Seahawks’ success built on players with lots of ‘grit’

SEATTLE — Doug Baldwin couldn’t help himself.

The Seahawks receiver was coming off a huge performance in an NFC championship game victory over the San Francisco 49ers, and when a reporter asked Baldwin about the season-long perception that has followed Seattle’s receivers, he couldn’t hold back. First, Baldwin emphatically thanked the reporter for bringing up the topic, then he looked at the member of the Seahawks’ media relations department to his right, as if to say, “sorry for what’s coming.”

Then the receiver told a little story.

With the NFC Championship game kicking off late in the day, players had a little more free time than usual, so Baldwin watched a little bit of TV. When he heard ESPN analysts give an opinion of him and his fellow receivers, Baldwin devoured it as fuel like another athlete would a pregame meal.

“It irritates the hell out of me when guys constantly want to talk about receiving, talking about, we’re average, we’re pedestrian,” said Baldwin, who had six catches for 106 yards, as well as a 69-yard kickoff return that set up a field goal. “Well guess what? We’re going to walk our ass to the Super Bowl as pedestrians.”

Seahawks coach Pete Carroll and general manager John Schneider have done an incredible job finding talent. Carroll and his coaching staff have done impressive work to maximize that talent, but of all the things they did building this team, Baldwin’s performance — from seeking out criticism, to proving his doubters wrong, to letting you know he proved them wrong — perhaps demonstrates most why the Seahawks are in the Super Bowl four years after Carroll and Schneider took over.

When Carroll and Schneider set out to build a team, they didn’t just look for good players, they looked for players who have an edge, who have something to prove, who believe that nothing can stop them. Call it a chip on their shoulder, call it grit — the term Carroll prefers — call it anything you want, but the makeup of Seattle’s players from the neck up has been just as important as their physical attributes in the process of turning the Seahawks into a Super Bowl team.

This dramatic four-year turnaround wasn’t build on Pro-Bowl talent, though there is plenty of that on Seattle’s roster now. The turnaround was the result of Carroll and Schneider recognizing early on that they had a unique blend of players who felt like they had something to prove, and then running with it.

So much of Seattle’s nucleus, from a secondary full of late-round picks, to their star running back who another franchise gave up on, to their starting defensive ends to, yes, their much maligned receivers, came together in Carroll and Schneider first two years, setting the tone for the team that on Sunday became NFC champs. Even Carroll came to Seattle with plenty of doubters who wondered if he had what it took to succeed at this level after being fired twice by NFL teams prior to his dominant run at USC, and Schneider was a young unknown plucked from Green Bay’s front office.

“You can see that we’ve really chosen guys that have a feeling that they’ve got something to prove, and I think we’re all like that,” Carroll said. “John is like that, I feel like that, we all kind of feel like that and made a little bit of a chip-on-the-shoulder kind of mentality around here, and it’s something that I recognized in the second year. I think that we had a bunch of guys that kind of understood what that meant, and we’ve kind of just built on that in some way.”

Later, Carroll amended that slightly, noting it’s really more about grit than a chip.

“It’s about grit to me,” he said. “It’s really grit, that’s what we’re looking for in guys. That’s that competitiveness, that mentality of, there’s no obstacle too big. They never give into the thought that they can’t win, tremendous resiliency, have to be successful, that makeup that drives them — that’s really what we’re looking for.

“The guys who have a chip on their shoulder are made up that way, but I think grit’s the better word. Grit, I’ve to come to believe, is the key factor in deciding success and overcoming maybe shortcomings in ability and things like that. The guys who have the grit, they’re the ones you’re looking for.”

Here’s the thing about grit though, it comes in many forms, and it won’t always make you comfortable. Russell Wilson’s grit, which comes from a lifetime of hearing he’s too short to do exactly what he has been doing the last two years, that manifests itself as an insane work ethic that has him routinely beating teammates and coaches to the practice facility. We like that; that’s comfortable grit.

But Richard Sherman’s grit? Whoa there, we can’t have that, can we? We can’t have a brash, loud, black man — and let’s not kid ourselves, race played a role in people’s reactions to Sherman’s outburst; sadly there’s plenty of evidence on Twitter and elsewhere to prove as much — putting down an opponent moments after making the game’s biggest play, right?

Wrong.

That’s just another part of a player who feeds off everyone who has ever doubted him, from the NFL teams that let him fall to the fifth-round of the 2011 draft, to 49ers receiver Michael Crabtree, who according to Sherman did something last offseason to set him off.

If Sherman shouting into Erin Andrews’ microphone after the game is enough to make you dislike a team, or worse, judge a someone who is Stanford graduate; a man who gives back to the community; who is an example to kids in his hometown of Compton, Calif.; and who has never been in trouble off the field, well then you’re missing the bigger picture on one of the best people and players in Seattle’s locker room.

And if Bruce Irvin getting into it with Jimmy Graham before the New Orleans game sets you off, or Baldwin, AKA, “Angry Doug Baldwin” makes you uneasy with a postgame rant, then maybe the Seahawks just aren’t for you. But you’re missing out on one entertaining, and very good, football team.

And yes, there are blue-chippers on this roster. Earl Thomas was a first-round pick, as were Irvin, left tackle Russell Okung and others. But other than Okung, who was something of a no-brainer pick in 2010, most of Seattle’s early-round picks can even find a slight to fuel the fire. People doubted Thomas because of his size; draft pundits called Irvin a huge reach, because of his on-field résumé, but even more so because of his past legal issues; and second-round pick Bobby Wagner credentials were questioned because he played at Utah State.

Add it all up, and somehow a collection of gritty underdogs has become one of the best teams in the NFL. Come to think of it, the Seahawks became one of the best teams in the NFL because they’re a bunch of gritty underdogs.

“It’s very powerful,” Carroll said. “It’s a powerful feeling that we have.”

Herald Writer John Boyle: jboyle@heraldnet.com.

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