All around him, heads were down almost as much as spirits.
Moments earlier, the Seahawks’ redemptive season ended with a 24-22 loss to the Dallas Cowboys in the wild-card round of the NFC playoffs deep in the heart of Texas. Pete Carroll then got to the heart of what he wanted his players to take out of their defying run to the postseason.
“You don’t ever lose if you get better,” the 67-year-old coach told his Seahawks late Saturday night. “You always have a chance to get back on course and get going again and there’s always something positive you keep building on.”
In his postgame press conference in a few mintues later I asked Carroll what was the biggest positive to come out of this 10-7 season and return to the playoffs, after he overturned the coaching staff, the defense and the offense’s philosophy?
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“Without question, it’s this connection that our guys have and their willingness to keep going the extra step, the extra mile, whatever it takes,” Carroll said. “It really comes down to these guys fighting to be great teammates. They care so much. ...
“These guys, that’s how they think and that’s how they operate. And it’s a great mentality, and it gives us a chance. Nobody thought we were going to be here, so we’re miles ahead of where expectations were. This doesn’t mean anything to me because that’s not my expectations; it was everybody else’s. But it still happened and it was important that it did, and we finished really well on the season.
“Six (playoff appearances) out of the last seven, it was a big deal. It wasn’t quite enough to get us at home in the playoffs, which we know is so valuable.”
Carroll’s not the only Seahawk who saw the brotherhood as this team’s most impressive trait.
“I think we have an amazing team. Aside from football, everything that we built was amazing: the foundation, the brotherhood, the love that we have for one another,” wide receiver Tyler Lockett said. “These are going to be relationships that will last a lifetime, not just a season or two and not for just through our careers. This is something that will be there for the rest of our lives.
“We’ve gotten so much closer as a group, as a unit helping each other throughout the problems of life that people don’t understand that goes on behind closed doors. The brotherhood that we built is so amazing. It’s kind of hard to describe. It’s kind of hard to talk about it. This is one of the closest groups I’ve ever been a part of.
“The way we talked. The way we communicated. The way we made sure everybody did the right things on the field and off the field, made sure there were no distractions and nobody was getting in trouble. That’s the stuff we truly care about. We want to be there for one another.”
So they have the unity Carroll demands as a prerequisite to future success.
Thing is, they aren’t all staying together.
The Seahawks have just 34 players under contract for 2019. That’s second-fewest in the league, four fewer than the woeful New York Jets. A full, in-season roster has 53 players.
The Seahawks have 14 players with expiring contracts due to become unrestricted free agents when the market and league year for 2019 open in March. The most prominent of those 14 free agents-to-br are Earl Thomas, Frank Clark and K.J. Wright.
Thomas has been gone from the team, probably forever, since he broke his leg in the win at Arizona in October, flipped off the team then went on injured reserve. His contract is ending without him getting the big-bucks extension or the trade he demanded when he held out until days before this season began. He’s heading to unrestricted free agency, with nothing apparently stopping him.
Clark’s rookie contract ended with Saturday’s loss. He had another sack at Dallas and finished with a career-best 15 sacks in 17 games. He stands to get a mammoth raise from the $940,000 he earned this season—perhaps up to $18 million per year in this passer-and-sack-the-passer league.
Clark is still only 25, likely on the cusp of his prime. He told me late Saturday he expects to be back with the Seahawks when minicamps begin in May.
“I think they are going to take care of it,” he said.
Carroll said last month the team is working on keeping Clark, and that he’s not going anywhere.
Wright is 29. He played in only six of the 17 games this season following knee surgery in August. He sees what the Seahawks have done—and not done—for Thomas and wonders what’s next for him.
When I asked him Saturday night what indications the Seahawks may have given him that they might re-sign him, the 2017 Pro Bowl outside linebacker said: “Nothing.”
“I want to be here. I’d love to be here. I love playing with this team, with (defensive coordinator Ken) Norton, with Bobby (Wagner, his All-Pro linebacking partner),” he said. “And I believe it would be in the team’s best interests if I stay here.
“I’m heading to free agency. We’ll see how that goes.”
Kicker Sebastian Janikowski is another unrestricted free agent. The 40-year-old just finished his 19th season by severely injuring his hamstring trying to kick a 57-yard field goal at the end of the first half of Saturday night’s loss. He seems unlikely to return, so the Seahawks will likely be shopping for a third kicker in three seasons since they let Steven Hauschka go to Buffalo in free agency after the 2016 season.
Forty percent of the starting offensive line is headed to unrestricted free agency, unless they team re-signs it first. Both right guard D.J. Fluker and left guard J.R. Sweezy, who played through a broken bone in his foot Saturday night, have said they want the Seahawks to re-sign them.
Others due to be unrestricted free agents include running back Mike Davis, nickel defensive back Justin Coleman, often-injured defensive end Dion Jordan, defensive tackle Shamar Stephen and special-teams captain Neiko Thorpe,
Seattle has nine players who can become restricted free agents. The team has the right of first refusal to any offer each such player might receive elsewhere, if he doesn’t sign back with the Seahawks first. Those nine are: running back J.D. McKissic, who caught a touchdown pass on fourth down late in the playoff loss, cornerback Akeem King, fullback Tre Madden, cornerback Kalan Reed, center Joey Hunt, tackle George Fant, defensive end Branden Jackson, defensive tackle Quinton Jefferson and defensive end Ricky Ali’ifua.
The Seahawks also have six, younger players they can retain and likely will as exclusive-rights free agency. They are: reserve middle linebacker Austin Calitro, who started five games this season when Wright was out, wide receiver Malik Turner, long snapper Tyler Ott, offensive tackle Elijah Nkansah, free safety T.J. Mutcherson, Jordan Simmons. The 10 players who ended this season on the practice squad are also exclusive-rights free agents. That’s wide receiver Keenan Reynolds, cornerback Jeremy Boykins, wide receiver Caleb Scott, cornerback Simeon Thomas, safety Marwin Evans, tight end Tyrone Swoopes, linebacker Justin Currie, center Marcus Henry, quarterback Alex McGough and guard Jordan Roos.
The only way an exclusive-rights free agent won’t be on the team for at least the 2019 offseason when rosters are up to 90 players is if Seattle decides to not tender him contract.
Carroll and general manager John Schneider have not been big spenders on splashy free agents from around the league in their nine years leading the Seahawks. And they have to extend quarterback Russell Wilson’s and All-Pro linebacker’s Bobby Wagner’s contracts at some point sooner than later; both end after the 2019 season.
But they have more to spend this offseason than in past ones.
The Seahawks currently stand to have $63.1 million in space under the league’s salary cap for the coming year, according to overthecap.com. That’s ninth-most in the NFL. That’s based on projections the league’s cap will rise to $187 million-$191 million per team next season.
So, no, the team that impressed Carroll with unifying isn’t the same one that will be trying to win again in 2019.
Replicating that will take time.
“This has been a special, special year with the growth of our team, the men in the locker room and the way we played together,” Wilson said, “eliminating the doubters and the things that we could only do.”