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The story behind the Seahawks' 13th man

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SEATTLE -- Nearly seven years ago, on a chilly Friday morning in early January, John Schneider was sitting in his office at Lambeau Field, marveling at the trajectory of his amazing NFL journey and pondering what adventures might lay ahead.

Schneider, who'd grown up a few miles away from the Green Bay Packers' iconic stadium, had parlayed an unlikely break during his college days -- when he transitioned from an undersized running back with unrealistic NFL dreams to a future Hall of Fame general manager's surprisingly successful "stalker" -- into a flourishing but low-profile front-office career. Then in his second year as the Packers' director of football operations, his life had come full circle, but he was on the verge of a potentially exciting detour.

The Seahawks were searching for a general manager to replace Tim Ruskell, who'd resigned during the season, and Schneider, who'd spent a season as Seattle's director of player personnel at the start of the decade, had been identified as one of the candidates. In preparation for his impending interview, scheduled to take place following the Packers' first-round playoff game at Arizona two days later, he'd put together a large binder outlining his managerial plans and philosophy, including a sizeable section detailing his list of preferred head-coaching candidates, should an opening arise.

Then the television screen in Schneider's office delivered some stunning news: The Seahawks had fired coach Jimmy Mora after a single 5-11 season -- and the franchise was on the verge of landing USC's Pete Carroll as his replacement. A lot of worlds were being rocked, including Schneider's: With a high-profile (and soon-to-be highly compensated) coach like Carroll in the mix, this GM job could be far less meaty, and Schneider wasn't sure he wanted to bite.

"I'd prepared my book -- I think I got it all done at the Kinko's at midnight the night before -- and I was getting ready to leave for the airport and fly to Arizona when all of a sudden across the ticker, 'Pete Carroll [new Seahawks] head coach,' " Schneider recalls. "So I had to rip out like 30 pages of head coaching notes, and I got on that plane not knowing what was gonna happen."

What happened over the next week-and-a-half might not have been by the book; in some ways, it was as unexpected, exhilarating and uncharted as the Packers' 51-45 overtime playoff defeat to the Cardinals. Yet, when Schneider was introduced as the Seahawks' general manager on Jan. 19, 2010, it unleashed a semi-random tandem that would produce one of the NFL's great success stories of the 21st century. Despite a Match.com-style introduction, this hyper-enthusiastic coach and spotlight-shunning talent evaluator would form a mutually satisfying shotgun partnership that is the envy of the football universe.

"John is very smart, he's a hard worker, he's intuitive and he has no fear -- you put all that together, and it's very, very impressive," says New York Jets general manager Mike Maccagnan, the 2015 NFL Executive of the Year. "But when you're on the road with him and he looks at players, it's not just the ability part; he's looking at the whole person. What they do in Seattle is they identify a lot of good players, but they get the right kind of personality types for their team. That's what sets them apart."

It's a vision that Carroll and Schneider conjured from the outset. Theirs is neither the classic football arrangement, with the GM retaining final say over football decisions and possessing the juice to hire and fire the coach, nor the Walsh/Belichickian model, in which the coach is the true powerbroker and the GM serves as a glorified personnel director. It's more of a new-age coupling between bold, adaptable and mutually supportive colleagues who each happen to be very, very good at their jobs. These were concepts broached during the interview process, as Schneider was trying to get a sense of how much authority he'd have over various realms were he to come to Seattle. "Let's just make this the best head coach/general manager marriage ever," Carroll suggested, and those words sound a lot less hokey today.

As the NFC West-leading Seahawks (8-4-1) close in on their sixth playoff appearance during the Carroll/Schneider era, their union can be declared a resounding success -- and no one is losing sleep about the possibility of a seven-year itch.

"From the first time we ever got together, we wanted to make a relationship that could famously hold up to all the scrutiny, because we were gonna trust each other and count on one another and work hard to understand what was important to each other -- and then we would figure things out," Carroll says. "So, that's exactly what we've done."

Long before that could happen, Schneider had to figure out how to break into an industry that's typically as closed off as the Seahawks' front seven on a pivotal third-and-short snap. And the genesis of that plan can be traced to the moment when the future GM conducted one of the most brutal talent evaluations of his young life.

