Black And White (Or Not...)

"The Ruskell era in Seattle is gradually unfolding. He has released or allowed several players to leave who may have been more of a locker room problem than the average fan is aware of. He has held the line on spending, and has not resorted to desperation tactics in his negotiations with players."

We live in an analog world. Not very many things are truly as black and white as many people like to say.

For instance: football players.

Some fans and pundits have been criticizing the Seahawks front office for its moves—or lack thereof—this off season. They argue that this year, seemingly as in all years, the team has failed to sign that big name, star quality free agent that they feel will boost the team to the next level.

It would appear, from that point of view, that there are two types of players, stars and stiffs.

Black and white.

Professional sports is a complex endeavor. The truth is that the talent level of players does not break down that easily. The real spectrum of talent among players lies more on a continuum, a gradual scale wherein most players are of average quality, some better, some great, etc.

It is in the selection of those players that the art of building a team lies.

Unlike in baseball, the NFL salary cap demands that teams make choices. They are forced to decide how many “stars” they can afford and what happens to the team because of it.

Tying up too much money in just a few superstars inevitably leads to having inadequate funds to stock the roster with quality backups and role players.

Many people don’t like the term “good.” Their vocabulary seems limited to “great” and “bad” when it comes to labeling players. That is digital thinking in an analog world.

Coaches contribute to this. They are always saying things like, “He’s a good football player.” Some fans hear this and think the coach saying it is crazy, or stupid, or just plain lying. The truth is that most coaches, when they say that, probably mean, “He does what I tell him to do” as much as anything else. It doesn’t always seem to refer to a player’s talent level. Most coaches are realistic enough to know that they can’t stock their team with superstars at every position and have to make do with what the team can attract and afford.

2004 was a bit of an anomaly. Last off season, there were two really big free agent signings, Corey Dillon to New England and Jevon Kearse to Philadelphia. Both were big name players that involved lucrative contracts. Both teams ended up in the Super Bowl. It would be easy to look at those deals and say, “Look, they built their team in free agency. We should be able to do that.”

But the truth lies deeper than that. Both Philly and the Patriots did not really build through free agency. Both teams had been quite disciplined in free agency for several years, often being willing to release players whose salary demands were too high. In both of those cases, the team identified a specific team need and made a move to fill it. That is the essence of proper used of free agency.

Meanwhile, both teams were competitive over a span of several years. They were hardly inactive in free agency, but they were very selective and frugal in their dealings.

During that time frame, teams like Washington continued to try and make big splashes in free agency and fell far short of expectations. Daniel Snyder would probably be a great fantasy football owner. As an NFL owner his record is far from stellar.

Clearly, stuffing large sums of money into the pockets of star quality players and agents is no guarantee of success on the field.

This off season has been memorable for the Seahawks, to be sure. The firing of Bob Whitsitt and subsequent revelations about how caustic his management style really was could be a watershed event in Seahawks history. Certainly, having a team president with actual football experience has got to help.

The time invested in hiring his replacement was the subject of much criticism and even derision. The replacement, when finally announced, was widely applauded.

One of the best things about Tim Ruskell so far is that he doesn’t seem to care what people are thinking or saying. He’s going out and trying to do his job. He has no worries about fanfare or accolades, he’s just trying to find players that really want to be here and will likely give their all for the team.

When players are rated solely by how much money they make, a team will end up with a group of mercenaries. Terms like loyalty and professionalism may seem passé in the modern NFL, but the Patriots have proven that one can win without a large number of high profile, high budget players. Make no mistake, there is a lot of talent on the Patriots roster. Some glance at their roster and say, “What a bunch of stiffs,” simply because they don’t recognize the names as headline players. That is foolish, of course.

The Ruskell era in Seattle is gradually unfolding. He has released or allowed several players to leave who may have been more of a locker room problem than the average fan is aware of. He has held the line on spending, and has not resorted to desperation tactics in his negotiations with players. No “Don’t let him leave without a contract” foolishness here. The impression is that veterans who have visited and might be under consideration for a contract have left with a good idea of what the team was willing to spend on them, and that the team would hold the line.

That has led to some good players signing elsewhere, but it has also prevented players making their decision based solely on money. He is looking for football players, not mercenaries.

A couple of decisions seem to mirror the moves that Ruskell helped make in Tampa Bay. The Kelly Herndon signing hints that he values speed and motivation over size and pure stats.

The Bryce Fisher signing is eerily reminiscent of the Okeafor deal of two years ago. He’s a young guy, on the upswing, coming in at a very workable salary. Meanwhile, his stats are comparable at a much lower price.

Kevin Bentley fits this mold, too. While he appears to be a lesser talent than Anthony Simmons was, Simmons’ injury problems kept him off the field for extended periods in each of the past 3 years. In effect, we were overpaying Simmons.

It may be that free agency is mostly over. Certainly, all of the big name players have signed deals, mostly with other teams. Meanwhile, the Seahawks have signed a few “good” football players.

In a black and white world, maybe that constitutes failure.

But if you see things in subtle shades of gray, maybe they haven’t done too bad, so far.

Steve Utz writes frequently for Seahawks.NET. Send your feedback to Steve at sutz12@comcast.net.


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