Building for the Long Term

Posted Nov 2, 2011

Going from NFC West champions to 2-5 is taking its toll on the Seahawks, coach Pete Carroll and the team’s fans. But as history shows, struggles usually precede long-term success.

John Schneider’s title with the Seahawks might be general manager, but it just as easily could include construction foreman and connoisseur of children’s books.

The Seahawks are in the second year of a building project that began in January of 2010 when Schneider and coach Pete Carroll were hired, and there are different ways to approach what can be an arduous undertaking in this win-now/win-more era of the National Football League.

“I always liken it to the ‘Three Little Pigs,’ ” Schneider said. “You can build it with straw or stick. Or you can work your tail off and know that you’re doing the right thing and kind of do it the old fashioned way and have a big, strong, sturdy foundation.

“Then, you can weather all the storms.”

That’s how Schneider and Carroll have chosen to build a Seahawks team that won a combined nine games in the two seasons before they arrived: One brick at time.

But the wolves are out – and huffing and puffing over this, that and seemingly everything – because of the Seahawks’ 2-5 start, especially after back-to-back losses to the Cleveland Browns and Cincinnati Bengals made that Week 5 upset of the New York Giants at the Meadowlands look more mirage than measuring stick of the team’s progress to this point.

Just when it appeared the team had cleared a hump by beating a team with a winning record on the East Coast, the howl-inducing bumps have bull-rushed their way taken to center stage as the Seahawks prepare for this week’s game against the Dallas Cowboys in the Lone Star state.

“Right now,” Schneider said, “we’re in the process of weathering storms.”

The Seahawks have been in the path of storms before, and so has Schneider.

After Mike Holmgren was hired in 1999, the Seahawks backed into the playoffs and an AFC West title in his first season. Then, Holmgren decided to remake the roster. Twenty-five games into his tenure (including playoffs), Holmgren had an 11-14 record and was struggling to find a quarterback from a group that included Jon Kitna, Brock Huard and Glenn Foley.

Holmgren’s QB quandary remained unsettled even after he made a trade with the Green Bay Packers to acquire Matt Hasselbeck and signed Trent Dilfer as a free agent in 2001. An injured and ineffective Hasselbeck struggled through the 2001 season. Dilfer was named the starter in 2002, only to be injured twice. The team went 9-7 in ’01 and 7-9 in ’02.

We all remember what happened in 2003: The start of the most successful five-season run in club history, as the Seahawks advanced to the playoffs five times, won four NFC West titles and captured the franchise’s first conference champion in 2005.

In looking back at the bad ol’ days during those good times, Holmgren said several times that without the patience of owner Paul Allen, he wouldn’t have made it to 2003 – and the team likely would not have made the most of his roster reshaping in those early seasons.

Schneider knows, because he also was here in 2000 – as director of player personnel.

“When I got here that year, we knew we had a long way to go,” Schneider said. “We were looking for a quarterback. So we knew we were going to take some lumps. We knew there was going to be a building time. It was hard on the coaches and everybody involved in our football program, because you want to win right away. And in today’s society, it was, ‘OK, where’s our gratification? We just hired Mike Holmgren.’

“But if you look at the successful teams, they have programs that just have solid, sound foundations in place. That’s why it’s so important to have the time to get the program to where you want it to be, because once you make the changes the last thing you usually see are the results.”

Schneider also went through a similar brick-by-brick process while with the Green Bay Packers from 2002-09. The Packers went 4-12 in 2005 and then 8-8 in 2006. Since then, they have been to the playoffs three times in four seasons – including winning the Super Bowl last season. This season, they’re the league’s only unbeaten team (7-0). The one hiccup? In 2008, when the Packers transitioned from Brett Favre to Aaron Rodgers and went 6-10.

“Four-and-12, six-and-10, moving on from Brett Favre, those are serious storms to weather,” Schneider said. “But in the long run, that team was built through the draft and being smart in free agency.”

Flash forward a decade and here is Carroll – 10-15 after his first 25 games; dealing with unrealistic expectations for this season because the Seahawks backed into a division title with a 7-9 record last season; still looking for the team’s QB of the future; and struggling through the growing pains that come with a roster that includes 12 rookies and 15 other players who are in their first season with the Seahawks.

Last year, Schneider and Carroll made 284 transactions. This year, it’s already up to 203, despite the 136-day lockout when their wheeling-and-dealing hands were tied. And they’re not done. There will be another influx of needed talent in next year’s NFL Draft and the free agency period. It’s all about finding the players to allow Carroll to play the game the way he likes to play it – fast and aggressive; tough and tenacious.

The young quarterback the Seahawks did not acquire this year will be atop the do-to list for next year. Rather than make a panic move in free agency or reach in the draft to get a QB this year, the Seahawks will have more options next year.

“The two most important people in the building are the head coach and the quarterback,” Schneider said. “So we evaluate quarterbacks every single year. But I do know this: If you panic and do the wrong thing in terms of evaluating the quarterback, then you can you can really set the organization back.”

The Seahawks also have been there before – and long before Carroll, Schneider and even Holmgren showed up. It was 1989-93, when they used first-round draft picks to acquire Kelly Stouffer (1989), Dan McGwire (1991) and Rick Mirer (1993).

The Seahawks currently have two veteran QBs on their roster – Tarvaris Jackson and Charlie Whitehurst – as well as promising rookie Josh Portis. But Jackson (this year) and Whitehurst (last year) each signed a two-year contract, so the club is not married to either for long term.

“If they take off, great,” Schneider said. “If they don’t, we’re always looking.”

Like Carroll, Jackson has not been around long enough to have any definitive tags attached to him because of something that has happened – or not happened – in the past few weeks.

Schneider says the primary pieces are in place for the Seahawks to eventually join the elite programs in the league – most noticeably the Packers and Pittsburgh Steelers, who played in the Super Bowl last season and have been perennial playoffs teams.

“There’s no reason, with Mr. Allen and the fan base here and the stadium, that this can’t be a stable, long-term winning organization,” he said.

It won’t, however, happen overnight – or even in a season or two.

Carroll invoked the P-word on Monday, and we’re not talking playoffs.

“With some semblance of patience, and always with a focus on the future here, we’re going to take this thing and see if we can’t turn it,” he said. “It’s going to happen.”

Maybe not this week in Dallas. Perhaps not even next week, when the Seahawks host the Baltimore Ravens. But Carroll is confidence – and has the confidence of the owner and the GM he helped select – that this thing will flip, at some point.

“Some teams are going to turn right now – turn one way or the other as we approach the halfway point,” he said. “I’d sure like to see it go in a positive direction. We’re going to bust our tails to get that done.”

Until then, it’s the fans and others outside the organization that will need to display some patience.

“Having faith in your program and knowing that you’re building a stable foundation is critical to long-term success,” Schneider said. “You don’t want to be a team that just tries cruising in and cruising out, because when you do that there’s no consistency.”