The Seahawks and Moneyball

On Sunday, the Seattle Seahawks kick off the 2013 NFL season with a game in Charlotte, South Carolina. Expectations are through the roof for this team. After an incredible run down the stretch and a strong performance in the playoffs last year, many believe the Seahawks are destined for the Super Bowl this year. General Manager John Schneider and Head Coach Pete Carroll have built not just a winning team but an entire team culture. Team slogans like “Always Compete” and “Win Forever” aren’t just motivational phrases, they’re actually put into practice by the front office all the way down to the coaching staff.

Since I’m surrounded by Moneyball principles at work and am such a believer in them when it comes to baseball, it got me thinking—are the Seattle Seahawks the Oakland Athletics of the NFL?

First, I don’t really want to tackle statistical analysis because I’m not an expert in advanced football stats and I have no hard evidence of the Seahawks using advanced statistical analysis—though I would guess they do. Instead, I want to focus on the way the Seahawks are using undervalued players in very specific roles to build a winning team. First, let’s examine how the core of this team was built through strong drafting and by managing the salary cap very efficiently.

John Schneider and Pete Carroll were both hired in 2010 within one week of each other. They have collaborated to build the team that Coach Carroll wants to put on the field, Schneider controlling the salary cap and contacts and Carroll managing all personnel matters. They have overseen four drafts now and each has been incredibly rewarding.

The Seahawks have drafted 23 of 53 players on their current roster and 15 of those players are starters or solid contributors. Of their 39 total draft picks in the last four years, these 23 are on the 2013 active roster, an incredible rate of success. Of the 22 starters this year, over half of them were drafted by the Seahawks. One of the major foundations of the Oakland Athletics and Moneyball is building through the draft. Draft picks are an extremely cost-effective way to build a team, whether it’s a football team or baseball team. Young talent is cheap and under team control for a significant amount of time before it becomes too expensive to keep around. It’s clear that John Schneider and Pete Carroll have been committed to building through the draft from the beginning instead of through free agency or trades.

That’s not to say that the Seahawks haven’t used free agency effectively. The Seahawks are notorious for signing and keeping non-drafted free agents. Doug Baldwin is perhaps the most well known story but there are number of other non-drafted free agents that have made significant contributions. This year alone, five non-drafted free agent rookies made the 53-man roster. These diamonds in the rough are joined by free agent signings like Brandon Browner (CFL), Breno Giacomini (Green Bay Practice Squad), and Paul McQuistan (free agent after being released by Cleveland), all three of whom are now starters at their respective positions. This ability to evaluate players who are overlooked by other teams has added incredible value to the roster.

“We’ll find value in players that no one else can see. People are overlooked for a variety of biased reasons and perceived flaws. Age, appearance, personality. Billy, of the 20,000 notable players for us to consider, I believe that there is a championship team of twenty-five people that we can afford, because everyone else in baseball undervalues them.”

When Pete Carroll took over as Head Coach, he inherited a defensive lineman named Red Bryant who was drafted two years before. At the Scouting Combine, Bryant had the second fastest 40 yard dash for a defensive lineman but was drafted as an interior lineman who specialized in run stuffing. He had two disappointing years before meeting Pete Carroll. In 2010, he was moved to defensive end because Carroll recognized his strengths and, to some extent, built his defensive scheme around them. Bryant has thrived in his new role and has racked up five blocked kicks in three years.

In 2011, John Schneider drafted a cornerback in the fifth round named Richard Sherman. He had fallen so far in the draft because he had only played cornerback for two years in college (he was a wide receiver before). The Seahawks recognized the promise of his physical abilities and the way his experience as a wide receiver would benefit him on the defensive side of the ball. Due to the freedom Sherman has been given to play to his strengths, he’s developed into one of the premiere cornerbacks in the league.

After two years of poor quarterback play, the Seahawks entered the 2012 draft looking for their next franchise quarterback. The 2012 draft class was headlined by two quarterbacks, Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III. Instead of trying to trade up for one of those two, the Seahawks waited until the third round—after six other quarterbacks had been drafted—to take their man. Russell Wilson played college ball at NC State and Wisconsin and had been drafted by the Colorado Rockies to play second base. He had fallen in the draft so far primarily because of one single factor, he stood only 5’11”. Pete Carroll recognized the leadership and intelligence of Wilson and understood that his strengths as a player fit perfectly within the offensive scheme he wanted to build.

These three stories exemplify the way the John Schneider and Pete Carroll build a roster. They value players for their very specific strengths and fit them perfectly into the defensive or offensive schemes the team employs. They’re looking past the traditional way of evaluation to find players that are undervalued, and therefore overlooked, by other teams. That ability has allowed the Seahawks to efficiently and economically build a winning team like the way the Oakland Athletics have built winning teams with similar methods. Because these methods are non-traditional and so cost-efficient, they’re designed to build teams that are sustainable winners. It’s a good time to be a Hawks fan—we can look forward to a long run of dominance for the foreseeable future.

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