RENTON, Wash. – It can't be real – can it? Why would you pay a guy all that money and not play him?
Those were the words of a prominent NFL quarterback assessing the Seattle Seahawks' three-way competition at football's most important position, a training camp battle being waged despite the three-year, $26 million contract the franchise shelled out to land free-agent passer Matt Flynn last March. And while similar questions have crossed the minds of numerous observers at 'Hawks camp, where Flynn is splitting reps with 2011 starter Tarvaris Jackson and 2012 third-round draft pick Russell Wilson, coach Pete Carroll wouldn't have it any other way.
"That's for the guys who think that everything goes the way the writers think," Carroll said Thursday afternoon, referring to the perception that Flynn, Aaron Rodgers' former backup in Green Bay, stands to win the starting job because of the team's substantial financial investment. "I don't believe in that at all. If anything I would fight to go the other way because I don't want to ever fall into that. So we don't."
It would be one thing if this were just the staged brainchild of a coach intent on proving a point about competition. Carroll, however, seems to be legitimately assessing his options, with an open mind and a smitten heart. In a metaphorical sense, the 60-year-old coach has googly eyes for Wilson, the former Wisconsin star whose presence, poise and aptitude have captivated the locker room.
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Would Carroll be crazy enough to pass over Flynn, whose contract includes $10 million in guaranteed cash, and Jackson, who has the strongest grasp of offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell's scheme, and hand the ball to a 5-foot-11 rookie who 13 ½ months ago was a struggling Single-A outfielder clinging to his football dream?
"Call it like you want," Carroll says. "We're pioneering our way on this one, and we'll find out."
If the Seahawks' offense struggles in 2012, Carroll's critics will have plenty of ammunition. Flynn, who became a hot commodity after setting single-game Packers records for touchdown passes (six) and yards (480) in a regular-season finale victory against the Detroit Lions, has only two career starts and is learning a new offense. In theory, he could use 110 percent of the reps in practice. Yet thus far, while most of the league's presumptive starting quarterbacks are diving headfirst into their preseason preparations, Flynn is comparatively passive, the football equivalent of an Olympic swimmer whose feet are Superglued to the starting blocks.
As the beneficiary of fewer than a third of the reps (fourth-stringer Josh Portis also gets a few plays here and there), a potentially shaky receiving corps which includes banged-up veterans Braylon Edwards and Antonio Bryant and no clear-cut signals from his superiors enabling him to take charge of the locker room, Flynn isn't in an optimal position for success.
If, that is, he gets a chance to be the team's starter in the first place, something Carroll insists is no sure thing.
Might Flynn face a fate similar to that of Charlie Whitehurst, the former San Diego Chargers backup for whom the Seahawks traded shortly after Carroll and general manager John Schneider arrived in Seattle two years ago? The team gave Whitehurst, now back in San Diego after an underwhelming stint in the Pacific Northwest, a two-year, $8 million contract that in retrospect looks like a major mistake.
If Flynn ends up sitting in favor of Wilson or Jackson, just as Whitehurst languished as the backup to veteran Matt Hasselbeck in 2010 and to Jackson (who got a two-year, $8 million deal in free agency a year ago) last season, Seahawks owner Paul Allen may begin to wonder what's up with all the signing bonuses.
Carroll, however, doesn't sound concerned. To him, putting the best quarterback on the field is the only bottom line that counts.
"That's the cost of free agency, is how I see it," Carroll says of Flynn's contract. "And we're fine about that. And Matt knows that, too. He knew right from the get-go. It doesn't matter how much you're getting paid. You've gotta come in here and battle for the job."
That Flynn is still in a battle seems less an indication that Carroll and Schneider have lost faith in him than it is a testament to their collective excitement over Wilson.
Though Wilson's relatively small stature may have scared away some teams, Schneider coveted him throughout the draft process. When Seattle selected Wilson with the 75th overall pick, Schneider learned he wasn't the only NFL executive who felt that way about the ex-Badgers passer. "As soon as I drafted him," Schneider recalled Thursday, "I got calls and texts from other people around the league [to the effect of], 'You [expletive].' Because nobody was talking about him."
Shortly after his arrival in Seattle, Wilson was the talk of the training facility.
"John loved him before the draft," Carroll says of Wilson. "As I started watching him and realized what kind of player he is, I fell in love with him too. We both were willing to evaluate the player and not what people would think about the pick.
"He's really a complete player. Really bright, he's got great stature about him, how to be 'The Quarterback.' He has fantastic study habits and just makeup to be a diligent preparation guy. He's got great feet, great sense and spatial awareness. He's extremely quick as an athlete. "The thing that I really cherish in guys is when they're natural athletes and everything comes easy to them. He can do anything. He's got great hand-eye coordination he's got great arm versatility. He can do all kinds of things with the football. He just happens to be a little shorter than some other guys."
The word that comes up frequently when assessing Wilson's appeal is presence. He carries himself with confidence and charisma that belies his lack of pro experience and isn't shy about asserting himself. Shortly after the draft Carroll slipped into the team's indoor practice facility to observe a private throwing session involving Wilson and some of the Seahawks' veteran receivers, including former Vikings Pro Bowl wideout Sidney Rice.
"[Wilson] controlled the whole thing," Carroll recalls. "He told them, 'This route, that route … I'm throwing to your outside shoulder … I'm gonna put a little air under this ball.' Sidney, that's our big-shot receiver, and he listened to everything [Wilson] said.
