BY Art Thiel 06:30AM 01/28/2019

Thiel: Seahawks and NFL’s shrinking middle class

Analysis by Associated Press shows NFL’s middle class of players continues to shrink. Not good news for a Seahawks team needing to extend Wilson, Wagner.

Earl Thomas offers his thoughts to the Seahawks bench Sept. 30 after his leg was broken during  his contract year.

Cliff Avril was in an exhibition game during his rookie season with the Detroit Lions when he realized he didn’t know his responsibility for the play just called. Before lining up, he quickly asked a veteran defensive-line teammate for help. Instead of helping, the teammate told him to do the opposite of the call.

The defense was blown up for a big gain. Coaches were yelling at Avril. He confronted his teammate about the deliberate sabotage.

“It’s not my job,” he told Avril, “to help you take my job.”

Avril shared his welcome-to-the-NFL moment with the audience as guest speaker for the recent Morris Trophy presentation at the Washington Athletic Club honoring the top linemen in the Pac-12 Conference.

The retired Seahawks star’s anecdote came to mind after reading an illuminating story by the Associated Press, which researched player-career spans.

Despite union efforts to stop the withering of the middle class of NFL players, since 2005 the average amount of playing experience for athletes on opening-day rosters shrunk from 4.6 years to 4.3.

In 2005, there were 784 players with three years’ experience or less and 714 with five or more years. In 2018, the gap widened to 852 and 644.

The basic truth of each club’s need to get younger and cheaper every year in an industry with a hard salary cap has been generally understood for a long while.

But the fresh data underscores the point that the union’s efforts in collective bargaining in 2006 and 2011 to preserve and lengthen existing members’ jobs hasn’t worked. That means when the current bargaining agreement expires after 2020, slowing the decay is likely to be a large, difficult argument.

Meantime, as illustrated by Avril, it also says that all the happy-talk camaraderie about team unity the NFL loves to propagate in order to sell jerseys and trinkets is often a veneer. Beyond a handful of stars secure in their places, there’s little benefit to a young veteran in helping out the up-and-comer.

The ruthless truth is that in an already brutal sport, the physical player vs. player competition for roster spots — a concept central to Pete Carroll’s coaching — is secondary to labor costs and age.

The decline in job longevity means that, with the notable exception of the quarterback position, the more a player survives and succeeds, the less likely he is to continue to survive and succeed.

The concept helps explain one of the most vivid scenes of the 2018 Seahawks season that ran contrary to all the yippee-skippee regarding the surprising 10-6 record good enough to make the playoffs. And it helps explain how the Legion of Boom came apart so quickly.

As longtime Seahawks hero FS Earl Thomas was carted off the field Sept. 30 in Glendale, AZ., with a leg broken in the 20-17 win over the Cardinals, he offered a middle-finger condemnation in the direction of the Seahawks bench. For all intents and purposes, it was the final field memory many fans will have of one of the greatest players in club history.

As you may recall, Thomas, 29, held out of training camp and preseason in hopes of getting an extension heading into his contract year, in which he was to earn $8.5 million. The Seahawks said no. Thomas didn’t want to miss game checks, so he returned reluctantly to play the regular season, making his holdout look foolish.

Then the worst-case scenario for Thomas came to pass: A season-ending injury ahead of free agency. Having broken a leg before, Thomas knew immediately what had gone down, and wanted to make sure coach Pete Carroll and the TV audience knew his feelings on the matter.

He also likely gestured on behalf of CB Richard Sherman, injured the previous year in a similar business circumstance, and similarly contemptuous of management decisions.

The Seahawks’ refusal to extend Thomas and Sherman was a near-direct result of extending SS Kam Chancellor, the third member of the Legion. The Seahawks took a risk in August 2017 in giving Chancellor, then 29, the increasingly rare third contract.
It blew up on them.

In November, Chancellor had what what proved to be a career-ending neck injury. Not only was the news grim for him and his teammates, Chancellor’s $6.8 million base salary was guaranteed, as is $5.2 million of his $10 million base salary in 2019.

