SEATTLE — The star defensive player stepped in front of reporters early in training camp and declared that things felt just a little bit different. Almost three years removed from winning a Super Bowl, his team was coming off a season in which contract disputes, among other issues, had contributed to a disappointing finish capped by a loss in the divisional playoff round.
“The biggest difference in this camp compared to last year is that this camp is about football, not gossip,” the player said. “Everything that’s happening in this camp is about football.”
Richard Sherman in 2016? Bobby Wagner? Kam Chancellor?
Each has said something similar the past few weeks, stating that the Seahawks appear more focused this training camp than a year ago, more together, and without any of the drama — notably, Chancellor’s holdout — that marred last season.
The speaker of the quote above, however, was Hall of Fame defensive tackle Joe Greene of the Pittsburgh Steelers in the summer of 1978.
The Steelers had won Super Bowls in 1974 and 1975 but had meandered through a 9-5 season in 1977 that had some wondering if the glory days were over. But they responded to win titles in 1978 and 1979 to go down as one of the greatest dynasties in sports.
And a peek through history finds that just about every NFL dynasty faced a similar pivotal moment, a season that ended up determining if the team would be remembered as just a one- (or two-) hit wonder or one of the greatest of all time.
The Green Bay Packers, after winning two titles earlier in the decade, went 8-5-1 and didn’t make the playoffs in 1964, undone by shoddy special teams and a failure to win close games. They retooled, won three consecutive NFL titles and are maybe the greatest football dynasty ever.
Almost three years after winning the only Super Bowl in franchise history, the Seahawks appear at a similar fork in the road.
The Seahawks still have a nucleus that is the envy of most teams — Las Vegas oddsmakers favor Seattle to win the NFC and advance to the Super Bowl (the Patriots are favored to win it all).
“They are set for a nice window right now, because they have gotten practically everybody under contract that they wanted to,” said former agent Joel Corry, who covers NFL labor and contract issues for several media outlets.
But the personality of the team also has begun to change markedly from the one that beat Denver in the Super Bowl 32 months ago. Just two offensive starters from that team are on the roster, and neither is named Marshawn Lynch, for years considered the team’s spiritual leader.
And that nucleus, while hardly ready for AARP, isn’t getting younger.
When the Seahawks won the Super Bowl, much was made of the fact that, with an average roster age of 26.4, they were the second-youngest team to win it all.
Now, almost three years later, each of the Seahawks’ top nine players in terms of their salary-cap number for this season is at least 27 — often regarded as the age at which most NFL position players peak.
So the time is now for the Seahawks to assert themselves as a team for the ages.
Sticking to the plan
That the Seahawks are still a Super Bowl favorite is regarded by some as a major victory, as well as a point of pride for the man most responsible for making it happen — general manager John Schneider.
“I remember people saying to me when Kam and Sherm and Earl (Thomas) were young, ‘Well, you better enjoy it now, because you are not going to keep all those guys,’ ” Schneider said during training camp. “Well, I’m proud that we were able to, that we navigated it, and we are still a competitive team.”
The Seahawks have done it in part by employing a strategy of acting aggressively to keep its “core” players — the three mentioned above as well as quarterback Russell Wilson, defensive lineman Michael Bennett, Wagner and receiver Doug Baldwin — typically signing them to extensions as they enter the final year of their contracts.
“I just think you are always trying to keep your best players,” Schneider said.
Seattle’s top 10 highest-paid players account for roughly $90 million of the $154 million allotted to the team this year under the NFL salary cap.
But paying to secure players such as Wilson ($18.5 salary-cap number in 2016) and Sherman ($14.7 million) has meant making tough choices.
The Seahawks are famously devoting less than $12 million to their offensive line this season and have let players such as linebacker Bruce Irvin and receiver Golden Tate leave in free agency, all to make room to keep the core players.
“Having to say goodbye to guys you really like — it’s hard,” Schneider said, naming Irvin, cornerback Byron Maxwell and left tackle Russell Okung. “But you have to make those decisions. Otherwise, if you just try to pacify everybody all the time you are just going to be behind the eight ball.”
Motivated by Packers’ struggles
Though Schneider is comfortable and secure in his job after signing a new contract that will keep him in Seattle until 2021 and reportedly pays him roughly $4 million a year, he says his motivation comes from a humbler time in his life.
Schneider grew up just outside of Green Bay, Wis., in the 1970s and ’80s when the Packers were struggling.
His stated philosophy that his main task is to build “a consistent championship-caliber team” rather than building for a specific season emanates from those frustrating years of fandom. He wanted nothing more than to cheer for a Packers team in the playoffs, like the Vince Lombardi-era teams he heard so much about.
“That was at my core, because growing up in Green Bay then, they never had a winning season,” Schneider said. “So I was wondering like, ‘What are they doing over there? Are they getting better?’ I’d run out to get the paper every day wondering, ‘Did they make any transactions?’
“I always wanted the hope that they have a chance. instead of like, ‘Ah, we’re going to be 8-8 again or 6-10 or whatever.’”
A different era
Schneider decided in college that he wanted to run an NFL team someday. He famously called then-Green Bay general manager Ron Wolf one day while a junior in college to ask for any job, saying he was willing to work for free.
Schneider made the call while on a Memorial Day camping trip that was forced indoors due to rain. A friend — having heard all about Schneider’s aspirations — told him to just go ahead and call Wolf, back in the days when someone could do that.
“He picked up the phone,” Schneider says. “He was in his office watching film, and he started talking to me, and that’s how it started.”
The job, though, is much different now than it was then due to free agency and the salary cap.
As Corry says, “The (Pittsburgh) Steel Curtain would never have stayed together now. You couldn’t afford to keep all those guys. The 49ers (of the ’80s) had Steve Young as their backup quarterback (to Joe Montana) for all those years. That could never happen today.”
Schneider, who knows no other way than operating in the salary-cap era (it was introduced in 1994) allows only that “it’s very different.” But Schneider notes that teams of the past had challenges of their own — namely, owners who weren’t required to open their pocketbooks like they are now with salary-cap mandates.
Back on track?
In any era, it comes down to identifying the best players available, and acquiring and keeping them, a simple mantra that is never simple to execute.
But with the core intact, reinforcements apparently in place (such as Thomas Rawls) to take over for some who have left (such as Lynch) and a relatively drama-free offseason, the Seahawks say they are poised to make another run for a title and a further march into NFL history.
“I feel like everybody is coming in focused, ready to go, no outside distractions and we’re not coming off of a Super Bowl loss and things of that nature,” Wagner said recently. “So I think our focus and especially the way the season ended last year, I don’t think nobody was happy about that. So when we were away we watched — I watched everybody work out and work hard and kind of have that, you know, have that hunger, that wanting to get back on the field and prove what we can do.”
And if they do what they think they can, then maybe this will be remembered as the season the dynasty got back on track. It might seem a heady goal, but it’s one the team isn’t shying away from.
“I think we’re going to look back at this team 10, 15 years from now and go, ‘Dude, we had a freaking dynasty,’ ” receivers coach Dave Canales said. “As a coach, I can’t get caught up in that now. I’ve got to coach them to this standard. But I know looking back we’re going to recognize how many special players with that special drive we had.”