By Julian Reed
Old greatness, youth explosion and the physicality between the lines of the gridiron on a cold January afternoon. Last weekend we witnessed a great juxtapose. One that will likely never be seen again. Whether you’re a casual fan, an avid viewer of the NFL or anything in between who tuned into the AFC/NFC Championship games were treated to history. What could’ve possibly been the final battle ever of two of the greatest Quarterbacks in NFL history in Peyton Manning and Tom Brady. The NFC counterpart featuring two of the best defenses constructed in the past decade and two of the up and coming young QB’s on the rise in Russell Wilson and Colin Kaepernick. As Wilson and the Seahawks along with Manning and the Broncos prepare for the season finale next week, I take a look back at one of the best Sunday’s of meaningful football we’ll ever see.
Last weekends games provided us a grand irony. On one side, two teams whose existence defies the common misconceptions about the modern day NFL. The other, a stark finality to one of the greatest head to head rivalries in NFL history featuring two lock first ballot hall of famers. There is a widely accepted misconception about the NFL. It is a finesse game, offense driven, quarterback driven, impossible to play defense. Both the San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks buck the recent NFL trend. Both teams are driven by defense and the running game. Their quarterbacks are a very small part of why those teams are successful.
We were privileged to see something rare in the third matchup of the season between the Niners amd Seahawks. The level of talent and depth across the board on both of those rosters is a rarity we might not see again for quite some time. Those two teams have been the two deepest rosters in football the past three seasons. Now evidenced by each of them representing the NFC in the Super Bowl the past two seasons (With SF making it to the NFC Championship game two years ago as well). Why is this a rarity you ask? Timing, great scouting, drafting, and prior years of ineptitude combine to forge the current optimum state of Seattle and San Francisco.
The NFC West not long ago was the worst division in the NFL. The laughing stock of the league as well as the fans universally. During those years of mediocrity, coaching and QB instability, ownership turmoil, the 49ers amassed high 1st and 2nd round draft picks plus many 3rd/4th/5th/6th round picks and selected many of the widely recognized stars of today’s NFL including Patrick Willis, Vernon Davis, Colin Kaepernick, Aldon Smith, Navorro Bowman, Aaron Brooks, Michael Crabtree, etc. Early on, that talent surrounded by instability underachieved leading to the dismissal of more than one coaching staff. It was former Stanford head coach Jim Harbaugh that came in and was able to make a very talented team mesh and start validating that talent on the field with wins. Their division rival, though constructed very similarly took a different approach to team building.
The Seattle Seahawks in every way embody their head coach Pete Carroll. A former NFL head coaching flame out with the Jets and Patriots, Carroll went to college football and became a legend at the University of Southern California, winning multiple national championships. His return to the NFL was met with much cynicism and scrutiny because of his past resume. Could a college “rah rah” type of coach win at this level? He’s proven the answer is yes.
As aforementioned, the Seahawks embody his spirit. He wasn’t the first choice by USC, by the Seahawks, passed over for many jobs while serving as a coordinator in the 80’s and early 90’s. That chip on shoulder mentality is what makes the Seattle Seahawks. Many of their best players were also unheralded, overlooked misfits. Russel Wilson, 3rd round pick. Richard Sherman, 5th round pick. Kam Chancellor, 5th round pick. Doug Baldwin, undrafted free agent. Marshawn Lynch a misfit abandoned by the Buffalo Bills. Traded to Seattle for a fourth round pick and a conditional pick.
Carroll uses that as the fuel for that team. Out on an island (metaphorically) in Seattle outside the visibility and attention of the nation, the Seahawks have forged a true “Us VS Them” mentality that is evident in their play and can be largely attributed to the origin of their success. There is also an undeniable monetary paradise both the Seahawks and Niners operate within for a very brief period that has contributed to the talent and depth of those teams.
It’s no secret. The NFL is the ultimate salary cap league. Its parity comes from all 32 clubs having a pooled stake of shared revenue and a set cap number that cannot be exceeded. Unlike the NBA where teams can exceed the cap limit by paying a crippling luxury tax that amounts to mega millions of dollars flushed or the MLB where teams have free reign to spend whatever they want.
By design, no modern NFL team can be flawless. Constraints from the cap inevitably mean all 32 teams will have holes somewhere that cannot be fixed. In the case of the Niners and Seahawks, great drafting has enabled them to get unprecedented bargain value for elite talent. That has led to them being able to retain deep rosters with the addition of key free agents due to the money saved elsewhere.
Sherman, Aldon Smith, Earl Thomas, and most importantly, Kaepernick and Wilson are being compensated today far below what their worth, as dictated by the open market. The beauty and reward of finding Pro Bowl talent at the bottom of the NFL Draft as well as the rookie wage scale means teams pay pennies for top tier talent. Giving Clubs a small window to pay other players or bring in one year deal free agents at crucial positions before their marquee players rookie deals expire and they have to shell out millions. That is why Seattle and San Francisco have been the two deepest rosters in the NFL. A 3rd of each teams talent is underpaid. Both teams have masterfully taken advantage of that.
The 49ers signing of Anquan Boldin, the Seahawks signing in the offseason of Percy Harvin, Michael Bennett, etc are luxuries very few NFL teams could afford. Why is that? In a previous article, I discussed the impact and parameters of NFL Quarterback contracts. The going rate for any above average NFL QB and up has risen beyond one hundred million dollars.
That severely hampers NFL teams, when one players contract eats up a third (or more) of the pie responsible for also paying 52 other players. Teams have a finite amount of spending money, and by modern norm, inevitably a large share of that is going to the quarterback.
Peyton Manning is making 15 million this season alone. Kaepernick earns a little under $750,000 this season while Wilson makes a little over $500,000. You do the math for how big a gap that is. The Seahawks/49ers won’t be enjoying that glaring advantage much longer. Soon enough, those rookie contracts will expire and both teams will have to break the bank to lock up their quarterbacks. This means many of the players on both Seattle and San Francisco won’t be around much longer either.
SEA/SF won’t be able to afford them. Other teams will offer them significantly more money. The spirit and conception of free agency.
I harken sports fans to appreciate the game we witnessed two weeks ago. The level of passion involved, the amount of talent and stardom on the field, the emotion. It was football at its finest. Blood sweat and tears personified. From the exciting Kaepernick and Lynch runs breaking the game open to the edge of seat, pulse pounding conclusion with an amazing tip by Richard Sherman, it was an amazing game. I have a feeling both of these teams will look vastly different next season.
For me, the legacy of that NFC Championship game was a celebration of the NFL and a throwback to the 80’s and 90’s style of play. To see teams running the football, playing great defense, exciting plays by young dynamic passers, etc shows the world that though the NFL is a passing league today, running the ball is essential in the postseason, and the athletic QB is here to stay.
Societally, we have these widely accepted preconceived notions about the NFL. Its getting softer, guys don’t really care or play hard, only elite QB’s can win, etc. The evolution of the NFC is contributing to the evolution of the NFL. Becoming less rigid, new concepts from the college game have emerged creating a Renaissance in the NFC.
Whether it’s the Pistol/Read Option, or RGIII/Cam Newton/Russell Wilson/Colin Kaepernick, the sport is changing. Along with Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers, etc this means the NFC will remain the conference of stability, and likely the dominant conference for years to come.
Check out part 2 of the “NFL Playoff Juxtapose” series by clicking here