Thiel: Best man wins (and so can second-best)


by Art Thiel


Posted on August 28, 2012 at 6:30 PM

Here it is in two sentences:

If pro sports teams let contracts dictate playing time, then they are the NBA or MLB and, more specifically, the Mariners. Who wants that?

GM John Schneider and coach Pete Carroll believe starting rookie Russell Wilson at quarterback gives the Seahawks a better chance to win right now. The fact that they have already invested $10 million guaranteed in another quarterback, Matt Flynn, as part of a $26 million deal he signed as a free agent, is a negligible consideration.

Think of it this way: A year ago after the lockout, the quarterbacks were Tarvaris Jackson and Charlie Whitehurst. Think they've upgraded?

The fact that the Seahawks were able to take two steps forward at their most important position is another reason why the NFL is more successful than other pro sports leagues. The relatively small part of player compensation that is guaranteed allows NFL teams a degree of roster manipulation found nowhere else.

Not to pick on the Mariners -- they are handy, however -- the baseball team hasn't hasn't  upgraded their 3-4-5 spots in the lineup since 2001. Think about that. Whether by incompetence or market constraints, they've been inert offensively for more than a decade. Obviously there are differences in the sports, but the NFL's deal with its players union allows clubs to more freely obtain (and unload) players who will produce nearly immediate results.

One could argue the Los Angeles Dodgers have just done that in mid-season with their blockbuster trade with the Red Sox. But the Dodgers ownership could take on the risk of a quarter of a billion dollars in salary obligations because of their enormous, new TV deal in the nation's second-biggest market.

The Seahawks have upgraded their key position by risking Flynn's $10 million guarantee -- or $1 million more than the Mariners are paying Chone Figgins this year as well as next year NOT to play much -- that Flynn won't be a complete bust. That's a smart bet.

The football aspects of starting Wilson ahead of Flynn are more readily debated.

It can be argued that Carroll is engaged in a foolish "bromance" with Wilson, the outlier. It can be argued that Carroll has undervalued Flynn's pro experience. It can be argued that once defenses game-plan against Wilson, he won't get away with what he's done so far in preseason. And it can be argued that no matter his potential aptitude for the QB job, now is not the time to introduce Wilson to the large, skilled, mean, sweaty men of NFL defenses. Plus -- he's short.

But it can't be argued that money or ego is disrupting the Seahawks' thinking.

Setting aside Russell-mania for a moment, the Seahawks do look superficially silly for investing potentially $26 million in a backup. But if Wilson should flop, or have a rookie slump, or get hurt, the Seahawks are in better shape than nearly any team in the NFL to transition relatively seamlessly to another good quarterback -- without making a spendy midseason acquisition.

Because of guaranteed contracts in other sports, franchise bosses wind up investing their own egos in acquisitions too. They hang on to Jim McIlvaine or Vin Baker or Ichiro well beyond their athletic expiration dates because the the bosses look like idiots when the players fail. It took Ichiro himself to summon the wisdom to demand his exit from the Mariners to keep the owners from shooting themselves in the head with a contract extension for him.

But Carroll and Schneider and their peers around the NFL can make more mistakes and take more risks than their comtemporaries in other sports.

So as much legitimate excitement as there is about Wilson's present and future as a performer, it is worthwhile to note that the Seahawks, barring injury calamity, have idiot-proofed themselves at the game's key position.

Yes, Wilson is a rookie, but he plays for a team in which defense comes first, the running game is second and the passing game is tied for third with special teams.

The Russell Wilson narrative is a splendid saga. But as you get your yippee on for the NFL season, don't forget to offer an admiring glance at the football architecture too.

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