* * * * *

Growing up in De Pere, Wisconsin, Schneider had his nerdy tendencies.

"I was always a kid that had the football cards and knew the stats," he recalls. "When I got in trouble -- which was fairly often -- my mom would take away the football cards, instead of the TV."

Schneider, despite his relatively diminutive stature, also managed to rack up big numbers as a high school running back, leading to delusions of grandeur. Recruited to play at the University of St. Thomas, a Division III Catholic school in St. Paul, Minnesota, Schneider -- who compared his running style to that of former Falcons and Steelers halfback Erric Pegram -- soon got a reality check.

"There was no internet," Schneider says, "and the coach was like, 'We love you' -- and I got there and looked at the depth chart, and I was like, 'Wait a second! You don't love me that much. You failed to tell me that the guy (Gary Trettel) that just broke [the NCAA single-season] all-purpose yardage record is first on the depth chart.' "

Sidelined by a shoulder injury during his freshman season, Schneider assessed the situation: "I missed significant time, and I was just stepping back and thinking, 'OK, that guy is stronger than I am. This guy's got quicker feet. That guy's faster ...' I was friends with guys who played different positions, and I think I just naturally started evaluating. And at that point, I realized that what my dad had been telling me was right: There's no way I was going to play in the National Football League."

Schneider quit the team and adopted a modified version of his original dream: He wanted to work for the Packers, in whatever capacity they'd hire him.

During his junior year of college, Schneider read an extensive newspaper profile of Ron Wolf, who'd become the Packers' general manager in 1991.

"At that point, you didn't have sports management classes," Schneider says. "So I just wrote him a long note, told him that my folks were from Green Bay and that [I was hoping to get] the standard kind of internship ... 'Give me a shot.' "

After receiving a rejection letter, Schneider tried writing Wolf again. Following a second rejection letter, Schneider took a third swing ... and a fourth. The final rejection note he received from Wolf gave him a glimmer of optimism.

"The last one he sent, it was either he wants to make me feel good because he thinks I'm a stalker, or he's giving me some sort of hope," Schneider says. "And so, we were like analyzing these letters all the time, my buddies and I. My best friend and I were camping in Northern Minnesota on Memorial Day weekend, and it was pouring rain and nasty, so we just packed up and went to St. Paul. And my friend was like, 'Why don't you just call him already?' "

By that point, Schneider had read another newspaper profile of Wolf that suggested the GM directly answered calls forwarded to him from the Packers' main switchboard. So Schneider went to a pay phone and said, What the hell?

"I was going to leave him this message," Schneider recalls, "but he answered, and I was like, 'Hey, this is your stalker.' He was in his office watching film on a Sunday, and I was like, 'God, this guy is awesome ... he's a grinder ... he's in there.' The whole time I grew up as a Packers fan, I just wanted to know that there were people in there that would be kicking ass every day trying to make the team better, because they had never really won in my lifetime. I mean, when I was a kid, I would run out to the mailbox and open up the [Green Bay] Press Gazette and see what they were doing transaction-wise, and all that."

Then 20, Schneider made his pitch to the man whose Pro Football Hall of Fame induction he would personally attend more than two decades later.

"How soon could you get down here?" Wolf asked Schneider.

"Well," he replied, "it's a five-hour drive. I can be there in about three."

* * * * *

Schneider has been on the fast track ever since, and he's quick to acknowledge that good timing played a role in launching his career trajectory. A year after his internship, Schneider landed a full-time scouting gig with the Packers.

"It was the first year players could go straight to free agency, so everybody was adding more pro scouts," Schneider says. "So I was just really blessed at the time."

So, too, were the Packers.

"We had ourselves quite a crew," says Washington general manager Scot McCloughan, who joined the Packers organization as a scout in 1994. "It's funny -- I probably get 50 résumés a week from guys who are just like John ... looking for a job, looking for a way in. But for some reason, he got his foot in the door, and he took advantage of it. We had a lot of fun together, I promise you that ... in the building and out of the building."