His charge against the Seahawks’ salary cap in 2018 was nearly $10 million. Imagine how  that money might have been spent better on active personnel that could have helped a team that didn’t lose a game by more than eight points, including a two-point loss in the playoffs.

A similar problem is upon the Seahawks this off-season with LB K.J. Wright. He’s also 29 and wanting a third contract with the Seahawks, who again have said no. In 2018, he played only five games due to injuries, and made $8.2 million. So he’s going to enter free agency in March. If he gets no offers, he could come back to the Seahawks on a cheaper, one-year deal.

Wright is a typical member of the shrinking middle class that the AP analysis describes — a successful eight-year vet who has become priced out and aged out before he’s 30. Even if he were fully healthy in 2018, it’s likely the Seahawks wouldn’t have offered an extension.

All teams face similar business problems. Perhaps the worst scenario this season played out in Pittsburgh, when premier RB Le’Veon Bell sat out the entire season in futile pursuit of an extension, and coupled with star WR Antonio Brown’s pouts, created a toxicity that contributed to the Steelers losing four of their final six games and missing the playoffs.

The scary part for the Seahawks is that the problem of the shrinking middle class is likely to get worse, because the two players most deserving of third contracts, QB Russell Wilson and LB Bobby Wagner, enter their contract years in 2019.

If somehow Wilson and Wagner struck multi-year contract extensions (no franchise tags), their deals likely would suck up a big chunk of the $60 million in cap space the Seahawks have for 2019. GM John Schneider would try to spread out the financial damage of guaranteed money, but there’s limited work-arounds when a team has the two of the best at their positions in their primes.

Unless, of course, Wilson, Wagner and Carroll don’t mind running around every weekend with 40 or so kidlets. But good kidlets are harder to come by with only four draft picks.

At least Wilson and Wagner can be counted on to help everyone learn their jobs.


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YourThoughts

  • Kevin Lynch

    Thanks for helping to clarify this serious issue. Clubs cannot access capitol worth to pay player contracts. It’s an annual expense and the annual pie is only so large. We’ll see what stance the union takes this year and next, before the current contract expires. But guaranteeing contracts against injury is an area the union can open up some more money for players playing. If guarantees during DNP time were half of what they are the player is still being taken care of but there is more money back into the revenue pool. Same with capping all contracts at $20-$25 million per year. More back into the pool. Paying someone $8 million per year is one thing but if they miss half a season at a full guarantee you are then compensating $1 million per game. That’s difficult for a club to absorb and more so to then turn around and guarantee an extension.

    • art thiel

      It’s true that increasing guarantees against injury are the most urgent financial priority for the union. But to get it, the owners may press for something like what you suggest: Salary caps by position.

      My view is that improving conditions for the broader middle class creates better benefits for more union members. It would come at the cost of rookie salaries and the top 5 percent of salaries.

    • Matt712

      One of the better ideas I’ve heard is to remove injury guarantees from the cap. The players as well as the team benefits. It would take a lot of the anxiety away from resigning vets like Kam, KJ, et al. In addition, players often take out insurance policies on themselves. The NFL could easily create an insurance co-op ,making it easy for all players to have some broader financial protection against injuries.

      Bottom line: The owners should absorb the financial risk of that part of the violent sport they profit so greatly from.

      • art thiel

        A worthy way forward.

  • tor5

    Great insight, Art. Thanks! I guess what you’re saying is, as a 12, I shouldn’t get too attached to any player who isn’t a 3rd-contract-deserving, proven, durable superstar, or a cheap up-and-comer? That’s tough because I surely do get attached. I also hear that all sensible NFL players should be planning their 2nd career from the get-go. In any case, we shouldn’t have to indulge the one-finger salute on the way out. I hope Earl can appreciate that the brutal business end of things is no fun for fans either.

