On February 3, 2014, the Seattle Seahawks had the whole world at their fingertips. The night before, they had brought home the first Lombardi Trophy in franchise history with an earth-shaking 43-8 win over the Broncos in Super Bowl XLVIII, holding the greatest offense in the history of football to just a single touchdown while scoring against Denver in basically every way that it is possible to score (seriously–the Seahawks scored via passing touchdown, rushing touchdown, field goal, extra point, safety, interception return and kick return, all in the same game). In the afterglow of that epic championship smackdown, it seemed as though a Seattle dynasty was in the offing. The Seahawks had a young, emerging star at quarterback, a smashmouth offense built around one of the best running backs in football, and a dominant defense that ran deep with young, cost-controlled talent at nearly every position. Led by Russell Wilson, Beast Mode and the brash bullies of the Legion of Boom, it wasn’t hard to imagine Seattle dominating the next decade the way the New England Patriots had dominated the previous one.
But the dynasty that Seattle fans dreamed of never materialized. In 2014, they came just one yard away from a second Super Bowl championship; since then, they have failed to progress past the divisional round of the playoffs, and in 2017 they missed the postseason entirely for the first time in Russell Wilson’s career. Heading into this offseason, it seemed as though the Seahawks were on the threshold of a transitional phase, moving out of the Legion of Boom era and into a new chapter in the team’s story. However, few people anticipated just how quickly and drastically the team would pull the plug on its once-legendary defense–within the first few days of the new league year, the Seahawks lobbed a grenade into the longtime nucleus of the team, shipping defensive end Michael Bennett off to the Eagles for peanuts and cutting bait on perennial All-Pro cornerback Richard Sherman (who immediately turned around and signed with the 49ers, Seattle’s most bitter rival, in what has to be the most openly revenge-motivated free agency decision of all time). Throw in the uncertain futures of Cliff Avril and Kam Chancellor, two defensive mainstays who suffered potentially career-ending injuries in 2017, and it sure feels like it’s time to write a eulogy for the Seahawks’ legendary defense.
On the surface, it’s hard to see the logic behind these decisions for Seattle. Sherman may be a 30-year old coming off two successive injury-plagued seasons, but when healthy he is still a top-five player at one of the game’s most important positions. The Bennett deal is even harder to explain. Bennett is coming off a campaign in which he posted 8.5 sacks and 24 quarterback knockdowns, and he didn’t carry a particularly onerous cap hit—Seattle saved just $2.2 million by unloading his contract on Philadelphia. Yet the Seahawks had to throw in a seventh-round pick just to convince the Eagles to send them a fifth-rounder and a backup wide receiver (Marcus Johnson) in exchange for him. Bennett and Sherman are no longer the dominant talents that they were at this defense’s peak in 2013-2014, but they were still key cogs on a unit that finished a respectable 13th in DVOA last year while missing Avril and Chancellor for most of the campaign. It seems odd that Seattle would want to take a blowtorch to a talent-laden team that just barely missed the playoffs last season.
However, if Pete Carroll and Co. feel strongly that it is time for the time to move into a new era, it makes sense that Sherman and Bennett would be among the first casualties of the reshaping process. The Legion of Boom-era Seahawks were defined by their in-your-face attitude almost as much as their on-field dominance, and much of that stemmed from the presence of Bennett and Sherman, two of the team’s most outsized locker room personalities. If Carroll is looking to reshape the identity of this team (likely into something he is more comfortable with—he always seemed just a tad out of his element dealing with the strong characters on his own squad, and rumors of locker room disharmony often swirled around this group during its slow slide from the top of the mountain back to the NFL’s middle class), it follows that he would want to purge the locker room of the figureheads that most explicitly embodied its old identity. In that light, parting ways with Sherman and Bennett seems more symbolic than strategic: there can be no doubt now that the Legion of Boom is dead. Onward to the new age.
In writing a eulogy for this erstwhile Team of Destiny, one question looms large: what went wrong? How did the Seahawks go from a sure-thing dynasty to a rebuild in the span of just a few years, with only a single championship to show for it? As much as Super Bowl XLVIII will always be a treasured part of the franchise’s lore, the final returns on the Legion of Boom era seem just a little underwhelming considering the limitless potential that this group seemed to have in their heyday. That has often been blamed on Seattle’s traumatic loss in Super Bowl XLIX, as if Malcolm Butler’s goal-line interception cast a psychic pall over the team that they were never able to shake off. Marshawn Lynch certainly never forgave his coaching staff for denying him the opportunity to score a Super Bowl-winning touchdown, and he essentially pouted his way out of town the following season, depriving Seattle of their offensive linchpin. Internal discord plagued Seattle through the ensuing seasons, as the outspoken stars of the squad chafed under the leadership of a coaching staff that they felt had bungled their chances at a second Lombardi Trophy; in December of 2016, Richard Sherman got into a sideline screaming match with offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell after Bevell called two passing plays in a goalline series against the Rams (in a postgame press conference, Sherman defended his actions by saying, “I don’t like when we throw the ball at the one,” an obvious reference to Butler’s interception).
It’s undeniable that the brutal ending of Super Bowl XLIX had far-reaching after-effects in Seattle’s locker room, and maybe if the Seahawks had just handed the ball to Lynch on that play, we would be having a completely different conversation about the legacy of the Legion of Boom era today. But there’s more to the story of why this Seattle team failed to live up to the (admittedly lofty) expectations that they were saddled with in the aftermath of Super Bowl XLVIII. And to understand what went wrong, you first have to understand what went right.
