The Seattle Seahawks have Benjamin Button disease.
It seems that as every year in the Pete Carroll/John Schneider era passes, they get younger rather than older. In 2009, the final year of Moruskell*, the Seahawks had an average age of ~27.4 years of age. The mentality in that regime was more like "Sign veteran players in an effort to field a decent team now," almost similar to the Bill Bavasi Mariner years that went so well.**
*Moruskell: A synonym meaning the time when Jim Mora was the head coach and Tim Ruskell was the GM OR an unpublished villain from Uncanny X-Men that was part man and part mollusk.
**That didn't go well, silly. I was being sarcastic.
That year, Seattle didn't only let their own players get older but they went out and signed a 32-year-old T.J. Houshmandzadeh, a 31-year-old Edgerrin James, a 36-year-old Lawyer Milloy, and a 30-year-old Ken Lucas. Seattle did let some older players go (Bobby Engram, Maurice Morris, Julian Peterson, Brian Russell, Mike Wahle) but ultimately the average age went up from ~26.8 to ~27.4.
In 2010, Scharroll* started to clean house a bit more. Gone were Nate Burleson, Seneca Wallace, Rob Sims, Darryl Tapp, T.J. and Josh Wilson. Deion Branch was also traded during the season. The inevitable retirements of Patrick Kerney and Walter Jones also made the team younger, but Scharroll wasn't making it a habit to get older either. They did add Chris Clemons, Leon Washington, and Charlie Whitehurst, but overall the average age dropped to ~27.
*Scharroll: A synonym meaning either the Pete Carroll/John Schneider era OR a long lost cousin of a character on Happy Days.
The drop became far more dramatic in 2011 after Seattle finally said goodbye to old guys Matt Hasselbeck, Brandon Stokley, Chris Baker, Olindo Mare, Lawyer Milloy, Junior Siavii, and Craig Terrill. Seattle's oldest player was Raheem Brock (33) but they only fielded seven players over the age of 30. And that included Jon Ryan, Clemons, Robert Gallery, Brock, Marcus Trufant, Atari Bigby, and Heath Farwell. Seattle's average age dropped to the third lowest in the NFL at ~25.5.
Davis Hsu has already addressed this trend in his piece on the Schneider/Packers model. What I want to do today while SBN is still operational for the time being, is pontificate (my word of the day) on what it means for the Hawks right now and in free agency and whether or not being younger even correlates to being better or worse.
Won't you pontificate with me?
Does being younger mean a damn?
Short answer: No.
Long answer: Nooooooooooooo?
Serious answer: It's funny just how opposite the two youngest teams in the league were. On one hand, you've got the 25-year-old Tampa Bay Buccaneers. I've already detailed how bad the Bucs were last year. On the other hand you've got the Davis Hsu Packers at ~25.3. They were pretty good, no? Considering that they lost to the Giants in the playoffs and that the Patriots, 49ers, and Falcons couldn't beat New York in the playoffs either, it seems fair that this year was just not going to be their year.
So just based on that, we can say that younger does not automatically mean better and may not even correlate to any success at all. The Giants and Patriots both had an average age of ~26.3.
The question should really be: At what age is a player his best? Is experience better than youth?
This article from The Sports Digest details some of what goes into a player being at "his peak" and focuses on quarterbacks, running backs, and wide receivers. Physically speaking:
"Muscle mass peaks at age 25 and then decreases by about 4 percent per decade until the age of 50." This peak includes the quick, explosive, and powerful movements needed for most positions on the football field, most notably at running back. Considering that nearly all positions in football require similar physical skills (strength, speed, power, quickness, etc.), albeit to different degrees and with different emphasis depending on position, we can generally say that football players have the most pure physical ability to be successful at or around age twenty-five.
Based on that, we can assume that most players will be in "their best shape" at age 25. However, I would say it's safe to assume that we can take either side of that hill as being in great physical condition and call it ages 23-27.
