NFL Free Agency: Dreams of Difference-Makers, Settling for JAGs

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Best news in the NFL’s annual free agency period for Seahawks fans? Aaron Donald retired.

No opponent caused more hell for the Seahawks than the Rams’ leviathan defensive tackle, who announced Friday he was done after 10 years, all with the same franchise. The three-time NFL Defensive Player of Year almost single-handedly changed some of Seattle’s seasonal outcomes. Were it not for him, Pete Carroll might still be coaching here.

Although it’s tempting to say Russell Wilson might still be playing quarterback here, that’s not true. Wilson played his way out of town in part because the coaches realized ahead of him that he was losing his elusiveness, a critical virtue that bought a too-short QB time to launch his impeccable rainbows. A meme invented by spectacle-thirsty Seahawks fans demanded #LetRussCook. But in fact, wear, tear and age were cooking him.

Speaking of teardowns, guess who broke the middle finger of Wilson’s throwing hand in the middle of the 2021 season? Donald. Wilson’s throwing motion slammed the hand into the immediate menace of the big man. That moment turned the game into the first of six defeats in the next seven, including the initial three games of Wilson’s career lost to injury. The Seahawks finished 7-10.

The year before that, the Seahawks rolled through the first covid season 12-4, only to be smoked at home in a wild-card playoff game against the Rams, 30-20. One of the worst games of Wilson’s career (11 of 27 for 174 yards) was punctuated early by one of his worst throws, a 42-yard pick-six by Rams CB Darius Williams. Anticipating a quick Seattle throw in the flat to avert a Donald charge, Williams saw the pass coming nearly the day before. Donald, who had two sacks and three hits on Wilson, could be heard bellowing in the pandemic-emptied stadium, “Where are you, 3? I wanna talk to you!”

So when the Seahawks shocked the NFL in early 2022 by trading Wilson to the Denver Broncos, my first thought was, “Well, Russ finally escaped from Donald.”

But Donald wasn’t done with the Seahawks. On Nov. 19 in Los Angeles, the Seahawks lost to the Rams 17-16, thanks mostly to a Donald smash upon the throwing elbow of QB Geno Smith, Wilson’s successor. Smith had to give way to backup QB Drew Lock in the third quarter. But by icing the injury and working his elbow on the sideline, Smith pressured Carroll into a return, and the harried coach relented. Neither QB mustered much offense, and a game-winning, last-minute field goal attempt from 55 yards went awry. A fading Donald played nearly the entire game and registered no stats, but his hit on Smith as he released a pass was the game’s most fateful play. Instead of the 9-8 seasonal finish, a win in LA would have given the Seahawks a 10-7 record and a playoff berth, likely fireproofing Carroll for another year.

Yes, fans every year can play the if-then game with their teams’ results. But the recounting of Donald’s formidable presence as a decade-long nightmare for Seattle serves to underscore in this free agent period the virtue and value of the transcendent player. All team sports have such players, but the NFL’s parity dictated by a salary cap makes acute their values. The history is recounted here because after the back-to-back Super Bowl appearances, the Seahawks’ supply has dwindled.

Because most transcendent talents get signed to second and third contracts by their original teams, they often don’t reach free agency. So in large part, free agency is a grand shuffling of players among teams with the pivot points being salaries and age. Breakouts and busts always happen, but in general during this period we are seeing a swapping of JAGs (Just A Guy).

Solid players, yes, and most every team puts 18 to 20 of them in the starting lineup. But as the most familiar example, the Seahawks’ Super Bowl team had several difference-makers: Richard Sherman, Kam Chancellor, Earl Thomas, Marshawn Lynch and two youngsters on the cusp, Wilson and Bobby Wagner. Seattle fans have seen over the subsequent decade that such a volume has been hard to replicate. As the franchise’s ultimate decider over that time, accountability for the decline rested with Carroll.

Steelers coach Mike Tomlin is now the longest tenured coach in the same NFL job. Each of his 17 years has produced a winning record, a remarkable, salutary stretch of consistency. But the past seven seasons have had no playoff victories. So what does he do this week to break from mediocrity? He hires Wilson, 35 and in decline, for one year, quitting on Kenny Pickett, a quarterback taken with the 22nd pick of the first round of the 2022 draft, by trading him to Philadelphia for magic beans.

