RENTON, Wash. – It began with some garden variety pushing and shoving, escalated into a scrum that crashed through a water cooler, then ended with a sucker punch and an ejection.
Seattle Seahawks guard Germain Ifedi was bloodied and flat on his face. Defensive end Frank Clark was booted from practice and fuming. Coach Pete Carroll? He was pissed. And if none of that was entertaining enough Thursday, enter defensive end Michael Bennett: cool-headed diplomat of peace.
“Scuffles happen in camp sometimes,” Bennett said. “I think we may have crossed that line today.”
When it’s only the fifth day of training camp practice and a self-admitted line-stepper is saying something has gone too far – well, that’s pretty illustrative of how interesting this offseason (and preseason) has been for the Seahawks. The speculation about this team’s potential demise was widespread and headline-grabbing. Internally, it’s completely rejected. If NFL opponents think otherwise, the Seahawks sound like they’re down for a fight. So long as they aren’t fighting themselves first.
— Bryan Mapes (@IAmMapes) August 3, 2017
Seattle let a little typical training camp ruckus get out of hand Thursday, when a scuffle between the offensive and defensive line position groups mushroomed into Clark decking a helmetless Ifedi in the face. The 2015 first-round pick went down in a heap, sparking a heated tangle of players that dispersed only after Carroll sprinted down the field and began yanking at players. After lying on the ground for an extended period, Ifedi eventually got up and went to the locker room after trainers wiped blood off his face.
On almost any other team, it would have been a significantly jarring moment in practice. In the Seattle Alpha Bubble, it’s the cost of doing business – even if this particular incident was unusually violent. Guys aren’t knocking each other out daily here, but that doesn’t mean they don’t feel the motivation on a regular basis.
“It’s getting a little feisty, so it must be training camp,” cornerback Richard Sherman said. “You’ve gotta expect it. They’re going to get after it. They’ve got to. It’s dog-eat-dog.”
Maybe this was the official “Welcome back Seattle Seahawks” moment. A little fisticuffs to get the agenda on track. And make no mistake, these Seahawks feel like they’ve got some business at hand. That’s to be expected after a stinging divisional-round playoff loss to the Atlanta Falcons that was portrayed like a referendum on decline. Next came an extended volley of trade speculation regarding Sherman. And finally, it was all punctuated by a report alleging locker room discontent with Russell Wilson at the forefront.
Seattle isn’t shy about rejecting most of this narrative. The Falcons loss? It was instructive. The Sherman trade talk? Overblown. And the locker room discontent – don’t even bother going there, even after an offensive guard gets his block knocked off by a defensive teammate.
The Seahawks view all of this through one prism: Either you’re familiar with this franchise and understand its brand of NFL Darwinism; or you’re one of the doubters who has been projecting an expiration that’s not there.
“People are waiting and hoping for our demise,” Sherman said. “They’ll just have to keep waiting. As long as this core is together, we’ll be incredibly tough to deal with. We’ve been for so long – since our first, second, third years – and we’ve been in the spotlight for so long that people just assume [we’re past our prime]. None of us is even 30 yet. We’ve got three, four years of prime left.”
“This group ended up being the youngest team in the league to ever win a world championship, so I think the perception [of a window closing] is just natural,” general manager John Schneider said. “People say ‘It’s been three years now since they beat Denver [in the Super Bowl].’ While we do have some veterans in their early 30s, it’s still a very young team.”
Indeed, most of the core in place is still younger than 30. Bennett turns 32 in November, but Seattle’s defensive line is also by far the team’s most talented and deepest unit. Others like Clark – as mercurial as he has been emotionally – have emerged as stars. The brain trust also believes defensive tackle Jarran Reed is poised to break out this season.
Sherman’s point is also persuasive: This is a team that can feel old and stale from the outside largely because it has been achieving at a high level with many of the same cornerstone players for the past five or six years. Teams typically aren’t able to keep a litany of All-Pros together, particularly after winning a Super Bowl. When they do, a crash and disassembly seems inevitable.
That was a strong storyline after the playoff loss to the Falcons, too, the perfect moment to suggest the Seahawks were passing the torch in the NFC. Except it was also a game that didn’t feature a healthy Seattle team, and was more competitive than the 36-20 final indicated. When Seattle diced up the tape in the offseason, it saw two things: a defense that missed Earl Thomas, and a litany of opportunities destroyed by stupid mistakes.
“We should have won another game earlier in the year and they should have played at our place,” Carroll said. “We gave them their best shot and they did great. … We started out well and had a chance to be in that ballgame but [give] credit to them.”
Three sacks and persistent pressure on Wilson ultimately defined the outcome of that game, and left the offensive line as the focal point of the offseason. Unfortunately for the Seahawks, it was also the priority for a multitude of other teams, essentially blowing Seattle out of a free-agent guard market that it had hoped to target. The result was signing offensive guard/tackle Luke Joeckel to a one-year deal, hoping a change of scenery might spark a player who has struggled since being taken with the No. 2 overall pick by the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2013. Seattle also drafted versatile lineman Ethan Pocic in the second round, confident that he would eventually solidify a starting spot somewhere in front of Wilson.
Early results have been encouraging from both players, but it’s August and Seattle has yet to test the still-shifting offensive line. It could be improved. Or it could be a repeat of last season, which wouldn’t be great. One thing is for certain: Ifedi getting punched in the face by Clark isn’t going to help, particularly if it leads to any missed time (the early suggestion by Carroll is that it won’t). Regardless, Ifedi has yet to materialize as the player the Seahawks thought they were getting when they took him in the first round last season. It might be a little early to say he’s in the doghouse, but there’s a distinct feeling the coaching staff seems most optimistic about the growth of other players.
Ultimately, this may be a team that rises and falls with that line and whatever growth (or lack thereof) that occurs. But there’s no doubt that the fundamentals of what made this team so good for so long – the defensive unit and the alpha culture – haven’t retreated. The Seahawks are still harder on themselves internally than almost any team in the NFL. In their minds, one playoff loss to the Falcons and the presumption of a closing window hasn’t changed anything.
“People are judging it off one year,” Sherman said. “That’s how short-sighted people are when it comes to us. They’re like, ‘This is the end of them.’ We haven’t missed the playoffs since my rookie year [in 2011]. Seven of our 11 starters on defense have been to Pro Bowls. We’re not going anywhere.”
Certainly not without a fight. Whether that’s on Seattle’s practice field or beyond.