Says Schneider: "It was awesome. Having grown up as a Packers fan, just being in that building was a huge deal for me. But then I looked back on it later and that whole staff that was together there -- talk about getting your doctorate. It was Mike Holmgren and assistants like Andy Reid and Jon Gruden ... [Current Packers GM] Ted Thompson had been scouting for about four months and [current Chiefs GM] John Dorsey had been scouting for a year. Those two guys taught me how to write [scouting reports]."

A few years later, the Packers captured their first championship since the Lombardi era, defeating the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XXXI. Shortly thereafter, Schneider was grinding away at Lambeau one afternoon when Wolf took him for a ride that would expand his world.

"We'd just won the world championship, and I was 25, and Ron came and grabbed me and said, 'Hey, I'm going to pick up my glasses. You wanna come with me?' " Schneider recalls. "I was like, That's odd, but I jumped in the car with him and he said, 'Hey, Kansas City called. They want to speak with you. And I think it would be a great opportunity for you.' "

Soon thereafter, Schneider was sitting across from Chiefs coach Marty Schottenheimer being offered a job as the team's director of pro personnel, a completely surreal experience.

"I think I was playing with my Star Wars action figures when 'The Drive' happened," Schneider says, referring to the Denver Broncos' epic 1986 AFC Championship Game victory over the Schottenheimer-coached Cleveland Browns. "The first [NFL Scouting] Combine I went to with the Packers, one of my college buddies was a huge Browns fan, and I remember calling him that night and saying, 'Hey man -- I went to the bathroom next to Marty Schottenheimer!'

"So anyway, now I'm working for this guy, right? And he was awesome. He really challenged me. He said, 'I don't care how old you are. Let's roll.' "

Schneider rocked it, spending three years with the Chiefs before being hired as the Seahawks' director of player personnel. He stayed one season in Seattle before rejoining Schottenheimer in Washington, where they lasted only eight months before owner Dan Snyder cleaned house. Schneider returned to Green Bay, where then-coach Mike Sherman had just taken over as GM following Wolf's retirement in the 2001 offseason, and stayed on after Thompson replaced Sherman in 2005.

Promoted to director of football operations in 2008, Schneider had no compulsion to leave Titletown. He and his wife, Traci, whom he'd met at St. Thomas, had two sons: Ben, born in 2002, and Jack, who arrived two years later. When Ben was 3, he was diagnosed with autism, and as the family adjusted to the challenges of the condition, John considered a career change that would afford him a more stable existence. Though he decided to stick with football, he and Traci had a comfort level in Wisconsin that they did not take lightly.

Then the Seahawks called.

* * * * *

When Carroll, after short-lived NFL head-coaching stints with the Jets and Patriots, built his mini-dynasty at USC during the first decade of the 21st century, there were frequent rumblings that he might someday return to the pros. It was always assumed that under this scenario, Carroll would demand control over football operations, likely presiding over a handpicked personnel executive.

So when Schneider heard the news about Carroll's jump to Seattle for a reported $33 million over five years on that Friday morning in January of 2010, he assumed the job for which he was being considered was now GM Lite.

Carroll, however, didn't see it that way.

"They asked me if I wanted to be the general manager, and I said no, but I want to be a part of getting the guy in here," Carroll recalls. "The process was kind of underway already, and so we went through some guys, and after talking to John, I think he took off [from Seattle, to fly back to Wisconsin] and we got him to turn around and come right back."

Schneider had met Carroll a few times during scouting visits to USC, but they'd never had a substantial conversation. With then-Seahawks CEO Tod Leiweke (now the NFL's chief operating officer) as the matchmaker, the two hit if off immediately.

"All Pete was looking for was a companion, you know?" Schneider says.

Says Carroll: "I liked his energy and his smarts. His outlook made sense. I liked that he has an agile mind. We've had a lot of fun working together, and we've never even had a false step the whole time."

The Carroll-Schneider regime has not been subtle. Their first season, in 2010, featured a league-high 284 transactions.

"It was pretty crazy," Carroll says. "There was a shuttle going to and from the airport at all times. We were just trying to figure it out, and John just tried to work to make the roster as strong as possible. That meant that we were going to keep pushing, and the rest is history."

Says Schneider: "We just pride ourselves on not having all the answers, and we're going to try to outwork you, and that was just part of it. We were just trying to create an atmosphere of aggressiveness and a culture of competition. The coolest thing about Pete is that he doesn't have an ego. We didn't want to have any walls, so we just melded together well. And we've always prided ourselves on pushing the envelope in every area."

