Pete Carroll said something Sunday about Bobby Wagner that I never heard him say about a Seahawk.
“He’s a beautiful illustration and example of what a young man should be like,” Carroll said after Friday’s news that Wagner had become the highest-paid linebacker in the NFL.
Carroll’s well of compliments has always been deep and wet. I’m certain one could drown in it. In contrast, his collection of quoted criticisms is a desert, with only the bleached bones of former 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh visible to all.
Never has he been as ecstatic as he was about Wagner. Not even with Russell Wilson, who has inspired numerous choral rhapsodies from the coach.
Wagner “has been such a treasure in so many ways,” he went on. “He’s meant so much to our franchise. He’s been an extraordinary player on the field always, been a great competitor, been just tough as nails to always show up, and always be there for us. Better than that, he’s a great guy to have in your club and to represent your franchise.
“If a guy is going to get paid, you want it to be a guy like this. He just stands for so much positive, so much good. I know our fans love him, and he loves being here. He’d like to spend the rest of his career here. He has really bought into the whole representing the Northwest, and so it’s fantastic to get (the contract) done.”
So now you know what it’s like to have used a Golden Ticket for a trip through Petey Wonka’s Chocolate Factory.
Not that I would contest any of Carroll’s claims. Wagner’s play has been consistently outstanding, his interactions with teammates, fans and media laudable. He even executed a contract holdout as if he were holding his nose. I also have seen televised claims he can unclog a drain.
But Carroll’s soliloquy gave pause to wonder: How have other great Seahawks players not received such rhetorical geysers?
It could be that Wagner is the rare dude who simply checks all the boxes for a coach. But another way to say that is that others didn’t.
Since the herald trumpets were unleashed not long after Earl Thomas’s grudge-bearing ESPN interview that was critical of Carroll, it’s hard not to connect a dot or two.
“I gave Pete the middle finger because I felt like he wasn’t being honest with me,” an unapologetic Thomas said, referring to his notorious, derisive salute as his season ended with a broken leg. Thomas said he and Carroll never spoke again.
Thomas claimed he felt was misled about the Seahawks’ willingness to give him the kind of long-term extension of the sort Wagner signed Friday, a rare third contract.
Whenever he was asked about extending the deal for his four-time All-Pro free safety who shut down the back end of one of the greatest defenses in NFL history, Carroll deferred. Instead, he offered praise for Thomas’s contributions and excused the flipping of the bird as merely the understandable emotions following a serious injury.
Thomas recovered well heading into free agency, where he was given a whopper four-year deal with Baltimore Ravens.
“I don’t regret my decision,” Thomas said of his gesture. “If my teammates felt like it was towards them, I regret that part. But I don’t regret doing it to Pete.”
That, of course, isn’t the whole story. Thomas neglected to mention his contribution to the souring of the relationship — his televised post-game pursuit of Cowboys coach Jason Garrett to tell him “come get me” when the Seahawks “kick me to the curb.”
The move was so freakish that I think many observers failed to grasp the breach of sports protocol — while under contract, publicly offering prospective services to the team he just helped defeat.
Carroll post-game covered for Thomas, saying they spoke but claimed any damage wouldn’t linger. Hah.
“He sees things a little differently sometimes,” Carroll told ESPN 710 radio. “It’s unfortunate because it causes people to have to take a stand on stuff, and then in this day and age, everything you say just goes and goes. Writing looks different than as you would say it.”
Well, no. No one had to read anything because they saw and heard it. Thomas never owned up to any foolishness in judgment, only some regret that fans might have felt he didn’t want to stay in Seattle.
Regardless of how blame is cut, there’s no doubt it was a bad exit for a legendary Seattle player. Just as it was earlier for RB Marshawn Lynch and CB Richard Sherman. Such messiness is hardly uncommon in the NFL, or in pro team sports generally. Hollywood endings in sports are rare as underwear endorsement ads for Sebastian Janikowski.
In January 2016 after a full go all week in practice, Lynch surprised Carroll and teammates by declaring as they boarded buses that he wasn’t healthy enough to travel and play in sub-zero Minneapolis in Seattle’s playoff opener. Earlier that morning, Carroll said in a radio interview that Lynch, who had abdominal surgery Nov. 25, was ready to play.
In his absence, the Seahawks won a bizarre game, 12-10, but were crushed next week in Carolina, Lynch rushing six times for 20 yards. It was the final Seattle game for Beast Mode. He retired (for a season), but Carroll, after years of indulging Lynch’s disdain for authority (which was a big reason why players loved him), had no desire to bring him back, especially after Lynch pulled out of a playoff game.
Similarly, Sherman helped usher himself out of Seattle by publicly challenging coaching decisions during two games in 2016, and later expressing no public remorse. The Seahawks in the off-season were open about their willingness to trade him in his contract year. It didn’t happen. Sherman played in 2017 until he tore his Achilles tendon. He went into free agency coming off surgery, and was forced to take a low-ball deal from the 49ers.
As with Thomas, Sherman likely will never forget his bad exit from Seattle. Any forgiveness will require the passage of time. But departures of star players are more than the blowups seen publicly. Standard factors of age, health, contract size and positional depth loom large, as do locker room secrets that even TMZ never gets hold of.
Critics of Carroll say that his indulgence of eccentric, outspoken personalities sets him up for bad outcomes. Defenders of Carroll will say managing high-maintenance characters is essential to success, and he does it as well as anyone.
There is truth in both. What is also true is that Lynch, Sherman and Thomas, however justified they felt, engaged in varying degrees of insubordination. Once that happens in any workplace, the boss potentially gets embarrassed, so must act or risk losing control.
In football, that can mean jettisoning popular, perhaps still effective, players for nothing in return.
It also means that when a coach gets to keep low-maintenance superstars such as Wagner and Wilson, he feels entitled to get a little sloppy regarding their continued employment.