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I would rather rebuild after a winning season than a losing season

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Washington Pro Day Photo by Alika Jenner/Getty Images

Editor’s warning: This post ends up as overly long, meandering, and has multiple sections with bulletpoints. I’d just as soon scrap it but as things are, I might as well post it rather than lose 3,000 words because OH WELL. I’m able to put out a few thoughts in the universe that I’ve had and there will never be a better time than now to post it.

18 months ago I wrote that I didn’t believe rebuilds — at least as we know them — exist in the NFL. The broad stroke reasons are simple:

  • There’s not enough time — MLB has a whole farm system where you can look five years down the road. NFL head coaches, most of them, know that they can’t even string together more than back-to-back losing seasons without fearing for their jobs. If ever there was a head coach who’d be praised for tanking his franchise into rebuilding success, it was Hue Jackson, who went 1-31 and secured both Myles Garrett and Baker Mayfield for the Browns, plus three other first round picks in two years. Jackson was fired and the “rebuild” effort is at least another year away, perhaps with the fourth different head coach in three seasons.
  • Players don’t last long enough. Similar to not having enough time, there aren’t many players who are consistently great every season; consider how many names have come through the doors since Pete Carroll arrived, among hundreds of them, and stuck around for very long? Even the ones who succeeded. Would you trade Jarran Reed’s performance in 2018 for his performance in 2019 right now? Would you want the Seahawks to be able to turn to a 2015 Thomas Rawls at this stage? Or even throwing to Will Dissly? A team that thinks its great might lose its star player to injury. A team that thinks its got a core set to get them to four or five Super Bowls (2018 LA Rams) may instead be out of the playoffs and staring dead on at no draft picks or cap space. You can’t fit the 2020 and 2021 puzzle pieces together when you don’t know that you won’t lose or damage some of your puzzle pieces before next season.
  • You actually never know when you might turn into a contender. I think that the 2017 Philadelphia Eagles are a great example of a team that I thought won a Super Bowl one year earlier than I would have expected them to. But Carson Wentz turned it on in year two and the defense really flipped around quickly, which is something we know we can expect every year from a few surprise defenses. The Buffalo Bills are going to be in the playoffs with a top-3 defense, should they have been in the middle of a “rebuild” right now and avoided adding Frank Gore, Cole Beasley, John Brown, and Mitch Morse? The Tennessee Titans have been a hot team that everyone is pleasantly surprised to see contending with Ryan Tannehill, what if they had been focusing more on “rebuilding” coaching and depth chart decisions? The San Francisco 49ers “rebuild” basically centers around the coaching/GM change in 2017, the trade for Jimmy Garoppolo, and then slotting the proper personnel in place to go from 4-12 to first place. There actually weren’t many changes year over year other than getting Garoppolo and a couple other players back from injury and the drafting of Nick Bosa.
  • (I bet you didn’t think the first bulletpoint section would come this soon.)
  • Yes, Bosa was the second overall pick, but Solomon Thomas was third overall. How do you differentiate when your tanking year lands you Bosa or lands you Thomas? And more importantly, what’s a crappy team with a great young player? It’s a crappy team with a great young player for at least another year or two. Cases in point: Garrett, Saquon Barkley, Jamal Adams, Christian McCaffrey, Joey Bosa, Jalen Ramsey, and so on and so on and so on and so forth. Hey look, your team was “rebuilding” and drafted Baker Mayfield, while this other team was “not rebuilding” but “hey what the hell, we’ll take Lamar Jackson anyway.” You never need to be in the top-3 to find a franchise player and in fact, maybe picking in the top three makes it even more difficult to foster and develop a prospect into a franchise player.

Stephon Gilmore in Buffalo: He’s a pretty decent corner. Stephon Gilmore in New England: He’s the best cornerback in the NFL.

With all that being said, the Seattle Seahawks may fit every definition of a “rebuild” except for one important thing: they are 11-4 and remain in the hunt for the number one seed in the NFC, and at the most obvious, are competing to win the NFC West. And I think that is 100% the best way to “rebuild” in the NFL.

When the Seahawks originally built themselves into the juggernaut we saw from 2012-2015, bookending two Super Bowl appearances with two really dominant seasons that had heartbreaking finishes in the divisional round, they did so with the 2010, 2011, and 2012 drafts. The only top-10 pick in any of those drafts was Russell Okung, a key piece although one who missed half of the 2013 championship season. The other top-20 picks were Earl Thomas and Bruce Irvin.