That meant taking risks that other general managers -- especially rookie GMs -- might have taken great pains to avoid. Some paid off handsomely, like the October 2010 trade for Buffalo Bills running back Marshawn Lynch, a former first-round pick who had been plagued by a run of off-the-field incidents.

Acquired for a relatively low price (picks in the fourth and fifth rounds), Lynch became a folk hero in Seattle -- beginning with his seismic run in the team's 2010 playoff upset of the New Orleans Saints. He was a central figure in the team's rise to the upper echelon of the NFL, with a Super Bowl XLVIII blowout of the Broncos and a run at a repeat title that came up a yard short.

Schneider and Carroll also made some notable missteps, including a March 2013 trade for wide receiver Percy Harvin that cost the Seahawks three draft choices (including a first-rounder), negatively impacted their salary cap and messed with locker-room chemistry. Other than that, it was a great deal. To Schneider's credit, he cut his losses 19 months later, dumping Harvin to the Jets for a conditional pick (which became a sixth-rounder).

"People ask me, 'What's it like to be a GM?' " says Maccagnan (who became the Jets GM three months after New York acquired Harvin). "Well, you're constantly making decisions -- big ones, small ones -- and you've always gotta be right. John makes a decision, and when it doesn't work out, it doesn't mess him up. Some guys will get burned by a guy and then get gun-shy, but not John.

"The Harvin trade, when you look back, didn't work out, and that would have scared the s--- out of a lot of people. He probably never blinked. He turns around and makes another big trade for Jimmy Graham, which works out great. He's a gambler, and he has no fear. That's probably his greatest strength."

Schneider's March 2015 trade of starting center Max Unger and a first-round pick to the Saints for a fourth-rounder and Graham, an All-Pro tight end, caught NFL fans off-guard. After a slow start, Graham has become a key part of the Seahawks' offense in 2016, with 58 catches for 785 yards and five touchdowns.

"I do believe if you're not aggressive and you don't take risks, then you're not gonna get ahead," Schneider says. "But sometimes it works out and sometimes it doesn't. We just have to be smart and try to identify when things are not working out, so we can fix the situation. Then you kind of just admit your deficiencies. We're gonna make mistakes every day. It's just a matter of how we compensate for that -- how do we fix it? How do we get better? And that's just like a lot of self-scouting and self-review, right?"

* * * * *

Though Schneider is a Wolf protégé, Maccagnan also sees him as a modern-day version of Bobby Beathard, a highly successful general manager in Washington (1978-1988) and San Diego (1990-2000): "He rolls the dice, has some big hits and some big misses, but goes right back to the table and rolls again."

Never was that mentality more important than when it came to the quest for a franchise quarterback. Two months into the Carroll/Schneider regime, they swapped second-round picks with the Chargers and threw in an additional third-rounder to acquire Charlie Whitehurst, who failed to beat out incumbent Matt Hasselbeck. The following summer, as the lockout was ending in 2011, Hasselbeck's long tenure with the team came to a close, and the Seahawks signed former Vikings starter Tarvaris Jackson in free agency. Then, in March of 2012, Seattle landed former Packers backup Matt Flynn, inking him to a three-year, $26 million deal that included $10 million in guaranteed money, seemingly making him the presumptive starter.

And yet, as the 2012 NFL Draft approached, Schneider remained borderline obsessed with Wisconsin quarterback Russell Wilson, to the point where it became a running joke around the Seahawks' training facility. "He was on the cover of one of the [Wisconsin] programs," Schneider recalls, "and the guys kept throwing it on my desk."

Most talent evaluators liked Wilson; most, however, couldn't get past his only obvious deficiency: At 5-foot-10 5/8, he was considered too short to play quarterback in the NFL.

"There was no getting around that," Schneider says, "but there was so much comparison from having scouted Drew Brees (the Saints star measures 6-foot) that I just kept thinking, 'Wow.' "

In terms of intangibles, Wilson seemed too good to be true -- something Schneider investigated in earnest after watching Wisconsin defeat Michigan State in the 2011 Big Ten Championship Game in Indianapolis.

