Bob Whitsitt’s Big Adventure
”There is so much hope invested in a ball club, there are so many people who care about (the team’s fortunes) and who are honestly hurt, if only in passing…that it seems inconceivable that these fortunes could be entrusted to someone who is incapable of taking care of them. Are children allowed to play catch with the family jewels?” – Bill James.
If it is possible to build two near-championship NBA teams, help to save a city’s football franchise and nonetheless find oneself an object of derision and disgrace after the fact, Bob Whitsitt is one fellow who could tell you how.
1993’s NBA Executive of the Year as the president and general manager of the Seattle Supersonics, Whitsitt bolted for Portland on July 1, 1994. A week earlier, Whitsitt had asked to be released from his contract, which was to expire in three years, according to the Washington Post. Other accounts had him forced out by then Sonics owner Barry Ackerley, but no matter. However his tenure as the President and General Manager of the Portland Trail Blazers began, the way it progressed and ended could only be termed a cautionary tale.
The unfortunate aspect was how long it took anyone in power to listen.
"I wasn't a chemistry major in college, I was a sports major." – Bob Whitsitt’s most famous quote
The lineups assembled by Whitsitt for owner Paul Allen’s “Jailblazers” continued the franchise’s long run of playoff appearances - during Whitsitt’s nine-season span with the team, they posted a 426-280 record - but the cost was numbingly high in many ways. Whitsitt shot the team’s payroll to stratospheric heights, peaking at an NBA-record high $105 million in 2003, and paid absolutely no attention to character or chemistry along the way. Whitsitt was not a system builder, as most successful sports executives are. He was a man with a blindfold, a dartboard and a great deal of Allen’s money to throw around.
Consider the model citizens of the Blazers team taking the court in 2003, the year Whitsitt resigned:
Rasheed Wallace, a bit more than a year removed from a marijuana possession arrest and caught up in a controversy over his racial comments regarding the state of owner-player relations in the NBA ("They look at black athletes like we're dumb-ass <expletive>. It's as if we're just going to shut up, sign for the money and do what they tell us");
Damon Stoudamire, and his litany of marijuana arrests;
Ruben Patterson, who entered an Alford plea to charges of forcing his nanny to perform an illicit act in 2001;
Zach Randolph, who joined the "Mile High Club" in December of 2003 with an arrest on charges of driving under the influence of intoxicants.
And lest you assume that the Blazers were only a danger to others, a nasty streak of infighting rotted the core. During a practice in the spring of 2002, Randolph punched Patterson, breaking his eye socket and ostensibly personifying Patterson's thoughts on Randolph, as told to the Portland Tribune: "Deep down in your heart, you want to kill the guy."
During Whitsitt's reign, various Blazers were suspended twenty times by the league. There were fifteen arrests.
And when he did step down from the throne in Portland after ten years in May of 2003…leaving behind a team that brought new meaning to the word “dysfunctional”, a desperate, hateful fanbase and corporate sponsors jumping ship with alarming frequency…it was, incredibly, not without a future in Paul Allen’s sporting empire.
The virus was headed north.
“Most of the men who make decisions have a vested interest in the status quo, because without the status quo their knowledge isn't as valuable.” – Rob Neyer
Whitsitt was also the pointman when Allen officially purchased the Seahawks in 1997 after months of complex political wrangling. And when the team hired head coach Mike Holmgren in January of 1999, it seemed that the Seahawks’ future was limitless. But over the next six seasons, the only “limitless” factor in this equation would be the infinite – and oft-tested – patience of Seattle’s fanbase.
Holmgren came from a system in Green Bay where every possible base had been covered – from the top down, the Packers of the 1990’s were as talented a team as you could ask for. Not just on the field, per se – although the roster was stacked with talent – but in the front office and on the sidelines. It was through their formidable administrative talent that Green Bay would resuscitate their long-moribund franchise.
The real architect of that resurgence was Ron Wolf. Hired by Green Bay as their General Manager in 1991, Wolf was given full control of football operations and moved swiftly with sweeping change. Only 24 days after his appointment, he replaced head coach Lindy Infante with Holmgren and began to assemble a coaching and scouting staff that would rival the best in NFL history. Two scouts groomed by Wolf for future success – Ted Thompson (hired by Wolf in 1992) and Scot McCloughan (hired by Wolf in 1996) – followed Holmgren to Seattle (Thompson in 1999, McCloughan in 2001).
