Monday, April 8, 2013

The Unauthorized Story Of Matt Flynn In Seattle

History is written by the victors. Matt Flynn will exit the Seahawks roster hoping for an opportunity to finally grab the quill. The accepted narrative of his time in Seattle will be that he was the high-priced free agent signing brought in to start for the Seahawks who was beaten out by an irrepressible rookie. Part of that is true. Much of it is not. I am here to share the story as I witnessed it. The portability demands of a good story require much of the detail and complexities to be removed. Collapsing the story of Matt Flynn in Seattle to 140 characters would rob it of the texture that makes it such a telling tale of life in the NFL. Opportunity and success are fleeting, and the factors that contribute to them are ever-shifting. The path to glory may only open for an instant. Supremely gifted players often find the path is paved. Players like Flynn, the ones whose talent is not as easily discerned, face a gauntlet. They are not to be pitied. Many would gladly take their place. The NFL image is built on the shoulders of superstars that are analyzed and publicized without pause. Yet, it is the untold stories of players on the edge of glory that often merit a second look. This is one such story.

The Courtship

Flynn entered free agency with the same luck he has had throughout his career. He sat behind a #1 overall draft pick in college before getting the chance to start as a senior and win an NCAA title. He sat behind arguably the best quarterback in the league in Aaron Rodgers after beating out a 2nd round pick for the back-up job. Peyton Manning made sure his free agent experience was familiar by creating a feeding frenzy unlike any the league had seen. Helicopters followed his every move. Private jets were sent on the hope teams could entice him to even talk with them. All Flynn had done was throw for nearly 500 yards and six touchdowns in his last start. It was not only Manning that crowded the quarterback picture, but a once-in-a-generation quarterback class exiting the college ranks that included Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III, and at least four or five other players that had franchise potential.

Add to that the Kevin Kolb Effect. The league had seen what happened when Arizona traded for a relatively unproven back-up. Where there had once been potential in the masked value of back-up quarterbacks like Matt Schaub, Mark Brunell, Aaron Brooks, front offices now were fixated on risk. Seattle had felt their own fool's gold pain with the Charlie Whitehurst trade.

Flynn entered a market with no team willing to bet their future on a free agent other than Manning. The draft provided too many low-cost alternatives with the possibility of higher upside. Still, Seattle was interested because their front office prefers to enter the draft without any absolute roster need they have to fill. They approach free agency in stages and for different purposes. Flynn represented a chance to improve their quarterback position, and keep them from feeling the need to do something desperate in the draft like trading up or picking a player too early.

It was a surprise that Flynn chose to visit Seattle first. Seattle already had Tarvaris Jackson, and would certainly not guarantee Flynn a starting role. Miami seemed like the more logical fit. The thought was that Flynn was using the Seahawks to set the market and gain leverage before signing with the Dolphins. Leaving Seattle without a contract to fly down to Miami reinforced that notion. The shock was that, after receiving an offer from Miami, Flynn chose to sign with Seattle.

Nobody can say for sure whether Seattle offered more money. Many like to tell the tale that Joe Philbin was Flynn's offensive coordinator in Green Bay, and that Flynn's signing with Seattle proved that Philbin did not really want him in Miami. That is one of a dozen possible interpretations of that series of events. All indications I gathered over the last year was that Flynn chose the Seahawks because he thought the situation was better for him, not because the Dolphins were not interested in him. It is also true that the Dolphins were content to draft a young quarterback that could grow with their offense after trading troubled wide receiver Brandon Marshall earlier in the off-season.

Flynn's decision to sign galvanized the Seahawks fan base, and sent Dolphins fans into a rampage against GM Jeff Ireland. Despite saying all the right things about having to earn the starting spot and being eager to compete, I am convinced that Flynn was not fully aware of how Pete Carroll and John Schneider ran their roster.

He knew he would have to compete with Jackson, but also knew the front office was looking to improve the position or they would not have signed him. There was every reason to believe he would be the Seahawks starting quarterback, and be starting for a very good team.

The Draft

The signing of Flynn had the intended impact on the Schneider's approach to the draft. Both he and Carroll were fond of Ryan Tannehill, but could afford to see if he fell to them. There would be no mortgaging of future draft picks to climb up the board. Instead, they traded back and got 4th and 6th round picks that turned into Jaye Howard and Jeremy Lane. They drafted Bruce Irvin at #15. They traded back again in the second round and gained 5th and 7th round picks that turned into Korey Toomer and Greg Scruggs before selecting Bobby Wagner.

