Six years into the John Schneider and Pete Carroll era, the Seahawks are on the verge of dynasty. But how wide is their window? With one of the NFL's youngest rosters, and a successful strategy of locking down their stars early, the Seahawks are built to win and built to last.
It only makes sense that a coach who feels his glass is always at least half full would consider the window to still be wide open.
“These guys are still young guys,’’ coach Pete Carroll said during training camp, a trace of incredulity creeping into his voice as he answered a question about whether the Seahawks’ window of opportunity is as large as it was in that heady summer of 2013 before the team won its first Super Bowl.
The guys he was referring to are the core players around whom Carroll has built the Seahawks, guys such as quarterback Russell Wilson, safety Earl Thomas and cornerback Richard Sherman — all home grown, none older than 27, all in the past year-and-a-half signed to hefty contract extensions keeping them with the team at least another three seasons.
“These guys have got a lot of years left,’’ Carroll said. “They are old in our program relative to their rookie seasons and all that. But they are still just fourth- and fifth-year guys, you know?’’
In fact, the Seahawks last season were the third-youngest team in the NFL in terms of average age based on total snap counts, according to FootballOutsiders.com.
Fleeting success for others
Still, fortunes can change rapidly in the NFL. It was in that same summer of 2013 that the 49ers were coming off a last-play defeat in the Super Bowl and were regarded by many as having the NFL’s most talented roster.
Now, the 49ers are without coach Jim Harbaugh and are almost a consensus choice to finish last in the NFC West, proof of how fleeting NFL success can be.
It’s a fate the Seahawks have worked to avoid since Carroll and general manager John Schneider arrived in January 2010, Carroll hoping to make Win Forever not just a book title but a working philosophy.
Schneider often has said the goal was to build a team that could be competitive for the long haul and not, to use one of his favorite phrases, “a team that cruises in for a year and then cruises out.’’
Keeping their stars
Attempting to accomplish that has come in phases.
First came the most obvious part — acquiring talented players — which the Seahawks did largely through the draft. The classes of 2010, 2011 and 2012 are among the best in Seahawks history, already leading them to one Super Bowl title and to within a yard of another.
Then came the task of identifying the select few most critical to the success and keeping them, which the Seahawks hope will keep them on the doorstep of Super Bowls for years.
That has not come cheap, easy or without complication, as the summerlong soap opera revolving around Wilson’s contract extension and strong safety Kam Chancellor’s holdout have illustrated.
But as the Seahawks enter the 2015 season, they have six players — Wilson, Sherman, Thomas, tight end Jimmy Graham, running back Marshawn Lynch and middle linebacker Bobby Wagner — rated by Pro Football Weekly as among the top 50 players in the NFL.
After a flurry of activity the past two offseasons, each player is under contract through at least the 2017 season and makes $10 million or more per season.
Here is a list of significant Seahawks who can be unrestricted free agents at the end of the 2015 season:
• LT Russell Okung
• DT Brandon Mebane
• LB Bruce Irvin
• P Jon Ryan
• OL J.R. Sweezy
• DT Ahtyba Rubin
• RB Robert Turbin
• WR Jermaine Kearse
No other team in the NFL has more than five players making $10 million per season (Dallas) with no one else having more than four.
Salary-cap trouble ahead?
The Seahawks also have five other players making at least $6.75 million per year or more, and all but one of those, left tackle Russell Okung, are signed for at least three more years.
Put another way, the Seahawks have more money tied up in their top 11 players — $113.6 million this season on a per-year average salary basis — than any other team in the NFL, according to OvertheCap.com.
That’s roughly 80 percent of the total salary cap of $143.28 million. Pro-rating of bonuses and other maneuvers mean the salary-cap hit of those 11 contracts this year is only about $80 million. Still, that’s 56 percent of the salary cap tied up in 11 players with the rest of the salary cap used for the remainder of the active roster of 53 players.
Jason Fitzgerald of OvertheCap.com recently dubbed the Seahawks’ philosophy the “Superstar Strategy’’ and wrote that “Seattle should make for a very interesting case study moving forward in the approach to roster building in the NFL. Many people feel they are destined for salary-cap trouble.’’
It’s a plan that banks on continued standout play from an elite group and then filling in much of the rest of the roster with young, cheap talent. Some around the league wonder if the Seahawks will be able to maintain that plan.
