Seattle Seahawks  

 

Seattle Seahawks have savvy to sustain in NFL's salary-cap era

The blue, green and white confetti was still swirling at MetLife Stadium when the doom and gloom began descending across various media platforms, social and traditional: Sure, the Seattle Seahawks were the NFL's best team this season, as proven conclusively by their 43-8 beatdown of the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XLVIII, but with the budgetary realities of 21st century pro football, let's see them try to sustain it next year and beyond.

It was the sports equivalent of this'll never last whispers at an ex-lover's wedding, and in this case, it constituted both wishful thinking and an amusing naiveté.

Yes, it's tough to repeat in the NFL -- the last back-to-back Super Bowl winners were the 2003-04 New England Patriots -- and it's true that the Seahawks will have to make some tough decisions regarding the salary cap as many of their young standouts come up for potentially rewarding raises in the coming years.

However, if you think the juggernaut constructed by Seahawks general manager John Schneider and coach Pete Carroll is destined to fade into Pacific Northwest obscurity, you might be in for a quad-latte-style jolt.

As Carroll suggested in his morning-after press conference Monday, when he compared the Seahawks' Super Bowl performance to the dominant display put forth by his USC Trojans in the 2005 Orange Bowl (a 55-19 thrashing of Oklahoma for a second consecutive AP national championship), he and Schneider are trying to create a professional version of a collegiate-style powerhouse. And despite popular misconception, that's not something a salary cap can necessarily derail.

Carroll and I discussed this long before the Seahawks became Super, and it's one reason he refused to play up his triumphant return to the site of his first, failed NFL head-coaching stint as some sort of redemptive coronation.

Clearly, like Seahawks owner Paul Allen, Carroll and Schneider are thinking bigger. And in two decades of covering the NFL in the salary-cap era, I've discovered that organizational will and intelligent player-acquisition decisions go a lot further toward sustaining success than contract-related concerns do toward sabotaging it.

In other words, to paraphrase the most accomplished coach and team builder of this era, Bill Belichick: Cap concerns are for losers.

Show me a franchise whose leaders perpetually whine about cap concerns, and I'll show you a franchise that is pretty far from elite. Such a state of affairs usually means that the owner isn't as financially committed to the cause as some of his/her gung-ho peers (such as Allen, who speaks sparingly but carries a big overhead), or that the GM and coach are making excuses for the team's subpar performance -- or both.

When it comes to whining about the cap, the current champions are the post-Al Davis Oakland Raiders, who have rationalized consecutive 4-12 seasons under GM Reggie McKenzie and coach Dennis Allen by blaming the bottom line. Essentially, they point the finger at the late former owner, a legendary football figure whose aggressive spending (some on players who didn't produce accordingly) created so much dead money that it required a two-year "deconstruction" (in the words of Davis' son and successor, Mark) in the wake of a near-playoff season.

Never mind that Al Davis somehow made it work on a season-to-season basis, assembling a roster that, if not for some exceptionally bad luck (including Davis' death, season-ending injuries to Jason Campbell and Darren McFadden and a miraculous run by Tim Tebow), would have won an AFC West title in 2011. And never mind that other teams with cap issues, such as the 2013 Indianapolis Colts and the 2012 Washington Redskins (who were docked $36 million in cap money over two seasons via a controversial league sanction) have managed to win division titles under similar duress.

All you hear out of Oakland is that the cap has kept the Raiders from being competitive -- and it's amazing how many fans swallow it as gospel.

Here's the dirty little secret about the salary cap and the modern NFL: Good organizations figure out a way to manage the cap, even when the numbers present significant challenges. Creativity, flexibility and an ability to make tough decisions go a long way toward alleviating cap issues, and engendering a positive, winning environment can persuade players to take less than market value.

If you think the Seahawks aren't ahead of the curve when it comes to each of those things, you haven't been paying attention.


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From creating a desirable workplace -- when I visited the Seahawks' training facility in the lead-up to Super Bowl XLVIII, defensive end Michael Bennett referred to it as "the Google of football" -- to convincing free agents (such as Bennett and fellow pass rusher Cliff Avril) to take short-term deals to be part of something special, Carroll, Schneider and Allen are a power trio that rivals local legends Nirvana (and, for that matter, the Jimi Hendrix Experience).