From 1992 until 2000 (Wolf retired after the 2001draft), the Packers never had a losing season, went 92-52 in nine full seasons, appeared in two Super Bowls (beating Bill Parcells’ New England Patriots in Super Bowl XXXI) and re-established the championship mindset of the Lombardi Era.
Bolstered by such incredible success, Holmgren came to Seattle as the team’s Head Coach, General Manager and Executive Vice President. He would endeavor to do Wolf’s job and his own.
He would also discover the near-impossibility of such a task, given the NFL’s changing competitive landscape and the extremely long odds of involvement in such a front office twice in one lifetime.
In an exclusive interview with Seahawks.NET in December of 2004, former Seattle Times beat writer Les Carpenter detailed his take on the beginnings of the derailment of Holmgren’s vision upon arrival in Seattle. “One of Mike's big mistakes was to expect that since he had brought in his coaching staff and many of the Packers administrators and executives, he could drift in the job. He took vacations, he wasn't around much in those first few months,” Carpenter said. “I always thought Holmgren believed he was going to come here and report straight to Paul Allen, much in the same way his mentor Bill Walsh always had Eddie DeBartolo's ear in San Francisco. He probably never gave much of a thought to Whitsitt - after all, Whitsitt had the Trail Blazers to keep him occupied. It was undoubtedly a shock for him to realize that Whitsitt intended to run both (the Trail Blazers and the Seahawks) and that Allen did not have direct contact with the team on a daily basis, instead relying on Bob to be his conduit to the Seahawks.”
Carpenter also pointed to Whitsitt’s initial concerns as Allen’s 'eyes and ears'. ”I don't think Whitsitt - who worked out of Kirkland and not Portland - expected to see Mike miss that much time. When Mike seemed to misjudge his ability to rebuild a team, tearing down a division champion and adding in his own players who did not win right away, Whitsitt began to pay more attention to the football team,” Carpenter said.
Holmgren dismantled the team built by former GM Randy Meuller and coached by Dennis Erickson, and rebuilt it in his own image. Unlike the Patriots’ new-millennium rebirth under Bill Belichick and Scott Pioli, the results were less than impressive. From 1999-2002, Holmgren’s Seahawks complied a 31-33 record – the exact same mark that the Mueller/Erickson Seahawks put together from 1995-1998.
Clearly, a change was required. That change occurred on December 31, 2002, when Whitsitt announced that Holmgren would be relieved of his player personnel duties so that he could focus exclusively on coaching. Holmgren agreed to this directive brought about by Whitsitt, and pushed for Thompson to replace him in the general manager’s chair. Whitsitt, perhaps fearing the possibility that Holmgren would simply work though Thompson, was reportedly interested in Mueller’s possible return.
On February 10, 2003, the team announced the hire of Bob Ferguson, the former Arizona Cardinals GM. Ferguson was a fairly popular consensus choice in that he had local roots (he played linebacker at the University of Washington and worked with the Seahawks as director of sales and special events in the 1970s), but his return to the Pacific Northwest would prove to be less than definitive. Whitsitt, fresh from his Trail Blazers discombobulation and subsequent resignation, was now clearly in charge of personnel decisions in Seattle.
Thompson and McCloughan, Holmgren’s able soldiers, would run Seattle’s drafts in 2003 and 2004. They would prove their football savvy, and build for the future, despite the ever-escalating front office war that surrounded them.
Scouting Without a Net
While “new-school” scouts and executives like Pioli and Tampa Bay’s Tim Ruskell sought intangibles and different parameters in the search for talent that would fit their systems and salary caps, Thompson and McCloughan followed the road of the classicist – the road shown to them. When asked about Seattle’s draft priorities during this time, NFLDraftScout.com Senior Draft Analyst Rob Rang said that the split between schools was (and is) very distinct. “Essentially, the difference between the two schools of thought is the importance of character in determining a player's potential,” Rang said. “The Thompson/McCloughan regime focused on the measurable attributes a player brought to the field: size, speed, explosiveness. The basic rationale was that you can have all of the intangibles in the world, but without the physical ability and size, you aren't going to win. This strategy has been proven over and over again to be effective.”
