The 2004 Seahawks took 6 years to build, made the playoffs and could have 21 players become free agents after this season.
KIRKLAND — It took six years for them to get here, to fit the pieces Mike Holmgren put together in a giant 53-man puzzle, to assemble one of the most dangerous offenses in the NFL, to make the playoffs a legitimate possibility every season the core remained intact.
So take a good look at these 2004 Seahawks. Savor that second consecutive playoff push. Watch every second of what might — or might not — be these Seahawks’ last hurrah.
Because change looms on the horizon. Minor or major, this team won’t look the same next season. That, of course, is nothing new in this era of free agency and the salary cap.
What is new is the sheer volume and collective talent of the players on the Seahawks’ free-agent list. Sixteen unrestricted free agents. Five restricted free agents. And that group includes 10 players starting Sunday against the Atlanta Falcons.
“Everybody’s backs are against the wall,” said Shaun Alexander, the NFL’s leading rusher, himself an unrestricted free agent after this season. “From the top all the way down to the water boy, this whole thing could be totally different next year, and everybody knows that. But it could be like that every year. That’s how we act and think and move.
“The thing I like about coach Holmgren, the thing I like about this team, is that we don’t really think about tomorrow. OK, we’re going to fight, we’re going to win, we’re going to lose. But we’re going to do it today. Last year, we put it in our frame of mind that this is the best shot we’ve got. Now, here we are again this year. This is the best shot we got.”
They try not to think about next season when the current one holds so much promise. But it’s still there, an occupational business hazard they’ve learned to deal with, or ignore completely.
On offense, Alexander, quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, tight end Itula Mili and linemen Walter Jones, Chris Gray, Robbie Tobeck and Floyd Womack — all starters — are set to be unrestricted free agents. As are backup fullback Heath Evans, quarterback Brock Huard and receiver Alex Bannister, the Seahawks’ best special-teams player who is on injured reserve.
On defense, the unrestricted free agents are cornerback Ken Lucas, defensive ends Chike Okeafor and Brandon Mitchell and middle linebacker Orlando Huff. Two punters — Ken Walter and injured Tom Rouen — also are unrestricted.
Then there are the restricted free agents, players for whom the Seahawks can match an offer from another team. That list includes defensive tackle Rocky Bernard, safeties Terreal Bierria and Marquand Manuel, cornerback Kris Richard and tight end Ryan Hannam.
The 18 players from the above list who aren’t injured make up 34 percent of the Seahawks’ roster for the game Sunday, setting up the end of a season the Seahawks say they’re savoring, a season that might — or might not — be their last hurrah.
“There are 16 of us?” Okeafor asked incredulously. “That many?
“I wasn’t aware that it was in those dire of straits. That’s not a worry in my mind. Thinking about it isn’t going to change things. You can’t worry about those things that are honestly out of your control. The only thing you can control is your play on Sunday. You have to keep it simple. Don’t try to clutter your mind with all these things, if you can.”
Free agency doesn’t begin until March 2, and so much could happen between now and then that the scenarios and questions will make your head spin.
Will fullback Mack Strong or receiver Jerry Rice retire, freeing up some money? Will Lucas (six interceptions), Okeafor (8-1/2 sacks) and Alexander (1,616 rushing yards and 19 touchdowns) command more money than originally thought?
Will Hasselbeck warrant as much money as the New York Jets gave quarterback Chad Pennington (seven years, $64 million)? Or has Hasselbeck’s up-and-down, injury-filled season decreased his market value?
So many factors play into these decisions. Take Lucas, for instance. He has been a standout cornerback in a year there aren’t many on the market. Does that mean other teams will pay him more?
More important, who are the Seahawks’ targets? Hasselbeck, Jones, Alexander, Lucas and Okeafor certainly fit the bill.
And how much money will there be to re-sign all of them? The current salary cap is about $80.6 million per team, but that number is certain to take a jump with the NFL’s new TV deal. At least $18 million of next year’s money is tied into linebackers Anthony Simmons and Chad Brown, defensive end Grant Wistrom and right tackle Chris Terry — four players who spent much of this season on the injury report.
Hence decision time at Seahawks headquarters as team management — general manager Bob Ferguson, president Bob Whitsitt and cap expert Jay Nienkark — sift through all these possibilities.
“Somebody has got to get paid,” Alexander said. “The thing I remember all the greats ever telling me — Tony Dorsett, Jerry Rice, Herschel Walker, Roger Craig — ‘You’re paid by the NFL.’ Now, what team you’re on depends on the people. Lucas and Chike and Robbie, Chris, Walt, Bannister, we’re not going nowhere. Now, it’s up to the Seahawks to decide who they want.
“I can tell you this: Everyone is going to be smiling in the end.”
Most Seahawks polled indicate they’d like to keep the nucleus of this team together, that this is only the beginning of a long and fruitful run six years in the making. But who knows how this offseason will shake out?
“That would be in their best interests,” Okeafor told The Times in October. “It would be a shame if this was the only year that we had to play with each other. You talk about building a dynasty — it’s definitely the kind of foundation you build on.”
That foundation will run through the tunnel onto Qwest Field on Sunday for what might — or might not — be the last time it charges out together. They will certainly be savoring these last few games.
“Of course guys talk about it every now and then,” Lucas said. “That’s not our job to figure who’s going to be here and who’s not going to be here. All that type of stuff will take care of itself. I’m not worried about that. I’m just going to let my play do the rest of the work for me.”
Greg Bishop: 206-464-3191 or firstname.lastname@example.org