Updated Friday, January 11, 2013 at 12:34 PM
Three empty energy-drink cans littered the floor of the rental car along with a Western Michigan football parking pass and an empty bag of beef jerky.
Seattle general manager John Schneider hadn't driven that SUV so much as lived in it in for a full week back in October. He logged more than 1,200 miles in a seven-day trek that proceeded from Chicago's O'Hare Airport to Detroit in anything but a straight line.
Sounds like Schneider, said a man who worked with him for six years in Green Bay.
"During the season, he was on the road as long as necessary, looking under every rock and in every nook and cranny," said Andrew Brandt, a member of the Packers' front office, now an ESPN analyst.
This is not a story about how Seattle's general manager works hardest. Everyone atop an NFL personnel department piles up hours and pounds caffeine. And it's not to say that Schneider is smarter, either. No one gets to be an NFL personnel executive by lacking insight or instincts.
This story is to give you a picture of a 41-year-old father of two from Wisconsin whose job keeps him in the background even as his fingerprints cover the Seahawks' roster. Because you can't truly understand how these Seahawks have been reconstructed without understanding Schneider's role.
As much as coach Pete Carroll has molded this team on the field, Schneider is the one responsible for picking out the raw materials, whether it's finding a top-shelf pass rusher like Chris Clemons on the nether regions of another team's roster or picking a potential franchise quarterback like Russell Wilson in the third round.
It's Schneider who reports to owner Paul Allen when 2010 fourth-round pick E.J. Wilson doesn't work out and Schneider and the scouts who have steered the Seahawks to starter after starter in the draft.
"I owe so much to John Schneider and what he's done," Carroll said last week. "He's been extraordinary in supporting me, and allowing me to do the things that I want to do and how we want to do it with players that complement it in always a competitive, active approach to what everyone is doing."
The coach calls the plays, the players execute them, but the general manager must have the vision to put the pieces in place.
"Pete has done an excellent job," said former NFL coach Marty Schottenheimer. "But you don't win in the National Football League unless you have someone finding top-notch talent."
And Schottenheimer knows a little something about Schneider, working with him for three years in Kansas City from 1997 to 1999 and then hiring Schneider to be his vice president of player personnel in Washington in 2001, the year Schneider turned 30.
"He's the kind of guy I always liked," Schottenheimer said. "Because I like to challenge guys, and I'd do that even if I agreed, just to see if the guy would stick to his guns. You couldn't get him to back up about anything."
It gives you a hint of why Seattle leads the league in head-scratching draft decisions, whether it was making Bruce Irvin the first defensive end chosen in this year's draft or picking a quarterback who was not quite 5 feet 11 in the third round.
That would be Wilson, one of four Seahawks rookies likely to start in Sunday's playoff game at Atlanta and the guy already becoming characterized as Schneider's signature selection.
"Joe Montana only comes around once in a while," Schottenheimer said, then stopping to clarify that he is only joking. "Joe would kill me if I said he wasn't 6 feet tall."
That decision to pick a player so many declared too short for the position is the kind of conviction that Schottenheimer remembers about Schneider.
"Once he gets his teeth into something, he's not going to let go," Schottenheimer said.
That helps explain how Schneider got started, getting an internship with the Packers before he graduated from college at St. Thomas in Minnesota. He was hired as a special assistant to Ron Wolf, former Packers general manager, and was with the team when it won the Super Bowl in the 1996 season.
That was just the first step in a career that has seen Schneider move to Kansas City, to Seattle, to Washington before doubling back for a second stint in Green Bay, before he was hired to be Seattle's general manager in 2010.
He grew up in Wisconsin, where Vince Lombardi's "Faith, Family, Football" isn't a motto so much as a way of life, and he arrived in Seattle with a wife, two sons and a way of interacting with his roster that is unique in what can be a very corporate culture of professional football.
Clemons is in his ninth season in the NFL playing for his fourth franchise, and he said Schneider is the first general manager he can remember talking with.
"He's a players' general manager," Clemons said. "Like you have players' coaches, he's one of those guys, he wants the input of his players. It's one of the things that I appreciate about him, the fact that he does ask us questions as far as how we want things and what guys we want to play with."
And guys who can play. Don't forget that. Clemons is one of those, a linebacker who had become an afterthought in Philadelphia until the Seahawks acquired him in 2010. The Seahawks acquired Clemons and a fourth-round pick from Philadelphia in exchange for giving the Eagles the right to sign Darryl Tapp, a restricted free agent.
Clemons became the team's leading pass rusher, and one of only three NFL players to have 10 or more sacks in three successive seasons though he suffered a season-ending knee injury last week in Washington.
The Seahawks have drafted Pro Bowlers in the first round, players like tackle Russell Okung and safety Earl Thomas, but it's the picks in later rounds that have been just as important in taking Seattle from a team that won nine games combined in 2008 and 2009 (with four of those wins coming against St. Louis) to winning 11 games this season and advancing to the second round of the playoffs with one of the league's youngest rosters.
And most days at practice, Schneider can be found on the field, standing amid the men he's helped assemble.
"You mean the guy who put together this ragtag group?" cornerback Richard Sherman asked.
Well, is ragtag really the right description? The team had four Pro Bowlers this season, three of whom were drafted under Schneider. Sherman is a fifth-round pick who intercepted eight passes this season and is being described as one of the top cornerbacks in the league. Safety Kam Chancellor is another fifth-rounder, and he made the Pro Bowl last season.
"Who else was going to pick up these guys?" Sherman asked. "We're just a ragtag bunch of guys nobody wants, but can play this game at a high level."
It has taken three years of late nights and early mornings for Seattle to reach this point. That's true for more than just the players who've put in the work and the coaches who've assembled the playbook.
It's true for Seattle's scouts and executives and its general manager, who have canvassed the country in rental cars with open eyes searching for more talent.
Just don't worry about those empty energy-drink cans on the floor of the rental car. Schneider's stopped drinking those. He promised.
Danny O'Neil: 206-464-2364 or email@example.com.
On Twitter @dannyoneil
Seattle @ Atlanta, 10 a.m. Sunday, Ch. 13
DEAN RUTZ / THE SEATTLE TIMES
GM John Schneider has steered the Seahawks to surprising starter after starter from the draft, highlighted by new quarterback Russell Wilson.