    • art thiel

      I’d guess I’d advise to modulate your attachment because the NFL’s business rules are set up disrupt success. The only ones so far to beat the house are the card counters in New England.

      Thomas made an impulse mistake that unnecessarily stained his legacy. Some will forgive, some won’t.

      • tor5

        I can only imagine Earl’s emotions in that moment and can easily forgive an impulse. But it’s up to Earl to label it an “impulse” or otherwise explain himself. Until then, it stands as an F-U to Hawk Nation.

        • art thiel

          A fair point. It may take years.

  • WestCoastBias79

    The Patriots dynasty is basically built on this. It’s Tom Brady and Bill, everyone else is expendable. They would have traded Gronk this year had he not gone on record saying he’d retire if they did. They’ve been punting beloved Pats back to Lawyer Milloy. A good QB on their rookie deal is the best asset you can have in the NFL right now, because it’s the only situation where you have cap room to sign free agents. Avril would not have been a Seahawk if the Lions didn’t have to pay Stafford when the Seahawks didn’t have to pay Wilson. Of the four QB’s in the conference championships, two were first ballot HOF’ers, and the other two were on rookie deals with stacked teams. That’s the current NFL economy, your QB either needs to be on their rookie deal, Nick Foles, or an HOF’er.

    • art thiel

      Well explained. The would-be GMs in the audience should try on the toughest question: When is it plausible to trade a premier QB in his early prime in order pay premium players at key starting positions?

      • WestCoastBias79

        If you’ve drafted a young stud. The Chiefs barely hesitated in moving on from Alex Smith and his contract, and arguably lost a year in the window by not starting Mahomes immediately. Smith wasn’t really in his early prime, but Andy Reid was getting a lot out of him. John Schneider was apparently huge on Mahomes (one of two GM’s to show up to his pro day) and he’d be a Seahawk had he dropped a bit. Now THAT would have been interesting times. I think the days of grooming a young guy like the Packers did with Rogers and Favre are over.

        • art thiel

          True about nearing the end of grooming. Premium athletes at QB are ready earlier, although there are still exceptions like Nick Foles.

          And yes, having Mahomes and Wilson at the same time would have made for high drama in Renton.

  • Alan Harrison

    Funny, I was JUST talking about this problem with a friend in the business not ten minutes ago. I’ve referred him to your article now. From a distance, he said that the Hawks are likely to fall into the Green Bay and Atlanta category: obscenely highly paid QB, a few other highly paid vets, and first contracts everywhere else. Good enough to just get into the playoffs (assuming certain players don’t get hurt), but not to dominate without being in a division in transition (like the Saints, but not the Hawks) or just being flat out lucky.

    • art thiel

      The biggest factor in the Seahawks Super Bowl success was assembling a premier defense while the quarterback, playing on a third-round rookie contract, grew into a dynamic leader in his second year. Doesn’t mean it can’t be done other ways, but the Seahawks can’t replicate that again until Wilson moves on.

  • Archangelo Spumoni

    The whole thing is the result of the weakness of the NFLPA, especially compared to baseball, basketball, and hockey. For an example of a strong union (association, technically), read about Marvin Miller, who led the baseball players from the darkness and flaccid weakness to a titanic force unseen elsewhere in organized labor.

    Most of this emanates from an NFL strike when Steve Largent, Mark Gastineau, Joe Montana, Randy White, Doug Flutie, et al, were sca*s and are responsible for the relative weakness of the NFLPA. (It must be noted that several of these had the least to gain by sca**ing and caused the most harm to cause to the NFL “middle class.”)

    There is enough revenue in the NFL to pay every single soul and we must keep in mind when discussing wages that Green Bay must file public disclosure paperwork each year because they are technically a stock company.
    Each team gets the same size broadcast check, and Green Bay’s last check was enough to pay 100% of player wages plus about 50% as a little bonus. This is before the first seat ticket, seat license, exhibition game ticket, shirt, jersey, bumper sticker, hat, cap, toque, parking, beer, program, other souvenir, regional broadcast contract, whatever. Ad nauseam.

