NOT LONG AGO, A SEAHAWKS TEAM BUILT AROUND THE LEGION OF BOOM AND HARDENED BY RUTHLESS INTERNAL COMPETITION SEEMED DESTINED FOR MULTIPLE SUPER BOWL RINGS. BUT A RIFT BETWEEN OFFENSE AND DEFENSE AND RESENTMENT OF A STAR QUARTERBACK LED TO THE TEARDOWN OF A WOULD-BE NFL POWERHOUSE
IN MARCH, three weeks after the Seahawks released him and he signed with the NFC West rival 49ers, All-Pro cornerback Richard Sherman married his longtime girlfriend, Ashley Moss, in the Dominican Republic. The soiree doubled as a reunion for the best defense in recent history, the Seattle unit that allowed the fewest points each season from 2012 to '15, that won one Super Bowl and nearly won another, that gave the NFL the Legion of Boom.
Sherman invited his closest friends and family to the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Punta Cana. The ceremony took place on the beach, a turquoise ocean sparkling behind the happy couple. Members of those mighty Seahawks defenses spent the weekend drinking and gambling and celebrating Sherman's good fortune, which cut two ways. There were his nuptials, yes, but some of those former teammates were also saluting his escape to San Francisco, away from an organization that a handful of Seahawks had referred to in private as the Titanic for the better part of a year. Even on the happiest weekend of Sherman's life, the conversations among his guests inevitably turned to what one Seattle player describes as the "dynasty that never was." The rueful nostalgia had a more acidic undertone: Some Seahawks carried a lingering disdain for quarterback Russell Wilson.
The conversations usually started in a good place: players reminiscing about the glory days, like Seattle's battering of Peyton Manning and the Broncos in Super Bowl XLVIII. "I was telling the guys I never thought of us as being that elite," says Cliff Avril, a Seahawks defensive end from 2013 to '17. "It was just a bunch of bad dudes having fun and playing for each other."
All that is over now. After last season—Seattle finished 9--7 and missed the playoffs for the first time since 2011—the team released Sherman, traded Pro Bowl defensive end Michael Bennett (and a seventh-round pick) to the Eagles for a fifth-rounder and an unknown receiver, and refused to meet All-Pro safety Earl Thomas's demands for a contract extension. Avril and hard-hitting safety Kam Chancellor were forced into retirement by spine and neck injuries. Cornerback DeShawn Shead and defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson departed in free agency. Corner Jeremy Lane was also released.
The final tally: six Pro Bowl--caliber players and eight contributors who retired, departed or did not report to camp. (Thomas finally ended his holdout four days before the Seahawks' season-opening loss to the Broncos.) Only five players remain from Seattle's championship team—Wilson, Thomas, receiver Doug Baldwin and linebackers Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright.
The recurring lament at Sherman's wedding wasn't the personnel churn—it was the why behind it. Yes, injuries and the aging process are inevitable in the NFL. But a dozen sources with direct knowledge of the Seahawks' internal dynamics who spoke to SPORTS ILLUSTRATED pointed to a locker room that fractured last season, with private spats spilling into public view and a rift deepening between players who supported Wilson and those who felt the coaches held him to a different standard. The roster overhaul, those sources maintain, was a result of that dissension. It was management deciding to "take the power back," according to two departed Seahawks. That notion was confirmed by three other current or former players.
Several current and former Seahawks say that coach Pete Carroll and GM John Schneider can "feel the pressure mounting." And rather than wait for further erosion of morale and for the defense to get older, they acted decisively this spring after that D fell from third in the NFL in points allowed in 2016 to a tie for 13th. The Seahawks are rebuilding around Wilson, their most prolific and polarizing player, at least until his contract expires after the 2019 season. But players who left, and even some who remain, wonder if the changes ignore what they see as the more fundamental issue: that the franchise ethos that made Seattle great—the highest of expectations and unrelenting internal competition—is gone too.
"This is a crucial year, marking a new era of Seahawks football," Baldwin said just before the regular season started. "The jury is still out on what's to come."
DURING A SEEMINGLY innocuous practice in 2014, the season after Seattle's Super Bowl win, Sherman intercepted Wilson. The two traded words and Sherman yelled, "You f------ suck," as he flipped the ball back at the quarterback.