When Seattle turned things around in late 2012, they did so with exactly two top-10 picks on the roster: Okung and Braylon Edwards. a very minor contributor. In fact, Edwards was cut a week before the 58-0 demolition of Arizona.

The only first round picks were those two, Thomas, Irvin, James Carpenter, Marcus Trufant, and Marshawn Lynch. Of course, Lynch was a veteran who the Seahawks acquired at a cost much lower than the 12th overall pick. A team doesn’t have to be bad to acquire Lynch. Any team could have done it.

The 2012 Seahawks had as many Carroll first round picks (Thomas, Okung, Carpenter, Irvin) as it did Carroll fourth round (Robert Turbin, Walter Thurmond, Jaye Howard, K.J. Wright) and sixth round (Jeremy Lane, Byron Maxwell, Winston Guy, Anthony McCoy) picks. Not all of those players were significant contributors, but then they could turn to fifth rounders like Kam Chancellor and Richard Sherman, or second rounders like Bobby Wagner, Golden Tate, and Max Unger, a holdover from the previous regime.

Or a third round QB.

Drafting in the top-10 helped Seattle land their left tackle. Drafting high might increase your odds of drafting Okung but it does not preclude you from drafting someone like Ryan Ramczyk. The New England Patriots haven’t drafted in the top 20 since Nate Solder (17th) in 2011, and haven’t drafted in the top 10 since Jerod Mayo (10th) in 2008. They haven’t drafted in single digits since Richard Seymour (6th) in 2001. They’re doing quite well.

The Pittsburgh Steelers, who chose to take the risk of giving up the 2020 first round for Minkah Fitzpatrick despite many thinking they’d tank after losing Ben Roethlisberger, traded up to 10 for Devin Bush last year but hadn’t picked in the top 10 since Plaxico Burress (8th) in 2000. The last time previous to that was Tim Worley (7th) in 1989. Pittsburgh is also a successful franchise.

The allure of a sexy draft pick seems to compel the idea that any sort of rebuild requires a terrible season, but I don’t think that a terrible season does a franchise any favors. Terrible can only feed off of being terrible, and it struggles to grow in an environment of success.

“Suffering is necessary until you realize it is unnecessary.” - Eckhart Tolle

When the Seahawks went on the run they did in 2012 with Russell Wilson, Marshawn Lynch, and the Legion of Boom, it inspired a sense of belief in Seattle as the “next” team everyone wanted to tune their game pass and Sunday Ticket to.

Including players.

Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril signed for deals that even if they weren’t “below” their market, they could have signed those deals just about anywhere. And the idea that they both signed up to share time with each other and Chris Clemons, Red Bryant, was telling. The same may have also been true of Tony McDaniel, also a free agent signee in 2013.

The number of first round picks on the team actually dropped by one and Edwards’ place was swapped out for Percy Harvin, a virtual non-contributor to the 2013 regular season. (I get it, he made the score go from 22-0 to 29-0. I know.) And in a year of perhaps the worst draft class during Pete’s tenure, Seattle won the Super Bowl.

Even when the 2014 draft class produced one notable contributor in 2014 (Justin Britt), the Seahawks fell a play short of another championship.

The 2010 team went 7-9 and won a playoff game, drafting late first and taking Carpenter in 2011 instead of going 6-10 and potentially selecting Robert Quinn, as the St. Louis Rams did. There were a lot of good players in that range. But Seattle won the Super Bowl shortly thereafter anyway.

The teams picking in the top 15 that year who have won the Super Bowl since include: The Denver Broncos (2, Von Miller) ... and that’s it. The Patriots were 17th with Solder and the New York Giants picked Prince Amukamara 19th overall; Amukamara was not much help during their Super Bowl run that year.

Or in any year after.

Point being: What are examples of teams that were really bad because they were “rebuilding” and then became Super Bowl champions?

Not the 6-time champion Patriots. Not the Steelers, who won two in this century. Not the 2012 Ravens, who went to the playoffs in each of the previous four years. The 2007 Giants won the Super Bowl after back-to-back playoff appearances, and the 2011 Giants won the Super Bowl having been seven years removed from the team’s last losing season. The 2015 Broncos took two offseasons after the 2013 Super Bowl to rebuild a defense and never had to struggle to get there. The 2017 Eagles didn’t have to suck to get Carson Wentz — if that’s what you believe turned them around — they only had to trade up.

