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Sports >  Seattle Seahawks

Larry Stone: Seahawks’ emphasis on grit during NFL draft could come with a risk during coronavirus pandemic

LSU quarterback Joe Burrow  hugs guard Damien Lewis after the Tigers routed Texas A&M 57-7 in Baton Rouge, La., on Nov. 30. (Gerald Herbert / Associated Press)
LSU quarterback Joe Burrow hugs guard Damien Lewis after the Tigers routed Texas A&M 57-7 in Baton Rouge, La., on Nov. 30. (Gerald Herbert / Associated Press)
By Larry Stone Seattle Times

The Seahawks’ picks in the NFL draft were predictably unpredictable. Of course they went in the first round for a guy that many people had graded far lower. And of course he played a position (linebacker) that wasn’t considered one of their bigger needs entering the draft.

This is a team that, for whatever faults you can find with the drafting results, has the utmost courage of its convictions. The Seahawks care not one iota about how much their selections are panned or where their draft is ranked. They have a resolute vision of the type of player they want and will not be swayed by popular opinion or conventional wisdom.

What struck me the most this time around, though, was the Seahawks’ steadfast reliance on judgments of such esoteric qualities as grit, coachability, character and perseverance.

At a time when the sporting world is increasingly throwing its faith into metrics and analytics – cold, hard facts that are designed to shield you from the unreliability of the heart – the Seahawks are an anachronism. While certainly mindful of the sabermetrics, to borrow a baseball term, they pay as much heed to the intangibles – more so, I daresay, than any other NFL team.

You could hear it in the post-draft giddiness of general manager John Schneider and head coach Pete Carroll as they recounted the adversity overcome by pick after pick. In a year in which the NFL’s preparation schedule has been torn asunder by the coronavirus pandemic, they don’t want to mess with any hand-holding. They sought mentally tough individuals who wouldn’t have to be coddled at a time when so much learning will be compacted into a short time. There was an emphasis, Schneider confirmed, on finding players “that will be able to click with our coaches and vibe with our locker room and be able to do that in a very, very quick manner.”

And it was clear that one huge criterion by them to determine the desired mental toughness was a player’s demonstrated ability to work past an array of grim life challenges. They range from the homelessness of first-round pick Jordyn Brooks as a youth, to the death of second-rounder Darrell Taylor’s mother when he was in high school, to the incarceration of the father of third-rounder Damien Lewis, to a childhood of poverty and disruption by seventh-rounder Stephen Sullivan.

At one point, Schneider even extolled the fact that Lewis, whom he described as “a self-made guy,” had “rode the bus from his apartment to school every day.”

Here’s how Schneider characterized their mindset in that regard: “I think from day one, we’ve always talked about trying to build a football team that could go play anywhere. If it was in a park or a street or a football stadium, wherever. When we look at these guys, to have that grit level, in our minds, they have to be willing to overcome some sort of obstacle.”

And Carroll: “These guys’ life experiences mold you, one way or the other. The guys that have been able to have the support when they needed it or just the ‘stick-to-it-ness’ when they were up against the big challenges – if they make it through it, it makes them stronger.”

Now, there is an obvious risk to such a strategy, if intangibles are allowed to trump pure talent as a determinant of draft picks. I’m sure the Seahawks would say, rather, that it is a tiebreaker, the secret sauce that has allowed players such as Richard Sherman and Doug Baldwin – undervalued as prospects, overachievers as pros – to thrive.

Carroll’s whole coaching philosophy, in fact, has been predicated on his ability to identify and then nurture such intangibles by creating a supportive environment that allows individuality to flourish. Furthermore, Carroll believes that exposure to the Seahawks’ culture already in place seeds those values in rookies from the outset. The next challenge for the coach is to now do all that without the hands-on, face-to-face interactions upon which he thrives.

All that has been shuttered by the coronavirus pandemic, and the sheltering at home that continues on. Instead, the Seahawks embarked on their offseason program Monday in a virtual sense only, meeting via Zoom. Carroll fully recognizes the potential ramifications.

“One of the things about our program it is so energetic and there is so much interaction and relationship stuff that goes on,” he said after the draft. “This is going to be different. It’s going to tax us in different way. We are looking for all of the edges that we can find and the nuances that we can create that will make this a really special and unique time that will be meaningful.

“It’s going to be different, though, of course. All I can tell you is that it is one big challenge. What we have to do as coaches is to continue to push ourselves to see things new and see things new for the first time, again.”

Carroll has already played the Will Ferrell card, using the actor to pose as new tight end Greg Olsen in a humorous Zoom interlude with the players. No doubt he will dip farther into his celebrity files for cameos and guest speakers as he tries to weave his magic without a metaphorical wand.

“One thing about this that is really fascinating to me, and we’ve been recognizing it as we go through our Zoom staff meetings, is that there is an emotional connection that doesn’t happen through Zoom,” Carroll said. “There’s that whole life connection, all of those skills that we’ve developed, that are not available to us right now. It feels different.

“We’re in a different mode of communicating right now. It’s different, unique, you can see it and we’re going to need to figure it out and try to maximize it. Relationships … they’re so important to us, but it’s relationships of a different nature. We’re talking through Zoom and all that. It’s a fascinating time, and we’ll see where it takes us.”

The goal right now? “We’re just going to keep hope alive,” Carroll said.

When the offseason does resume in full, the Seahawks feel they have added players with the right stuff to adapt quickly. That’s when we’ll start to find out if those coveted intangibles actually have a tangible effect.

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