EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- As music blared and Pete Carroll prepared to stand in the middle of the locker room and, in a raspy voice, congratulate his team on a 43-8 win over the Broncos in Super Bowl XLVIII, only one member of the organization seemed to be slightly bummed that the season was over.
It was Scot McCloughan, the Seahawks' senior personnel executive, who like many members of the organization had been cast off and found redemption in Seattle. McCloughan is a former GM of the 49ers. He picked most of their stars before an abrupt parting in 2010. He is perhaps the NFL's premier talent evaluator, and he is on the NFL's premier scouting staff, led by GM John Schneider.
Like every scout, he knows how hard it is to do what the team has just done, burying the greatest offense in NFL history with such ruthless force that it recalled the '90s Cowboys demolishing the high-powered Bills.
McCloughan walked out of the locker room with a few game programs and pieces of memorabilia under his arm before stopping to chat and taking one last look at the team he helped assemble.
"It'll be hard to build this again," he said.
The Seahawks are not just talented. They are mysteriously talented. They are comprised not only of draft-day afterthoughts who have become quality starters but draft-day afterthoughts who have become stars. It is as confounding as it is rare.
The closest analogy is the Patriots during their dynasty years, but the difference is that the Pats were built to outlast their opponents. The Seahawks are built to embarrass them, manhandle them. The team that seemed for most of Super Bowl week to be a feel-good story, the plucky underdogs against the powerful Broncos, has now served notice to the rest of the NFL that it is not only more talented than every other team, but it is more talented at finding talent than any other franchise.
That starts with Carroll and Schneider, of course. They arrived at the Seahawks from opposite angles -- Carroll a reborn NFL retread after failed stops with the New York Jets and New England; Schneider a young, surprise hire from Green Bay -- but together they've created a system that nurtures talent as well as it spots it.
And as much as the Super Bowl win spoke to the virtues of total team football in the era of the franchise quarterback who covers for his team's inevitable holes, it also marked the validation of a timeless philosophy of drafting players, with a special Seattle twist.
The timeless philosophy is that of Ron Wolf, the legendary architect of the 1990s Packers. Schneider and McCloughan are both disciples of Wolf. They are approximately the same age (41 and 42, respectively) and learned in Green Bay how to build a team through the draft by, as Wolf likes to say, "playing the percentages." That means not deviating from height and weight and strength standards set for each position. That would explain Seattle's secondary, tall and physical in the era of the lithe speedster. But as McCloughan says, "You can't be stubborn."
Nowhere was that more evident than in the drafting of 5-foot-10 QB Russell Wilson. Schneider and McCloughan interviewed Wilson for two hours at the Senior Bowl two years ago and came away smitten by Wilson's unbending, even demeanor. It's perhaps Wilson's greatest attribute as a quarterback, never allowing him to overthink challenges or be overwhelmed by the stage.
Still, as McCloughan says, "the percentages are that a 5-10 quarterback will not be good."
But Schneider fought for Wilson, convincing a coaching staff that was more skeptical of his chances to make the roster than it'll ever admit. One of Schneider's strengths, McCloughan says, "is that he takes as many opinions as he can before he makes a decision." Owner Paul Allen once teased Schneider by saying, "OK, nobody has this quarterback ranked in the third round."
"This is a special quarterback," Schneider said.
Wilson is one of many special players, all of whom are fed into a coaching system that's at once cutthroat and nurturing. What Allen calls "outside-the-box thinking" works because the Seahawks can develop talent. Defensive coordinator Dan Quinn said after the game that he loves to coach low-round guys because "they have something to prove" -- not unlike Carroll himself -- and it allows them to be a "developmental coaching staff."
It has set up a strange paradox: The Seahawks are proof that the draft process, as cornerback Richard Sherman says, is a "sham." Yet they've exploited that process better than any team.
The examples were everywhere on Sunday. Super Bowl MVP Malcolm Smith was a seventh-round pick. Sherman was a fifth-round pick. Cornerback Byron Maxwell was drafted in the sixth round. When describing his career arc, Maxwell seems to use the word "grow" three times in every sentence. The team drafted him hoping that he would eventually develop into a quality starter. Maxwell got his chance this season when Brandon Browner was suspended indefinitely in December for smoking pot.
In a 43-8 blowout, it's hard to point to a decisive moment. But in the third quarter, with the Broncos driving, Maxwell punched the ball free from Demaryius Thomas after a big catch. Every day for years Maxwell has practiced stripping the ball, swiping so hard that "I worry about hurting my teammates." Preparation met opportunity, and that fumble killed another Broncos drive.
"We have so many guys who nobody thought would be as good as they are now when they were drafted," McCloughan says.
In a game that most figured would come down to how well the Seahawks would adapt to the Broncos, Seattle didn't really change. The schedule for the week before the game was exactly as it was all season, down to snack times for players. Carroll lifted curfew Monday, an NFL player's typical Saturday night. Schneider and McCloughan held normal draft meetings at the team hotel, planning for the future as the coaches plotted for the present.
Most thought that the Seahawks' offense would have to run the ball well to win, but they rode the arm that got them there. Most thought that the Seahawks would have to trick Peyton Manning with elaborate schemes, but they mostly ran the same coverages as they showed on film, except for slightly more nickel.
"We kept saying, 'Let's not change,' " Quinn says.
As a result, the Seahawks have transcended all of the elements of the NFL that are designed to pull teams back to the middle. They have a GM and scouting staff who find stars in the late rounds, and a coaching staff that deploys them artfully. They have a second-year quarterback who outplayed a surefire first-ballot Hall of Famer on the game's biggest stage. They have a coach who is still avenging slights from more than a decade ago. All of the pieces are there for sustained excellence.
But the NFL is a great equalizer. Nobody is good without luck. McCloughan seemed to sense this as he left the stadium. His fingerprints are all over the two most talented rosters in the NFL.
Since joining the Seahawks in 2010, he's had offers to be a GM, and it is only a matter of time before he says yes. Only a team made up of cast-offs and underdogs can appreciate how hard and essential it is to maintain magic.
That's why after the game, Schneider and McCloughan gave each other a hug and exchanged words both simple and rare, exclusive each year to only one team:
"We did it."