And when you total all of the teams who have been bad or are rebuilding, what’s the ratio for every team that wins a Super Bowl to every team that just kept being bad or mediocre? Even when you include Super Bowl losers and conference championship game appearances, what’s the ratio then? How does that ratio compare to the teams that contend every year, even in the years when they aren’t “dominant”?

We think of New England as a defensive powerhouse now because they’ve had a great season on that side of the ball and Bill Belichick is a legend, but the truth is that they struggled on defense pretty much every year from 2010-2018. They won three Super Bowls in that time. The Patriots have done a great job of masking their down years, and while that can be partly attributed to their division and conference, it also shows that consistency is possible even when you don’t have high draft picks and don’t have a formidable roster every season.

How many veterans balk at the idea of going to the Patriots? What’s the value in being good enough to attract free agents vs being bad enough to pick in the top-5?

Again, a bad team with a top-5 pick is still a bad team.

If you think the Seahawks are a “bad team” right now given the personnel losses over the last couple of years and even in the last couple of months to injury, would it be better to have seen them struggle to a 6-10 record with a higher pick or, in the current worst case scenario, become the 5 seed and get ousted immediately in the wild card round?

I think being a playoff team is always better. Always.

The Seahawks will enter the 2020 offseason with a ton of uncertainty, at least from where us outside of John Schneider’s office can see. And Schneider certainly has an ideal plan for how things will unfold between extensions, letting certain players walk, trades, free agency, and the draft. The only thing that could change that plan would be the exit of Pete Carroll, but even that wouldn’t happen without Carroll giving him plenty of notice. I don’t even think there’s a person in place who could fire Carroll?

The ideal plan is most easily executed for a team that is contending in the playoffs than one that is not.

  • Free agents on the defensive line include Jadeveon Clowney, Ziggy Ansah, Jarran Reed, Quinton Jefferson, and Al Woods. Clowney has all the leverage of being an unrestricted free agent and so Seattle’s best bargaining chip may be success and an opportunity to contend. He can sign for a lot of money just about anywhere that has money, but few teams with money are going to be coming off of a 12-4 or 11-5 season and this is the team he’s already known.
  • Free agents on the offensive line include Mike Iupati, Germain Ifedi, and George Fant, while D.J. Fluker and Justin Britt’s contracts could be terminated, and Duane Brown is going to be 35. In this case, the attraction of free agents, perhaps even just veteran ones like Iupati and Fluker were, could be heavily predicated on selling them of playing for a contender and protecting a Hall of Fame caliber QB.
  • Tre Flowers, Shaquill Griffin, Bradley McDougald, and Quandre Diggs serve as further examples of Pete getting more out of a defensive back than his original value at acquisition. This may help sell free agent or undrafted defensive backs on the idea of coming to the Seahawks.
  • I believe that Seattle will make another offseason splash again next year and the most likely belly flop target in my mind is at wide receiver or tight end. The team lost a lot when it lost Will Dissly and unfortunately we can’t rely on that not happening again. Trade targets could be any number of players, but just like with Clowney, they may be more receptive knowing that it’s a Seahawks team coming off of a playoff season than one that’s “rebuilding” in the typical sense. Veteran free agent tight end options like Eric Ebron, Tyler Eifert, and Hunter Henry may lack that “splash” factor but they’d probably rank high for fans in terms of what will be out there. Austin Hooper is also set to be a free agent and maybe he’d like to consider a more successful version of what Dan Quinn has been trying to do.
  • Should Carroll decide to make changes on his staff again, I’m sure he’ll have a line out the door and nobody’s coming into Seattle thinking they have to fix an unmitigated disaster. Carroll was once a step ahead of everyone else in the league and then league snapped back with a taste of his own medicine mixed in with some ingredients he didn’t care to use. Those ingredients are his undoing according to many experts on the far side of a “What’s happening?” box but in their current position the Seahawks can mix in a proven winning formula with some new ideas. Is this better than having one bad season and trying to reignite the same personnel with a new coaching staff, as some seem to be hoping for?

