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Frank Clark is poised to become another Seahawks superstar. Should that change how we talk about him?

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The football field may be a place for relieving moral anxiety, but it can’t be a venue that resolves matters of right or wrong

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NFL: Preseason-Oakland Raiders at Seattle Seahawks Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

Beyond forgiveness
and beyond unforgiveness,
there is a field
amber with healing.
Who’s gonna meet you there?

~Jess Williamson, “Field”

There’s still no graceful way to talk about Frank Clark without addressing the questions about his behavior, the alleged assault on Diamond Hurt that caused him to get kicked off his college team or even how this offseason Clark tried to intimidate a reporter who had asked some of those questions. Thursday’s unnecessary roughness with Germain Ifedi doesn’t match the moral hazard of those earlier examples and probably shouldn’t add brushstrokes to the same character portrait, yet it was still enough for some fans to once again challenge Clark’s fitness as a member of an upstanding club like the Seattle Seahawks. Of course, there will also be another group of people moaning in the comments that “Clark hasn’t broken any laws as a Seahawk” or how he pled not guilty to charges he punched and choked Hurt and slammed her to the ground back in 2014 before later pleading to a lesser charge, so it’s somehow unreasonable to ever bring up. But I’m not here to argue worthiness of shreds of doubt or or tell you Clark ought to be in jail or cut by Pete Carroll.

However I do find it a bit strange to say how awesome Clark is going to be on the field for Seattle this year, which I am about to tell you, without acknowledging the difference between having this narrow conversation about his play and excusing or erasing any troubling behavior.

That should seem obvious, right? Many may already say you want your football to be somehow apart from the other thing, anyway, and be happy to move on from it without the ambiguity. That’s not what I’m talking about. I do like Frank Clark and we probably shouldn’t forever reduce him to a “symbol for the ongoing and pervasive tragedy of abuse and violence against women”, as John Morgan put it after Seattle drafted him. Despite his defensiveness about the issue, he has at least admitted making mistakes. I trust Clark wants to improve in public and private the rest of his life. Indeed I hope in the future we’ll be able to celebrate him the way we do, say, Warren Moon, or at least critique him for plain performance like we do Tom Cable, without always having to put their accusations in the first paragraph. But when Clark improves like I expect him to in 2017 and his new achievements do further eclipse the older more concerning narrative, I fully expect the glorification of those successes to become blended with some story of redemption for the latter—which is a problem.

These stories we tell about him aren’t necessarily Clark’s problem. It is not fair either to Clark to suggestively link the football position he plays, which demands aggression and attacking, literally refusing to be stopped, with sexual or domestic violence—or any criminal violence—although that unfortunate conflation does add to my discomfort about wanting him physically bullying and overpowering people even on the field.

But it turns out talking about these issues is really not about Clark; it’s talking about how we all treat each other. It’s about how we see ourselves and how we hope to be seen and hopefully how we can better see others. So the reason it’s important to recognize the decency conversation alongside the football one is to keep celebrating football from ever coming at the expense of learning how to be better people. Figuring out how to cheer for Frank Clark on the Seahawks is not a matter of whether you choose to forgive his past misconducts or refuse to forgive him—it’s about remembering that what happens on the field happens in a place beyond forgiveness, like the song says.

Jess Williamson uses that word forgiveness, but her lyrics are actually paraphrasing a much older poem, by the 13th century Sufi mystic Rumi. The full passage, popularly translated into English by Coleman Barks in the 1970s, goes like this: “Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there. When the soul lies down in that grass, the world is too full to talk about. Ideas, language, even the phrase ‘each other’ doesn’t make any sense.” Talking about moving beyond ideas of right and wrong in the sense of Clark’s history could be taken as a kind of sophistry about withholding judgment (or alternately, talking strictly football) that actually only ends up protecting or enabling bad deeds. However, Barks’s translation is indirect. Apparently in the original Persian Rumi’s words in that first line are closer to religion and infidelity.

