GM John Schneider’s natural innovation has lifted Seahawks
He didn’t even have a Wikipedia page when the Seahawks hired him four years ago, and his friends still like to remind him that he’s short. But general manager John Schneider is ... The Natural.
/ Seattle Times staff reporter
“I won’t be totally jacked up until we start winning championships and people on other teams are calling to acquire our players.”
Seahawks general manager John Schneider in 2010
John Schneider badgered his way to a job interview. Through letters, through persistence and phone calls, he made his hometown team, the Green Bay Packers, notice him.
In retellings of the John Schneider story, his determination and pestering of Packers general manager Ron Wolf while still in college is presented as career foreshadowing.
He had a will and work ethic that would carry him a long way.
Both are foundations of Schneider’s success, but what separates him is what happened once he got his shot.
Over the years, the Packers developed a system for evaluating potential scouts. When Schneider walked in as a 21-year-old in 1992, the Packers assigned him five or six players to evaluate. Not the team’s stars, but also not bottom-feeders.
Here’s the film. Here’s a room. Here’s a checklist of what we’re looking for in an offensive lineman, a defensive back.
Schneider had one day. Wolf was looking for accuracy — was a guy providing useful information or canned comments out of a scouting book? The amount of inquiries an NFL front office generates is staggering. The amount of valid applicants is not.
“John nailed it,” Wolf says. “And when they nail ’em, you realize you have somebody who can really, truly evaluate and isn’t full of BS.”
SCHNEIDER HAS WORKED hard and trained under some of the game’s best minds, but he is also just good at evaluating players. A gift, Packers general manager Ted Thompson calls it.
“It’s like a great athlete who doesn’t realize he’s a great athlete,” former Seahawks owner John Nordstrom says.
Schneider does most of his work behind the curtain. That’s not uncommon in the NFL, but the result is that the architect of Seattle’s roster operates in the spotlight only around draft time. (He hasn’t talked since before the season and declined to do so for this story.)
Wolf says general managers need to hit on four of seven draft picks to be successful. “I’m talking about guys who have the ability to play at a high level, a championship-caliber level,” he says.
In Schneider’s first three years in Seattle, that’s exactly the clip at which he drafted starters or contributing backups. He’s also proved adept at mining undrafted free agents (Doug Baldwin, Ricardo Lockette, Jermaine Kearse).
But that’s only part of what has enabled Schneider and the Seahawks to reach this point. The other part goes back to an interview four years ago with coach Pete Carroll.
THE ORGANIZATION NEEDED to hit reset. After years of trying to patch things up with repairs, the Seahawks finally decided to swing the wrecking ball.
Former president Bob Whitsitt’s heavy-handed style alienated many, including coach Mike Holmgren. Holmgren’s relationship soured over time with Tim Ruskell, the man hired to replace him as general manager. And, finally, Ruskell bolted before the end of the 2009 season after learning his contract wouldn’t be renewed.
The Seahawks still made the playoffs five times between 2000 and 2009, including the 2005 Super Bowl run. But over time, internal tension hampered decision-making. By the end of the 2009 season, when Ruskell left and coach Jim Mora was fired, “the rope finally snapped,” one former team employee said.
That’s why Schneider’s interview with Carroll in 2010 was so important. Carroll and the new general manager were getting a clean slate, but there had to be a working connection.
The Seahawks liked Schneider’s pedigree. He started in Green Bay’s scouting department, became the Kansas City Chiefs’ director of pro personnel and then was named Marty Schottenheimer’s No. 2 man with the Redskins at age 30. He lasted only a year there before getting fired, but the way he responded intrigued Seattle’s executives. He returned to Green Bay and worked his way back to be the organization’s director of football operations.
But would he mesh with Carroll, the coach hired one week before?
Schneider wasn’t Seattle’s first choice. The Seahawks had discussions with Holmgren before talks stalled, and many around the league thought veteran GM Floyd Reese would get the job. In a sign of modern anonymity, Schneider didn’t even have a Wikipedia page at the time.
He and Carroll met for two or three hours at the team’s office. The two talked philosophies and how they approached team building.
But something important happened. Schneider made Carroll laugh. They struck a personal chord and got along. Carroll could see himself collaborating with Schneider.
“I’m really proud of that relationship,” Carroll said earlier this season, “because without that we would be making errors, more errors than we have been. We’ve been pretty accurate.”