Throw in some exceptionally shrewd personnel moves, specifically in the draft (with former San Francisco 49ers general manager Scot McCloughan playing an important role as senior personnel executive), and a willingness to take big swings by bringing in game-changing talents such as wideout Percy Harvin, and it's clear this is a front office that is on its game.

Carroll's willingness, meanwhile, to let pure competition play out on the practice field creates an edge that funnels the most engaged and productive players into the lineup.

Surely, Schneider and Carroll will have some tough decisions to consider, beginning this offseason. Bennett, wide receiver Golden Tate, offensive linemen Breno Giacomini and Paul McQuistan and No. 3 cornerback Walter Thurmond could be among the players to leave via unrestricted free agency, though Bennett has said he "100 percent" wants to stay in Seattle, while Tate has suggested he'd give the team a hometown discount.

In addition, wide receiver Sidney Rice ($9.7 million in cap money for 2014), tight end Zach Miller ($7 million), defensive end Chris Clemons ($9.6 million) and defensive lineman Red Bryant ($8.7 million) could be cap casualties. And the team might need to approach other key players, such as left tackle Russell Okung ($11.24 million) and defensive lineman Brandon Mebane ($5.7 million), about restructuring their deals to provide additional relief.

That's because the Seahawks, as many skeptics willingly point out, have some huge expenditures looming on the horizon. Most glaringly, both of the Defensive Player of the Year candidates in Seattle's secondary -- free safety Earl Thomas and cornerback Richard Sherman -- are eligible for lucrative extensions over the offseason. And a year from now, one of the biggest bargains in the history of quarterbacking -- 2012 third-round draft pick Russell Wilson, who'll earn $662,434 in his third NFL season -- will be in line for the kind of massive deal that can swallow up a healthy share of a team's cap space.

If Wilson gets the type of contract (in the $20 million-a-year range) that his peers at the top of the market command, the Seahawks will have to make some even tougher decisions in 2015 and beyond. However, I wouldn't assume that paying Wilson will be as ruinous a move as is commonly portrayed. Many in the organization regard the kid as too good to be true, and, given his maturity and grasp of the big picture, I'd expect him to work with his bosses to structure such a deal in the most team-friendly manner possible.

He might even take less than he's worth, if he's convinced his bosses will do right by him by spending aggressively in the pursuit of future championships -- something which, in Allen's case, is a near-certainty.

All of this, in my opinion, is bad news for the naysayers who assume the Seahawks will implode under the weight of their sudden success. It's not going to happen.

When the Baltimore Ravens concluded Ray Lewis' last ride with a stirring win in Super Bowl XLVII, there was a legitimate sense of finality -- followed by an offseason in which GM Ozzie Newsome began the process of rebuilding his veteran-dominated team. Predictably, the Ravens backslid in 2013, missing the playoffs entirely.

Though the Seahawks play in the toughest division in sports -- all four teams in the loaded NFC West might be playoff-caliber by the start of the 2014 campaign -- I don't expect them to regress. They remind me more of the 2011 Packers, who followed up a win in Super Bowl XLV by capturing their first 13 games in a dominant regular season.

Most importantly, despite all the documented challenges posed by the cap -- and by inertia in general -- Seattle is an organization that isn't shying away from its lofty goals.

After Wednesday's victory parade in Seattle, Carroll marveled that his team emerged from the 2013 season "tremendously healthy" and insisted that "I don't see anything that we need to add. We just need to get better."

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Carroll and his quarterback both also spoke of winning multiple Super Bowls, with Wilson telling the hundreds of thousands of fans, "Our plan is to win another one for you next year."

Said Carroll: "It's just not one year. We're just getting warmed up ... We'll be back again. We're going to do something special again."

Two things are certain: First, this is a distinct possibility. And second, if the Seahawks don't contend for another championship in the near future, you won't hear Allen, Schneider and Carroll whining about the salary cap as the culprit.

Follow Michael Silver on Twitter @MikeSilver.

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