New Goal: Three-Hawks
The Seahawks in 2014 realized what other defending champions have known: Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown in the NFL.
Tasting immortality on the brink of back-to-back championships, Seattle had its hopes dashed by Malcolm Butler and Darrell Bevell. Climbing back up the rarest of mountains—no team, not even the Patriots, has appeared in three consecutive Super Bowls in the salary-cap era—is going to be altogether different.
There are certainly going to be challenges (the ramifications of finally having to pay quarterback Russell Wilson what he’s worth, and the effectiveness of Bevell, to name two), but the Seahawks have as good a chance as anyone because of what happened this season.
Despite opening their defending champion campaign with a blowout win over the Packers, the Seahawks started 3-3. Even though a Week 11 defeat at the hands of the Chiefs had the Seahawks out of the playoffs, Seattle won nine of its final 10 games to grab the NFC West and the conference’s top seed.
What started the turnaround? General manager John Schneider noticed something in the second half of the 28-26 loss to the Rams in Week 7, when the Seahawks trailed 21-3 late in the second quarter. That game, not coincidentally, was the first after receiver Percy Harvin, reportedly a divisive figure in the locker room, was traded to the Jets.
I asked Schneider, who acquired Harvin in 2013 from the Vikings for a first-round pick and two other selections and then gave him a six-year, $67-million contract, what he learned from the deal, and whether the Seahawks would have been back in the Super Bowl if they didn’t deal Harvin to the Jets on Oct. 18.
“If things aren't working out for one reason or another, you have to resolve the issue as quickly as you can," Schneider said. “This team really came together after the St. Louis game. The second half of the St. Louis game you could really feel it. I have no idea if that's because Percy wasn't here or not; I just know that they kind of turned a corner in terms of playing for each other instead of being concerned about who was getting what endorsements, just some of the petty things that come with being a world champion.
“People forget the manner in which we won that game last year, they forget about the struggle that it was just to get to that game. So you go through an offseason of just a lot of ‘Atta boys!’ really. They did a great job working their tails off in the offseason getting back, but there's still a level of pure team that has to go into this thing, self-sacrifice. It's truly the ultimate team sport."
The Seahawks were wise enough to wake up, perhaps with the alarm being the Harvin trade, and realize they weren’t going to get back to the Super Bowl unless they bought back into being the family that delivered the franchise’s first title. Not many teams can do that in midseason, and Seattle certainly was fortunate to be in a division in which both contenders, Arizona (injuries) and San Francisco (internal strife), imploded.
But heading into the 2015 season, I think the Seahawks will be aided by the hard lessons learned by other franchises.
Conversations with many of the Patriots from the team’s three titles from 2001 to ’04 have led to discussion about the one outlier of the Bill Belichick-Tom Brady era: the 2002 season. Despite finishing in a three-way tie for first place in the AFC East, the Patriots missed the playoffs for the only time when Brady was the starter (he missed 15 games in ’08 due to a knee injury). The former players are almost all in unison on what went wrong: They simply didn’t put in the same level of work as they did in winning the title.
Lesson learned. The Patriots, with a bit of retooling and a sour taste in their mouths, won back-to-back titles the next two seasons and haven’t missed the playoffs with Brady since.
The Seahawks will enter next season knowing how hard it is to climb back up the mountain, and have the taste of bitter defeat to fuel them all offseason. I certainly wouldn’t bet against this group, even with a tougher division and schedule.
No team has ever gone to three straight Super Bowls in the salary-cap era. We shouldn’t be surprised if the Seahawks become the first, if they can pick up the emotional pieces. Yes, that's a big if.
Schneider and coach Pete Carroll have positioned the franchise well financially. Yes, Seattle has enjoyed a huge advantage the past two seasons in not having to pay a franchise quarterback. (Wilson, a third-round pick in 2012, earned less than $600,000 this season as part of his mandated rookie deal.) But with about $20 million already in cap space, the Seahawks should have enough money to extend Wilson and linebacker Bobby Wagner (another rookie deal ready to be upgraded). Left guard James Carpenter is the only other starter due to be a free agent who should be retained, and the Seahawks could create some more cap room. Don’t see much of a chance that Seattle retains starting cornerback Byron Maxwell, who will be overpaid by some other team.