    Each team got about $255M and the salary cap is $177M. Do the math.
    People are jealous of the wages that NFL players make and are blind to the short careers and damage they inflict on their bodies and are usually unaware of this simple math thing.

    • art thiel

      The NFL union’s weakness has been a sad legacy for years. But it is in a a tough spot. The last CBA included a big emphasis on player safety, which wasn’t wrong, but didn’t get them middle-class wage improvements. And in each passing year after the 2011 CBA, more information becomes known that CTE grows as a threat to long-term health.

    • 1coolguy

      Let’s remember the owners are in BUSINESS to make a profit. I don’t cry for a player making in one year what I won’t make in a lifetime – If players don’t know how to save their money, tough shxx! Playing football, as with any job, is VOLUNTARY – if they don’t like it, they can find something else to do. Very simple.

      • art thiel

        But the profitable business has agreed to collectively bargain with a union tasked with improving the welfare of its members. Everything it does is part of that negotiation. The notion of it being “voluntary” is an irrelevant consideration.

      • Archangelo Spumoni

        Ahh—the old “business to make a profit” buzzword. Somehow . . . the larger picture is more involved. The “capitalist” owners use publicly-subsidized stadia (less a handful of cases), hold a monopoly draft, severely limit free agency, limit CFL players moving to the NFL, enforce a salary cap, evenly split major broadcast revenue down to the penny, evenly split apparel revenue (with one exception), legally cut players at their whim with virtually zero financial repercussions, restrain trade by making players pretend to go to college for a few years, etc. So it’s “voluntary” except for about 8 or 12 major exceptions compared to every other form of employment.

        Whenever there is a public vote on building or subsidizing or renovating a stadium, they always trot out the jobs multiplier, but the fact remains that if a stadium was all that profitable for the owners, they would build it and keep all the revenue.

        When a player wants his market value or injury protection or long term medical coverage, he is branded a bad teammate or a communist or a socialist or a filthy union goon or greedy or unamerican or whatever. Yup. Dang greedy players.

        Good little socialists, those owners. And the taxpayers are duped into subsidizing their monopoly and vacuously repeating their socialistic old saws.

    • Wheezy

      Arch – so does this necessarily change the salary distribution “problem”? If they just make a bigger pie, does that mean that more players get a more-equal slice? Or does it just mean that Blake Bortles makes $50M/year?

      This is a wild, wacky situation. Hard to blame the players for getting what they can, wherever that might be. Tom Brady has the Giselle Factor…a spouse that is wildly wealthy herself…which (in part) allows him to play below market.

      Seems to me a local sportswriter posted an article about trading DangeRuss now, and rebooting what is arguably the NFL equation: get lucky on a rookie QB, and spend the money elsewhere. Who was that writer anyway? Hmmm…

      • art thiel

        I’ll make sure to tell him you were paying attention.

  • Husky73

    The Seahawks drafted a tremendous QB in the third round, thus underpaying him for years. The dreaded third contract is now upon them. As great as Wilson is and has been, it will soon be time to allow him to go to the Chargers and select a QB in the next two drafts.

    • art thiel

      Would you accept a Wilson extension that is tied to the end of Carroll’s contract in 2021?

      • Husky73

        I really don’t want to think about losing either of those gentlemen. May I have a different question? I’ll have the same feeling about Chris Petersen when the Notre Dame job opens up.

        • art thiel

          No choice of questions. You must answer, or no soup for you!

          • Husky73

            I’ll take the mulligatawny. And don’t forget my bread.

  • Matt Kite

    So the question is this: is Wilson great enough to build a so-so team around for the next several years?

    • art thiel

      That’s close. If the Seahawks hit on nearly all picks, they can be better than so-so.

  • Wheezy

    Let’s not forget that Tom Brady is widely known to be playing well below his market value. The GOAT made what, around $15M for 2018? New England is really lucky to have a HoF QB like Brady willing to play loose change (metaphorically speaking).

