Ahead of the 2021 NFL Draft, Seattle legend Doug Baldwin has provided fascinating insight into the character of a successful Seahawks team. Baldwin’s comments came in March speaking to the UK Seahawkers’ “The Pedestrian Podcast”—hosted by Adam Nathan and Stuart Court. The entire interview is a must-listen, with Baldwin generating all kinds of emotions on a chronological Seahawks journey.
This included content from the former receiver on the great team culture that led to back-to-back Seattle Super Bowl appearances. These thoughts are especially relevant at this point of the year, a time where John Schneider and the Seahawks' front office look to build another winning roster through the NFL offseason.
Baldwin, now 32 years old and retired since 2019, first spoke on the subject of culture when asked about the 2011 season. This was a period where Seattle had high roster turnover and a lot of new players, context that Baldwin touched on himself.
“We had an opportunity to kinda create this culture," Baldwin explained. “It was brand new, it was really fresh. We had all those guys who were, you know, for a lack of a better term, were just alpha males, alpha competitors, right?”
It makes sense that a Pete Carroll-coached team had such fierce competitors, with “Always Compete” being a core tenant of Carroll’s guiding philosophy. It’s the loving aspect to the team relationship that really stood out for Baldwin though, with the receiver admitting that, although they “fought,” it was more like a family aspect where they each had “each other’s back.”
“In 2011, I think we had started to cultivate this brotherhood that felt built on a true foundation,” Baldwin assessed. “You had guys who came from different walks of life, but when we went to the practice field, we practiced so hard, you know?”
There was one key figurehead to the culture: Marshawn Lynch. The value of running backs, or lack thereof, has been discussed to the point of exhaustion. What Lynch brought to the Seahawks went far beyond his mega on-field contributions.
“The guy who led that charge was Marshawn."
Culture is an intangible, viewed as a vacuous buzzword with no method for measuring it. We don’t have culture above expectation, culture percentage, etc. Talks or clinics on culture-building in various organizations can come across as corny, cheesy, or like snake oil-sales. And while culture is not as controversial as the idea of momentum, it can end up lumped into a similar bracket of disdain. Baldwin described the feel of culture to the listener beautifully, using the football term of “strain” to nail his point.
“You know people talk about strain, in football terms you talk about strain. ‘We need you to strain,’ ‘Strain on the football field.’ But nobody really understands that word 'strain.' Strain is not about going on the football field trying to get your job done; strain is about caring about the guy next to you...When you care about the person next to you, you care about their wellbeing, you’re gonna go the extra mile. When you love the person next to you you’re gonna do what you have to do in order to protect that person, do what’s good for that person. And like, Marshawn was leading the way in that. He would, the way that he would run, there’s no way that 'I’m not going to get that safety, I have to get this safety on this run play so that he doesn’t hit Marshawn. I’ll be damned if I let him hit Marshawn,' you know? That was the kinda love that we had for Marshawn. And that just, it spread throughout the entire team.”
The strain from the team, in Baldwin’s eyes, built a group of men who were “willing to do the dirty work.” He spoke of quarterback-receiver meals in the 2011 offseason, hosted by receiver Sidney Rice while quarterback Tarvaris Jackson cooked huge southern meals. These took place every Tuesday, with the team given Wednesdays off.
That culture continued into the regular season.
“When you’re on the football field and you see that guy and you need to go do something for that guy to get open or for him, you know, a specific block, you’re gonna do it because you care about that person,” Baldwin continued. “That’s what strain is—and in 2011 I think we grabbed ahold of that and we didn’t let it go.”
With the podcast discussion moving towards 2012, Baldwin did acknowledge the copious amounts of talent required for the Seahawks to be successful—an ingredient raised by Adam Nathan.
“There’s a banner hanging in the facility, in the practice field,” Baldwin started. “And you just look at the names, and the names on that list, it’s incredible, right? I think [Michael Bennett] and Cliff [Avril], they were backups on the team, on that team. That’s incredible, to have guys who were that good, as backups on our defensive line. Yeah. You know, number one, I think to your point, the talent isn’t talked about enough.”
No matter how effective the scheme or how inspiring the culture, the old adage of 'Jimmys and Joes, not Xs and Os' rings true. It’s impossible to have success without talented players. Coaches can develop their guys to be better, but ultimately only so much work can be done, especially when it comes to the pros. Heck, that’s why we all pay attention to the draft so heavily.
