eagles and Seahawks only extend so far. Like the Broncos they are almost complete opposites on the field. But that does not matter, just as there is no one right way to win a Super Bowl, there is no one right way to run a Super Bowl team either. But the front office approach and synergy with the head coach is much the same. The kind of systematic change the Seahawks went through and the Eagles are going through does not happen overnight, it took the Seattle four seasons to go from a new regime to the Super Bowl. If it is to happen with the Eagles, it will likely take a few seasons as well. The NFL is always called "a copycat league" and for good reason. Should the Eagles win the Super Bowl under Chip Kelly in the next few years, you may see people look at the way the Eagles operate and say they are a copycat of the Seahawks. They will be wrong. Seattle and Philadelphia will have been a part of the opposite method, they will have made multiple discoveries. In a league where assimilating hero theories is the norm, it can pay to be the anti-hero.