"He wasn't a jerk about it or arrogant, he was just being the quarterback. That was a really clear indicator that he's not gonna – I don't want to say shrink – but he's gonna stand up to the situation, because he knows what it is to be the quarterback and what that role is all about. I thought that was really impressive. He took command of it, just like the QB should. He wasn't thinking that he was too young to do it or that he was a rookie. I see them respond to him very seriously. He's got a presence about him."
Later in the spring, during OTAs, Wilson threw a touchdown on a corner route to veteran tight end Kellen Winslow, who'd recently been acquired in a trade with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. As Winslow jogged back toward his offensive teammates, Wilson, according to a witness, told him, "If you run that route the same way every time, I'll put it right there for you." When Winslow appeared disinterested, Wilson repeated the statement, this time loudly enough to get everyone's attention. Said the witness: "He definitely didn't seem like a rookie."
Wilson's assertiveness paid off last summer when he arrived in Madison for a final season of college football. Wilson, who'd played for North Carolina State from 2008-10, appeared headed for a career in baseball after the Colorado Rockies took him in the fourth round of the 2010 draft. However, he changed his mind after a shaky minor-league stint and, having graduated from N.C. State (and thus not required to sit out a season upon transferring), arrived in Wisconsin last summer.
"I got there July 1 and I called a team meeting with just the players on July 7," Wilson recalled Thursday. "And I just told the guys about my background, where I was from, about my family, about my dad passing away [the day after Wilson was drafted by the Rockies], about me playing baseball and why I wanted to continue to play football and why I came to Wisconsin.
"I told them that my goal was to do whatever it took to win. Just compete every single day, get every single guy better in the huddle, get the defense better, get myself better. And I told 'em we're not just competing against ourselves, we're competing against every single team in the country. That we'd have to bring it every single day; we'd have to have that mentality. And I told 'em if I wasn't doing my part, I want you guys to let me know about it. If you're not doing your part, I'm gonna let you know. So the communication just started off right away, and it just took off from there."
Wilson made noise on the field, putting up ridiculous numbers – he completed 72.8 percent of his passes, threw 33 touchdowns and was intercepted only four times – while leading the Badgers to a Big Ten title and Rose Bowl berth. That's one of the many reasons Carroll believes the kid is capable of stepping in and succeeding as a rookie starter.
Long after Thursday's practice, Carroll marveled at a play Wilson had made during a red-zone drill: Pressured by the pass rush and flushed to his left, Wilson whistled the ball past a stunned linebacker and into the waiting hands of rookie wideout Lavasier Tuinei. Said Carroll: "It was like, 'Where did that come from?' It was a really cool play. We drafted a really savvy, instinctive kid, and it shows up in many ways."
[Yahoo! Sports Radio: Doug Farrar on Russell Wilson's upside]
A few minutes later, Carroll conceded that Wilson, because of his inexperience, is "up against it. It's a race against time for him. It's as hard as it can get. It isn't a situation where you can hand him the job and now he gets every single rep."
Given that the quarterback competition isn't likely to extend through the preseason – Carroll, Schneider and Bevell all say that the plan is to begin shifting the majority of reps to one or two quarterbacks in the very near future – installing Wilson as the promising second-stringer may be a more realistic option than starting him as a rookie.
Jackson, who fought through a painful pectoral injury that plagued him for much of the 2011 season, would seem to have the toughest path of the three candidates. He had mixed results as the Seahawks' starter last season, completing 60.2 percent of his passes while throwing for 14 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. Many teammates revere him for his toughness and resilience, and his grasp of Bevell's offense – dating back to their years together with the Minnesota Vikings – is, in Carroll's words, "an extraordinary advantage."
That familiarity, along with the unique challenges posed by the lockout, provoked Carroll into naming Jackson as his unequivocal starter three days into last year's training camp. Yet Jackson, whose starting status in Minnesota often depended on Brett Favre's mood swings, probably has the least upside in the eyes of his bosses. If he doesn't reclaim his job, he's in danger of getting cut by the Seahawks, given the $4 million they could save by keeping him off the opening day roster and their regard for Portis as a viable third-stringer.
How does Jackson think things will play out?
"I have no idea," he said Thursday. "I'm gonna do my best and let it fall where it may. I don't feel sorry myself. I'm blessed to have an opportunity to play in this league."
Flynn, too, says he's simply focused on doing his best and isn't stressing out about the lost reps or unfavorable scenarios. This is hardly the toughest challenge he has faced as a pro: In 2008 Flynn, a seventh-round pick out of LSU, got about a sixth of the reps during training camp with the Packers, with second-round selection Brian Brohm taking a third of the practice snaps and Rodgers, in his first year as Favre's successor, receiving 50 percent. Yet Flynn managed to beat Brohm for the No. 2 quarterback job.
"I've been competing my whole life," Flynn says. "It seems like I've never had a year where something is given to me. I've always been competing and had to work for my job."
It remains to be seen whether Flynn will grab hold of a job that once seemed to be his for the taking. Back in March, at least to the outside world, it looked like the Seahawks' prized free-agent signee was in like Flynn.
Five months later, he's still Carroll's most logical choice to open the season as the starter. Yet while Flynn may be $10 million richer, he can't take that to the bank.
There's a competition playing out, and it is real, at least until Carroll decrees otherwise.
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