RENTON, Wash. – As a list of names was recited, Seattle Seahawks defensive tackle Jarran Reed didn’t really need a question. He listened, absorbed and then teed up his most blunt assessment of how the outside world is looking at the once-powerful core of his franchise.
Richard Sherman is in San Francisco. Michael Bennett is in Philadelphia. Kam Chancellor and Cliff Avril are destined for retirement. Earl Thomas is absent and pushing for a trade. Even the ghost of Bruce Irvin – who has been in Oakland two seasons – seems to linger a little.
Even in optimistic terms, that’s an alpha drain. In the pessimistic view, it’s a black hole threatening to swallow the near future. And for the young guys like Reed, who are eager to fill that void, the great unknown is continuing to unfold on a daily basis.
“We’re a bunch of nobodies right now,” Reed said, assessing the land rush of opportunity facing Seattle’s young defensive players. “I honestly believe that. If you speak our names, nobody really knows them. But if you say Michael Bennett, Richard Sherman or Kam Chancellor, they know those guys. They don’t know us. It’s about time for us to come out.”
It might be a stretch to call Seattle’s next hopeful wave “a bunch of nobodies.” But Reed makes a salient point. Brand recognition isn’t exactly favoring a sizable portion of the Seahawks defense heading into the 2018 season, even with linebacking mainstays Bobby Wagner and K.J Wright anchoring the unit. Instead, it’s a group with more questions than answers – harkening back to 2011, when the defensive framework of a five-year Super Bowl window was just being fitted into place. A framework that is now largely disassembled and being refitted with still unproven replacement parts.
That’s the story of this Seahawks team in 2018. Whatever offensive intrigue exists (and some does), the ability to extend that Super Bowl window will rely heavily on how the franchise transitions from the alpha era to a new generation. Very much the same way the Baltimore Ravens were faced with the early stages of a defensive culture pivot 10 years ago – starting with a move away from aging alpha personalities like Bart Scott, Chris McAlister and Samari Rolle. A gradual four-year turn that would eventually expand to Ed Reed and Ray Lewis, dramatically shifting locker room cornerstones and challenging a culture that fostered a dominant, intimidating defense.
When Irvin departed Seattle after the 2015 season, it was hard to imagine him as the first domino in a defense that would see so many key pieces topple so quickly. Even with pressing contract squabbles and so many strong personalities, the Seahawks appeared to be positioned for defensive dominance to the end of the decade. But the NFL’s cruel attrition is often unpredictable – stripping out dominant eras before they ever had a chance to take a deep, lasting root.
Right now, Seattle fits that description, even with the dominant run from 2012-2016. In truth, the second Super Bowl-win-that-never-was leaves this team – and the defense in particular – feeling slightly unfulfilled. Not only was it essentially robbed of a second title by a poor offensive play call, it then went on to unravel quickly under the weight of injuries, contract issues and grinding personalities that it appeared destined to overcome only a few years earlier.
All of which delivers this franchise to this season and pivot point, when it will either struggle to avoid a presumed backslide, or realize that the culture of winning wasn’t just a function of a handful of talented alpha personalities. And nobody in Seattle is kidding themselves about the importance to 2018. A flop would be a significant problem for the front office, which needs a breakthrough from some young talent to help boost less-than-stellar classes in recent years. A reality that could very well be amplified by the veteran talent drain on defense.
As Reed said, there is no denying the pressure to perform in 2018.
“Failure is not an option right now,” Reed said. “We can’t fail.”
To be fair to Seattle, the cupboard isn’t bare on defense. Frank Clark could emerge as one of the best defensive ends in the NFL this season and Reed appears poised to take his next step as a top-shelf run defender and leader. The tandem of Wagner and Wright is also still among the elite linebacker duos in the league. And while nobody is going to say it publicly, some inside the franchise had grown tired of Bennett’s occasional defiance when it came to the coaching staff. There was also a personnel faction that strongly supported trading Thomas prior to the 2018 draft, only to be deflated when it didn’t happen.
So yes, there has been some drama in that alpha world. But that’s not unusual when you foster a defensive unit as tightly wound and competitive as Seattle’s was at the peak. Would the coaching staff like to see the next wave of young players replicate the previous attitude and success? Surely. They’d love to see Shaquill Griffin replace Sherman, or have Tedric Thompson make Thomas more replaceable. Or see Reed and Clark step into the standard-setting leadership and attitude void left behind by Chancellor.
They also know that’s asking a lot. But they’ve seen it happen. After all, there was a time that some of their own elites were in the same situations that the current crop of young players find themselves. In particular, head coach Pete Carroll points to Sherman – who was, as Reed might put it, the first big “nobody” to become a transformative player for this staff.
“I can clearly remember going back in the middle of the day [in 2011] – someone had gotten hurt – and I went back in the middle of the day and I called up all of [Sherman’s] one-on-ones on film,” Carroll said. “I took a look at them and went ‘Oh my goodness. Sherman’s got to take over now but I don’t know if he’s ready.’ I went ‘Oh man, it’s going to be a reach, because he’s coming so far so fast.’ We know how that story ends. It’s no different [now].
“When Bradley McDougald had to step in [for Chancellor], he had to step in. When Shaquill Griffin had to step up [to replace Sherman] he had to do it. The dynamics stay similar. The flavor of the individuals changes. That’s what we’re working on right now.”
“[The team’s culture] is dynamically expanded by the people that are here,” Carroll continued. “They add to it and bring it wherever it’s going to go because of who they are. That doesn’t change. It’s just different people. That’s not to say we’re not going to miss them. We will. … But that previous group transitioned into that [previous success], which is now being transitioned into this.”
In a few months, the Seahawks will meaningfully begin to find out what this is. Until then, the echoes of the previous locker room will continue to resonate, if only to remind Seattle of what was – and how quickly it vanished. Leaving behind a franchise with self-described “nobodies” trying to become “somebodies” as quickly as possible.
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