I unfortunately only have some anecdotal evidence because I don’t know what criteria to use for the empirical argument, but this is one thought I have to offer:

The San Francisco 49ers went 13-3 with Jim Harbaugh, then 11-4-1 with a Super Bowl appearance, then 12-4. After one 8-8 season, the turmoil between Harbaugh and the front office was enough for the two sides to separate and so the Niners had an opportunity to ignite the same basic roster with a somewhat fresh take in 2015. “Somewhat” because Jim Tomsula had been promoted from defensive line coach and kept many assistants, including promotions of Geep Chryst to offensive coordinator and Eric Mangini to defensive coordinator. With many of the same players, San Francisco dropped to 5-11. A hard reset came with Chip Kelly in 2016 and they went 2-14. That led to a third coaching change, this time Kyle Shanahan, and the Niners went 10-22 in his first two seasons.

After attempting to be successful without Harbaugh and with much of the rest unchanged, the 49ers fell into a pit that left them 17-47 in four seasons afterwards, including two of the worst campaigns in franchise history.

Now was it both worth it and necessary for them to drop off the map of relevance for four years all because of one mediocre year?

In my opinion, it’s never good to be bad.

“I’m bad, and that’s good. I will never be good, and that’s not bad. There’s no one I’d rather be than me.” - Wreck-It-Ralph

If you believe that Seattle is bad this year in spite of their record, that’s okay too. Maybe you’re right. It’s acceptable to be bad if you are willing to look in the mirror and accept what you are, and I am sure we’ve seen moments like this become the downfall of many franchises, but there isn’t any evidence that I know of that Pete Carroll is unwilling to accept when the team is bad.

Carroll knows how many points the team has scored, how many points they’ve allowed, and that the difference between each total is only 12. If his focus is on winning and losing more so than it is on point differential, good on him. Jason Garrett’s not going to slam down a piece of paper on Jerry Jones’ desk that says “+82” and expect it to matter.

But given that Carroll took over perhaps the worst team in the league in 2010, got them a playoff win that season, and continued to grind in 2011 as if he had a bad team, I suspect Carroll is not the ignorant idiot that “What’s happening?” box coaches tend to imply. In fact, every offseason seems to show that Carroll is aware of what works about his team, what doesn’t, and how to best address those issues within the confines of the cap.

Does it always work? Absolutely not. Largely because so much success is predicated on luck, but partly because not all well thought out plans work. If there is a 32-team ranking of plans from best to worst, only one team can be number one. You could have the seventh-best plan and have it portrayed as if you had the seventh-worst.

“In 2019, the Seahawks lost Earl Thomas in free agency and we know that there was a time during his career when he would have happily signed an extension with the team.”

This sounds bad.

“In 2019, the Seahawks traded a third round pick and two players that were perhaps on the fringe of the roster for Jadeveon Clowney.”

This sounds good.

People who already dislike Carroll’s plan over the last 2-3 years are likely to say, repeat, or retweet the first sentence and not the second. People who already like Carroll and the way he does things are more likely to repeat the second phrase and ignore the first. Or in either case, they might spin the non-favorable sentence into something that sounds more favorable.

“Thomas dug his own grave.”

“Clowney ends up as a rental for a team that had terrible pass rush and run defense.”

It’s all a matter of the perspective you entered the conversation with, but what everyone should be able to agree on is that Seattle hasn’t seemed to field as strong of a team as they did in years like 2012, 2013, 2014, and 2015. Why? There are many factors, including the loss of a lot of good players , injuries, and a difficult schedule. In a division that didn’t include the reigning NFC Champions and the 49ers, maybe the Seahawks are still 11-4 but people “feel” that their record is more reflective of the product. If they weren’t one of the most injured teams in the NFL this year, maybe we get to see what a team at full strength looks like. One that has Shaquill Griffin, Jadeveon Clowney, and Duane Brown playing against the Cardinals.

Regardless of the reasons, Seattle still reflects many characteristics of a team in a “rebuild” other than one: they don’t suck. They’re 11-4 and the Seahawks still have an outside shot at the number one seed. In a “rebuild year” Seattle could sneak off with the Lombardi trophy. Or they could take a swift exit in the wild card round. But they’re entering the 2020 offseason, a period that should be expected to be among their most active in Carroll’s tenure, on a note of “how do we make what we’ve got better” rather than “how do we get good to begin with.”

The Seahawks look like a team that’s already been counted out but the mentality of a franchise that never believes they are. That should make it easier for them to stay where they are with a better team than having to do all the work of climbing back up again.

“When you have a strong foundation, it’s easier to build from the top.” - Me trying my hardest to fit in with Eckhart Tolle and Wreck-It-Ralph.