Always Compete May Not Win Forever

There is a growing movement in software development called Lean Startup. It is based on a few fundamental premises: (1) admit that you do not know the answer (2) use real data from structured experiments to find it. It shares some common elements with Pete Carroll’s Win Forever mantra that essentially admits the same thing at the outset. He acknowledges that coaches and personnel guys may think they know the answer, but the only real way to find out is to structure competition experiments to gather real data in order to make the most informed and open-minded decision. This style has led to numerous positive personnel moves for Carroll in his first two-plus seasons in Seattle. It also may prove to be his downfall.

Setting aside ego is essential to anyone taking this approach to decision-making. Old-school corporate execs often bristle at this philosophy because it runs counter to command and control organizational practices that allow them to be the all-knowing, all-seeing decision maker who always knows best. Carroll espouses a philosophy that contends that not only does he not know everything, but he expects to be in a nearly perpetual state of “not knowing.” To put that in football terms, there are no safe spots on the roster, even if a player has won it the previous year.

Seahawks fans have seen this put into practice with moves like waiving LenDale White shortly after trading for him, moving on from Matt Hasselbeck after he helped them to a division title and playoff win, and waiving Lofa Tatupu. There have been so many examples, most people have lost track. It is this commitment to always getting better that has allowed Carroll and GM John Schneider to turnover this roster so remarkably in such a short period of time.

Any strength taken to an extreme, however, can become a weakness. Carroll and Schneider did not just have a quarterback competition this off-season, they had a three-man quarterback competition. They did not just have a three-man competition, they had one that lasted until the last week of the pre-season. By religiously clinging to this philosophy of competition, they may have inadvertently sabotaged themselves, the players involved, and the Seahawks season.

A critical aspect of “lean” thinking is to accept what the data tells you. Carroll and Schneider saw enough data to tell them Matt Flynn should start the first two games of the pre-season and that the Tarvaris Jackson era was over. Yet, they did not end the competition. Why? They did not appear willing to accept that outcome. Maybe it was because they were not thrilled with Flynn’s upside. Maybe it was because Wilson was the guy they wanted to find reason to elevate. In any event, by starting Wilson in game three of the pre-season, they created a trap for themselves (recommended reading).

They spent so much time telling everyone just how close this competition was, that people invariably started picking sides. The way most people watch sports is to pick a favorite and cheer for them to win, or pick a villain and cheer for them to lose. This was no different. Back-up quarterbacks are famously the most popular person on the team for fans. Heck, Charlie Whitehurst supporters wanted him to play over Matt Hasselbeck and Tarvaris Jackson until they actually saw how bad he was. The way this quarterback competition was run almost insisted on quarterback controversy at the first sign of struggle. And guess what almost every rookie quarterback in the history of pro football does? They struggle.

Seahawk fans are among the most passionate in all of the NFL, especially on social media like Twitter. They haven’t seen a winning season in five years, but I have never seen them as divided as they are on this topic. Scott Enyeart mentioned that he might write a column on a house divided (I’d love to read it). The season is four weeks old. The Seahawks have beaten the Cowboys and the Packers. And the fan base is tearing each other apart. To think it is only the fans is silly. Carroll and Schneider delivered the same message to the players on the team by running this competition so publicly and for so long.

Now, not only is their decision to start a rookie is in question, but the underlying competition philosophy is open to more skepticism and derision.

The approach may be in need of some fine tuning. Open competitions at the running back position may be great. Same with cornerback, receiver, linebacker and on down the line. Open competition at quarterback may not be the right place to apply the philosophy. Or, at least, don’t combine open quarterback competition, that includes a rookie, and lasts until the last week of the pre-season. Blind faith in philosophies has led to some pretty nasty things in human history. I believe Carroll is smart enough to learn and grow.