If we've read one thing, and only one thing, about the Seahawks during the Pete Carroll era, it's that competition reigns supreme. This is the club where a fourth-round rookie beat out a fourth-overall pick for his linebacker spot. This is the place where a neglected CFL transplant breaks the opening-day roster, and an eaten-himself-out-of-the-league WR gets a second chance. No stone is left unturned. Come into camp, show us your stuff, and no matter your background you can break into the lineup.
But is this the case any longer? Was it only ever this wide open because Pete Carroll inherited an aging roster that he mostly wanted to jettison anyway? It's relatively easy to cut or to trade players that were chosen by a previous regime; you can ignore the sunk costs when you're not the one who paid those costs. Keeping continuity on the field wasn't really a factor until now because most everyone was at square one with the new systems.
But Pete Carroll clearly values continuity, too. It's why Tarvaris Jackson and Sidney Rice were brought over with Bevell along with his offense. It's why Zach Miller and Robert Gallery came with Tom Cable. Those players knew the system and at least during a transition year were made starters to ease everyone else into it.
In college Carroll didn't have the luxury of continuity, because half the starters would graduate every year. Competition came to the forefront, perhaps, because he constantly had to be replacing his great players. In his first years with the Seahawks, competition has reigned supreme because he needed to build a stock of great players.
A transition looming?
Now, in year three, with the offseason transactions mostly completed, it feels like Carroll finally has adequate-to-elite options at every position in his system. Sure, there will be parts to replace every year as a few key guys are nearing or are at 30 years old, but at this point there is no reason to start swapping in unproven rookies when you are trying to keep seasoning the talent you had on the field last year. Building continuity with a core group is going to have more impact on improving the performance of the team than is playing musical chairs based on training-camp showings.
Truly open competitions have a big pitfall: the starter who loses his job usually isn't too happy about it. It can be a locker room distraction. In most cases you're going to have to cut or trade him if he isn't going to start, like Aaron Curry or T.J. Houshmandzadeh. It's a potential danger in demoting Tarvaris Jackson without giving him a chance to catch on with a new club. The embarrassment of losing a job wasn't as pronounced during the first two years of rebuilding because everyone knew a roster overhaul was underway. But now… how would Brandon Browner react if Jeremy Lane grabbed his starting job?
Only a veteran with a sense of grace, like Marcus Trufant, will consent to stick around, and even in that case it was an injury situation and not losing a training-camp competition that led to Thurmond and then Sherman starting. Losing out on a job you'd previously held would cause most players to want to find a new locker room. This truth can be seen in the decision to low-ball offer Hawthorne, because it was pretty obvious we were going to find an ILB in the draft, and they were essentially telling Heater he was going to come back to a demotion. We never did find out if John Carlson was as excited as the coaches were about running two-tight end sets when Zach Miller was brought on, but he probably considered it a demotion of sorts, and didn't even make the usual noise about hoping to return to the 'Hawks. Justin Forsett wasn't offered a chance to compete for his backup job because they already knew he wasn't going to secure it; they gave him a chance to catch on in Houston.
You can't just swap out your starter and keep him on the team in the backup slot in most cases, with the exception of veterans who have lost a step but can mentor new guys. Generally, if you're going to elevate a backup you need to have adequate backup for the backup to move up the line. I would venture to guess, for this reason, that the roster churn and competition from now on will be mostly relegated to the second tier players.
Perhaps I'm just projecting the final roster a little too early. Maybe there will be some surprises as we're used to in the past. Maybe Korey Toomer beats out Leroy Hill. Maybe Sean McGrath supplants Kellen Winslow. Who knows? Maybe everything's really as open as Carroll seems to indicate it is. But the likely bet would be that we know the majority of the starting lineup, based on our high-performing starters from last year, and adding in our free agent acquisitions and high draft picks to fill the holes left by the middle-of-the-road performers. Our lower-round picks and UDFAs are almost certain competing to be backups, and the current backups competing to stay as the best possible depth. That's my expectation, at any rate.
