The NFL has always been viewed as a copycat league, with coaches and scouts quick to adopt and implement strategies from successful organizations. From schematic innovations like the zone-read offense and Pistol formation to the tweaking of game-day activations, the NFL looks to its winners for the keys to success.
With the Seattle Seahawks freshly anointed as Super Bowl XLVIII champions, the rest of the league will spend the entire offseason examining the construction of their team from top to bottom. After studying the Seahawks closely this season, here are some of the lessons other teams could learn from their ascension to the top of the pro football world:
For years, traditionalists opined that an athletic quarterback couldn't win a championship. Old-school thinkers pointed out that the NFL game is won from the pocket -- signal-callers must be able to make pinpoint passes against elite defenses to win games in the playoffs. While that is certainly a key component to winning quarterback play, the game has evolved to the point where athleticism is needed to survive against the dynamic athletes on the defensive side of the ball. Now, that doesn't mean a "running quarterback" is desired in the backfield, but a competent passer with the ability to make plays with his legs adds a necessary dimension to the offense.
Studying Wilson's play over the past two seasons, his ability to terrorize opponents with his arm and legs has keyed the Seahawks' offense in critical moments. The diminutive playmaker has passed for 3,000-plus yards in consecutive seasons, while also posting a passer rating of at least 100.0 each season. Additionally, Wilson put up rushing totals of 489 and 539, respectively, on an assortment of designed quarterback runs and impromptu scrambles. With Wilson adept at playing from the pocket or on the edges, the Seahawks have compiled a 28-9 record despite facing an assortment of defensive tactics designed to take away their franchise quarterback.
Looking ahead to the 2014 quarterback class, there are a number of quarterbacks capable of tormenting defenses with a combination of passing ability and running skills. Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel, in particular, is an explosive dual-threat playmaker with the potential to drive defensive coordinators crazy with his speed, quickness and athleticism. He has been indefensible in the SEC despite facing respected defensive minds and explosive defenders throughout the season. While Manziel's detractors have cited his substandard physical dimensions (Manziel is listed at 6-foot, 200 pounds) and impromptu game as concerns, the fact that Wilson has survived and thrived in the NFL as an improvisational wizard will encourage some to view the former Heisman Trophy winner as an intriguing franchise-quarterback candidate.
Of course, Wilson's awareness, intangibles and leadership skills make him a special player, but there is no doubt teams will take a longer look at exceptional athletes at the quarterback position.
2. Bigger is better in the secondary.
The success of the "Legion of Boom" will lead other teams to look for big, rangy athletes in the back end. The Seahawks' is one of the few defensive backfields in the NFL with tall defenders at every position. At cornerback, the Seahawks trot out a quartet of players (Richard Sherman, Byron Maxwell, Jeremy Lane and Brandon Browner) who measure at or above the 6-foot mark. Safety Kam Chancellor (6-3, 232) is a monster in the middle, with the size and length to match up with the athletic tight ends that are dominating the NFL. Although Earl Thomas appears out of place in the line up at 5-10, 202 pounds, the fact that the unit is physically imposing has played a major role in the Seahawks' emergence as the NFL's premier defense.
Now, I must point out that the Seahawks aren't the only team that prefers cornerbacks and safeties that measure 6-foot or taller, but their collection of big bodies look a little different than what we see on most squads. The cornerbacks have the length and athleticism to challenge receivers at the line of scrimmage, while also possessing the athleticism to make fluid movements in space. Additionally, they are solid tacklers who are not afraid to throw their bodies around to stop runners and receivers in their tracks. At a time when tackling has become a lost art in the pro game, the Seahawks' defensive backs excel in an area that is often overlooked in the evaluation process.
Based on the Seahawks' defensive success, particularly in the secondary, I would expect more teams to pluck big defensive backs in the draft. As I watched practices at the East-West Shrine Game and Senior Bowl, it was apparent that scouts were paying closer attention to big, rangy athletes. Players like Nebraska CB Stanley Jean-Baptiste (who was compared to Sherman by NFL Media senior analyst Gil Brandt) and Utah CB Keith McGill (who NFL Media draft expert Mike Mayock said was reminiscent of the Seahawks' tall cornerbacks) garnered significant attention due to their imposing physical dimensions and unique athletic traits. Additionally, Baylor's Ahmad Dixon, LSU's Craig Loston and N.C. State's Dontae Johnson earned extended looks from scouts looking for big-bodied safeties capable of patrolling the hashes from the deep middle.