THE FUNNY THING about talking to Schneider’s old colleagues is that they all want to pass along a jab.
“John always knows it’s OK to draft someone taller than him, so that’s what he always does,” says Chiefs general manager John Dorsey. “You let him know that, OK?”
“Are you going to see John this week?” Holmgren says after telling a story in which he yelled at Schneider about a newly signed linebacker in Green Bay. “Ask him: ‘Is it fair you got blamed for bringing in Alberto White?’ Just ask him that.”
“You know how John is,” says Thompson, who worked with Schneider in Green Bay. “He’s 5 foot 6 as it is. If he mentioned a cornerback or running back that was real short, Ron (Wolf, the former Packers GM) would get all over him.”
Schneider often mockingly yells “Hey, Dan!” or “Hey, Darrell!” while walking by the news conferences of coordinators Dan Quinn and Darrell Bevell, like a high schooler seeing his friend interviewed for the first time. In a live chat with fans in 2010, Schneider dropped quotes from “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy” and responded to a puzzling question about his voice by saying, “Dude ... what are you hopped up on?”
He is, as Dorsey put it, “very secure within his person.” And that enables him to do things that others might be too timid to try.
THOMPSON CALLS SCHNEIDER “the idea man.” In fact, that’s exactly what Thompson wanted Schneider to be when the two worked together.
“I wanted him to always be pushing the envelope and coming to me with ideas,” Thompson said. “Oftentimes we didn’t do it, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t part of our process. I always found that very interesting.”
Here’s an example Thompson gave: Instead of replacing a guard with another guard on the roster, what if the Packers replaced that guard with a cornerback so they could scout him during the season? That might seem small, but the point is Schneider was always looking for different ways to shape and evaluate Green Bay’s roster.
Even as Seattle’s 53-man roster has largely solidified this season, Schneider has shuffled guys in and out of the practice squad in search of better players. “If you realize Player B can’t play, bring Player C in and take a look at him,” Wolf said. “Doesn’t matter where B or C plays, what position, but let’s take a look at C and see if he’s better.”
As Holmgren said, “John has a lot of gambler in him. He did some things the first couple years that people in the business were going, ‘Whoa, what?’ I teased him at a league meeting once: ‘Do you get paid per transaction?’ He had like the world’s record in transactions. But there was a method to his madness.”
Schneider’s drafts have not always come stamped with approval. He was criticized for taking Russell Wilson in the third round after just signing free agent Matt Flynn, and ESPN’s Mel Kiper gave Schneider’s second draft a D-minus. He was also criticized for two of his first-round picks: offensive lineman James Carpenter (a criticism that’s looking increasingly accurate) and linebacker Bruce Irvin.
Irvin is the kind of pick Ruskell, Schneider’s predecessor, would have never made. Ruskell once admitted that he and his staff not only figured out a guy’s ceiling, but also his floor. What was the worst a player could be?
“We’re more conservative that way,” Ruskell said in 2008.
Irvin entered the draft with a lengthy history of red flags, but the Seahawks were comfortable with what they learned and liked his upside too much. They took him with the 15th overall pick.
“Let’s just put it this way,” wrote Clark Judge of CBS Sports. “I don’t know anyone other than the Seahawks who had this guy as the 15th player on their board.”
Schneider has been willing to go against the norm, but he’s also been good at assessing the proper value to players. Yes, Wilson scared away suitors because of his size, but in the third round he was well worth the risk. If the Seahawks hadn’t taken him where they did, another team would have grabbed him a few picks later.
“Look at the secondary,” Holmgren said, pointing to Seattle’s willingness to take big cornerbacks whom others might have seen as too stiff. “They’re a little bit outside the norm, yet they do it. So why do they do it? John sat down with Pete and they decided they wanted bigger guys.
“I think that coupled with his ability to not just see talent but to identify the type of player he wants makes it work. It’s not such a flyer then.”
JOHN NORDSTROM HAS watched general managers and personnel people come and go. Nordstrom and his family owned the team for 13 years, and he’s a library of old stories and names.
Dick Mansberger. Bob Ferguson. Tim Ruskell. There’s something different about Schneider, he says. Something he can’t really explain.
“He has a special talent of which there aren’t many,” Nordstrom says. “At least we haven’t seen them. We’ve had a bunch of guys, they worked hard, they did all the right things. But I guess when it comes down to it John has talent. He’s a natural.”
Jayson Jenks: 206-464-8277 or firstname.lastname@example.org