“The Thompson/McCloughan regime plucked some legitimate steals in the later rounds of the draft by sticking to their philosophy. Alex Bannister, Floyd Womack, Seneca Wallace, Tracy White, Rashad Moore, and D.J. Hackett are all examples of athletic players the team took a chance on,” Rang added. “This is the principal theory from which Ron Wolf worked and molded both Thompson and McCloughan during their tenures under him. The Dallas Cowboys and Green Bay Packers each won Super Bowls in the 1990s based on this scouting strategy.“
In 2003, what has become one of the finest young secondaries in the NFL was cemented by the first-round selection of CB Marcus Trufant from Washington State, and second-rounder S Ken Hamlin from Arkansas. In addition, Thompson and McCloughan found late-round gold in the person of DT Rashad “Booger” Moore, a sixth-round flyer pick from Tennessee who provided essential stability in the Seahawks’ interior defensive line until persistent shoulder injuries forced the team to place him on the injured reserve list (through the waiver process) on September 3 of this year.
In 2004, the defensive draft focus continued, and the Seahawks once again came up with three players who may pay long-term dividends. With their first-round pick, Texas DT Marcus Tubbs got the nod. After a disappointing rookie season, Tubbs looks ready this season to prove the worth of his high pick. Purdue linebacker Niko Koutouvides, Seattle's fourth-round 2004 pick, came into the league with middling scouting reports, but he wound up with some quality regular-season reps at MLB – a position that was completely decimated for the Seahawks in 2004.
Of course, the real dead-on pick for the Seahawks in 2004 was second-rounder Michael Boulware from Florida State. Boulware, a linebacker in college, was projected as a safety by NFL scouts because of his size (223 pounds at 6’3”) and speed (Rang reported Boulware running 4.5-40-yard dashes at the 2004 Scouting Combine). The Seahawks initially inserted him at the nickel linebacker position (to make the linebacker/safety transition easier), and Boulware responded immediately. Overall, four of Boulware’s five 2004 interceptions either saved or won games for the Seahawks. Boulware’s successful transition to starting safety late in the year validated the wisdom of the move. Moreover, Boulware’s progression may prove to be most instructive when discussing Seattle's future defensive drafts. Boulware was a position switch, a specific fit, and the result of an interesting and innovative accord between the Seahawks’ scouts and coaches.
Perhaps unknowingly, the Michael Boulware selection was a glimpse into the team’s future.
An Embarrassment of Riches
“When Whitsitt forced Holmgren to give up power after the 2002 season, it seemed he did so knowing he would probably soon leave the Trail Blazers \and would take over the personnel here. This has led to tension for the obvious reasons: Whitsitt is not a football guy and he pushed out Holmgren's most able executive in Mike Reinfeldt. I'm not sure Whitsitt the GM's decisions mesh with Holmgren the coach's vision. For instance, I doubt Holmgren would have signed off on a $14 million bonus for Grant Wistrom. Then again, Whitsitt can point out that the roster hand-picked by Holmgren hasn't exactly overwhelmed.” – Les Carpenter, Seahawks.NET interview, December 24, 2004
That consensus did not make its way to the front office, where Whitsitt was busy doing things his way – especially in 2004. On February 26, Senior Vice President Mike Reinfeldt left the team after refusing a new contract, which included a severe pay cut. Reinfeldt had been in charge of contract negotiations and the salary cap, and was largely credited with the team’s ability to stay even remotely competitive from a payroll perspective. It would soon become glaringly obvious that Whitsitt saw no use for a career NFL payroll expert on the staff – he had appointed himself to that very position. Whitsitt would make his presence known immediately with three deals, at least two of which Mike Reinfeldt most likely never would have made.
Whitsitt’s first deal was his loudest, when he plucked former St. Louis defensive end Grant Wistrom from the free-agent tree for the princely sum of $33 million, including a $14 million signing bonus, on March 5th. Largely denounced by the rest of the league, it was a deal that Wistrom has not been able to live up to, if only because of injuries last season. When healthy, he could make the contract more than bearable. That’s more a testament to Wistrom’s admirable prowess than to Whitsitt’s financial acumen.
Four days later, Whitsitt re-signed wide receiver Darrell Jackson, giving him a six-year, $25 million contract with an $8 million signing bonus. The bonuses paid to Wistrom and Jackson were the highest in team history at the time. Jackson’s contract had a couple of strange wrinkles – first, the bonus was not paid all at once, as most are. Jackson’s base salary was severely backloaded, and the bonus paid in equal $4 million amounts over the first two years, although the "cap hit" was still prorated over the life of the deal (this according to our own "Hawkstorian"). Second, Whitsitt made a vague, unwritten and unenforceable promise to Jackson and his agents that the contract would be revisited depending on the future pay scale for “elite” NFL receivers. No incentives were built into the deal. Jackson missed many of the team’s voluntary offseason activities in 2005, reportedly due to his feeling that the promise wasn’t kept.