Would Schneider have been able to be patient and make those moves if he had not signed Flynn? Would he have been comfortable waiting all the way to the third round to draft Russell Wilson? Nobody can answer those questions, but there is no doubt that the security Flynn provided allowed Schneider maximum flexibility.

The moment Wilson's name was announced in the third round, I was convinced he would eventually be the team's franchise quarterback. This was a kid that had all the moxie you could want in your QB1, and seemed custom-made for the Seahawks play-action heavy offense. I even played with the idea of him as a rookie starter before training camp began. It just never seemed to be worth the risk to his development or to the team's chances when a player like Flynn was already available.

Carroll decided after rookie camp to add Wilson to the starting quarterback competition. Lots of people, including players, were surprised. People that know Carroll's history at USC were less surprised. It mimicked the Matt Barkley situation when he was a freshman at USC.

It is not clear from the conversations I have had whether Flynn was given a heads-up that the Seahawks planned to draft a young quarterback after signing him. What is completely clear is that he was not expecting to have a three-way competition for the starting role.


OTAs & Mini-Camp

All three quarterbacks took the field for the first time together in late May of 2012 for organized team activities (OTAs). There were three separate OTA periods. Two in late May, and one in early June. All the attention was on Flynn and Wilson. The silent story of those early practices was that Jackson was outplaying both of them. 

I heard it from players, and I heard it from reliable sources inside the organization. I had the chance to speak with Carroll before and after his Win Forever event that followed the mini-camps. He stressed multiple times that Flynn had no advantage in the quarterback decision due to his contract. Carroll and Schneider both said multiple times that they viewed the contract as simply the cost required to improve the level of competition at the position. Most people did not believe them. Speaking to them in person made it clear they were speaking the truth.

A number of additional conversations with sources at the VMAC at that time brought the surprising news that Jackson, not Flynn or Wilson, was winning the quarterback battle after mini-camps had completed. Fans and media had written Jackson off. Coaches, and especially players, had not.

Jackson's lead was partially due to his play, partially due to his chemistry with receivers, and largely to due with the disappointing showings from both Wilson and Flynn. Mini-camps were behind closed doors, but the reports I got were that Flynn was not throwing well, and Wilson appeared overwhelmed.

As was often the case through the quarterback competition, Carroll and Schneider gave clues to their feelings in the media. They were emphasizing Flynn's contract would not decide the race at this time, and also reminding everyone that Jackson was number one on the depth chart. They knew that if Jackson did win the race, they would need to spend months in the media preparing fans and analysts for what would be a shocking outcome. Things quickly changed in training camp.

Training Camp

Day one of training camp was terrible for all the quarterbacks. I walked away from the practice worried that the team had done little to improve the position for 2012. Jackson looked like the player he had always been. There were plenty of inaccurate throws, and periods where he held onto the ball for far too long. Flynn opened camp second on the depth chart. That is a fact many were quick to dismiss. Yet, it represented a very real statement of how the coaches and front office saw the race early on. 

Flynn was paid more than the other two quarterbacks in the competition, but it was not until weeks into the off-season program that he ascended to the top of the depth chart. That ascension began on day two of training camp when nearly ever pass he threw found the hands of a receiver. He was looking safeties off, and demonstrating rare anticipation. A quarterback that came in with a reputation for a weaker arm was making more connections down field than the other two quarterbacks combined. 

Wilson was spending much of his time taking safe, short throws underneath the defense. He was not ready to challenge them deep. Jackson was literally throwing a fair number of passes into the dirt during this phase of camp. Flynn was showing he was capable of elevating his game to heights Jackson was simply not capable of matching. 

The trend continued in the next few practices as each player had their opportunity with the first-team offense and faced the first team defense. The places where this showed the most was in 3rd down drills, red zone drills and full squad scrimmages. 

Seahawks defensive coordinator at the time, Gus Bradley, publicly commented on the difference in the offense when Flynn was running with the starters. The safeties both talked about how Flynn was helping them grow by looking them off so effectively. 

Friends and family of the players watching on the sidelines sensed the shift. Players were talking about it off the record. The transition to Flynn as the Seahawks new starter had begun. Relationships were starting to form on, and off, the field. A locker room was slowly starting to embrace the changing of the guard.

Flynn was earning respect on the field, and this team knew how good it could be with even a league average quarterback. It was an ideal situation for the front office as Flynn stepping forward would allow them to celebrate a modest price to pay for a quality starting quarterback and give their prized prospect in Wilson at least a year to develop. 