In terms of payroll, the Seahawks of 2013 were constructed in an almost unprecedented fashion for a championship team in the modern era of free agency and the salary cap. It started with Russell Wilson, a legitimate star at the game’s most important position who carried a cap hit of just $681,085—by far the cheapest figure for any starting quarterback in the league. Here’s a thought exercise for you: who would you have rather had play quarterback for you in 2013, Peyton Manning or Russell Wilson? In a vacuum, the answer is painfully obvious—Manning was far and away the best quarterback in football that season, racking up 5,477 passing yards and 55 touchdowns (both NFL records that still stand) on the way to his fifth MVP award. But the NFL isn’t a vacuum; it’s a salary-capped league, and Manning took home $17.5 million for his efforts in 2013. So here is the real question: would you rather have Manning, or Wilson and an extra $16.8 million worth of talent around him?
It’s no secret that a star quarterback on his rookie contract is the most valuable asset that a franchise can have in the NFL—just look at last year’s Eagles, who paid an MVP-caliber signal caller in Carson Wentz just $6.06 million for the season and used the savings to construct the deepest roster in football. But the financial luxury afforded to Seattle in 2013 didn’t end with Wilson—almost all of their top-tier talent was still on cheap rookie deals, thanks to a truly incredible run of draft successes by GM Paul Schneider between 2010 and 2012. In the 2010 draft, Seattle landed Russell Okung and Earl Thomas in the first round, Golden Tate in the second, and Kam Chancellor in the fifth; in 2011, they got K.J. Wright in the third round, Richard Sherman in the fifth, and Byron Maxwell in the sixth; in 2012, they added Bobby Wagner in the second round and then Wilson in the third.
All nine of those players were starters producing at an elite (or close to it) level during Seattle’s run to the Super Bowl in 2013, and only Okung (at $9.54 million) counted more than $4 million against Seattle’s cap that season—the other eight cost just under $11.2 million combined. Throw in productive (if not star-caliber) seasons from J.R. Sweezy, James Carpenter, Walter Thurmond, and eventual Super Bowl MVP Malcolm Smith, and the Seahawks had thirteen listed starters in that Super Bowl who were homegrown draft picks still on their rookie contracts. And it wasn’t as though the leftover money was tied up in supersized contracts elsewhere on the roster—just one player (tight end Zach Miller) carried a cap hit of more than 8% of the total salary cap that year. The Seahawks were blessed with near-unprecedented financial flexibility to fill out the margins of their roster, and they put it to good use in the 2013 offseason, rounding out their team with acquisitions like Michael Bennett, Cliff Avril and Percy Harvin—players who all played key roles in their Super Bowl victory. If Seattle had been paying even one or two of their core players (Wilson, Thomas, Sherman, Chancellor, etc.) what their production would have been worth on the open market, it would have been impossible to fit impact players like Bennett and Avril under the cap.
Let’s contrast that again with their Super Bowl opponents in Denver. The 2013 Broncos had three players (Manning, Ryan Clady and Champ Bailey) who carried cap hits north of $10 million, and as a result they had to skimp and bargain shop to fill holes elsewhere on the roster—deficiencies which became painfully apparent when they went head to head with the deep and well-rounded Seahawks in February.
We now know that game was the peak of the Legion of Boom era, but at the time (as I mentioned before) it seemed as though Seattle was just getting started—with their rosy cap situation and unparalleled depth of talent, the league was theirs for the taking. But there was one problem with the incredible financial efficiency of that Seahawks roster—it couldn’t last. Wilson, Thomas, et al. deserved to be paid like the superstars they were, and as their rookie contracts ran out over the next few seasons, that’s exactly what happened. In the 2013 season, Wilson, Sherman, Thomas, Chancellor and Wagner combined to soak up just 6.76% of Seattle’s cap; by 2017, that number had risen all the way up to 31.66%. Seattle’s cap situation coalesced around the team’s biggest names, and the result was a talent drain at other positions where Seattle could no longer afford the luxury of depth. With little financial margin for chasing free agents, the Seahawks had to hope they could continue to replenish their roster through the draft, but they have been unable to replicate the stunning successes of their 2010-2012 classes in subsequent seasons; since 2013, Seattle has drafted just one player (Tyler Lockett) who has made so much as a single Pro Bowl appearance, and only three (Lockett, Justin Britt and Germain Ifedi) who have spent more than one season as a primary starter for the team. The decline of the supporting cast has been felt particularly keenly on offense, where the offensive line has been a dumpster fire for two-plus seasons and the team has never landed on a long-term replacement for Marshawn Lynch at running back.
Looking back, it’s easy to say that the collapse of the Legion of Boom was inevitable, given the unsustainable way the Seahawks had built their juggernaut. But it’s worth remembering that even in the aftermath of the disaster that befell Seattle in Super Bowl XLIX, it still felt like this Seahawks team would be one the league’s elite for many seasons to come. We knew the end was coming eventually, but it was hard to imagine that it might come this swiftly. And that’s an instructive lesson for the top tier of teams today who look poised to contend for years to come (looking at you, Eagles); in today’s NFL, championship windows slam shut with little to no warning and even the best-constructed teams remain elite for such a short time that you can blink and miss them (except the Patriots, to whom none of the normal rules seem to apply). The end of the road has come for the Legion of Boom, and within a few years they will seem as much a part of the distant past as the Steel Curtain or the Purple People Eaters. As for the Seahawks franchise, they now have an unenviable task in front of them: to rise again from the rubble of a fallen empire.