"After the game, my brother was just eating at a bar," Wilson recalls. "This guy -- 5-8, looks like he's a frat guy -- comes up to my brother and says, 'Hey, are you Harry Wilson? Russell Wilson's brother?' "

Says Schneider: "So I was able to buy his brother a beer and was able to talk to him like, 'Come on, man -- is this stuff legit?' I was grilling him."

A few months later, at the combine, Schneider had a frank conversation with the quarterback.

"He believes in himself so much," Schneider says. "His self-efficacy is off the charts. So I saw him and I just felt the need to tell him, 'Andrew Luck is going to be the first player drafted. You're not going to go where you should be drafted, and it's going to be based purely off your height.' I was just trying to keep it real with him. He gives me crud about it to this day, like it was a challenge or something."

Wilson, not surprisingly, has a slightly modified recollection: "I remember the story different. He was like, 'Yeah, we've already got a quarterback, and it looks like we won't be taking one.' And there were a bunch of other coaches and GMs around at the time. And he kind of walked away and I was like, 'OK ... I'll make sure I see you later.' "

There were even skeptics in his own building; Schneider, according to one person in the draft room, was told by two coaches just prior to the 2012 draft that he shouldn't bother picking Wilson because he wouldn't make the team out of training camp. But Carroll, mindful that Schneider had regretted having passed on Bengals starter Andy Dalton the previous year, told the GM to go with his gut. Wilson, picked in the third round, not only made the 53-man roster, he beat out Flynn and Jackson in a training-camp competition and catapulted to stardom.

"I'm just grateful," Wilson says. "John Schneider, he's the best in the business at what he does. He believes in certain guys and trusts his instincts, and I'm grateful he trusted his on me."

With Seattle closing in on a fifth consecutive postseason appearance, he's definitely not alone.

* * * * *

When the Seahawks took Wilson off the board four-and-a-half years ago, a bit earlier than anyone outside of the organization expected, there were a few expletives uttered in other teams' draft rooms. It's a common phenomenon: Under Schneider, Seattle has found standouts in virtually every round, from the second (middle linebacker Bobby Wagner) to the fourth (outside linebacker K.J. Wright) to the fifth (cornerback Richard Sherman and safety Kam Chancellor). He also has scored with undrafted free agents; heading into the 2016 season, the Seahawks had more of those on their roster (24) than any other NFL team.

Perhaps the most prominent of those players, sixth-year pro Doug Baldwin, recalls a conversation with Schneider at the end of the 2011 NFL Draft: "John told me that I would truly have an opportunity to come in and compete for a starting role and playing time early, and I believed him. He didn't lie to me." Baldwin tied for the NFL lead with 14 receiving touchdowns in 2015, and last June, he signed a four-year, $46 million contract extension.

"The fact that his coach will play the rookies -- that's big," says Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, who doubles as his team's GM. "That's a mentality, and John has been able to gain that confidence from his coach and owner. I've had a chance to analyze which GMs have had success over the years -- and I've needed to -- and in general, you've gotta play these guys after you draft them. And this is from a guy that's got a doctorate degree in studying other people's picks.

"Just think, Dak Prescott could be standing on [the Cowboys'] sideline, and we might not have known what he was for two to three years. John's been able to get his organization to play the young guys, and he knows how to pick 'em."

Schneider doesn't do it alone, of course. His personnel staff might be the league's most highly regarded ensemble. His current co-directors of player personnel, Trent Kirchner and Scott Fitterer, are both considered future GM candidates in NFL circles, and everyone in the department is highly regarded by his peers.

"It's not just the decision-maker at the top, but the people he puts around him," Maccagnan says. "He's put together a really good staff, and that's another strength. He has developed really good, young evaluators on the pro and college sides, and he lets them do what they do and speak their minds, and he kind of empowers them."

Not surprisingly, Schneider encourages the people under him to be aggressive and assertive.

"When I was working for Ted [Thompson], it's much easier to have your foot on the gas and have him say no, right?" Schneider says, laughing. "I didn't even think I'd ever get to the point where I was the one who put my foot on the brake, like, 'Slow down.' But I like that [aggressive mentality] with our staff. Our guys, they'll come to me with a ton of ideas: 'Hey, you want to call that team? This team?' Or, 'What do you think about moving this guy to our practice squad? Or grabbing that guy?'

