Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Monday Night Crystal Ball

With a quarter of the NFL season already in the books, it's fairly safe to say that this will be an interesting year.  The lone unbeaten teams are perennial disappointments (Bengals, Cardinals) and we've been underwhelmed by teams that were supposed to challenge us for the Lombardi (Saints, Patriots).

The NFL is set up beautifully, allowing for teams in the cellar to climb their way out if they make the right moves in the draft and free agency.  The NFL doesn't have it's version of the Yankees and Red Sox because teams cannot buy a winning roster. You have to find the right coaching staff, the right players and keep it all together under the salary cap.  This gives every fan base hope at the beginning of each season that it could be their year-- unless you're a Raiders fan.

The one team that has managed to remain dominant in the salary cap era is the New England Patriots.  Since Bill Belichick took the reins from Pete Carroll in 2000, the Patriots have amassed an astonishing 165-63 record.  Only two of those seasons saw Belichick & company finish with less than 10 wins-- his inaugural season (5-11) and 2002 (9-7).  That's incredible.

What has made and kept the Patriots atop the NFL food chain for the past 14 years? They've had a lot of great players in that time.  They've had great coaching staffs that have moved on to teams of their own.  Still, with all of that, there's only 2 constants over that period: quarterback Tom Brady and head coach Bill Belichick.

When it comes to two of the most important components of an NFL team, the Patriots have had two of the all-time greats for almost 15 years. Sure, they've had some great supporting casts around them over the years, but as great players have come and gone-- Belichick, Brady and success have always been there.

Seattle seems to be on the right path.  They've got their coach in Pete Carroll.  A proven winner just beginning his dynasty with Seattle.   They've got their quarterback in Russell Wilson-- who, like Brady, began his career as a late draft pick that found success almost immediately. The immediate future looks incredibly bright for our Seahawks.

However, after watching last nights match up of the Patriots and Chiefs, the distant future has me a little concerned.

Here's the dilemma: Tom Brady is still a great quarterback, but he is old.  He's not quite as great as he once was.  As he ages, his cap hit tends to increase.  While Brady is irrefutably deserving to be among the highest paid players in the league, tying up so much of your team's salary cap to one player makes it difficult to field a solid team from top to bottom. This has forced the Patriots to rely on a bevy of young, unproven players to fill a lot of the holes left in their roster by players that have earned a big contract through consecutive years of success.

Clearly, this hasn't seemed to have affected the Patriots much over the past nearly 15 years, but it looks as though the balance of experience and inexperience is wearing on them.  It was on full display Monday night.

This got me to thinking:  what if I'm looking at the future of the Seahawks?  We all know that when Russell Wilson's contract comes due-- he's getting paid.  Likely top-3-in-the-league-type money.  With Sherman, Chancellor, Thomas, Lynch, Wagner and more either earning or coming up on a big payday, you have to wonder at what point to we begin to see the band break up.

At some point, to some degree, it will inevitably happen.  The Seahawks built an incredibly skilled, young team and were very fortunate to have it all come together so quickly. However, as rookie contracts begin to expire, the pool of funds known as the salary cap begins to rapidly dry up.

Given that the quarterback is the most important position on the field, one would think that Wilson will probably be the last chip to fall. Will he be able to carry a team like Brady when/if the talent pool isn't so rich? Will the Seahawks find themselves in the position the Patriots are currently in?

I think we're safe, 12s.

After all-- how did we get here in the first place?  If you look back at the key ingredient in the Seahawks transition from a 5 win team to Super Bowl champions, you'll plainly see that it was Pete Carroll and John Schneider's remarkable ability to find diamond-in-the-rough talent in the late rounds of the draft and through free agency.

This was no fluke.  They didn't simply stumble into drafting Russell Wilson in the 3rd round.  It wasn't just the draft day acquisition of Marshawn Lynch for merely a 5th round pick.  It wasn't the Sherman's, Chancellor's and Maxwell's found in the late rounds or the home run early round selections of Thomas, Okung or Wagner.  It's all of it.

As long as we retain the services of Pete & John, this team will always be competitive.  The dynasty won't end when we cut Lynch to preserve cap space or when we have to trade a beloved commodity like Earl Thomas in his later years because we can't pay him what he's worth.  No, this dynasty will sparkle and fade the day the dynamic duo of Carroll and Schneider eventually part ways.

That will be a sad day, indeed.  Here's hoping that the trophy shelf is well-decorated before that day comes.

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