Most of the cap problems, depending on how much the cap increases, will likely come in 2016 if the Seahawks continue to structure their contracts in the same manner.
So nearly all of the core of this year’s team will return, and Seattle will look for help in the draft at receiver, the offensive line and the interior defensive line to create more needed depth. Wilson could also stand to improve his pocket passing, which has been a problem at times, including during the Super Bowl.
Probably the heaviest lifting will have to be done by Carroll and Bevell to regain the trust of the players who obviously felt let down by what happened in the final moments of Super Bowl 49. It’s no simple task, but if anyone can get his team back on the same feel-good family wavelength, it’s the irrepressible Carroll.
No team has ever gone to three straight Super Bowls in the salary-cap era. With most of the hard lessons wrapped up into the 2014 campaign, we shouldn’t be surprised if the Seahawks become the first, if they can pick up the emotional pieces. Yes, that’s a big if.
1. On Manziel. Have long thought that the NFL quarterback whom Johnny Manziel most reminded me of, at least in attitude and playmaking guts, was Brett Favre. With Manziel’s decision this week to enter a treatment program, the similarities between the two are even more striking. Favre's rookie season in Atlanta was a flop due to alcohol problems, and later in his career he entered rehab for a painkiller addiction. Here’s hoping this is a sincere effort by Manziel to get back on track and follow in Favre’s resurgent on-field footsteps, and not just a PR move.
2. Leftover Super Bowl Thought, Part 1. While the Patriots were giving Russell Wilson a “give” read on nearly every read-option play by keeping end Rob Ninkovich at home on the end of the line, I thought the Seahawks should have told Wilson to keep the ball on a few plays and challenge Ninkovich. The Patriots were playing nearly all man coverage, so there was a ton of room for the smooth Wilson to roam if he could get by Ninkovich.
3. Leftover Super Bowl Thought, Part 2. Tom Brady, who played his best game in years despite two interceptions (the second was a stellar athletic play by Seahawks linebacker Bobby Wagner), was certainly the most valuable player in the game, given how many times he threw the ball and his four passing touchdowns against the vaunted Seahawks. But for my money, Patriots receiver Julian Edelman was the best player on the field. He was flawless, and New England wouldn’t have won it without him. And, by the way, Edelman’s best is better than the best of the man he replaced, Wes Welker. Edelman is just a better athlete and a little more versatile.
4. Leftover Super Bowl Thought, Part 3. Talking with several Patriots coaches after the game, many remarked how the game would be decided by execution, as most are when the talent level is that close. There’s little doubt the Patriots were the better team in that regard, especially when it came to Seattle’s sloppy offense. The Malcolm Butler play is a perfect example. There were myriad errors by the Seahawks on that play: Wilson staring down the receiver and his ball placement, Jermaine Kearse not going inside of Brandon Browner to make sure he rubbed Butler, and Ricardo Lockette’s tentative route. If it was Brady executing that play to Edelman off a Brandon LaFell rub, there’s no doubt in my mind they score 100 out of 100 times, because of the attention to detail off all three players and their coaches.
5. Being accountable. Despite writing “The Patriots are going to the Super Bowl, if not winning it,” during training camp and picking the Patriots to beat the Seahawks leading up to the game, I was wrong when I wrote “strong safety could be a disaster (again)” for the Patriots in the preseason. Even though the Patriots rarely played Patrick Chung in a traditional strong safety role (they even took him off the field in passing situations for Duron Harmon) and instead played him as a pseudo-linebacker (thanks to the trickle-down effect of Darrelle Revis) to accentuate his strengths, Patriots safeties coach Brian Flores (an avid reader of this space) made it all work. Chung and Flores were right, and I was wrong.
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