Are Seahawks headed for problems that cost Falcons?

RENTON — On more than one occasion in the past, Pete Carroll has pointed to the Atlanta Falcons as a franchise doing things the right way.

Before playing the Falcons in 2011, Carroll said: “This was a team that I admired throughout last year.” He went on to praise the Falcons discipline, how they were a team that won the turnover battle and how balanced they were on offense.

Then prior to last year’s playoff meeting, Carroll said: “We have tremendous respect for the Atlanta team. Mike Smith has done a great job with this club for a number of years. They have been on their game and on the top of the league for some time now with really good efficient play, good defense, good running game, good throwing game, highlighted players all over the place and a real good discipline about their style of play.”

Now, instead of being the team Seattle strives to be, Atlanta might be a cautionary tale of what could lie ahead if the Seahawks don’t make smart decisions and catch a few breaks along the way.

In addition to being another opportunity for the Seahawks to improve their chances of earning the top seed in the NFC, today’s game in Atlanta is also a good reminder of how fine the line can be in the NFL between continued success and a losing season. The Falcons, last year’s NFC No. 1, were a playoff team in four of the past five years before this one, compiling a 56-24 record over that time.

Suddenly, and seemingly without warning, the Falcons are 2-6 this year and showing several flaws.

That scenario may sound familiar to Seahawks fans who recall watching their team go from five-straight playoff berths to consecutive seasons with double-digit losses in 2008 and 2009. But more importantly than Seattle’s past is what Atlanta’s present struggles could say about the Seahawks’ future.

Yes, Seattle is young and talented, and yes, Carroll and general manager John Schneider have done an incredible job of putting together what looks like a formula for sustained success. However, at least a couple elements of Atlanta’s struggles could factor into Seattle’s future if Carroll and Schneider don’t play their cards right. While Carroll saw things in Atlanta he liked in recent years, there are two similarities between he franchises that could prove to be obstacles to Carroll’s desire to “win forever.”

Those similarities actually involve two of the team’s best players. In a conversation with D. Orlando Ledbetter, the Falcons beat writer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, a number of factors for the Falcons’ struggles came up, but two significant ones he noted were the lack of quality depth, which has been magnified by injuries, and the fact that several veteran players were jettisoned in the offseason for salary cap reasons.

Why did the Falcons have to part with those veterans? Well, one big factor was the $103.75 million contract they gave quarterback Matt Ryan this summer.

“They had to clear all these veterans to make room for Matt Ryan’s contract,” Ledbetter said, noting that there were 19 new players on the Week 1 roster compared to the team that started the 2012 season.

As for that lack of depth? One thing that has contributed to that is the blockbuster trade in 2011 that allowed the Falcons to move up in the first round to pick receiver Julio Jones.

Now, nobody in Atlanta regrets that move as Jones has become one of the game’s best receivers. (And Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff is on record saying he’d do it again.) But that doesn’t mean there aren’t consequences to such a move.

To acquire the sixth pick in that draft, the Falcons gave up their original first rounder, a second- and a fourth-round pick in that draft, as well as first- and fourth-round picks in 2014. The NFL’s salary cap makes it nearly impossible to sustain success if you don’t draft well, and the Falcons gave up a lot of opportunities to find talent in the draft in order to land Jones.

Again, it’s not a move the Falcons regret, but it was not one that came without a price, either.

“When you talk about a lack of depth, they gave up opportunities in the draft, they gave a lot of picks away,” Ledbetter said.

So what does all of this have to do with the Seahawks?

Well, like the Falcons of a couple years ago, the Seahawks have a young star quarterback who will be due for a big raise soon — Russell Wilson and the Seahawks can’t negotiate a new contract until after the 2014 season. And like the Falcons, the Seahawk saw a difference-making receiver and were willing to give up a pretty good chunk of draft capital, and cash, to land Percy Harvin.

Before we go further, two disclaimers: first, there are so many factors that go into any team getting better or worse from year to year, so while there may be similarities between Seattle’s current situation and Atlanta’s past, that doesn’t mean the Seahawks are destined to take a step back once Wilson gets paid and those picks they gave up to get Harvin catch up to them. Second, the Falcons are still a talented team, one capable of bouncing back from this bad start, so maybe they haven’t fallen off nearly as bad as it looks thus far.

Like the Falcons, Carroll sees the Jones trade as a great one for Atlanta, and he hopes the Harvin trade will pay off for his team once the receiver is healthy. But having been a part of Minnesota’s coaching staff when the Vikings mortgaged their future to trade for Herschel Walker, Carroll also knows there’s danger in giving up draft picks.

“They gave up a lot of stuff to do that one and it’s worked out,” Carroll said about Jones. “He’s a great football player and he’s changed the dynamics of their team somewhat. We haven’t seen the benefit of that yet, but that’s why you do it.

“It’s a very individual situation with your team and your status in the draft and the picks that you have and all of that goes in to figuring it out. There have been some historic misses in those kinds of trades, the big deals that guys do up top, and I happened to be part of one in Minnesota when Herschel Walker was traded. That one was like a whole draft’s worth; that was pretty devastating in the long haul.”

None of this is to say that the Seahawks’ success isn’t sustainable. They have shown a knack for drafting very well thus far under Schneider.

So even without the picks from the Harvin trade — last year’s first and seventh-round picks, and next year’s third — they can reload and get younger, and more importantly, cheaper, at some positions in order to give players like Wilson, Earl Thomas and Richard Sherman the big contracts it will take to keep them. But what the Falcons’ current struggles should do is remind you that Seattle’s current success should not be taken for granted.

“A lot of people complain about how we’re barely winning,” said linebacker K.J. Wright. “But at the same time, other teams are out there losing.”

Herald Writer John Boyle:

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