Two of the NFL’s best receivers, Terrell Owens of the Eagles and Marvin Harrison of the Colts, signed new contracts after Jackson’s. Owens’ complicated San Francisco-to-Baltimore-to-Philadelphia journey had him landing in Philly in mid-March of 2004 and signing a 7-year, $46 million contract with a signing bonus just short of $10 million. Harrison’s new deal, signed in December of 2004, will pay him as much as $67 million over the next 7 years.
The third deal Whitsitt made was perhaps the least defensible on its face. On March 24, former Philadelphia cornerback Bobby Taylor signed a four-year deal worth $11.8 million and a $3 million signing bonus. Incentives were built into this contract which would have given Taylor the opportunity to make as much as $15.75 million over the four years…that is, had Taylor not played exceedingly sparingly in 2004 due to knee injuries. He was released by the team on June 3, 2005. Ken Lucas, the cornerback Whitsitt seemed to have little interest in re-signing, led the Seahawks in interceptions last year and recently bagged a six-year, $36 million contract with the Carolina Panthers. The amount required for the Seahawks to retain Lucas' services before the cornerback market blew up is a question lost in the mists of time.
Asked the reasons behind Whitsitt’s spending spree, Carpenter revealed what might have been a tenuous timeline. “The window for winning big with this current group (was) getting small,” he said. “I think Holmgren the general manager figured he would build this roughly the way Green Bay was built. By 2002, the Seahawks would be ready to contend for a conference championship and 2003 and 2004 would be the Super Bowl years. This is why so many contracts come up now.
“(The winter of 2003) seemed to be one of uncertainty around the Seahawks front office,” Carpenter continued. “Whitsitt was rumored to be looking at some basketball opportunities, and seemed to look at this as a one-shot opportunity to fill the roster and make a Super Bowl run. In a sense, he appeared to want to be sure any failings on this team's part wouldn't be his fault. This is how the Seahawks came to overpay for Grant Wistrom and probably overpay for Darrell Jackson, too. When word got around the league about how much the team spent, a lot of executives laughed at the Wistrom deal.”
Trader Bob’s Last Stand
“After that, the spending stopped and I'm not sure why. Was it because they wanted to deal with all extensions after the season knowing there was no way to keep all the players and some would have their markets settle out? Or did they just not care because this was (supposed to be) the big Super Bowl season and their focus was only on the current roster? Maybe Whitsitt thought there was a good chance either he or Holmgren would not be around next season and therefore chose to wait until season's end?” – Les Carpenter, Seahawks.NET interview, December 24, 2004
If Whitsitt’s 2004 focus was driven by the latter concern, he proved more prescient that most have ever given him credit for. The standoff between Bob Whitsitt and the world was about to come to a most interesting climax.
"Let's pretend that we loaded them all up last year with big contracts and you have a monster payroll, you're monster tapped out on the cap, and have a very mediocre team. If all these free agents are so good, and Paul (Allen) has to write that big a check, why haven't we won a playoff game in six years?" – Bob Whitsitt, three days before he was fired as President of the Seahawks.
Whitsitt’s cavalier attitude carried itself through the end of the Seahawks’ 2004 season, which was marked by a disappointing 9-7 record, a wild-card playoff loss to the Rams, and one of the emptier division titles in NFL history. The team would enter 2005 with 16 unsigned potential free agents – 30% of the 53-man roster that could have been on the loose as of March 2, 2005, when the NFL’s free agency period officially began. We can only thank the miscellaneous deities involved that Paul Allen had finally found his fill of Trader Bob. In a move that surprised most, Whitsitt was relieved of the last of his duties in Allen’s vast empire on January 14, 2005.
With years of inefficiency behind them and a great many issues to address in the alarmingly near future, the Seahawks appeared lost.
It would take one old friend, and one new leader, to find them.
Thanks to Rob Rang of NFLDraftScout.com for his very special assistance.
Doug Farrar is the Editor-in-Chief of Seahawks.NET. Feel free to contact him at email@example.com.
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