For Seahawks, winning forever requires tough decisions

My last conversation with Red Bryant as a Seattle Seahawk was certainly a memorable — and mildly frightening — experience.

Memorable because of how emotional and how fired up Bryant was in the MetLife Stadium locker room an hour or so after Seattle had finished pummeling the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XLVIII. Mildly frightening because of the way Big Red was gesturing with his massive arms while talking. Get caught by one of those swinging arms, I thought, and I’d be the second-most beat-up person in the stadium behind Peyton Manning.

Mostly it was a cool moment to see someone so genuinely moved by the moment, by the realization that he had reached the pinnacle of his sport. Three-and-a-half years earlier, Bryant thought he was on his way out of Seattle after Pete Carroll and then-defensive line coach Dan Quinn suggested he change positions. Instead, here Bryant was, the captain of a Super Bowl champion defense that had just secured its place as one of the greatest units in league history.

“I understand how fortunate I am, how privileged I am to be in this moment, and I won’t take it for granted,” Bryant said. “Tonight, I was able to do something that’s going to live a lot longer than me. Whenever you think about the Seattle Seahawks, you’re going to think about this team, you’re going to think about Big Red.”

Yet that conversation was also memorable because even as Big Red soaked in the biggest moment of his career, he was all too aware of the business side of the NFL. He knew that the future was bright for the Seahawks, who became the youngest Super Bowl champs in NFL history, but he didn’t know if he would be a part of that future.

“Hopefully this is just the beginning of something extremely special, and I just pray that I’m around to be a part of it,” Bryant said.

Less than a month later, Bryant was released by the Seahawks along with receiver Sidney Rice. Bryant and Rice weren’t cut Friday because the Seahawks didn’t think they can’t play anymore, but because the Seahawks felt that money could be spent better elsewhere. By releasing Rice and Bryant, the Seahawks freed up $12.8 million in salary cap space for 2014, a cold dollars-and-cents reminder that winning forever requires some harsh decisions.

During the NFL scouting combine earlier this month, general manager John Schneider said it was a “huge goal” to keep the team together, but he also noted that tough decisions were coming.

“You don’t look forward to those decisions, but it’s more about long-term,” he said. “We’ve talked about trying to be a consistent championship-caliber football team and not the one that just cruises in for a year and then cruises out, so we have to work through those issues.”

If the Seahawks play their cards right, they can indeed be “a consistent championship-caliber” team for years to come. That’s what happens when you have the right combination of coach and general manager; when you find a franchise quarterback; and when you have young stars on defense to build around, assuring years of potentially dominant D. But while the Seahawks can be contenders for years to come, they can’t do it by being the same team for years to come. Friday’s roster moves reminded us of that.

With Bryant’s release, Brandon Mebane becomes the only pre-Carroll/Schneider era player remaining on what should again be one of the league’s best defenses. If that’s not a good reminder that change is inevitable in the NFL, I don’t know what is. The Seahawks obviously aren’t interested in continuing the level of turnover they had in those first couple of years under Carroll and Schneider, not now that they’ve built a team in their image and won a Super Bowl with it. But they also understand that staying good means staying ahead of the game when it comes to contracts and age.

Of course none of this is new. Anyone who pays attention to the NFL knows roster turnover is a given in a league with non-guaranteed contracts and a salary cap. But it hurts a little more when the player on his way out is the player who helped your team win its first Super Bowl, doesn’t it? It’s tough to see Bryant go from heart and soul of the defense to cap casualty in less than a month, isn’t it?

But even if losing players stings, it should be something fans have to be willing to accept. Maybe you’d love to see Bryant finish his career in Seattle, but would you do so if you knew it meant losing Michael Bennett to free agency this offseason? Or if meant being unable to extend the contracts of Earl Thomas and Richard Sherman, leading to their potential departures a year from now?

If Schneider and Carroll do things right, the Seahawks will still be contenders five years from now. And if Carroll and Schneider do things right, they’ll do so with a roster you wouldn’t recognize if you saw it today. Change is one of the NFL’s few sure things; Bryant and Rice’s cuts were a good reminder of that. So too, for that matter, was Bryant’s honest assessment of his future and that of the Seahawks. Even in the moments after winning a Super Bowl, he knew the Seahawks’ future was bright, but that assuring that bright future could come at his expense.

Herald Writer John Boyle: jboyle@heraldnet.com.

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