We’re not here to discuss religion in the sense that Rumi meant 800 years ago, naturally, but fan faithfulness to a football team in 2017 can feel somewhat religious. Indeed one of the reasons many fans had difficulty with Seattle picking Frank Clark to begin with was because it seemed like the organization was unfaithful to its stated pillars and principles claiming no tolerance for domestic abuse. In turn, for those of us who like to worship the team for maintaining its sparkling social record, cheering for Clark may make us feel we’re betraying our own standards for ourselves and our chosen Seahawks community, our temple so to speak. We may even worry that, worse, embracing Clark could send a signal tacitly permitting the sort of violence he was accused of, thus violating also our own personal covenant to help our community do better. And that sucks.

But also, noticing this religious framework in the poem helps identify the second part, about lying down in the grass, as a sort of sexy invitation to an hypothetical emotional zone away from restrictions of chastity or prudishness, or spiritual consequences. Yet the last bit warns how such a place, no matter how ecstatic sounding, is still entirely in the abstract. A place where language doesn’t even mean anything. Ideas don’t mean anything. There’s no meaning there. It’s a pocket universe. And so likewise does discussing Frank Clark’s activities on the football field belong to such an abstraction—the field may be a place for healing, for briefly relieving the moral anxiety of a world too full to talk about, but however well he performs there and whatever that means for the Seahawks it just can’t be a venue that resolves matters of rightdoing or wrongdoing. Treating it as if it could, even by passive exemption, only lets us off the hook from our responsibilities to each other.

Now, with all that in mind, Frank Clark “was drafted because Clark should help the Seahawks win” like John Morgan said in 2015, and recently Morgan updated that to suggest: “What he can do over the next two seasons, what value he can provide as a top-tier pass rusher, could help Seattle win Super Bowls.”

Known for so long for their supreme secondary, a powerful year from Clark probably makes the Seahawks defensive line the best unit on the squad—if it isn’t already (Pro Football Focus ranked Seattle’s front seven best in the league for 2016). As a rookie, Clark mostly spelled Cliff Avril on the end of the line but also spent a lot of time rushing from the inside as 3-tech or nose tackle, according to Sam Gold’s video breakdown from this time last year. As Gold pointed out, Clark was not super effective rushing the quarterback from that position, as interior linemen often locked him up to neutralize him, but he was more in the role that became Jarran Reed’s in 2016—a sort of “prevent” guarding the middle lanes & absorbing blockers. But that was also while Bruce Irvin was still around; with Irvin gone and Reed now established, plus the additions of Nazair Jones and hopefully a healthy Quinton Jefferson and maybe at some point Malik McDowell the stacked defensive front rotation ought to further free Clark to go to town doing what he does best: chasing the passers.

That should also grant more rest to Michael Bennett and Avril, who played the great majority of plays in 2016 when both were healthy. Clark technically came in second in the group with more than 63 percent of all defensive snaps, since Bennett missed five games after getting his knee scoped in the middle of the year, but when Bennett was active Clark only got in on 54.4 percent of downs. Most of those (57 percent) were passing situations, and on third downs Kris Richard really let Clark loose: Of Clark’s 10 sacks in 2017 eight of them came on third down—third in the league for third-down sacks, slightly behind only the Miami DolphinsCameron Wake and Arizona CardinalsMarkus Golden with nine each.

Third down sacks are obviously huge: They single-handedly end drives and change field position. But getting sacks on first and especially second down may actually have more value by throwing the offense out of schedule and killing drives before they even start—conversions are nearly three times less likely after a sack on second down—and because they are rarer (less likely to be obvious passing downs). If Clark is able to be more of an every down player in 2017, his sack numbers and his contribution to the defense could rise immensely. He’ll still have to improve his run-stopping (the Seahawks’ yards per carry allowed cratered from 3.0 flat to 4.5 while Bennett was sidelined, when Clark had to play nearly 80 percent of downs) but the other meat on the interior will presumably take even more of that responsibility from Clark. He did create 14.5 tackles for loss in 2016.

