The business of the franchise quarterback is the most compelling personnel theater in the NFL. By extension, it’s the most compelling non-game theater in sports, even more than a similar drama with the NBA.
In basketball, superstars dictating their desired employers, and hustling up a superstar buddy or two to join him, has become standard operating procedure. But the smaller number of players makes positive outcomes far more likely in hoops, because football requires 22 starters and 53 total, and has separate units for offense and defense.
Yet the QB looms over all team sports, because it has the most influential tasks and is the hardest job to master. But the pre-draft assets critical to success are often indeterminable by the most savvy analysts. Any fan who scrolls through the draft’s first couple of rounds over the years in the era of free agency (begun in earnest in 1994) will discover lost causes that can be stacked like firewood for an entire winter.
In the NFL, the consequences of QB mistakes are compounded by the hardness of the collectively bargained salary cap, at least compared to the squishiness of the NBA’s cap. Recent case in point: A year after giving young Jared Goff a monster contract commensurate with a franchise QB, the Rams felt compelled to quit on him, sending him to Detroit for Matthew Stafford, 33, and including two first-round picks and a third-rounder as compensation to the Lions for taking on the bloated contract.
That trade rocked the NFL world and was felt in Seattle.
Not because the Seahawks were attempting to deal Wilson — he has a no-trade clause in the four-year extension he signed in April 2019 — but because the Rams’ willingness to do the almost unimaginable had the effect of knocking down assumptions about any player on any team.
The seismic shift was behind a report from the NFL’s media organ Monday that the Seahawks had fielded calls from teams about Wilson’s availability, but were turned down. Also stirring the pot were two national media appearances Tuesday by Wilson in which he was politely but provocatively critical of parts of the Seahawks operation, something he has almost never done.
Those remarks followed similar unhappiness conveyed in the post-mortem following his worst career playoff performance in the 30-20 loss to the Rams that ended the season.
The net effect is, by either anonymous leaks or direct attribution, Wilson allowed the rest of the NFL to be fully alert to a schism between Wilson and coach Pete Carroll. The fracture is not a media fabrication, because it already caused a change at offensive coordinator.
Wilson said this on Dan Patrick’s national radio show:
“The reality of professional sports is things happen, things change. I’m not sure how long I will play in Seattle. I think hopefully it will be forever. But things change, obviously, along the way. You focus on what you can control every day and try to be the best version of yourself.”
Asked by Patrick whether he believes teams have called the Seahawks, he said, “Yeah, I definitely believe they have gotten calls, for sure. I think anytime you are a player that tries to produce every week and has done it consistently, I think people are going to call, for sure. It’s part of the process.’’
Are you available? “I’m not sure if I’m available or not — that’s a Seahawks question.’’
On a Zoom call with reporters, for the first time in his career, he was blunt about how sick he was of being sacked.
“Like any player, you never want to get hit,” he said. “That’s the reality of playing this position. Ask any quarterback who wants to play this game.
“I’ve been sacked almost 400 times, so we’ve got to get better up front. I’ve got to find ways to get better, too.”
Asked if he was frustrated with the Seahawks, he said, “I’m getting hit too much. I’m frustrated at that part of it.’’
Wilson’s 47 sacks were third-most in the NFL regular season, and in 2019 his 48 were the most. He has 394 for his career. Another 40 next season will put him 11th in NFL history.
Wilson has been sacked more times in his first 9 seasons than any other QB since the merger.
366 Randall Cunningham
362 Neil Lomax
356 Phil Simms
344 Big Ben
All good-to-great QBs. 4 rings in that group. Fascinating. #Seahawks https://t.co/FG9JPQyfCB
— Dan Daly (@dandalyonsports) February 9, 2021
However, according to Pro Football Focus, 16 of the sacks in 2020 were attributable to Wilson. He told Patrick that he does hang on too long to the ball sometimes. Then again, his moments of patience are often why he’s the game’s most successful thrower of the long ball.
“It always starts up front — offensively, defensively — it always does,” he said. “I’ve always put my trust in the Seahawks in trying to do whatever it takes to win. Hopefully, that will continue. I think part of that is how we go about the protection part of it.”
Therein lies the rub.
At the moment, with only four draft picks in April, and being just $4 million under the salary cap that is estimated to drop $19 million to about $180 million because of financial losses from the pandemic, the Seahawks are in a relatively weak position to respond to Wilson’s request for help. Among the few ways forward would be to do something drastic, like trading LB Bobby Wagner and his $18 million salary for picks and cap relief.
But playing more-than-armchair GM is something else that appeals to Wilson.
“I think if you ask guys like Drew Brees, Peyton Manning, Tom Brady — I think that you saw this year how much he was involved in the (player acquisition) process — I think that’s something that is important to me,’’ Wilson said.
Brady pushed the Bucs to sign guys he wanted, such as TE Rob Gronkowski and WR Antonio Brown. The duo caught the first three touchdowns in Tampa’s 31-9 win over the Chiefs in the Super Bowl.
Obviously, it worked out for the Bucs, but a GM in any sport will say that there is large danger in allowing players into decision-making, because they may be too wrapped up in creating a personal legacy at the expense of the team.
What seems to be happening here is Wilson, perhaps emboldened by peers such as Brady and Aaron Rodgers, who helped get coach Mike McCarthy fired in Green Bay, seeks to find the limits of his influence.
If he doesn’t like what he finds, and indeed is ready for a change, the primary way to influence a positive outcome is during an unusual amount of potential movement in the QB marketplace, like right now, that would come closer to making the Seahawks whole at the position in the event of a trade.
Wilson will be 33 in November, which means, like Stafford, he has still has plenty of tread left. His $35 million average annual salary during a season of cap shrinkage means he takes up a bigger percentage of the payroll that at the moment may not be able to afford pending free agents such as CB Shaquill Griffin and RB Chris Carson.
Is the market tumult an accelerator for the separation of Wilson and the Seahawks?
Based on degree of difficulty, especially with issues around the salary cap, I’d guess no. But I never would have anticipated the Goff-Stafford deal. Nor did I think that Tampa Bay would go from 7-9 to Super Bowl champs with Brady. Nor did I forecast that the 49ers would go from 4-12 to NFC champions to 6-10 and be looking to unload Jimmy Garappolo.
If you’re a Seahawks fan into non-game sports drama, you might want to figure how best to position yourself to comfortably grip your butt, clench your teeth and hold your water while the QB market sorts out its high drama.