With the Seahawks throttling explosive offenses with their suffocating secondary, rest assured that defensive coaches and scouts are chomping at the bit to build defensive backfields that feature bigger, faster and stronger athletes at every position.
3. Draft players with a specific role in mind.
The Seahawks haven't earned high marks from draft analysts on draft day because their classes have lacked star power, but John Schneider and Pete Carroll have done a terrific job of drafting players to fill specific roles on both sides of the ball. While some teams spend most of their time picking apart the weaknesses of a prospect's game, the Seahawks focus on the strength of a player and attempt to place him in a position to succeed. They are certainly not the only team that takes this approach, but their courage and commitment to taking role players at every stage of the draft stands out to me when I look at their roster.
For instance, the Seahawks drafted Bobby Wagner with their second-round selection in the 2012 draft to play middle linebacker despite spending most of his career playing outside linebacker-defensive end at Utah State. Scouts loved his instincts and production, but wondered where his skills best fit in a 3-4 or 4-3 scheme. The Seahawks put him in the middle of the action behind a monstrous front line, allowing him to run and chase unobstructed to the ball. As a result, he has been one of the leading tacklers in the NFL, and is pushing for recognition as one of the top players at his position.
The Seahawks took a similar approach with Golden Tate in 2010. The team selected Tate with the 60th overall pick (second round) to add juice to the lineup as a designated playmaker. Although he was a raw, unpolished route runner with less than ideal physical dimensions coming out of Notre Dame, Tate was an electrifying runner with the ball in his hands. As a former high school running back, he was at his best when given the ball in space due to his instincts, elusiveness and toughness. The Seahawks accentuated those skills by using him on routes (go-routes, crossers and bubble screens) that took advantages of his strengths, while limiting his deficiencies as a route runner. Additionally, they inserted him as a punt returner to add some juice to the kicking game.
Of course, other teams have enjoyed similar success stories with their respective draft picks, but the Seahawks' consistent approach of plugging and playing players in optimal roles has been one of their keys to success.
4. Make player development a top priority.
For all of the conversation about the Seahawks' deep and talented roster, the underrated aspect of their team-building approach has been the exceptional development of their young players. Seattle secured the Super Bowl title relying on a cast of late-round picks and undrafted free agents to fill key roles in the starting lineup. Sure, other teams have succeeded with a player or two emerging from obscurity to make contributions as a starter, but there isn't another team in the league that can rival the Seahawks' current success. Looking at their defense alone -- the Seahawks have at least eight defenders drafted in the fourth round or lower playing significant roles in the lineup. A quick look at the offensive lineup reveals similar success stories, with guys like Doug Baldwin and Jermaine Kearse making key contributions despite entering the league as afterthoughts.
This is not only a testament to the keen eyes of the personnel department, but it is a tribute to the work of the Seahawks' coaching staff for getting those players ready to play key roles. By diligently teaching and working with the young players on the practice field, the Seahawks have been able to withstand injuries and suspensions to key players without a drop-off in production. Additionally, the team has created a competitive environment where everyone is expected to play at a high level regardless of draft status. While this doesn't seem like a big deal on the surface, the fact that everyone on the roster has the opportunity to earn real playing time is a huge motivator in the locker room. This is part of the competitive environment that Carroll sought to create when he took the job in 2010. It is a huge reason why the Seahawks are at the top of the league at this point.
If other teams can steal one aspect of the Seahawks' blueprint, I would point to the development of their young players as the most critical. Although the NFL game revolves around schemes and tactical adjustments, the key to long-term success is fielding a roster that is superior to your opponent's on a weekly basis. That's what Jimmy Johnson did with the Dallas Cowboys in the 1990s, and it's what Pete Carroll is doing in the Pacific Northwest.