Unconventional Extreme: A Future Without Russell Wilson

Pete Carroll and John Schneider love to defy convention. They take cornerbacks that everyone else says are too tall and stiff, and make them into All-Pros and spendy free agents. They take a player like Bruce Irvin in the first round, far higher than projected, get eight sacks out of him as a rookie defensive end, and promptly convert him into a linebacker. Most famously, they take a short quarterback in the third round after already paying free agent dollars for the position, and give him the starting job out of training camp.

These moves came before the ascendency to Super Bowl champion, but the pair’s love of independent thought still burns brightly. That is why it is worth a moment to consider the move they could make that defies league standards more than any other. What if Schneider and Carroll choose not to keep their young franchise quarterback, Russell Wilson? What might the signs be that they are considering such a shocking possibility, and how would that play out on the field? Do your best Carroll and Schneider impersonation, and consider the improbable.

The logic

One thing Schneider has been very clear on with every player negotiation is that the team sets a number for every player, and they will rarely, if ever, exceed that number. This discipline comes from his experience not only working for Ted Thompson in Green Bay, who eschews free agency almost completely, but also his time in Washington seeing Daniel Synder spending money hand over fist for teams that only got worse. 

Nobody loved Wilson heading into the 2012 draft more than Schneider. He is the reason Wilson is here. If you think that means he will put on rose-colored glasses when evaluating his quarterback, you have not met John Schneider. He is incredibly hard on himself, and will not hesitate to grade one of his selections harshly if the tape supports that grade. Wilson has been one of the most successful young quarterbacks in NFL history. He has been to two Super Bowls in three years. He also has not yet proven that he is capable of carrying a team the way Tom Brady, Peyton Manning or Drew Brees has. 
That matters for two reasons: 
  1. He is almost certainly going to ask to be paid like those players
  2. The Seahawks system is designed to minimize the reliance on the quarterback position
Carroll raised many eyebrows before Wilson arrived when he spoke about his philosophy about quarterbacks. 

“We’re not trying to make our quarterback the guy that’s gotta throw the ball 40 times a game. We want a guy that manages the offense really well, and can keep us moving and get us into the best plays, that allows the whole team to function. 

All the way back to the USC days that’s all we’ve ever asked of our quarterbacks. They won Heismans and all that, but they were always just the point guard in the offense. Even back to Carson Palmer and through [Mark] Sanchez, all those guys, and that’s what we’d like to see right now.” – Pete Carroll circa 2011

That philosophy first led to Charlie Whitehurst, then to Tarvaris Jackson and Matt Flynn, before striking gold with Wilson. But despite the quarterback getting the lion’s share of the credit for team success, Carroll would likely point to Wilson as proof this his philosophy works. In other words, within that front office, there is little doubt that this team is built on elite defense and an elite running game. They understand that Wilson is a terrific fit for their system, but the system does not revolve around him. That makes paying top dollar for him, or any quarterback, a challenge to how Carroll and Schneider approach building rosters. It also makes them more confident in their ability to win without an elite player at that position than nearly anyone else in the league.

The signs

Let’s assume for the purposes of this thought experiment that the Seahawks front office has combined their player evaluation, market evaluation, and roster philosophy into a valuation of Wilson that is well below his contract demands. There would be signs of the impending problem.

Sign #1 – Negotiations drag 

Wilson will rightfully expect to be paid like one of the best young quarterbacks in football, and may even want a little extra compensation to make up for the chump change he played for the last three years. His agent will have plenty of ammunition to back up that point-of-view, leaving little reason for Wilson’s side to cave on their demands. 
Schneider would be equally resolute in his belief that Wilson is not worth that price to the Seahawks. There would be a stalemate. A negotiation many assumed would be a slam dunk would drag on without signs of progress.

Sign #2 – Cautionary public statements

The front office would know the PR side of this business decision could have negative repercussions on the team (e.g., distractions), fan sentiment, and even their job security. Having integrity about your beliefs is a respectable quality, but when adherence to those beliefs leads you to make a publicly unpopular and unexpected decision, you better get it right. 
To soften the impact, you might hear the front office talk about looking for “creative” ways to craft a deal so fans know it is not a simple “pay him top dollar and be done with it” scenario. This would eventually give way to more strident public statements about not allowing any one position to hamstring the ability of the franchise to build a consistent championship roster.