2011 Seahawks that will be over 27 next year include: Michael Robinson (29), Leon Washington (30), Mike Williams (28), Tarvaris Jackson (29), Ben Obomanu (29), Brandon Browner (28), Chris Clemons (31), Red Bryant (28), Raheem Brock (34), Marcus Trufant (32), and Gallery (32).
Of course, that's only physically speaking and some players prove to be an exception to the rule. What makes a player an exception?
In the case of Jerry Rice, his work ethic was legendary.
Terrell Owens played with Rice in San Francisco and has also enjoyed late career success. Owens, according to Breer (2007), puts in time studying to make himself a better player and sustain his excellence. He quotes Cowboys offensive coordinator as stating, "It's not just his talent and drive but also an aptitude for the game that Sherman, without being asked about it, called underrated. In the classroom, he studies; he asks questions, he works hard. I mean, you can see he's determined to be the best he can be."
In the case of Emmitt Smith, for example, he was aided greatly by the play of his Dallas Cowboy offensive line, which was widely regarded as the best in all of football.
Regarding quarterbacks, Elway won two Super Bowls and had statistical seasons comparable to the rest of his Hall of Fame career at ages thirty-seven and thirty-eight. Elway has always been known as a hard worker with a competitive edge unlike many other players. Some players seem to have a mental edge and competitive nature that sets them over the top in whatever they do.
This of course details some of the modern legends of the NFL, something that doesn't really apply to any Seahawks reaching their thirties. However, that doesn't mean that a good work ethic, a good mind, and making up for declining physical skills with experience can't be overcome to still be useful to a player over 30. It's just a matter of deciding which of those above players apply to that rule.
Looking over Seattle's current free agents, we can spot a few players that could go and make the team immediately (and significantly) younger: Trufant, Bigby, Brock, Bryant, Justin Forsett, Leroy Hill, Robinson and Charlie Whitehurst. Some of those players are virtual locks to not return, while others will have to be mulled over for awhile. Specifically Red Bryant and Leroy Hill.
Hill will be 30 next season, and while he may have just had his best season in 2011, can he be expected to improve or decline next season while potentially losing physical ability? What attributes does Hill have that would show potential to improve at age 30?
Red just completed his first full season but will be 28 and is already physically limited in what he can do. His greatest asset is the force he provides on the end and the ability to stuff the run or block a kick, but how much longer can he be expected to do that? One more year? Three?
In terms of the future of Mike Williams, Sports Digest had this to say about wide receivers:
Throughout history, wide receivers are able to maintain their performance for a longer amount of time than running backs. According to a thorough analysis by Fein (2009), "Receivers have the latest and longest peak of any skill position." Some of skills necessary for a wide receiver to be at his peak on-field performance are similar to a running back, but the receiver can utilize other non-physical peak skills such as the ability to catch the ball, and the knowledge and ability to run exact and precise routes to maintain his performance over a longer period of time.
Does BMW possess these skills: The ability to catch the ball and the knowledge and ability to run precise routes. Wide receivers that have played into their thirties normally seem to be "possession receivers" and NOT the classic number one, "big play" kind of guy. The Hines Wards and the Wes Welkers and the Brandon Stokleys that manage to stick around the league for a long time.
Williams should profile as a "possession receiver" because he doesn't stretch the field in the way that Sidney Rice does, but sure hands and precise route running didn't translate on the field last year. Realistically, will Golden Tate be able to step into his position full-time in 2012? If so, he'll be doing it at age 24, just coming into what should be his peak physical condition.
On the matter of free agent Marshawn Lynch:
The reason for the decline in performance by running backs after they turn thirty is most directly related to the decline in necessary skills after the athlete has reached his physical peak. While some other skills may be improved upon in order to maintain or even improve performance after their physical peak at age twenty-five, the most important factors in a running back are the purely physical characteristics such as speed, quickness, explosiveness, and power.
