BY Steve Rudman 06:30AM 08/05/2015

Seahawks’ new policy: All superstars all the time

The Seahawks have assembled an all-star team good enough for more Super Bowl runs. But their commitment to 11 players will come at a cost difficult to manage.

Seahawks GM John Schneider and coach Pete Carroll have created a superstar roster. / Drew McKenzie, Sportspress Northwest

With the Seahawks having secured long-term over the past two years all of their core players  — S Earl Thomas, CB Richard Sherman, DT Michael Bennett, S Kam Chancellor, DT Cliff Avril, RB Marshawn Lynch, LBs Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright, and QB Russell Wilson – as well as acquiring from New Orleans TE Jimmy Graham, they have extended their Super Bowl window for at least another three years.

That’s a ridiculously gifted central cast – all but Avril and Wright have been Pro Bowl selections — and about as big a window as team can possibly get in an NFL whose free agency rules are designed to prevent such stockpiling. “Hoarding” might be a better description.

Those rules took effect in the 1994 collective bargaining agreement that transformed player movement. Since then, free agents have been far more inclined to follow the money than plant roots even with franchises enjoying ideal situations.

In Seattle, that has accounted for the defections of T Breno Giacomini, WR Golden Tate, G Paul McQuistan, DT Clint McDonald, CB Walter Thurmond, G James Carpenter and CB Byron Maxwell, among others, from Super Bowl teams, and Super Bowl teams showing no signs of decline.

Due to GM John Schneider’s astute roster construction, the Seahawks are co-favorites, along with the Green Bay Packers, to make Super Bowl 50. A Seahawks trifecta would not be unprecedented, but certainly rare.

Since the Buffalo Bills reached four consecutive Super Bowls (1990-93), only four franchises playing under current free-agent rules have appeared in back-to-back title games, the Packers (1996-97), Denver Broncos (1997-98), New England Patriots (2003-04), and the last two editions of the Seahawks.

Of the four, the Broncos and Patriots repeated as champions, Green Bay and Seattle split. Due to injuries, free agency, attrition, complacency, coaching defections and bad luck, none of the first three came close to returning to the Super Bowl for a third consecutive season.

1998 Green Bay Packers

Green Bay won Super Bowl XXI (following the 1996 season), lost XXII, and entered 1998 with 29-year-old Brett Favre in his prime. But the Packers sustained multiple injuries, including the loss of Pro Bowl running back Dorsey Levens for nine games and center Frank Winters for the stretch run and postseason.

Green Bay started 4-0, lost three of its next five by a combined 18 points and finished second in the NFC Central at 11-5. The Packers couldn’t get past the wild card game at San Francisco, losing 30-27 on a 25-yard touchdown pass from Steve Young to Terrell Owens with three seconds left. Head coach Mike Holmgren resigned after the season to join the Seahawks.

1999 Denver Broncos

No one expected the Broncos to make a third title run with John Elway having retired. But neither did anyone expect the Broncos, behind replacement QB Brian Griese, to lose their first four. Two other factors doomed a third consecutive Super Bowl appearance. The Broncos lost star running back Terrell Davis in Week 4 and couldn’t overcome their schedule. The Broncos went from playing the third-easiest slate in Elway’s final year to playing the hardest. They finished 6-10.

2005 New England Patriots

The defending Super Bowl champions lost both coordinators following the 2004 season, OC Charlie Weis to Notre Dame and DC Romeo Crennel to the Cleveland Browns as head coach. The Patriots lost only one full-time starter in free agency (G Joe Andruzzi), but released in salary-cap moves Pro Bower Ty Law and veteran linebacker Roman Phifer, who had started on three Super Bowl teams. NT Keith Taylor also was cut, LB Ted Johnson retired and LB Teddy Bruschi missed significant time after suffering a stroke.

In Week 3, safety Rodney Harrison suffered a season-ending injury. The Patriots did not find adequate replacements. Injuries forced the Patriots to start 45 different players at one point, a record for a division champion. New England started 4-4 and needed a 5-1 run to finish 10-6. The Patriots slipped past Jacksonville in the wild card round, but failed to overcome five turnovers and lost to Denver 27-13 in the divisional playoffs.