"So I just love it. It fuels the communication, kind of gets us challenging each other."

Says McCloughan, who, after being fired as the 49ers' general manager, worked for Schneider as a senior personnel executive from 2010 to '13: "He's pretty special. And just like with Ron [Wolf], it's the people around you, too. Opinions matter. Every night, at the end of the draft meeting, he calls everybody up to the front and has them say their piece. He makes everybody feel involved."

* * * * *

The NFL is full of stories of shrewd talent evaluators who, upon becoming general managers, were undone at least in part by poor people skills. Schneider, barring a stunning reversal of form, will never have that problem.

"He's a really good evaluator, but he's even better as a person," McCloughan says. "He cares about everyone in that building. He stops at Starbucks every morning and brings coffee in for his secretary. Who does that? And trust me, he would rather take care of everyone in that building than himself. He works hard, but he also understands family and takes care of his people."

In recent years, John and Traci have become increasingly active in their efforts to increase awareness surrounding autism. Ben, now 14, recently joined his parents in a Families For Effective Autism Treatment of Washington public service announcement. The Schneiders also host an annual celebrity waiter event to benefit Ben's Fund, the charity they founded four years ago, and which has since raised more than $1.4 million to support families confronting the condition.

Those real-life challenges provide much-needed perspective when Schneider grapples with the occupational hazards associated with running an NFL team. He has navigated his way through sometimes heated contract disputes with Lynch, Chancellor and, most recently, star defensive lineman Michael Bennett while largely avoiding the lingering resentment that sometimes ensues.

"He's been very humble through the process, you know, and I think that's the biggest step -- him showing humility and expecting that out of the players and the people around him," Baldwin says. "He's very open, very vulnerable and loves to communicate. He over-communicates at times -- not in a bad way ... it's that he really wants you to understand where he's coming from, and it's a heartfelt message, and that can go a long way for guys who have never experienced that before. Even though at times you have to go through those rifts, every family has it ... but we get through it because we have that trust factor."

Perhaps most importantly, Schneider and Carroll have a trust in one another that seems to transcend business. It was no coincidence that the two men signed contract extensions (Schneider for a reported five years, Carroll for three) within two days of one another this past July. NFL coaches and executives often talk about a desire to be joined at the hip, and Seattle's 65-year-old coach and 45-year-old GM are the league's version of conjoined twins.

"I think that both of them search for truth, and they search for honesty, and they've been willing to be open and vulnerable and communicate that with players," Baldwin says. "That, I don't think, is typical around the league, and it creates an atmosphere of trust and belief and a system that works. You can't help but fall in love with them. They seem to complement each other extremely well, because they're open and vulnerable towards each other and they're not afraid to challenge each other and make each other better. You couldn't ask for a better combination when it comes to a head coach and GM."

Schneider has often joked that Carroll, despite being 20 years older, is by far the "hipper" of the two.

"He calls my office 'the dental office' because I've got reggae and smooth jazz playing," Schneider says. "He's got all the hip-hop and three TVs blasting in his."

They're in perfect harmony when it comes to running the Seahawks, a franchise poised to compete for a third conference championship in four seasons -- and, at least on paper, to sustain long-term success behind a core of contractually secured stars.

"He's as good as you can get at doing this job, and he's proven it," Carroll says of Schneider. "Not only has he done a great job with our personnel and continued to keep us at a high level, he's done a great job with the other side of the business, too, orchestrating the [salary] cap and keeping us within budget and maintaining a great eye on the business side of it, too.

"I don't know how anyone can do a better job than he's done."

Schneider has a far more measured evaluation of his own performance.

"This isn't a job that you're specifically trained for," he says. "I think you can learn from as many people as you possibly can -- the Ron Wolfs and the Marty Schottenheimers, those guys can get you prepared. I always joke with my buddies: 'We're managing in a general fashion.'

"But for those of us that are blessed enough to be general managers in this league, there's no handbook."

If there were, it might tell you this: Spontaneously ripping out 30 pages on a hectic January morning could turn out to be the best move you'll ever make.

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