SEATTLE – For the Seahawks, this has been an offseason of amazing efficiency in the realm of roster construction.
They re-signed franchise quarterback Russell Wilson, earlier than expected and with a minimum of rancor. They worked out a deal to bring back linebacker K.J. Wright, when the consensus at the end of last season was that it would be difficult to do so.
Through a succession of trades, they raised their number of NFL draft picks from a paltry four to 11. They find themselves with a copious amount of salary-cap room – enough to still lock up a deal for linebacker Bobby Wagner and maybe sign a few more free agents beyond Ziggy Ansah.
And they are relatively unburdened by the sort of unwieldy contract that can hamstring a team.
Of course, it cost them premier pass rusher in Frank Clark, traded to Kansas City when a long-term contract could not be reached. Whether the Seahawks did enough to fill that gaping hole won’t be known until we learn if Ansah has been depleted by his various injuries, and whether No. 1 draft pick L.J. Collier can pick up some of the sack slack.
But beneath the laser focus by coach Pete Carroll and general manager John Schneider in systematically crossing off items from their checklist over the past five months lies a bigger-picture quest by the Seahawks – to move on from the Super Bowl mainstays and build a new core they hope returns them to the summit.
That’s an excruciatingly difficult feat in the modern NFL, one that only the Patriots seem to have mastered. Whether the Seahawks have made the transformation is to be determined, of course.
It appears to me, however, that Carroll is borrowing a page from the playbook of one of his mentors, former San Francisco 49ers coach Bill Walsh. No one was seemingly more ruthless than Walsh in eschewing sentiment when it came to maintaining a team’s reign – and he built a dynasty that won five Super Bowls in a 13-year span. The final two were under Walsh’s coaching successor, George Seifert, with Walsh still involved in decision-making.
Carroll has made no secret of his admiration of Walsh’s offensive genius, and how he voraciously picked the Hall of Fame coach’s brain while serving as the 49ers’ defensive coordinator in 1995 and 1996. Walsh had resigned as coach by then but was serving as a consultant.
But beyond X’s and O’s, I wondered if Carroll also absorbed some of the necessarily cold-blooded nature of Walsh’s strategy about perpetually churning the roster – even when it came to the most beloved players, such as quarterback Joe Montana. It was Walsh who traded for Steve Young in 1987, setting in motion the trade of Montana to the Chiefs six years later.
The Seahawks, similarly, are slowly shedding the cornerstone players from the two Super Bowl teams. Beyond those who were forced out by injury – Cliff Avril and Kam Chancellor last year, Doug Baldwin this year – they also have made some hard choices to move on from others.
Marshawn Lynch was the first to go, after the 2015 season, via a short-lived “retirement.” Richard Sherman and Michael Bennett departed last year, and Earl Thomas this offseason. One presumes the time may well come for Wright, Wagner, even Wilson.
Here’s what Walsh told the San Francisco Examiner in 1993 about this sort of cleansing, which he found to be painful yet necessary.
“After you spend so much time getting so close with people, when it is time to part there is a terrible grieving. It was brutal for me and it was brutal for every one of those guys, like (offensive lineman) John Ayers, (offensive lineman) Keith Fahnhorst, (place-kicker) Ray Wersching. You can almost turn on your best friend because it’s almost like a domestic quarrel when you leave.”
Yet in an interview with the Harvard Business Review, Walsh talked about how crucial it was to make those hard calls.
“Any good coach or manager has got to be responsible for phasing his people through the organization,” he said. “It may be the most emotionally difficult part of the job. When you do it, you often end up as the most unpopular person in the organization. Yet it is part of the role that the leader must play. It has to be done and done continually. You have to be prepared to use your own professional judgment as to when and why it is time for one of your players to call it quits.
“ … There will be some suffering, and there is no way to avoid it. It’s simply part of the process. There will be agonizing, frustration and anger. But the coach has to make the decision to improve the team.”
Carroll and the Seahawks certainly experienced that backlash, because players such as Lynch, Sherman and Thomas were rightly beloved. But the cold reality of the NFL is that one’s prime is cruelly brief, and the most celebrated players usually are about to hit their decline nearly simultaneous to their quest for a final payday.
Thus, one more pearl of Walsh wisdom from the Harvard article: “Most people don’t realize it, but the players who get all the attention are usually the ones on the downside of their careers. Ironically, the organization is often paying the most money to the team members who are on the descending curve as players.”
It had to have been extremely tough for Carroll, whose coaching style depends on close relationships with his players, to sever those ties. But I’ll bet he learned from Walsh that it had to be done.