Sign #3 – Add a quarterback prospect

If you are confident that Wilson will be the team’s quarterback for the next decade, the best plan is to have a low-cost veteran backup who can step right in and win a game or two without needing a lot of reps or game experience to develop. That is why Tarvaris Jackson has been an ideal fit.

In a scenario where Schneider thought there was some potential that Wilson would not be the starting quarterback in the next 2-3 years, he would likely want to start adding more young talent to the position. He would delay committing the money to a veteran like Jackson so he could see if a decent player fell to him in the draft. Maybe a guy like Brett Hundley feels like a worthwhile investment for one of those three fourth-round picks. 
Doing this would not seal Wilson’s fate in Seattle by any means. The team would spin it as a desire to add competition at every position and a great value pick, but the media and fan speculation would hit overdrive.

Sign #4 – Negotiations cease

Somewhere around training camp, the team or Wilson would come out and say that they wanted to turn 100% of their attention to the upcoming season. The team would say they want Wilson here for a long time, and Wilson would say the same. It would essentially give both sides another year to establish Wilson’s value. 

Sign #5 – Franchise tag applied in 2016

This would be the first true red flag in the process. Seattle committing franchise tag cap dollars to Wilson would mean they were already losing part of the value of a long-term deal. The purpose of doing a long-term deal from a team point-of-view is to spread the impact of a contract over a few years in a way that gives the team more flexibility to manage their roster. 
The new collective bargaining agreement has made franchising a player in perpetuity cost-prohibitive to teams. The cost of a franchise tag goes up 20% if a team applies it to the same player for consecutive years, and goes up 44% if applied for three straight years. In other words, no team will franchise a player more than two straight years. 
That means that if Seattle goes the franchise route with Wilson, they likely only keep him through 2017. That would give them three seasons to find a successor. It took them three seasons to find him.

Sign #6 – Trade heading into 2017

The two sides likely would not budge if it got to the point of applying two franchise tags. In fact, the divide could simply widen if the Seahawks continue to win and the price of elite quarterbacks continues to rise. Seattle would need to consider life after Wilson heading into the 2017 season. This could either look like a trade done prior to the 2017 draft, where the Seahawks make an offer to acquire a top pick in exchange for an established Super Bowl-winning quarterback, or it could look like an open competition at quarterback headed into training camp.
The trade would seem more likely. A rebuilding team would have to salivate at the chance to get one of the top young quarterbacks in the game versus taking a risk on a rookie quarterback who may never pan out. Seattle would be able to save enough cap room to keep their (less) young core together and even add to it. Finding another young quarterback who could fit their system, and be under club control for five years would be ideal. It would be the type of gamble only the most confident front office would make. 

The probability

The chances that this scenario would play out all the way to the end are very low. My gut says there is less than a 10% shot that Wilson exits Seattle anytime in the next decade. He is a rare combination of poise, athleticism, clutch play, and good enough passing ability. He creates points. He wins. 
That said, I believe we are in the first phase of this scenario right now. Seattle does value Wilson differently than Wilson values himself. If Schneider and Carroll were ready to pay him top dollar, there is little reason for this deal to still be in progress. There are not a lot of reasons for Wilson’s side to re-evaluate their position. The onus is on the Seahawks front office to find some contract structure that provides Wilson the value he is looking for while preserving as much cap room to fill other positions as possible. That most likely happens before training camp this season. 
Should the two sides not come to an agreement before training camp opens, that would be a strong sign that this might not resolve this year. Consider that Carroll and Schneider both have their contracts ending in 2016. They would be putting their careers on the line to go against convention here. I don’t think that either would hesitate to do so if they believed it was the right thing to do for the franchise. 
The unthinkable has already been thought through down in Renton. The next salvo in this silent battle could be fired this week when the draft is held. No one player will ever hold this franchise hostage while Carroll and Schneider are in charge. Seahawks fans should buckle up for what may be a bumpier ride than most expected. 

post signature