The pick itself wasn't as important as what happened afterward. Several players told SI that Carroll gathered offensive and defensive leaders—not including the quarterback—and said they needed to protect Wilson, to treat the third-year player more gently than other teammates. Many of those leaders had been indoctrinated into the NFL with a tough-love ethos: the idea that merciless competition in practice is the way to bring out the best in a team. Never let a lapse slide. Talk s--- after interceptions—even meaningless ones in drills. The group told Carroll exactly that. "This is making [Wilson] one of our own," one player said, while several others nodded, according to two who were in the room. "He's got to go through the process."
No, Carroll told them. Not Wilson. "He protected him," one Seahawk says. "And we hated that. Any time he f----- up, Pete would never say anything. Not in a team meeting, not publicly, never. If Russ had a terrible game, he would always talk about how resilient he was. We're like, What the f--- are you talking about?"
That player says it's as if Carroll sent a pack of wolves out to hunt but kept one wolf back—and let him eat when the others returned with food. "We talked about that," says Tony McDaniel, a defensive tackle with Seattle in 2013, '14 and '16. "Russell had his f---ups; he never got called out. If I was Pete Carroll, I'd tell Russell, 'I have to call you out in front of the team so there won't be any problems.'"
One former Seahawk says he and a handful of teammates speculated that Carroll thought Wilson was too emotionally fragile to handle criticism. That forced Carroll into a difficult choice: side with players raised in the ruthless, hyper-competitive environment he'd fostered, or with the franchise quarterback he'd found in the third round. He chose the quarterback, the former player says: "[Carroll] realized Russ couldn't handle being part of the dynamic we had."
Not every teammate felt that way. Some noted that it's in Carroll's nature to stress the positive, quarterback or not. But many players had complaints about Wilson. Some were pettier than others. A faction of players thought Wilson had his own space for treatment in the facility that was off-limits to teammates. (Other players insist they knew this was not the case.) Others were miffed that he didn't interact with teammates at one of the team's annual Christmas parties.
All these accusations spoke to the same theme: that Wilson was treated differently than his teammates and, in some instances, willingly stood apart from them. When McDaniel arrived in Seattle in '13, he went to dinner with several defensive players and asked them why things seemed off between the defense and the quarterback. He was told by those players to be careful speaking frankly when Wilson was around, because they believed that what they said often wound up on Carroll's desk. "When guys would talk candidly in front of Russell, somehow all that stuff got up to Pete," one player told SI. "After a few instances everyone started noticing that, and everyone made sure not to talk about anything that could be misconstrued near Russell."
(Asked to comment on all incidents in this story, Wilson declined through the team and his representatives. The Seahawks also declined to comment.)
Some former and current teammates have also resented the spotlight that seems to follow Wilson. One example: After the 2014 NFC championship game against the Packers, Wilson was among the players invited to the podium at the 50-yard line after having thrown four interceptions. The Seahawks had just pulled off a miracle comeback, with the defense limiting Aaron Rodgers to 178 passing yards and intercepting him twice. Multiple defensive players had gutted through injuries, yet it was Wilson who received the most praise from fans and media, and Wilson whom Carroll saluted in team meetings the following week. "That's when guys really started to notice the lack of accountability," says one former Seahawk. "Before that, if guys made mistakes or we lost games, guys took responsibility for it, for good or for bad. We started losing that."
Remarkably, this was all before the crushing defeat in Super Bowl XLIX, when Wilson drove the Seahawks to the one-yard line in the game's final minute against the Patriots, giving Seattle a chance to win that they squandered in gruesome fashion. That Wilson threw an interception in the end zone mattered less than the fact that the Seahawks had called a pass play on second down. Some Seahawks believed that Carroll did so to give Wilson a better chance of winning the Super Bowl MVP award and to decrease running back Marshawn Lynch's chances. The feeling among some in the locker room was that the call contradicted what Carroll preached publicly: that he wanted to run the ball and play great defense, that he had built the Seahawks to be tough, stop foes and let Lynch bulldoze them to victory after victory. Several players felt Carroll said one thing and did another, and this time it had cost them a repeat Super Bowl title. (Such a view disregards the fact that the Seahawks defense missed 18 tackles and allowed the Patriots 196 yards after catch in that game.)
