Seattle won the Super Bowl last season, yet coach Pete Carroll was talking this week about the improvement he’s seeing across the roster – youth, development, maturity and confidence.
“We’re such a young football team,” Carroll noted, kind of reiterating the belief by some in the NFL that the Seahawks actually arrived a year or two early.
It all made sense when considering the possibility of Seattle becoming a repeat champion, or at least having a deep playoff run of contention, the kind common in the old NFL. There was one glaring reason not to get sucked into the hype though … this isn’t the old NFL.
This is the era where dynasties have gone to die.
Once, teams got great and stayed great, at least for a few seasons. Now? Forget it.
The first 33 Super Bowls saw seven repeat champions, with mega teams in Green Bay, Miami, Pittsburgh (twice), San Francisco, Dallas and Denver putting together consecutive titles and making sustained success seem normal.
The past 15 seasons, there’s been just one such club: the New England Patriots of the 2003-04 regular seasons. And each year those Pats look to be more and more of an outlier, the bottoming out of “defending” champions becoming almost inevitable.
• Four of those 15 Super Bowl champions failed to compile a winning record the next season.
• Seven didn’t reach the playoffs, including three of the past five (2012 Baltimore, 2011 New York Giants, 2008 Pittsburgh).
• No one other than those 2004 Patriots managed to get past even the divisional round of the playoffs. So not only has there been just one repeat champion, New England is the only team to reach the Super Bowl or even the conference title round.
• In the past, repeat Super Bowl appearances were the norm. There were the seven repeat champs, plus both Dallas (1977, ’78) and Washington (1982, ’83) won a title and then got back to the big game before falling short. Then there were back-to-back Super Bowl losses by Minnesota (1973, ’74) and Denver (1986, ’87), plus four consecutive defeats by Buffalo (1990-93) that despite falling short are examples of sustained excellence.
There’s been none of that lately. No Super Bowl loser has returned to the big game.
• Taking out the 2004 Patriots, only two other returning champions managed to win even a single playoff game. Baltimore (2001) and New England (2005) each took a wild-card game before getting bounced in the divisional round.
Some of these championship dropoffs have been easy to see coming. The 2012 Baltimore Ravens were an aging team with just a 10-6 record when they got to the postseason for a final ride behind retiring Ray Lewis. They then went 8-8 a year ago.
Others are more puzzling. The 2011 Green Bay Packers followed a Super Bowl title with a 15-1 romp through the regular season. The New York Giants upset them in the divisional round at Lambeau, though, unfazed by any mystique.
The reason for the parity is obvious and man-made: The NFL is full of rules to level playing fields and tear apart great clubs. From salary caps, to draft slots, to weighted schedules, everything is designed to pull teams to the middle.
Couple that with the traditional hangover that comes from winning it all, plus the inherent luck, good fortune and excellent health needed to hoist the Lombardi, and it’s just tough to do.
Carroll loves hearing about tough things to do, though, and his team begins its campaign to change recent precedent Thursday when it hosts the Packers. The Seahawks have had defections (e.g. second receiver Golden Tate to Detroit), and Carroll hasn't said Seattle will win it all. He does see lots of positives on the roster as younger players continue to come into their own.
“It seems like a number of guys, [J.R.] Sweezy is a great example; Russell Wilson is another example … that just continue to become more familiar and more comfortable and [are] able to take advantage of the experience that they’ve gained,” Carroll said Monday.
“So we have so many guys that are kind of in that category of the second-, third- and fourth-year guys,” Carroll said. “They continue to grow and that’s what we’re sensing. We feel that we’re a little bit smarter, a little more wary, little bit more understanding, little more savvy and hopefully that will work for us.”
Wilson is an obvious example, as his continued evolution from perceived game manager to bona fide weapon is similar to the early career arc of New England’s Tom Brady … with still plenty of work to get to Brady’s peak, obviously.
It’s even more about a guy such as Sweezy, though. He’s an anonymous, one-time seventh-round pick in 2012 out of North Carolina State, where he played defensive end. Seattle envisioned him as an offensive guard, however, and prior to the draft, had assistant coach Tom Cable ask him if he’d be willing to switch sides of the ball. Sweezy said yes.
After a year in the system, he showed dramatic improvement, so Carroll and general manager John Schneider rewarded him last year with the starting job over incumbent John Moffitt. That allowed Seattle to trade Moffitt to Denver and thus dodge a bullet when Moffitt quit football in midseason, citing health concerns.
Now Sweezy is the O-line talk of the Seahawks, and set, the team believes, to become one of the premier players at the position.
“He’s matured,” Cable told the News Tribune. “Now he’s playing like he’s been there forever.”
Carroll and Schneider are famous for their incessant roster maneuverings. In 2010, their first year together in Seattle, they made a reported 284 of them.
Some are small. Some are bold, such as in 2012 when they gave Wilson, then a rookie, the starting QB job over veteran Matt Flynn, who they had just signed and given $10 million in guaranteed money.
Like Bill Belichick in New England, Carroll and Schneider will make any cold decision necessary. They won’t hesitate to go with youth, reshuffling everything on the fly. The program’s entire philosophy is built on weekly practice battles across the roster, famously peaking on “Competition Wednesdays.”
Best man wins, period.
It keeps everyone sharp. It keeps everything pushing for better.
So maybe that’s enough for the Seahawks to reverse the trend and make this year more than just a fading echo of last season's glory for a Super Bowl champion.
Thursday it starts, with a young, growing roster built on the understanding there is no time for sentimentality when yesterday isn’t helping you win tomorrow.