I'm not suggesting that the Carroll competition mantra is a smokescreen or sham — only that we as fans have gotten used to it at a level that it's not meant to be practiced long-term. Competition for starting roster spots has certain parameters we haven't seen up to now.
The parameters are not as tight as other clubs; the Seahawks will still be running probably the most wide-open competitions out there. JC/PS do not take into account the contract size, acquisition cost, or fan popularity of a player in deciding who will start, which is an unusually disciplined approach. They can do that, in part, because they haven't sunk the kinds of costs into any one player (like a Kevin Kolb) that would create a tension between investment and return. Plus, the 'Hawks have been smart in restructuring the contracts of veteran players who are on the bubble to start, so they don't pay anyone too much to ride the pine. This front office doesn't face the fan pressure that other clubs do to make up for their sunk costs with playing time. (James Carpenter might test this theory, depending on when/at what position they bring him back to after injury.)
Still, the front office definitely has a bias in determining who will start based on something other than head-to-head training camp competitions for every position. I'd say, at year three of the PC/JS era, continuity has a role, as does age. Here's my back-of-the-envelope estimation of the Seahawks' line of thinking at the moment for who wins starting jobs (not that the coaches actually have this formula written down anywhere, but it would inform the gut feeling they have about a player's ability to start):
On a scale of 1-11, each player is ranked by X
X = (proven talent level, scale of 1-5) + (surmised talent ceiling, scale of 1-5) + (1 point for continuity) - (1 point if over 27, 2 if over 30)
Looking at some examples
Let's take Richard Sherman has an example. Last year he was third on the depth chart behind Trufant and Thurmond. He had a proven talent level of, say, 1. He was a wide receiver most of his career and was still learning to be a cornerback. Let's say the coaches saw in his instincts and in his studying ability the chance to become a level 4 corner. He would have had a score of 5 (1 + 4 + 0 - 0). Trufant, who, for the sake of argument was once a 4 or 4.5 but was now a 3.5, would have had a score of 7 (3.5 + 3.5 + 1 - 1). Trufant starts.
This past year, Sherman has proven on the field that he's at least a level 4, and with more game situations might even reach a 5. This year he gets a score of 10 (4 + 5 + 1 - 0). He starts — but only because he was able to get on the field due to two injuries. Even in the midst of "comPETE" he had to prove it on the live playing field, not the practice field, and I expect that to hold going forward.
What is really in flux during training camp competitions is the re-assessment of a player's talent ceiling. They've brought in a bunch a guys who they evaluated the best they could at a distance, and now it's time to re-assess up close and personal. For veterans, it's about looking for the confidence and leadership and smarts to take that next step forward, or perhaps recognizing that age or injury has lowered their ceiling. But the competition isn't really about absolute value vs. absolute value, but talent ceiling in conjunction with other factors. Having proved it on the field counts for a lot.
This formula shows why there is an open competition at QB this year: Again, these are only my gut feelings about players, but let's say that T-Jack is an average QB. That makes his score a 6 (3 + 3 + 1 - 1). Matt Flynn has proven very little in the NFL, but has done well in his chances to prove himself, so let's say he's a 2 there, and has a ceiling of 4 — not elite, but above average. That gives him a score of 6 as well (2 + 4 + 0 - 0). Russell Wilson, let's say, is a 1.5 in proven ability, bumped up from 1 because he mastered two different pro-style offenses, and let's say has a ceiling of 4.5 in Carroll's mind given the way he's gushed about Wilson. That also gives him a 6 as well (1.5 + 4.5 + 0 + 0), hence the three-way competition.
What we're looking at in this competition, then, is the coaching staff's judgment of who's going to prove themselves to be a half-point better in surmised talent ceiling. Does T-Jack look like he can kick it up to 3.5 with a full off-season? Does Matt Flynn look like he's only a 3.5 in this system, or is there a chance he'll take the step forward to 4.5 if given the keys? Is Wilson an absolute phenom who could take the NFL by storm and be one of the top 10 QBs, or is he really more of a 3.5 or 4 kind of player? T-Jack probably doesn't overcome either Flynn or Wilson on talent ceiling, but he's still taking snaps because of the other factors.