According to a number of projections, including this one by USA Today, the Seahawks will come closer than the 1998 Packers, 1999 Broncos and 2004 Patriots — but won’t quite get there. The site ran all 258 regular-season games through computer projections and forecasts the Seahawks will finish 12-4, win the NFC West and defeat Minnesota in the divisional round, but lose to the Packers in the NFC Championship.

Star power

With the signings of Wilson and Wagner to deals valued at $87.6 and $43 million, respectively, the Seahawks have committed $113.6 million in average annual salaries to 11 players, starting with Wilson’s compensation of $21.9 million per season. Thus, 11 players will earn a whopping 80 percent of Seattle’s payroll, by far the highest percentage in the league.

The elite 11: Wilson, $21.9 million; Sherman, $14 million; Lynch, $12 million; Wagner, $10.7 million; Graham, $10 million; Thomas, $10 million; Russell Okung, $8.1 million; Avril, $7.1 million; Chancellor, $7 million; Wright, $6.7 million; Cary Williams, $6 million.

Teams paying the most money to the most expensive 11 players on their rosters, according to spotrac.com figures:

Team Cost/ Top 11 Top Average Annual Saires (in millions)
Seahawks $113.6 million QB Russell Wilson $21.9, CB Richard Sherman $14.0
Packers $101.9 million QB Aaron Rodgers $22.0, LB Clay Matthews $13.2
Dolphins $99.1 million QB Ryan Tannehill $19.2, DT Ndamukong Suh, $19.1
Cowboys $96.2 million QB Tony Romo $18.0, WR Dez Bryant $14.0
Broncos $95.2 million QB Peyton Manning $17.0, WR Demaryius Thomas $14.0
Cardinals $92.4 million QB Carson Palmer $16.5, CB Patrick Peterson, $14.0
49ers $72.1 million QB Colin Kaepernick $19.0, OLB Aldon Smith $9.7
Falcons $70.6 million QB Matt Ryan $20.7, DT Paul Solial $6.4
Colts $66.6 million OLB Robert Mathis $9.0, CB Vontae Davis $9.0
Patriots $66.3 million S Devin McCourty, $9.5, QB Tom Brady, $9.0

For the foreseeable future, the Seahawks will have $12 million dollars less per year to spend on the balance of their roster than any team in the league (put another way, the Patriots will have $47.3 more million to spend). As the Seahawks have demonstrated under Schneider, it’s possible to sign three Pro Bowlers for $12 million. And, a deep roster is why the Seahawks have become an NFL elite.

Such a top-heavy salary structure will prevent the Seahawks from re-signing the best of their second-tier players, a fact that has already played out with the release of Tony McDaniel, jettisoned in a salary-cap move after Wagner signed. Within a year, LB Bruce Irvin, OT Russell Okung, OL J.R. Sweezy and others will be on the bubble. And by early next year, the Seahawks may have to choose between Lynch and Graham.

Schneider has done genius work in constructing a team that has been Super Bowl-relevant for three consecutive seasons and is set up for a new three-year run. He’s got a roster loaded with superstars. But now he must continue to draft and, with Carroll, develop players to a greater extent than any other franchise in order to maximize the value of cheap rookie contracts, as they did with Wilson the past three years.

This is a difficult problem. Given that the Seahawks should be relevant through the duration of Wilson’s deal, it’s also a great problem to have.


YourThoughts

  • jafabian

    The teams the Hawks need to watch out for are in the NFC. The Steelers and Ravens could be the Hawks opponent but I don’t see them being able to get past the Hawks defense. I noticed that the Titans lost Foster to injury for at least half the season and won’t go after Ray Rice. Would Schneider dangle Michael in front of them for a potential trade?

    • art thiel

      Not sure what that has to do with Steve’s story, but I expect the Seahawks understand there are 16 watch-outs.

  • Eric K

    Given that RB ages are like dog years Lynch is very likely done after this year.

    I think more than cap issues the biggest question will be what is the Hawks offense with a new RB

    • art thiel

      How ’bout we play 2015 first?