As one of the most formidable defenders in the NFL, Seahawks DE Michael Bennett has a ruthless desire to bring mayhem to opponents’ game plans. As one of the most thoughtful players in NFL, he has a refined sense of threat to his earning power that occurs with every snap of the ball. To him, it’s never a game, or a practice — it’s a job.
So when something happens that he thinks unnecessarily jeopardizes the job, he’ll get ruthless, even among his own.
“That drives me insane, especially if we’re on the same team,” he told reporters after practice Monday. “I don’t really treat the game like a game. I treat it like a job, in the sense of feeding my family. If I feel like somebody’s doing something to injure, I feel like he’s taking food out of my daughter’s mouth or my wife’s, so I take that to heart.”
That’s why he went a little nuts Sunday on LT Bradley Sowell during a one-on-one pass rush drill. The pair tangled moments after Sowell threw down DE Josh Shirley with unnecessary vigor. On the next play, Bennett went hard after Sowell, a veteran free agent signed in the off-season from Arizona who sees an opening in Seattle to be a starter, but was also a perpetrator of “dirty kind of plays,” according to Bennett.
They hit the ground. Bennett hurled punches. The pair had to be separated. When WR Doug Baldwin attempted to calm Bennett, he was swung on, too. Bennett circled the scrum to get after Sowell again before being pushed away. Neither Sowell nor Bennett, who tossed his helmet, practiced again.
It was the most dramatic in a series of scuffles Bennett has had in training camp with offensive linemen, the unit under the biggest pressure to get good, fast.
But by the end of practice, Bennett and Sowell were seen walking off together, talking. By Monday, Bennett and Sowell had lunch to air out matters.
“Just two people competing,’’ Sowell told the Seattle Times. “Those are two personalities that when they go against each other it can be very vicious. We both like to win. It’s honestly an honor to go against someone like Michael Bennett. It’s going to make me so much better.”
The natural speculation is that something is bugging Bennett, and that something would seem to be his inability to improve his contract before next season. While no one disputes his notion that he has out-performed his contract — according to spotrac.com, Bennett and fellow Seahawks DE Cliff Avril are tied for 27th among D-linemen in total contract value — he knows that Seahawks club policy is not to re-do deals prior to the final year.
The fact that Bennett didn’t hold out of camp strongly suggests he understands that. But Bennett’s dismay is likely about a subject that’s a little more subtle but equally as intractable — he’s on the wrong side of 30 in a younger man’s game.
He’ll be 31 in November, which is youthful almost anywhere but women’s gymnastics and the NFL.
He was 27 when he first became a full-time starter in Tampa, his final year with the Bucs, and was a backup his first year in Seattle behind Chris Clemons. He’s a late bloomer.
After his second Seahawks season, he earned a $28 million, four-year deal, which was a remarkable score, considering he was an undrafted free agent who made the Seahawks’ 2009 roster under coach Jim Mora, but was cut.
Since then, he’s become a star and a media darling. But he still hasn’t reached the big reward of an NFL contract in his prime. For that, he has to emerge intact through this season, which he hopes will conclude in his hometown of Houston, the host for Super Bowl LI.
Things are lining up for Bennett to make a third Super Bowl in four years. But not if some O-lineman in training camp does him dirty.
He knows coach Pete Carroll is unsentimental when it comes to building a roster. If Bennett is limping into or out of the season, he’s vulnerable, no matter his history.
“It’s different if we’re on a different team, but we’re on the same team,” Bennett said. “I feel like we should respect each other, where we aren’t trying to hurt each other. I think everybody’s a valuable part of the team. Everybody should be treated ‘valuably.'”
Bennett went on to talk about a “code” among NFL players to play to win, not to injure. That may come as news to many in earlier generations of NFL players. But with the growing awareness of the long-term debilitation from concussions, Bennett and some of his colleagues have finally become champions of safety.
“A lot of guys think there’s a lot of problems in the NFL when it comes to injuries,” he said, “but a lot of the time I feel like it’s the players who can really control what happens to each other.
“I think there’s a code where we have to find that line, when it becomes more about the other person’s safety than it is about the game. I think that’s where it goes to, about the person’s family. I think that’s the fine line in the NFL.”
Code or not, Sowell and Bennett apparently reached an understanding.
“I respect him,” Bennett said. “I would never do anything like that to him, so I think after I approached him and let him know my mindset, how I approach the game, he understands why he shouldn’t do that kind of stuff.”
But Bennett also seemed aware that his actions in camp have caused chatter, which he tried to dismiss by suggesting he was not an impulsive hothead.
“I don’t feel much urgency — I’m getting younger by the day,” he said. “I’ve decided to live a stress-free life, I mean, peaceful. The more peaceful you are, the less stressful you are, the younger you are. I think that’s where you need to be, to not feel old when you’re getting older. So I work really hard to be peaceful.
“Why be stressed out? I’m young, I’m black and I’m rich in America. I cannot complain.”
Chuckles ensued, as they often do with Bennett. Then he was asked how a peaceful man plays football.
“The field is a whole ‘nother arena — the actual gladiator arena,” he said. “You can’t come out here and be too peaceful out here or you’ll get hurt.”
As the Seahawks O-line, not to mention those around the league, can testify, Bennett has never been charged with wreaking peace on the field.
He’s working through the contradiction. As he is working through the contradictions of being wealthy and under-compensated, as well as convincing himself he is growing younger while growing older.
Tough tasks. Just be intrigued he’s willing to work through life’s contradictions in front of us.