Everything I saw led me to confidently predict Flynn was going to secure the position as starter just a few days into camp. 

Pre-Season Begins

Players soon started feeling more confident about projecting Flynn as the starter as time went on. Two offensive lineman made clear insinuations on the radio that they knew who the starter would be, and there was no indication Wilson would be the guy at this point. He was playing well for a rookie, but anyone looking for evidence that he was ready to start would be disappointed.

Curiously, a coaching staff that often gave clues in media interviews to who was leading the quarterback competition, never spent much time talking about Flynn between practices. It was a clue that I missed at the time. They were starting to give him more reps in practice, but did not acknowledge it when asked by the media. They chose to start Jackson in the first team scrimmage. These were chances to help prepare fans for a new starter, but something was holding them back.

They announced Flynn had earned the start in the team's first pre-season game. This was the first public indication of what I had been seeing for a couple of weeks. Flynn would never admit it, but the lack of public praise, combined with the early elevation of Wilson into the quarterback competition, left him questioning how much the coaching staff and front office wanted him to win the job. 

Wilson would outplay Flynn from time-to-time in practice, and the coaches were quick to talk about it in the post-practice press conferences. I cannot recall a single time when they were effusive in praise of Flynn. 

Many would brush that aside as subjective nonsense. Perhaps it is. I look at the whole story to this point, and see a series of small clues that collectively point to a coaching staff and front office that looked at Flynn as an insurance policy, not a player they wanted to hand their team to. There was little urgency to sign him. More effort was made to lower starting expectations for him in the media than to build him up. 

Wilson was the guy the front office and Carroll loved. He was their guy. The only question was when he would be ready to grab the reigns. You could see how special he was in these practices, especially in the red zone where his creativity shined, but his anticipation was so far behind Flynn that is was difficult to see a scenario where he would win the job.

What I never saw, what the media never saw, was the silent battle happening off the field. Wilson was showing up first to the VMAC and leaving last. His now famous work ethic was in full effect. Flynn was a veteran that did not need the same level of study time that Wilson did, but the juxtaposition over the course of training camp was making an impression, and not a good one for Flynn. There was almost a sense that Flynn felt matching Wilson's hours would reduce his standing as a veteran. 

The larger question heading into the first pre-season game was whether the aggressive Flynn could restrain himself in the conservative Seahawks offense that put a premium on protecting the ball. It was clear Flynn approached the first game with that thought in mind as he completed eleven of thirteen passes, with most of them being short, high percentage throws. He looked almost nothing like the player I had seen in practice that was consistently passing up short throws for chunk plays that were higher risk and higher reward. This was a message from Flynn to the coaches that he could be their guy. 

Wilson flashed his potential at the front office like a flirtatious woman flips her hair. He hit Braylon Edwards on a long touchdown throw. It was against second and third string defenders, but for a front office already predisposed to Wilson as the future franchise player, it was impossible to ignore.

The pattern of faint Flynn praise from the coaching staff continued in the post-game press conference. I brushed it off at the time as the media's obsession with the Wilson story that was driving Carroll to answer those questions. Looking back, Carroll would have redirected the subject back to Flynn if he had wanted to. Listen to any Carroll interview, and you will notice he always steers the discussion back to the topic, or topics, he wants to highlight.

Game two of pre-season is where everything changed. Flynn was again named the starter, but by this time, there was another story dominating camp--Terrell Owens. 

The Terrell Owens Effect

Flynn entered his second pre-season start determined to prove that his first start was a demonstration of his ability to work within an offense, not a referendum on who he was as a quarterback. Fans that had only seen his first pre-season start began to see him as a game manager, which was ironic. This was a player who had eclipsed his seventh-round status in Green Bay by proving he could run the hyper-aggresive Packer offense that had helped to lift Aaron Rodgers to league MVP level. 

Complicating matters was the emergence of the Owens story. Seattle brought in Owens to challenge for the split end position opposite Sidney Rice. He had shown glimpses of his past talents in practice and had proved his purpose by exposing Ricardo Lockette as a pretender. Lockette had flashed early in training camp, but faded immediately upon arrival of Owens. This was not a player who would rise to a challenge, but a man who would acquiesce when confronted. Golden Tate had thrown his lot in with Wilson at this point. His girlfriend had made fast friends with Ashton Wilson, and Tate's ability to high point a ball had made him a trusted target of Wilson. 