    The league’s salary structure is a result of how they’ve shaped the game. They wanted a pass-first, high-scoring product, and they’ve implemented rules to make it so. Therefore either you get lucky and find a guy that can throw the ball cheaply (rookies or Tom Brady), or you get in line with everyone else, throw $30M per year at the Kirk Cousins of the world, and cross your fingers.

    • art thiel

      Brady’s decision certainly has helped the Pats, but it has hurt the union and players by creating a precedent that puts pressure on them to “be like Brady” or be branded as selfish.

  • jafabian

    This is the problem with the professional sports business. There is such an emphasis on money that few if any within the industry can see past it. It’s sad that there are those who believe that their level of income represents their worth. What the Steelers are going through supports the saying “money is the root of all evils.” I don’t have millions of dollars. Far from it. That doesn’t make me any less of a person. Props to the Seahawks for being consistent with their payroll philosophy but also open minded. Hoping that will payoff in the next year or two with another trophy.

    Also props to KJ for being the Anti-Earl last season. Instead of holding out, pouting, being stand-offish and flipping off his employer KJ arrived at work even while injured, was professional in his demeanor, was around to help his teammates and understood that the NFL is a business. I hope as a message to players that is rewarded.

    • art thiel

      It’s worth keeping in mind that a player has a small window to make nearly all the the money he will ever make in a life that has a real chance to be ruined by CTE. But team owners are astride a money machine that will enrich themselves and their heirs for generations. I do not begrudge a player getting all he can.

      That said, Thomas’s gesture helped nothing and no one.

      • jafabian

        I don’t begrudge anyone for trying get what they can but how they go about it is an issue with me. Billy Graham once said “There is nothing wrong with men possessing riches. The wrong comes when riches possess men.”

  • DJ

    Thanks Art!
    Very interesting perspective. Everyday competition for your job while having a tight team can be a tenuous dynamic. I think that universal respect for each other and management is key to that working – and explains why previous stars with attitudes contrary to that aren’t on the Seahawks any more. While I love watching #29 any time he’s on the field, you’re right, it’s not looking at all possible for a return next season. Darn.
    Wishing for KJ to stick around, and good long term status for Russell and Bobby!

    • art thiel

      I think each outspoken star player had circumstances unique to him, and generalizing about a common theme isn’t accurate. A case can be made for departure for each for football/health/business reasons.

      • DJ

        I understand. But still, Bennett, Sherman and now potentially Thomas, all outspoken, and having negative attitudes, are gone.

        • art thiel

          They didn’t have negative attitudes. That’s too easy a generalization. They disagreed with management over money, but never once let down teammates or management with their play.

          Fans too easily buy into the naive idea that the romantic, all-for-one ideal prevails in all conditions and circumstances. Much as you may dislike it, they are 53 businessmen seeking the best situation with their employer, who has the upper hand nearly all the time.

          • DJ

            Thanks, I got it wrong. I understand the situation better now.
            Have a great evening!

  • Tman

    The unions have been crushed. Can anyone name a single lunion eader standing up vocally for his members?

    If the players had a strong union and strong union leader, there would be no salary cap, they would get residuals evertime they were featured in a highlight replay..they would share in the TV contact receipts given to owners …If they don’t already, they would have full health care benefits with full payment of contracts in.case of injury.
    They would have contracts similar to The screen actors guild when it comes to royalties and payments protecting players in their retirement years.

    This may mean a strike,, but these inequities need to be resolved.. There is no way there should be a restriction on player incomes when there is no restriction on owner incomes.

    • art thiel

      Strong leadership would help, but there has to be a constituency willing to back him with a commitment to strike against a monopoly operation. That’s a hard pull.

      That’s what happened in 1981. The league hired replacement players, and enough fans showed up that the union’s leverage broke.

      By 2020, I’m skeptical that most players would actually strike. Possible; it depends on the issues. But I don’t think fans can get past the idea of millionaire players striking, no matter how legit the grievances.