As they grew into Super Bowl contenders, the Seahawks—especially the Legion of Boom defense—prided themselves on a ruthless internal competitiveness that lifted everyone and was the foundation of an NFL championship. But some former and current Seattle players say a growing rift developed, based largely on the special treatment some felt was afforded quarterback Russell Wilson. Now the team they believed was set up for a long run of success has been torn up and rebuilt around Wilson. Did it have to go down like this?
Even on the happiest weekend of Sherman’s life, inside his sprawling suite at the Hard Rock or at one of the resort’s blackjack tables, the conversations inevitably turned back in the same direction, to what one Seahawk describes as the “dynasty that never was” and some players’ lingering disdain for quarterback Russell Wilson.
All that was over now. The Seahawks had released Sherman, traded Pro Bowl defensive end Michael Bennett (and a seventh-round pick) for a fifth-rounder and an unknown receiver, and refused to meet safety Earl Thomas’s demands for a contract extension. Avril and hard-hitting safety Kam Chancellor were forced into retirement from 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 departed, could not return or did not report to camp. (Thomas did report, on Wednesday of this week.) As a new season kicks off this Sunday when the Seahawks play the Broncos, only five players remain from their championship team—Wilson, Thomas, receiver Doug Baldwin, and linebackers Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright. “I would never have thought this would unravel the way it has unraveled,” Avril says. “Pretty much everyone who left was a Pro Bowler, if you think about it.”
The dismantling of a great defense dates back to one random 2014 practice, which ESPN first reported last summer as a catalyst for the Seahawks’ rift. That afternoon, 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, when several players who spoke to SI said Carroll gathered his offensive and defensive leaders and told them they needed to protect Wilson, to treat him more gently than they would their other teammates. Those same players had been indoctrinated into the NFL the exact way they were trying to teach Wilson, with merciless competition as the way to bring out the best in each other, by never letting a lapse slide, by talking s— after interceptions, even in practice. In the meeting, they told Carroll exactly that. “This is making him 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?”
One former Seahawk says he and a handful of teammates speculated that Carroll judged Wilson too emotionally fragile to handle the criticism, be it from them or his coaches. That presented Carroll with a difficult choice: between the environment he’d fostered and the franchise quarterback he’d found in the third round. He chose the quarterback, the former player says—a choice many coaches would have made—adding “[Carroll] realized Russ couldn’t handle being part of the dynamic we had.”