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Defining what it means to “waste” a great athlete’s prime

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Divisional Round - Seattle Seahawks v Green Bay Packers Photo by Quinn Harris/Getty Images

Earlier this week I saw that former Seattle Mariners pitcher Felix Hernandez had signed a minor league contract with the Atlanta Braves, with the hope that he can join their rotation as the fifth starter.

I am not a baseball fan, but I lived in Seattle long enough to loosely follow the Mariners and I have enough baseline knowledge of the game to know that King Felix is a freaking legend. His sole Cy Young Award was won with just a 13-12 record — while he was at (or near) the top of every meaningful statistical category, the 2010 Mariners responded in kind by giving him literally the league’s worst run support. That’s like Cortez Kennedy winning NFL Defensive Player of the Year on a 2-14 Seahawks team that had arguably the worst offense the league has ever seen.

As you all know by now, Hernandez has never pitched in the playoffs. At least Ichiro Suzuki, Edgar Martinez, Ken Griffey Jr, and many other Mariners greats have at least experienced an ALCS. The Mariners have the longest drought of postseason appearances across all four major North American sports leagues (NFL, MLB, NBA, NHL). Only in 2014 were they reasonably close to even making the relatively new Wild Card Game, finishing a game behind the Oakland Athletics for the second WC spot.

Hernandez has battled injuries and is pretty much washed up, which is a damn shame for someone who’s only 33 years old. The Mariners were blessed to have him for the entirety of his prime and through gross front office incompetence, usually were not in any sort of playoff contention by July.

Now what the hell does this have to do with football, and more specifically the Seattle Seahawks? Let me explain before I end up writing way more about baseball than ever intended.

When the Seahawks were bounced by the Green Bay Packers, Pete Carroll’s future was once again brought up. Yes, he’s the best coach in franchise history, but is he really the right man to guide Russell Wilson at the peak of his career? USA TODAY’s Steven Ruiz argued in favor of moving on from Carroll because of his seemingly inflexible approach to winning football games. The Athletic’s Ben Baldwin examined the cases for and against retaining Pete.

Now I have been very critical of Carroll’s coaching strategies and his ridiculously conservative 4th down decisions, trusting a defense he no longer has over a quarterback who has blossomed into a legitimate MVP candidate. What used to work in 2013 conclusively doesn’t work in 2020.

The real question to be answered is, “What does it mean to waste Russell Wilson’s prime?”

The Legion of Boom is gone and this is undeniably Wilson’s team. At the same time, the Seahawks have not been particularly close to getting back to even the NFC Championship Game since 2015. They have trailed by multiple possessions for all but one offensive drive in the second halves of all three Divisional Round exits, and that one drive ended in a punt in their own territory against the Packers. The 2017 season aside, recent Seattle teams have simultaneously been “in contention” by virtue of making the playoffs and “not serious contenders” by getting mostly blown out with an NFC Championship berth at stake.

It’s not an indictment of Wilson nor should it be; he has been magnificent even in playoff losses. One can only assume that “wasting Wilson’s prime” implies that it would be a failure to not win (or at least get to) another Super Bowl with a quarterback we perceive to be a generational talent and a future Hall of Famer.

I can understand being disappointed if the Seahawks never win another Super Bowl with Wilson, and if you’re being honest with yourself, a lot of it stems from what happened at the end of XLIX. Seattle was in legitimate discussion to be the NFL’s next dynasty, and with one yard to go to become a repeat champion, Malcolm Butler sparked a second New England dynasty. Perhaps if one ring is all Seattle musters out of this group — especially if Richard Sherman and/or Earl Thomas win Super Bowls elsewhere — we could see history remember the Seahawks more as “the dynasty that wasn’t” and not one of the great Super Bowl-winning teams of this era.

Newsflash: Winning a Super Bowl is not as easy as the Patriots have made it look. Getting to the Super Bowl isn’t much easier!

Drew Brees has not been to a Super Bowl since winning it in 2009. He has alternated between missing the playoffs — three straight 7-9 seasons from 2014-2016 included — and heartbreaking postseason exits. Has his prime been wasted by the much-heralded Sean Payton and the Saints?

Aaron Rodgers won the Super Bowl the year after Brees did. Not only has he not been back in the big game, two of those three NFC Championship Game defeats were over by halftime. Has his prime been wasted by the Packers?

If Peyton Manning’s neck injury was career-ending and he was forced into retirement in 2011, did the Colts waste his prime by only winning one Super Bowl in over a decade’s worth of one of the greatest quarterbacks of all-time?

The only non-Tom Brady quarterbacks to start multiple Super Bowls since 2001 are Kurt Warner, Ben Roethlisberger, Peyton Manning, Eli Manning, and Russell Wilson. That’s it. Warner is already in the Hall of Fame, Peyton will be in Canton, Roethlisberger and Eli both might get in despite neither man ever getting an All-Pro nod. There are only a handful of starting QBs with multiple rings, and the majority of them played in a much less parity-driven era of football.

This isn’t to say that the rest of Wilson’s prime can’t be “wasted.” If the Seahawks spend the next several years in the same situation as Philip Rivers and the San Diego/Los Angeles Chargers, then that’s a damn shame. There’s no benefit to having Wilson on a consistently mediocre, exceedingly irrelevant team. Granted, Rivers has often played his own role in the Chargers’ failures, but he’s been a very good if not great quarterback who’s only been to the playoffs twice since 2010. You could make the case that Dan Marino’s prime was wasted by making the Super Bowl in his historic second season and then never getting back to the big game for the rest of his illustrious career, but even he reached the playoffs in more than half of his 17 seasons.

Outside of injury to Wilson or a bombardment of injuries to the next several key players on the roster, the goal for the Seahawks for the duration of Wilson’s prime should always be a Super Bowl run. There are valid concerns over the roster construction, the coaching philosophy, and the overall process despite the mostly successful, playoff-producing results. You could have a different discussion over whether Carroll is properly maximizing Wilson’s talents (which in turn would make the team better), but I do think that’s still largely separate from debating whether the Seahawks are wasting the best years of Russell Wilson.

For me, wasted excellence looks like Felix Hernandez. If you’re of the opinion that winning just one Super Bowl and getting to two is an underachievement with a quarterback of Wilson’s caliber, then a lot of all-time greats have wasted their careers too.