...running backs take much more of a physical beating over the course of an NFL season than any other skill position players. While the best wide receivers in the league may catch 100 passes in a season, the top running backs will carry the ball 250 – 350 times or more. Additionally, when a running back carries the ball, he is almost always hit and tackled by multiple large defenders, whereas a wide receiver will often be tackled by one small (as compared to linemen and linebackers) defensive back or simply run out of bounds.
The final note of this curse is that those twenty-seven players missed a total of four games during their 370 carry seasons, while they missed a combined 109 games the following season. Clearly the workload and pounding a running back endures takes its toll on his production.
Well, Lynch will be 26 next season, so he's not close to age 30 and he's never topped 300 carries in a season, let alone 370. The most important characteristics for a running back succeeding into his late 20's include: quickness, the ability to make cuts, explosiveness, and power.
Lynch and "explosiveness, power" go hand-in-hand. We should be able to expect that even though Lynch is past age 25, he can maintain effectiveness for another 3-4 years. How long of a contract that means, I don't know, but NFL contracts can always be back-loaded or keep a player happy with a nice sum of guaranteed money.
The only other free agent that anyone should really be concerned about re-signing is David Hawthorne. Well, I wouldn't say "concerned" so much as, it's going to be an interesting negotiation. Hawthorne is not an elite linebacker. He's not a great linebacker. He's a nice linebacker.
Hawthorne will be 27 next year, and like running backs, linebackers take the most beating on any given play even though they are usually delivering the blow. How much more can we expect Hawthorne to improve? What skills does he possess that would suggest he'll be better from age 27-30 than he was from age 24-26? And can his value be replaced by a low-cost rookie?
When looking at potential free agent signings, re-signings, and releases, age isn't something that should be overlooked and it doesn't appear that Scharroll is over-looking it either. They made some nice moves in free agency, but shied away from veterans. Sidney Rice was only 25 and Zach Miller was 26. Though Gallery is one of the oldest players on the team, we can assume that his relationship with Tom Cable was one factor, but that his position was another. Seattle still boasted the youngest offensive line in the game, something that could be a factor when they're looking for veteran (but not Lawyer Milloy age veteran) leadership in a unit that's younger than a Jonas Brothers concert.
Based on all of this, I believe that Seattle will not only still be one of the three youngest teams in the league but should get even younger. They'll almost certainly be replacing most of their over-29 players with new guys that are under 25. This is good news.
Over the next two seasons, the best players on this team will be 25 or younger: Earl Thomas, Russell Okung, Kam Chancellor, Richard Sherman, K.J. Wright, Walter Thurmond, Doug Baldwin, Golden, James Carpenter, and John Moffitt. Even if some of those players still have a lot of room to get better, the good news is that THEY HAVE A LOT OF ROOM TO GET BETTER. Because technically speaking they shouldn't be fully grown men yet.
So I go back to my original question again, now that we've looked over everything. Does being younger mean being better? The answer is a two-fold yes and no.
No, you can be young and still be Tampa Bay. Have terrible coaching, no off-season, and players that may or may not be taking full advantage of their youth in the locker room, the training room, or the study room.
But also, yes. If you have players that are 25 or under and working to get better and reach their maximum potential at their physical peak then you have really got something. This also should go with players over the age of 25 that use their mind, training, and maximizing their remaining skills to become team leaders.
Look at the Packers oldest players: Aaron Rodgers (28) had three years to learn the system before he ever made a start. He came into the game at his physical peak and now is using those physical tools along with his knowledge of the game to be one of the top three quarterbacks in the NFL. Donald Driver (36) isn't as good as he used to be, but great hands an route-running ability has made him a viable possession receiver that can still get it done in his mid-thirties. Charles Woodson (35) has been praised for his work ethic, has played through injuries throughout his career, and is basically the only exception that Ted Thompson has made in free agency. And he often looks like the same player now that he was in Oakland.
These are the basic building blocks to a successful young team. Know what you are signing up for when you sign a player and take age into account.
Seattle is probably going to get even younger in 2012, but as we saw when they improved in 2011 after a dramatic drop in average age, it doesn't mean they won't get a whole lot better.