RENTON, Wash. — Most rookie minicamps are relatively sedate affairs, with coaches, executives and local media getting a good first look at the rookies a team just drafted. The drills are non-contact, and the overall feeling is usually one of an open house. It's a tepid warm-up for training camp a few months later.
That's in a general sense. Leave it to the Seattle Seahawks to make their 2015 rookie camp far more ... interesting. That's because the second-round selection of defensive end Frank Clark out of Michigan has turned this Seattle rookie class into a cause célèbre—in all the wrong ways.
Pete Carroll and John Schneider have made a lot of interesting moves since they teamed up to become the Seahawks' head coach and general manager in 2010. For the most part, those moves have worked out. The two men inherited a franchise that was just about totally bereft of talent and have turned it into a perennial Super Bowl contender with a combination of vision and risk management.
But the selection of Clark, it's safe to say, has blown up in their faces like no other transaction. That's partially because Clark was kicked off the Michigan team last November after he was accused of domestic violence against his girlfriend, Diamond Hurt, in a Sandusky, Ohio, hotel room on Nov. 15. The facts of the case have been meted over and over, but when it came to Clark's value as an NFL prospect, it put the burden on NFL teams to vet Clark, find the truth of the story as much as they could and decide if Clark was worth the risk. In the end, Carroll and Schneider were the ones to pull the trigger with the 63rd overall pick, despite the fact that Schneider told the Seattle media in a 2012 pre-draft press conference that domestic violence was a deal-breaker when assessing off-field incidents and signing players.
So, there was a lot of explaining to do. At the scouting combine and at his post-draft conference call, Clark wouldn't go into specifics beyond his statement that he put himself in a bad position, which he reiterated more than once when he faced the Seattle media in person for the first time after Friday's practice.
“It matters, because at the end of the day, you don't want to be labeled as a woman-beater,” Clark said when asked if the perception most have of him bothered him. “But at the same time, it doesn't bother me, because I know what I did do and what I didn't do. I don't want to get into the specifics of the case, but the coaches and the staff here, they had the faith to draft me. They did their jobs, and they showed that faith in me."
As for the incident itself, Clark said that it was “something that never should have gone as far as it [went], and we shouldn't even be talking about it.”
Good luck with that.
Carroll followed Clark to the podium Friday and insisted that there are things about the incident that many don't know. But he wouldn't go into specifics. He also mentioned that there are things about Clark we don't know, and we'll have to wait and see how it turns out. Carroll said he was comfortable with the level of vetting that happened when they were investigating Clark's background, but when he said, “We did all we needed to do" as opposed to, well, “We did all we possibly could," it probably made some wonder just how much was done. Because many believe that the Seahawks did exactly as much they needed in order to spackle this over and hope that Clark's athletic potential would wipe the stains away.
And in that regard, Carroll and Schneider are more to blame than Clark. Whatever Clark did or didn't do, he'll have to live with it. But it was Schneider who was so absolute about what domestic violence meant to this organization in a negative sense, and it was Carroll who has spoken about Clark as an object of redemption. And this all started a couple hours after Clark was drafted last Friday.
When asked then who they talked to during this allegedly comprehensive vetting process, Carroll and Schneider said that they had done more research on Clark than any other player in this draft, perhaps more than on any other player they had ever drafted.
“Our organization has an in-depth understanding of Frank Clark’s situation and background—we have done a ton of research on this young man,” Schneider said in a statement. “There hasn’t been one player in this draft that we have spent more time researching and scrutinizing more than Frank. That is why we have provided Frank with this opportunity, and we look forward to him succeeding in our culture here in Seattle.”
“It was crucial we did all of the work that we did—all of the meetings, all of the interviews, questions asked to get to the point where we knew what was going on—that we understood the situation and could go ahead to give him a chance to do this," Carroll added. “With all of the elevated awareness, that made us more tuned in with what we needed to do to take care of business. John made his trips, we visited with the kid numerous times, we flew him in here—we have taken every opportunity and every chance to figure out what we needed to figure out. We did it, and we are going to hold him to a very high standard of expectation like we do, and we think he is going to be very successful.”
The two men said later in the press conference that they had not spoken to the alleged victim, only that they had done their due diligence and had talked with “people at the school” and “counselors who were involved” with Clark and Hurt.
Thanks to some outstanding reporting from the Seattle Times over the last week, we now know who the Seahawks didn't talk to. They didn't talk to the two primary witnesses, two women who were next door when the incident happened and told the Times that they saw Clark's girlfriend half-naked and sprawled out on the floor of her hotel room, barely moving.
“She looked unconscious,” Kristie Colie, one of the witnesses, told the Times. “She looked like she was knocked out, and then she started to move slowly.”
The Seahawks didn't talk to Lynne Gast-King, municipal prosecutor for the city of Sandusky, though Gast-King told the Times that she didn't believe Clark would hit a woman again, and then said she didn't believe Clark hit or slapped Hurt at all. Gast-King was the one who had to agree to Clark's eventual plea deal down from first-degree misdemeanor assault and domestic violence to persistent disorderly conduct. Clark paid $350 in fines and court costs and underwent a 25-week domestic violence counseling course.
“As someone who watched the Ray Rice situation in horror, I don’t think this is what you’re going to see from Frank Clark,” Gast-King said. “I don’t think he’s a danger to this particular lady or to other women. And I hope I’m not wrong.”
The Seahawks didn't talk to Greg Mattison, Michigan's former defensive coordinator and current defensive line coach, though Mattison was with Clark every day for four years and vouched for Clark as a player and a person when he spoke with Dave Mahler on Seattle sports talk station KJR. In that interview, Mattison said that several other NFL teams contacted him, but that the Seahawks did not.
So ... who did the team talk to? Per Tom Pelissero of USA Today, the Seahawks spoke with Clark's agent, his counselor and (through national scout Ed Dodds) various coaches, recruiters and university officials during a two-day campus tour. They talked to Clark a lot, and told him that if the more advanced assault and domestic violence charges were still outstanding, they would not draft him. Clark pled to the lesser charge on April 10, less than a month before the draft began.
It was not a good look by any standard. Carroll and Schneider have built up a lot of equity locally and nationally, and were putting it all on the line with their refusal to detail their due diligence beyond the basics.
And that was the environment Clark walked into Friday, when he reported for his first day of camp.
When Clark did hit the field, it was easy to see why the Seahawks, who value the height/weight/speed scouting matrix as much as any team, saw Clark as valuable enough for this particular risk. At 6'3" and 271 pounds, and with 34 3/8" arms, Clark has a first step off the snap that is a bit astonishing; you'd expect it from a 240-pound guy, but not from someone 30 pounds heavier. And though he tends to stay upright too often and is a bit tight in the lower body (a liability that will have better offensive tackles eating his lunch for a while), he shows a lot of persistence on tape, and showed as much as he could in Friday's non-contact drills.
But of course, that's not the primary issue here. Frank Clark could be the second coming of Michael Strahan, and it wouldn't matter to some. And if he is that good, what he did or did not do in the past won't matter at all—likely to even more people. The question becomes, what happens if he strays from the path, and how much will the Seahawks suffer for it?
As they've handled things so far, the Seahawks have no one but themselves to blame if it all goes south.