Baldwin came back to the intangibles of the 2012 team and onwards though.
“I think culture and leadership, it looks differently to people,” he evaluated. “And it feels differently to people. I know what I felt, I know what I experienced.”
“Number two, it’s really hard to talk about, because it’s really hard to build that culture, it’s really hard to have the leaders in there who are genuine and who want to hold each other accountable."
Kam Chancellor was another vital figure raised by Baldwin—a man who held Baldwin accountable and commanded respect, despite playing on the other side of the football.
“Kam was the epitome of the leader in the locker room, you know? And if you weren’t doing your job, even if it was me on offense, Kam would watch my offensive practice film, you know? And if I was being lazy, or if I didn’t do my job, like, Kam would call it out. He would come to me and he’d be like, ‘Hey, what are you doing here?’ And I respected that, because it meant that he cared about me. He was on the defensive side of the ball watching our offensive practice film telling me that I wasn’t doing my job. And not in a negative way, but like ‘Hey, Marshawn’s counting on you to get this done, Max Unger’s counting on you to get this done, you need to get out there and get your job done because your boys are counting on you to get it done.’”
The culture that Carroll’s great Seattle team had was unmatched.
“It’s not talked about enough, I’ll say that,” Baldwin finished.
Upon reflection, when listening to or reading Baldwin’s comments, it makes sense that the front office has always been trying to rekindle the winning environment that felt so special to Baldwin.
With the Seahawks paying Russell Wilson to be their franchise quarterback, trying to build an organic culture becomes more difficult. It is inevitable that the man paid to be the figurehead of the franchise from a playing perspective becomes that from a leadership standpoint too.
It’s clear that Seattle has made roster decisions to make Wilson more comfortable as the leader of the team. When trade talks centered on Wilson began to circulate following the quarterback’s outspokenness, former Seahawks fullback Michael Robinson - who began his time in the Pacific Northwest in Carroll's first year as head coach, then finished after winning Super Bowl XLVIII - expressed his surprise.
“I don’t know what Russell wants,” Robinson analyzed in March on NFL Network. “He’s paid. They paid him twice in Seattle. The front office made sure that every other alpha male - with the exception of Bobby Wagner, K.J. Wright, and some of the old school guys that are there - they made sure that all of us were out the door so that this team could be Russell Wilson’s. And now this?”
It may also explain the team’s surprising draft reaches in recent years. Perhaps the Seahawks have weighed culture too heavily in their selections. After all, the public is not privy to all of the non-tape work teams do; the interviews, the background research, and the on-campus visits. Outside of the NFL, players are ranked with mainly just film and testing numbers. Franchises have more information. It’s possible Seattle, in efforts to get back to a culture that feels as special as what Baldwin painted, have swung the pendulum too far towards characters that will help them achieve this.
On Super Bowl XLIX, Baldwin was clear that he, like many, felt Lynch should have gotten the football on the one-yard line because everyone strained for him. “We knew who our engine was on offense, we knew who our leader was, our heart, our engine, like Marshawn was our guy,” Baldwin summarized.
“Beast Quake 2.0 in Arizona,” was the play Baldwin narrated to illustrate the importance of Lynch, and strain, one last time.
“If you watch that play again, you’ll see Ricardo Lockett running, like sprinting his heart out down the field to go get a block. That’s strain.”
“And why does it look like that? It’s because Ricardo cares about Marshawn. He’s doing that for his brother, not for any other reason. He’s not doing it for the Seahawks, he’s not doing it for the Xs and Os, he’s doing it because he loves Marshawn. That was the level of strain that we had for each other, in that culture, on that team.”
Ahead of the 2021 NFL Draft and the rest of the offseason, the Seahawks' front office will not only look to add the best tape or athlete with each pick. Signing men who Seattle feels can help them get back to the level of strain that led to franchise history will also be balanced in.
We are unlikely to witness stunning early-round picks that are perceived as reaches, because the Seahawks don’t have the selections to do that this year. However, the impact of culture on Seattle’s roster philosophy is clear and should be considered for future seasons of the Schneider-Carroll era too. Based on Baldwin’s comments, this is an understandable approach.