RENTON, Wash. -- When Mike Holmgren's Green Bay Packers beat Bill Parcells's New England Patriots in Super Bowl XXXI at the end of the 1997 season, it was the ultimate highlight of Holmgren's career. According to a story Holmgren likes to tell, he saw Parcells at a league event a while later, and Parcells gave him a sentence filled with a bit of knowing dread.
"Congratulations. Now, it gets harder," Parcells said.
That wasn't sour grapes from a losing coach to a winning one—it reflected the general truth throughout sports history. The more successful a team is over time, the more its players believe themselves indispensable to the process, and the greater the potential for loggerheads between player and team. It happened to the '85 Bears. It happened to various iterations of Bill Walsh's 49ers, and it's happened to various iterations of Bill Belichick's Patriots teams. Parcells knew it well because he had to deal with it when he coached the Giants to two Super Bowl wins.
By order of history, the Seattle Seahawks should have faced this problem in 2014. The front office was able to avoid it after Seattle's Super Bowl XLVIII win, because the three main guys up for renewal—cornerback Richard Sherman, safety Earl Thomas and defensive end Michael Bennett—were all taken care of. There was room under the cap, player values were evident, and things were settled fairly easily. The main issue after Seattle's agonizing Super Bowl XLIX loss to the Patriots was the renewal of Russell Wilson's contract, which was done on Friday morning, just in time for the start of the team's 2015 training camp.
Things looked pretty peaceful for Pete Carroll's team. Or so Carroll may have thought.
In truth, Bennett has been unhappy with the four-year, $32 million contract he signed in March of 2014 since virtually the moment he signed it. Safety Kam Chancellor, who signed a five-year, $29.323 million in 2013, has expressed displeasure with the parameters of that deal. And linebacker Bobby Wagner, who as of the time of this original writing on Friday was still a free agent, but who has since reportedly agreed to a record extension with the Seahawks, had this to say on Twitter just after Wilson's deal was announced on Friday:
Can't keep everyone — Bobby Wagner (@Bwagz54) July 31, 2015
Chancellor was nowhere to be seen during this practice, which was not a surprise. Bennett and Wagner were in attendance.
Asked after training camp's first practice whether there was a deadline in place for his deal as there had been with Wilson, the normally quiet Wagner spoke volumes.
"Now. That’s my deadline. If it happens, it happens. But all I know is at the end of the season, you will know that I’m the best linebacker in this league. That’s my focus. Everything else will take care of itself."
Wagner said all the right things about Wilson's contract, and you get the sense from the dissatisfied players on this team that there are no bitter feelings toward their quarterback for his big deal—they just want more for themselves.
"I am so proud and happy for Russell," Wagner said. "He’s being paid as one of the highest, and he deserves it. He’s been to back-to-back Super Bowls. He’s gone out there and balled out every single game. You can’t be jealous about that. He deserves that money. I’m extremely happy for him. Truly happy for him.”
In Bennett's case, the feelings toward the front office seem to run a little deeper. Bennett was poached from the Buccaneers in free agency after the 2012 season, put in a system that plays to his strengths, and has become arguably the most consistent multi-gap 4-3 defensive end in the NFL. He believes that's worth more than $8 million per year in total money. Bennett said that he thought about holding out through camp as Chancellor is, but changed his mind at the last minute. When I asked him to state his case regarding his value, he had this to say:
"I play five positions, and I play every one of them at a high level. That's what I do. There isn't a guy who plays like I do, relentless on every play. I put it on the line, regardless of injuries, regardless of how I feel. Not a game goes by where I don't make an impact in a game."
As far as how he thinks Carroll and general manager John Schneider view him? That's another story. Bennett ended his press conference by hypothesizing that while the team respects his playmaking abilities, the front office may not.
All three players have a point, up to to a certain point. Bennett is a superior player. Chancellor is perhaps the most intimidating safety in the league, and his coverage skills have developed exponentially. Wagner has become one of the best young linebackers in the business. Still, there's only so much to go around. And, as mentioned above, since the time of this original writing, Wagner has reportedly agreed to a four-year, $43 million extension with the Seahawks.
Carroll, for his part, seemed relatively nonplussed by the drama. I posited to him that from the front office's perspective, if you have players who believe they're outperforming their contracts, that means your personnel people are doing their jobs.
"I'm glad you pointed that out," Carroll said. "Look at where our guys have come from. Look at where Richard [Sherman] has come from, and Kam has come from, and K.J. Wright and Jermaine Kearse, Doug Baldwin... you just keep going, you know? Luke Willson. J.R. Sweezy. All of those guys were fifth-round guys or lower—I think that's exactly what it says. That's why I'm so thrilled with the work that they do. John has done a fantastic job. I hope you recognize too that there's a philosophy, and an approach, and a commitment to it that I hope you can see.
"And here we are again, We were able to get the quarterback done, and we're still working. That's just based on a big plan, and a really good foundation and understanding. John really leads the charge on that."
I then asked Carroll if these dissatisfactions were the inevitable result of the team's success, as Parcells had told Holmgren in a different way almost two decades ago.
"I think it's pretty typical, yeah. I think it's understood that with success comes expectations. You have to deal with it really well, and it is a factor. We're watching what we're going through right now—the growing pains of last year and this year, there's always this painful kind of thing you work with. This is part of the ascent. So, how do we deal with it? Are we able to handle it? Can we keep our focus in practice like we did today, day after day? We'll find out. But I do know that how we're going about it, we have to be able to endure.
"We're gonna try to show you that we can figure it out, and find out how to do it by our approach, and what we do. I feel confident that we can. I don't think it's easy, but I feel confident that we can."
Carroll may be confident, but he knows the rumblings going on underneath the surface. It's something all great coaches have to deal with.