“The risk is if you don’t continue to draft well, it really puts a lot of stress on that whole model,’’ said former NFL agent Joel Corry, who writes about salary-cap issues for CBSSports.com. Corry also notes that tying up so much money in a few players makes it more difficult to sign middle-tier free agents for optimum depth.
“The days of doing like what they did in 2013 and getting Michael Bennett (for one year, $5 million) and Cliff Avril (two years, $12 million) are probably gone,’’ Corry said. “You’ll see more guys sign veteran-minimum-type deals where the team gets the cap break.’’
Some analysts, though, note that many of the Seahawks’ deals are backloaded and that the team could easily get out of them in later years for cap relief and roster flexibility.
A time-tested strategy
History shows that superstars are the way to go in building a dynasty.
The Seahawks this year are attempting to become the third NFL team to reach three consecutive Super Bowls and the fourth to win three consecutive conference titles, joining the 1965-67 Green Bay Packers, the 1971-73 Miami Dolphins and the 1990-93 Buffalo Bills.
Those teams, and others that would be included in any list of NFL dynasties such as the 1970s Steelers, the 1980s 49ers and the 1990s Cowboys, were littered with Hall-of-Famers.
Back in the days of 40-man rosters, the Vince Lombardi-era Packers had a whopping nine Hall-of-Famers. The Chuck Noll Steelers had eight who each played in every one of the four Super Bowls the team captured in a six-year span. The 1980s 49ers had eight and the ’70s Dolphins six.
But because there wasn’t a salary cap then, it wasn’t a strategy so much as what simply made sense — to find the best players possible and keep them on your roster as long as you could.
Carroll said that always was the plan when he took over the Seahawks.
“We came in with the thought of trying to find a core of guys that we could really believe in and build off of that, and it just came to life,’’ Carroll said.
Sticking to the plan
Though much has been written about the bevy of roster moves Carroll and Schneider made their first year running the Seahawks, they mostly built their core the same way every dynasty did — through the draft.
Only two of the elite 11 — Lynch and Graham — were acquired via trade, with seven initially drafted by the Seahawks (Bennett and Avril signed as free agents).
Carroll often has told the story of a team meeting late in the 2011 season when he looked out at a group that included a young Thomas, Chancellor, Sherman, Okung and Lynch and said, “We think it’s here. We think we see what we came to find.”
Said Carroll during training camp this year: “We have to add to it constantly. It’s a dynamic process that is changing all the time. But still, it’s what we’ve tried to do. And that’s why we’ve been so committed and why John has been so darn consistent about maintaining the process of if. And he’s given us a chance, you know?’’
One key component of the Seahawks’ strategy has been getting the players they considered most critical signed to extensions early, often a year before they could reach free agency. None of their top 11 highest-paid players has become an unrestricted free agent while with the Seahawks.
Another has been largely staying out of free agency the past two seasons, saving money for their players.
Both are longtime characteristics of the Packers, where Schneider worked for eight years before coming to Seattle. It’s no surprise Green Bay is second, behind Seattle, in the amount of money it has committed to its top 11 players, $96 million.
One sticking point
Getting players signed early, though, has created a new complication for the Seahawks. Some players have felt they outplayed their contracts — particularly with the cap rising each season — and have wanted a new deal. That’s what has led to Chancellor’s holdout and to the threats this offseason by Bennett to also hold out.
“That’s a big challenge,’’ Carroll said of Chancellor’s holdout and trying to keep players happy through the duration of their contracts. “But each guy is a unique situation that we have to work with.’’
Another challenge is continuing to fit in the pieces around the elite talent. Though the Seahawks’ drafts of 2010-12 produced four players who were named either All-Pro or to the Pro Bowl within their first two years, the classes of 2013 and 2014 have looked like more of a mixed bag. Consider that the 2010-12 drafts yielded nine full-time starters, and the 2013-14 drafts have produced just one full-time starter — offensive lineman Justin Britt.
For the coach who talks about winning forever, though, the future is now.
“I couldn’t be more excited for the challenge of winning and coming back again and going again,’’ he said. “How hard could it be? We’re going to find out. Sticking with the philosophy and the approach, though. We’re not changing. We have our beliefs and we’re going to bring them to the front and see if they can stand the test, and if we do we’ll be stronger and tougher than ever.’’