"That's when some guys started to openly question whether [Carroll] believed in his philosophy," says Avril, who adds that he still trusted the coach at that point. "Guys started to be like, Do you even believe what you're saying?"
Some Seahawks still remember every detail from that night. Sherman pacing back and forth, wearing his postgame frustration into the carpet in the locker room in Glendale. Lynch, fully dressed, downing a bottle of cognac, saying, "These motherf------ robbed me," and "f--- this," over and over. "If we gave the ball to the soul of our team and we lose, f--- it, we lose," one Seahawk says. "You lost doing what you do best. But he gave it to Russ. I didn't believe the MVP thing at first. But now I wonder. It's at least plausible."
"That one play changed the whole locker room," McDaniel says. "When Pete would give a speech or try for a heart-to-heart, people just stopped responding. They didn't know who to trust anymore."
IT WASN'T JUST the perceived coddling of Wilson that irked the locker room. The Seahawks had previously made difficult personnel decisions about such popular players as Bruce Irvin, Red Bryant, Brandon Mebane and Malcolm Smith, among other key contributors. Many of those moves were accepted as part of routine NFL business, but over time, after the Seahawks released or dealt several top leaders, the sense that the team was a true meritocracy—with no favoritism for high-priced free agents or high draft picks—began to fade.
An early move that bothered some players was the release of McDaniel, a favorite of the defensive vets, after the 2014 season. "Tony did all this dirty work," says one former Seahawks defensive starter. "I don't think people on the outside really recognized how valuable he was. Nobody in that locker room understood why we cut him."
McDaniel was eventually brought back, in 2016, but he found himself in a time-share with players whom, he argues, he was outperforming. Players who spoke to SPORTS ILLUSTRATED said the preference for young underperformers over quality veterans was most apparent in the career arc of one lineman: Germain Ifedi, the Texas A&M offensive tackle whom Schneider and Carroll drafted 31st overall in 2016. The opportunities Ifedi has enjoyed while consistently grading out poorly—he's currently No. 1 on the depth chart at right tackle despite ranking 59th out of 76 at the position in 2017 by Pro Football Focus—have irked vets who wonder why the Seahawks won't bring in free-agent competition or promote other players to challenge him.
Similarly, retaining wide receiver Tanner McEvoy at the expense of Kasen Williams in 2017—Williams was released—angered the defensive backs and some receivers who were familiar with the abilities of both. Three leaders even went to Seahawks management in protest. "Like, what the f--- are y'all doing?" says one. "Because you're not building a winning team when you're making those decisions." (The Seahawks cut McEvoy this summer; he signed with the Dolphins. Williams is a free agent.)
It's not unusual, of course, for players to grumble when favorite teammates are released. But taken as a whole, recent personnel moves have symbolized to some players that the Seahawks' system is broken. "Everything they preached about competition stopped being true," says one former Seahawk. "It wasn't like that anymore. The Kasen Williams move was one. The way they treated the running back situation for years, the offensive line. They would draft an offensive lineman high and tell him, 'You're a leader now.' No, you earn that. It all became artificial."
The fallout: The mantras Carroll peppers into his motivational talks—Always Compete, Practice Is Everything—began to ring hollow. And to the disgruntled in the locker room, Wilson became a symbol of the culture of unaccountability. The week after a December 2016 loss to the Packers, Sherman and Bennett nearly came to blows over the QB. Wilson had thrown five interceptions against a defense that finished 31st in passing yards allowed that season, and Sherman, a member of the Seahawks' unofficial player leadership huddle, of which Wilson was not a part, proposed confronting the QB in a private setting to ask what the issue was—standard practice with other players whose performance dipped. "That was a common thing to do, because often it was some outside factor affecting guys, family stuff, and you'd work through that," one former player says. But Bennett took issue, reminding Sherman that they only had one quarterback. The confrontation escalated to the point where the two needed to be separated.
FOR YEARS, Avril says, he warned his teammates, friends and acquaintances. All the public and private complaints, the sideline antics, the defensive players calling out the offensive coordinator—the personalities that Carroll sometimes referred to as the Seahawks' "celebration of uniqueness." It all would be tolerated only to a point. "When you start losing, people feel like they're losing control of the team," Avril says. "You get away with that when you're winning."