Still, sacks are Clark’s true art and I’ve got a feeling in 2017 he’s going to paint his masterpiece. “He gets off the ball fast and he’s disruptive,” Avril said about Clark. “He plays reckless. He has my get-off and then he has Mike’s mindset as far as for being disruptive.” Clark’s sacks were pretty evenly distributed across the 2016 season but multiple analysts suggest Clark grew increasingly dominant late in the season, ruling the line of scrimmage and causing havoc in the season finale against the San Francisco 49ers and the playoff opener against the Detoit Lions. The fact he kept improving suggest even bigger things in the coming campaign.

Among players with double digit sacks in 2016, Clark was already seventh in the league in snaps per sack, ahead of Von Miller, Khalil Mack and Avril. And it makes sense. Before the 2015 draft Justis Mosqueda grouped Clark with the rushers who finished 1-2 in that category, Vic Beasley and Danielle Hunter, in a select group of “force players”—Mosqueda’s term for a highly predictive filter for determining successful edge players by their elite athletic measurables.

Considering Seattle got him very late in the second round “thanks” to his off-field concerns, that was always going to be an incredible value, which it’s partly so handy for the club if Clark breaks even closer to top of the table of NFL pass rushers in 2017: With one more year before his rookie contract runs out, it will be the optimal time to negotiate a second deal before Clark has a chance to peak or reach free agency. Hawkblogger’s Evan Hill guesses Clark could command $15-17 million per year on a medium-term extension. Or if they go the route they chose with Irvin and plan to let him test the market, considering how many other big contracts John Schneider is already juggling on defense, at least after 2017 the Seahawks get another year of club control on potentially one of the league’s most potent sack masters.

During the offseason Clark installed a classic arcade system in his house, but one of the reasons I expect him to further ramp up the number of quarterbacks and offensive blockers he puts on tilt this season is that he’s also been busy building improvements and upgrades to his own game. Clark has already been known to spend his time off watching film of classic pass rushers like Lawrence Taylor, and in 2017 he also made the trip with Cassius Marsh, Ahtyba Rubin and Quinton Jefferson to train on the beaches of Oahu with Bennett and Avril. Last year after it was publicized that Clark lost 15 pounds to get leaner and faster, many assumed it was so he could take his shot at filling Irvin’s multiple-dimensioned SAM role but 2016 proved instead that Clark changed his fitness purely to improve his pass rush performance. He also added more pass rush maneuvers to his arsenal, in response to times he got locked up by blockers on his bull rush his rookie year, like this clutch sack of Tom Brady in New England.

“Film reveals a high-motor player with the talent to whirl past tight ends and tackles into the backfield,” wrote NFL.com’s Marc Sessler last month. Our own Casey Castle praised Clark’s combination of strength and balance after the Detroit win: “One thing I’ve noticed about Clark’s pass rush, especially inside, a lot of time he gets in awkward positions especially when he’s trying to knife through and turns his shoulders. He does a great job of keeping his balance and staying on his feet, where a lot of guys probably wouldn’t. It’s not just his athleticism and quickness that helps here, but his strength to keep going and staying on his feet.” If he stays upright he’ll be applying those traits across an even greater portion of defensive plays this time as his role continues to expand and after another summer of workouts, I’ll be especially psyched to see what extra layers and tricks Clark has added to his game. Morgan rated Clark the most important for the 2017 season of Seattle’s “young core”, the players still on their rookie contracts. This is a huge year for Clark and there are a lot of indicators we could see him leap into being one of the most impactful performers on the team, if not the league.

For as long as he’s with the squad, the legacy of Clark’s past actions will always produce a complicated dilemma for Seahawks fans. But so long as we don’t mistake the abstraction of sack totals and fearsome highlights for some operatic vehicle for clemency, plus separate fierceness between the lines from any detachment from accountability for hostility outside the stadium, we should be able to enjoy Clark playing like a monster on the field.

How many opponents’ quarterbacks are going to meet him there?