The stage was set for a tide-turning game against the Broncos in week two of the pre-season. Carroll and Schneider needed to see if Owens could elevate their split end position. Flynn needed to fend off an ever-increasing challenge from Wilson. 

Flynn played a nearly perfect game that was sabotaged by a rusty Owens who was simply not good enough to be on the field anymore. Flynn flashed the savvy of a veteran by making terrific reads on a back-shoulder throws that Owens simply ran right by, not ready to make the adjustment. He showed he could throw deep as he placed a ball perfectly on Owens hands deep down the field that would have been a touchdown had Owens managed to catch the ball sitting between his hands. 

What should have been a performance that cemented Flynn as the 2012 starter of the Seahawks became a statistically-flawed outing that, coupled with another sterling Wilson showing, left Flynn vulnerable. This was the turning of the tide. 


The Unconventional Decision

Wilson had been more than a garbage time quarterback against the Broncos. His opening game against the Titans was little more than what Josh Portis had done in San Diego the year prior. This game offered a glimpse of the player I was so confident he could become. This was not a short quarterback. This was not a mobile quarterback. This was an NFL quarterback. 

This was great news. It was also late news. Flynn had been receiving starter snaps since before the first pre-season game. The three-way quarterback competition had robbed all three players of snaps and repetition with their receivers and lineman. There was barely a chance to establish a rhythm within a practice, let alone find an offensive rhythm that could be carried into a game. 

Wilson had clearly built a case to be the back-up quarterback, which was a significant accomplishment as a rookie. Jackson would be shipped off to Buffalo within a week of the Broncos game. As well as Wilson had played, it was still coming against players that either never played an NFL snap or likely would never get on the field. This was also pre-season, when defenses are as vanilla as they get. If Carroll really wanted to entertain thoughts of starting Wilson as a rookie, the Broncos game was as late as he could reasonably decide to see him against opposing starters. 

Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III were considered two of the best quarterback prospects in NFL history. They got every starter's snap throughout the off-season leading into their rookie years. Ryan Tannehill was named starter early in pre-season to give him every possible snap to prepare for what was ahead. The same was true for Brandon Weeden. Wilson was such a valuable commodity. The idea of risking his confidence by throwing him into the fire with a fraction of the time other rookies were getting to prepare seemed out of the question. Not to mention, benching Flynn at this point would have largely meant burning that bridge. 

Flynn had not sparkled, but he certainly had played well enough to beat out Jackson, and that was enough to win 10+ games with this team.  The locker room was ready for the competition to be over and hear Flynn named the starter. Everything had gone according to plan. The Seahawks were in great shape. There was no reason to take a risk.  It was 4th and 5 on the 50-yard line with five minutes to go in the fourth quarter, and they were up by a touchdown. Just punt the ball. 


Carroll relishes the chance to defy convention. He talked himself into going for it on this fourth down. Only he knows the reasons why. He has often joked about being "hormonal" during games when making risky decisions. This was not a split-second choice. He had time to think about it.

I was on a trip with my son to Orcas Island when I got a few texts telling me Wilson would start in the third pre-season game against the Chiefs. Those of you that follow me on Twitter know I react vociferously when I see a bad coaching decision during a game. That is what this news felt like.

I knew the message this would send to Flynn. It would confirm what he, and those around him, had believed from the time Wilson was added to the quarterback competition--that the front office wanted Wilson to win the job. No other coach in the NFL would have switched his starter, especially to a rookie, in the third pre-season game. This was a vote of no confidence for Flynn. It was also likely going to lead to a starting role for Wilson as a rookie. Rookie quarterbacks do not typically perform very well, and Wilson would be asked to start with far fewer snaps than any other rookie starter had ever had. This was a potentially fantastic team, with talent everywhere. It was a huge risk to put the season, and the fate of 52 other men in the hands of a rookie.

No matter what the outcome, this was a bad decision. You can go for it on fourth down at the 50 up by a touchdown late in the game and get the first down. That does not make going for it a wise choice. Wilson would eventually become one of the best rookie quarterbacks in the history of the NFL, but the way he was elevated to that role was reckless. Great players have a way of bailing their coaches out of bad decisions. Wilson did exactly that.

The Slow Start

The Kansas City Chiefs own the first pick in the 2013 draft after being the worst team in football last season. Their biggest contribution to the NFL in 2012 may have been helping to lift Wilson to the starting role when they were dominated by Wilson and the Seahawks in that third pre-season game in what became the closing statement of the quarterback competition in Seattle. Or, so it seemed. 