The Seahawks dropped five of their last nine games in 2017, as the young Rams replaced them atop the NFC West. Some players admittedly started to check out. Bennett took to reading books in some team meetings. Sherman's sideline exclamations became increasingly animated. "Too many people with opinions," says one former defensive starter. That's when some players took to referring to the Seahawks as the Titanic. Then, the ship hit an iceberg.
Sherman strained his Achilles in practice before a Thursday-night game in November against Arizona, then tore it in the third quarter while accelerating out of a break. That night would mark both Sherman's and Chancellor's last game in a Seahawks uniform; for Chancellor, his last in any uniform. That the injuries happened on the same field where the Seahawks had been beaten by the Patriots in the Super Bowl was not lost on some players. First, a potential championship dynasty died on the field in Glendale, Ariz. Now the Legion of Boom had too. "It was like, it's over," one Seahawk says.
After the Sherman injury, veteran players began preparing for their exits. Bennett repeatedly told his best friend, Avril, that he expected to be traded or released. In December, during what he thought was a private moment with Cowboys coach Jason Garrett after a game against Dallas, Thomas was caught on camera telling the coach, "If y'all got the chance to come get me, come get me."
To his credit, Wilson played well down the stretch without much help from his offensive line. His 34 touchdown passes matched his career high from 2015, and he threw for 3,983 yards and ran for 575 more, the second-highest total of his career. In his first six seasons, he'd thrown for more touchdowns (161) than Matthew Stafford (156) or Cam Newton (137) had in that same time frame. As teammates complained, Wilson received MVP consideration.
When the season ended, Carroll fired his offensive coordinator, longtime fan nonfavorite Darrell Bevell, and his defensive coordinator, Legion of Boom favorite Kris Richard, along with several other coaches. Some of Wilson's greatest internal critics, and even some of his defenders, are gone now, and this is clearly his team moving forward. Remaining Seahawks argue that keeping the core of the defense intact this season would have been impossible in any case, with Bennett turning 33 in November, Sherman north of 30 and Avril and Chancellor forced into retirement. But that doesn't make the end of an era any less sudden—or lessen the pain of what could have been.
"Hell, no," Wright says, when asked if he expected the defense would be dismantled so quickly. "I thought we were going to ride off into the sunset together. I definitely didn't see it falling apart that fast. I thought it would last another three or four years."
PUBLICLY, THE PRINCIPALS remaining in Seattle—Schneider, Carroll and Wilson—maintain that there's been no shift in philosophy, no effort to empower and insulate the quarterback, and that their current roster is a group on the rise, much like the 2012 Seahawks. Asked by SI in August in general terms about the upcoming season, all sounded optimistic. The expectation for excellence, Wilson said then, hasn't waned as the veterans who helped establish it have departed. "The standard was set a long time ago," Wilson told SI, "and it's still there from Day One when we started practicing this year. The standard is super high. The standard is to practice at the highest level and do everything we can to win."
Carroll told SI in August that he believes the Seahawks can build a champion with the players there now, that some are destined to become household names. He also said Wilson is "the best he's ever been," on and off the field. "Nobody knew who Richard was or who Kam was back in the day," Carroll said, "and there are guys in that room right now that they're going to know about in time. It's thrilling.... We've got extraordinary performance and leadership ability from the QB spot. I don't know what [the critics] are thinking."
The answers will come this season. If Carroll deliberately shifted the power center from a locker room full of outspoken Pro Bowlers to a talented passer who didn't have the full respect of that locker room, the one and only thing that will justify that transition is to win. "Now you're tied to him," one Seahawk told management this spring.
"One of the main principles of our teaching is, we're not going to worry about what's happened. All our focus is going to right now," Carroll said as his team prepared for a Week 1 matchup against the Broncos. "Whether you win or whether you lose, whatever happens, we need to move forward and leave stuff behind.
"Other than that, I don't care about it."
"WHEN GUYS WOULD TALK IN FRONT OF RUSSELL, SOMEHOW THAT STUFF GOT UP TO PETE," ONE PLAYER SAYS. "EVERYONE MADE SURE NOT TO TALK ABOUT ANYTHING THAT COULD BE MISCONSTRUED NEAR RUSSELL."