Let's see how a more settled competition shapes up: Turbin vs. Lumpkin vs. Taua for backing up Lynch. It's pretty clear that Turbin will take this role, but let's look at the scores:
Turbin gets a 5 (1 + 4 + 0 + 0)
Lumpkin gets a 4 (2.5 + 2.5 + 0 - 1)
Taua gets a 4 (1 + 3 + 0 + 0)
If Lumpkin shows himself to be better than he was in Tampa Bay, or Turbin finds his head spinning when adjusting to NFL ball, those numbers could change, of course. But right now they seem to line up with why they were brought in: Turbin to be the backup, Lumpkin as a could-be backup in case they couldn't grab a guy in the draft, and Taua as insurance. Every once in a while a player proves the scouting department wrong in their assessment, but it doesn't happen as often as you would imagine given how open the competitions are supposed to be. The scouts and GM are pretty good at their jobs in Seattle, and haven't totally whiffed at talent evaluation very often.
Now let's compare Chris Clemons with Bruce Irvin for a moment, and see why Clemons will still start this year (beyond that Pete said so):
Clemons gets an 8 (4 + 4 + 1 - 1)
Irvin gets a 5.5 (1 + 4.5 + 0 + 0)
Now, in 2013, the presumed numbers, when Irvin will presumably start, but Clemons might be worth hanging onto if we can sign him:
Clemons gets a 7 (4 + 4 + 1 - 2)
Irvin gets a 9.5 (4 + 4.5 + 1 - 0)
The formula tells us, and common sense tells us, that unseating an existing starting player who's good at his job is next to impossible — until he gets older, or injured for long enough, that the new talent is able to prove itself one way or the other. On-the-field production and continuity between players working together is of extremely high value.
The real competitions from year-to-year will be between the adequate players and the higher-upside rookies who have to prove their potential head-to-head. That's where new folks can break into the lineup, because their scores will be of mostly equal value. This is where the WR competition is at right now, with Sidney Rice and Doug Baldwin as locks, and a whole lot of unproven talent and struggling veterans battling it out for the remaining spots. I fully expect that whoever wins the slots this year will be set as starters for 2013 or sent packing next offseason, depending on how they perform.
This really feels like the last offseason where the starting roster has a lot of flux, and going forward it will be more locked down for guys to develop chemistry for a long run at a championship.
What does it all mean?
To some degree, given our constantly being hyped about "compete compete compete," the conclusion that there are parameters to a fully open competition is a letdown. We love the underdog getting his shot. Think of how people freaked out that a potential (at the time) QBOTF Whitehurst wasn't given a full competition last year — was Pete betraying his mantra? How were we supposed to know what we had in him if he couldn't compete? Always compete, right? But Carroll didn't need to see man vs. man on the practice field when he'd already figured out that a proven system fit > potential system fit. He was sticking up for continuity in that case.
"Continuity" isn't that sexy a buzzword. "Always continue" isn't very motivational. To me, "continuity" in the NFL brings to mind all those creaky teams who can't see when it's time to move on from their primetime guys as they fall into mediocrity. But, fortunately, all of our key players who we're relying on for the coming 5-year run are all young and tenacious. There can be a period of core continuity (with competition around the edges for the best depth available) without that meaning settling for mediocre cogs in the system who are just there to provide stability. Continuity can be about letting set a strong foundation that allows the team to rise higher than any single talent can take it.
The slowing down of truly competitive positional matchups doesn't have to be a bad thing, even if that means that some of the players we cut from here on out perform spectacularly for other teams. We've just gotten too good at identifying and bringing in talent for that not to happen. But there's a value in hanging onto our guys who are playing at a minimum of a level 4 on the field as long as they're young, even if it means we miss out on a 4.5 here or there. There's a major advantage to playing long enough with your teammates to be able to predict what they're going to do in a given situation without worrying about it, whether that's QB/WR communication or offensive line/running back or safety/cornerback, etc. I'm looking forward to a roster that, from here on out, will be allowed to gel together and grow together.
Get ready for the last training camp of some truly open competitions for a long while.