There are no genius people in the NFL, only the pairings of Bill Belichick with Tom Brady and Andy Reid with Patrick Mahomes.

When the Seahawks were at their Super Bowl apex, I wrote that Seattle had close to the ideal axis for modern pro football success: Owner Paul Allen, and Carroll and Wilson. I described Allen as a nearly perfect owner, because he had wealth four times more than the next richest owner, and he didn’t care enough about football to butt into the operations of the guys he picked to run it (he really cared about pro basketball, and it showed with the decades-long hot mess in Portland with the Trail Blazers).

Allen died in 2018, Wilson was traded in 2022 and Carroll was fired after the 2023 season. Now the Seahawks have as owner Jody Allen, a caretaker of her brother’s asset who has not offered in person a single public conversation about her approach to stewardship; a head coach in Mike Macdonald who has never been a head coach at any level; an offensive coordinator in Ryan Grubb who has never played or coached in the NFL, and in English native Aden Durde a defensive coordinator who has never been an NFL coordinator.

Holding together this curious amalgam is the lone retained football executive, John Schneider, who came in with Carroll as his hand-picked general manager in 2010. Schneider is rightly credited with the felony-grade swindle of the Broncos in the Wilson trade. But he also gets debited in recent years for squandering high draft picks on players such as Chrstine Michael, Paul Richardson, Malik McDowell, Germain Ifedi, L.J. Collier and Dee Eskridge. He and Carroll also agreed to toss away two first-round picks in a trade for Jamal Adams. Not only was the deal dubious, it was compounded with a contract extension that made him the game’s highest-paid safety. Bad health luck along with a bad attitude contributed to his early release this month, but the malady lingers on for two years in the form of dead money against the salary cap that limits the Seahawks’ aggression in the free agent market.

Back-filling for injuries and weak personnel judgments are part of every NFL team’s history. As that pertains to the Seahawks in the first week or so of free agency, Schneider et al seem to have replaced most of the roster losses with relative equivalencies. Since none of the newbies are transcendent, the club must wait until the draft in late April, where the first-round pick is 16th. The new group needs to find a game-rocker to add to the two on the roster: Second-year CB Devon Witherspoon, 23, and 10th-year DL Leonard Williams, 30 in the fall, their own free agent who was re-signed to the largest such deal in club history at $64.5 million over three years. DK Metcalf? Not yet.

For the new regime at the moment, it has a locker room that elicits minimal fear in opponents. Modest solace can be taken, however, that the NFC West world is just a bit less cruel.

Art Thiel
Art Thiel
Art Thiel is a longtime sports columnist in Seattle, for many years at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, and now as founding editor at SportsPressNW.com.

3 COMMENTS

  1. Jody Allen HAS spoken – she fired PC for his abject incompetence. Let’s remember that PC had final authority on all personnel decisions and was most likely the sole architect behind the dubious trades they made – Sheldon Richardson, Leonard William, and as you stated the whole Jamaal Adams situation. and JA’s resigning to an egregious contract. He made no attempt to find a QBOTF following the RW trade (last year’s draft seemed like the perfect opportunity). PC’s short-sided behavior means Seahawks will be limited again in their search for “transcendent talent” in upcoming draft. There’s a lot of “PC damage” to be undone before they can turn the page fully.

    • Of course, finding a QB of the future is a crapshoot; if it were easier, the Browns would have more Super Bowls than the Patriots by now. You’re as likely to get a Ryan Leaf as you are a Peyton Manning.

      Sometimes, you find your QBOTF unwittingly; Matt Flynn was the heralded QB signing for the Seahawks the year they drafted Wilson, and if Drew Bledsoe never gets injured in the 2001 season, Tom Brady may have ended up a career backup.

  2. As I wrote in an earlier column, no one saw any daylight between Carroll and Schneider regarding accountability for personnel decisions. But since Carroll had final say, his box gets checked for bad and good. And Jody Allen issues a few statements but never has taken a question publicly about the Seahawks. With this sort of industrial-strength opaqueness, I see a future in politics for her.

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