Wilson drew a tough first NFL start on the road in Arizona. The Cardinals defense was exotic and aggressive. His fellow rookie starter J.R. Sweezy was no match for Cardinals defensive tackle Darnell Dockett, which made life miserable for Wilson. When Wilson did get a chance to make a play, he was off-target. Wilson still nearly led a remarkable comeback. Still, his career started with a disappointing division loss.

He rose with a fine performance against the Cowboys where he was asked to do little, but excelled at what he did. His next two games raised questions about whether he was ready to start in the NFL. The Seahawks walked off with a victory against the Packers, but the final play became the league's largest controversy. The start against the Rams was terrible. Things were so bad that Carroll and Schneider were forced to consider replacing Wilson. He passer rating of 45.5 on third downs after four games was among the worst in the NFL, as was his 67.2 rating in the red zone. His talent was no less evident, but the polish only experience provides was nowhere to be seen. The team was losing games they would not have lost with even league average quarterback play.

The locker room was unsettled. Players like Sidney Rice, Zach Miller, Doug Baldwin and Tate entered the season with a lot to prove. They were drawing a lot of criticism for the early season struggles of the offense, but never pointed any fingers at their rookie signal caller. Still, it was evident that Wilson's play was going to effect more than just his career. 

Carroll decided to stick with Wilson for another week, with a focus on improving his play on third down. The decision to stay with Wilson was prudent. Switching back to Flynn at that point would have damaged Wilson's confidence and left the locker room questioning the coaches decision to start Wilson in the first place. 

Seattle went on to beat the Panthers, and Wilson's play on third downs was by far his best of the season up to that point. It was the start of a pattern where Wilson was able to focus on a part of his game and make rapid corrections. He would end the season as one of the best red zone quarterbacks in football, and his third down play from week five on was near elite. It was the last time there was any real quarterback controversy for the Seahawks.

Wilson ended the year as not only one of the best rookie quarterbacks in the history of the league, but one of the best quarterbacks in the game. Flynn ended the year getting a few snaps in mop-up duty of blowout wins.

The Fine Line Between Glory And Goat

Seattle finished one of their best seasons with eleven wins and half-game out of the division title. Wilson finished third in the rookie of the year voting, and made the Pro Bowl. They enter the 2013 season as favorites to win the Super Bowl, in large part due to the quality of the player they have manning the quarterback position. 

Nobody can say for sure what would have happened if Carroll stuck with Flynn as the starter heading into 2012. There is reason to believe the team would have gotten off to much faster start, as Wilson had far more adjusting to do early in the season than Flynn would have. It is not difficult to paint a picture where Flynn starting would have resulted in at least one extra victory and possibly home-field advantage in the playoffs for at least one round. It is also easy to compare Flynn and Wilson and see that Wilson is capable of heights Flynn simply could never reach. Doubting the ceiling of a player that threw for six touchdowns in his last start, however, may not be wise.

What we do know is that Flynn was this close to starting for Seattle. He did not lay an egg in training camp. He was not outclassed by a rookie. A coaching staff and front office that knew their legacy would be defined by the decision they made at quarterback chose to put their weight behind the player they had targeted for more than a year. They chose the player whose tireless work ethic gave them confidence he would overcome the challenges he was certain to face. 

The simple story that will be told is that a high-priced free agent was beaten out by an upstart rookie. There is certainly some truth to that simplicity. I see a hard luck player that partially misread the situation he was entering, and was partially misled about what he was being brought in to do. He was the guy the front office expected to win the starting job, but was never the guy they wanted to win it. He was a player that handled devastating professional news privately, and without incident. 

He will now continue his career in Oakland, surrounded by little talent, and modest expectations. Success may forever elude him. Or, he may pen his own tale of redemption and glory. That is life in the NFL. Men are not measured by how many times they are knocked down, but how many times they stand back up. Flynn is dusting himself off once more, and I hope to see him stand tall soon enough.

3 comments :

Anonymous said...

Great read. I do disagree that starting Wilson against KC was "reckless." Didn't Flynn sit that game out because his arm was sore?

Anonymous said...

Not sure what new information this is bringing to the table. I felt Wilson had earned his KC start along with a lot of other people based upon his performance the previous week. Is this really Softy in disguise trying to stir up drama where there is none?

Anonymous said...

Flynn is trash, his contract is the reason he stayed over t jack