The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

Sports

August 8, 2011

Seahawks scramble as exhibition season looms

RENTON, Wash. — John Schneider’s office sits on the second floor of the Seahawks’ lakeside headquarters, overlooking the facility’s double-doored exit onto the practice fields.

The symbolism is unintentional, but apt. Schneider is the general manager who oversees which players get to run onto that field, and for the past 12 days his office has been mission control for an overhaul that was as remarkably deep as it was speedy.

This office doubled as a bedroom a few times, too. Four actually. Schneider’s family was out of town, so he just crashed on the couch. That wasn’t unusual last week, though. Not in Seattle, and certainly not around the rest of the league.

There are 31 other teams with similar stories of late nights and long days as the billion-dollar business that is the NFL tries to shoehorn four months’ worth of transactions into these few weeks before the league’s exhibition games begin on Thursday. Teams spent millions, executives lost sleep and while no one really burns midnight oil anymore, there were plenty of deals buoyed by the nocturnal coffee being brewed in every facility.

Seattle spent more than a year gearing up for this offseason only to have that offseason delayed by the longest work stoppage in league history. But then—after waiting through a 136-day lockout—the Seahawks were in a dead sprint along with every other team trying to make up for lost time.

“The cool thing about it,” Schneider said, “was we had a plan in place and ... it was bang, bang, bang, bang, bang.”

There were bucks behind each of those bangs, millions of them. Seattle heads into this season having signed wide receiver Sidney Rice and tight end Zach Miller, both former Pro Bowlers. They acquired Tarvaris Jackson to play quarterback and added two front-line starters in left guard Robert Gallery and defensive tackle Alan Branch.

No one could really anticipate what these two weeks would be like because no one had ever really been through it. Not the players, the agents who represented them, or the teams hoping to sign them. Everyone just took a deep breath, dove headfirst into the deep end of the pool and hoped to grab hold of something before they ran out of air.

There are pretty much two ways for an NFL team to acquire pro-football talent. The first is the meat market that is the draft, teams lining up one by one to take turns selecting from the All-American beef on display.

The other is free agency, which is more like courtship than shopping. It’s dinner and a movie, the team making goo-goo eyes in hopes the prized player will go home with them.

This was different. Free agency usually begins in March before the draft. This year it started less than a week before training camps opened. Teams could start negotiating with free agents at 7 a.m. PDT on Tuesday, July 27, but a player couldn’t even visit the facility until Friday.

“There wasn’t time for the dance,” said Rick Smith, the agent who represents Robert Gallery and fellow Seahawk James Carpenter.

This wasn’t completely a bad thing. Directness wasn’t just a virtue, but a requirement.

“It forced everybody to focus very quickly,” Smith said.

The matchmaking was more straightforward. Seattle left the lockout having decided to pursue a different direction at quarterback, a position that took precedence. At 7 a.m., Hasselbeck still considered the Seahawks an option. By 12:30, he was informed by Schneider and coach Pete Carroll the team had made a change.

Tarvaris Jackson was now Seattle’s quarterback. Next up: left guard. This was the spot that Seattle clearly carved out for a veteran, and Gallery had four years of history playing under Tom Cable, who is now Seattle’s offensive line coach. Targeting Gallery in free agency wasn’t any more complicated than connecting those dots, and it took a little more than a day to cement a deal.

“I know I wanted to play for him,” Gallery said of Cable. “In my mind, from playing for him in Oakland, I figured that he would want to come after me if it was the best for this organization. It just worked out good for both of us.”

Did he miss the courtship and seaplane rides used to woo previous free agents?

“I’m sure there’s great restaurants and all that,” Gallery said. “But that’s not my concern and why I’m coming here.”

Free agency isn’t just a contest to see who can stack up the highest pile of cash. Personal relationships play a role, and sometimes they are the landmarks that decide the course of careers and perhaps even franchises.

Seattle offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell knew Jackson after coaching him the past five years in Minnesota. Not only did Bevell coach Sidney Rice, but Jackson is good friends with Rice. Those dominoes start to add up.

It took more than just money to get Miller to Seattle. The Raiders weren’t necessarily outspent. The difference may have been the way Seattle sold itself.

“That was really John Schneider’s pursuit,” coach Pete Carroll said. “He did a great job. He was recruiter of the year on that one.”

Miller came to Seattle as his wife celebrated her 25th birthday. This was a more conventional free-agent courtship, one that sold Miller on a future here in Seattle.

Free agency is usually like a wedding cake: There are tiers. Those tiers are usually measured by weeks, whereas this year it was days. Not only that, but those days simply didn’t contain enough hours, which is the reason so much work was done at night.

“What we didn’t anticipate is how long the days and nights were going to go,” agent Ben Dogra said.

Dogra is co-head of Creative Artists Agency (CAA) Football, and one of the industry’s undisputed heavyweights. NFL executives call him a grinder, which is one of the sport’s highest compliments. He’s tireless.

CAA represents quarterback Peyton Manning and cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha, whose contracts headlined this year’s free-agency class. Dogra negotiated Asomugha’s deal himself, and he was the agent who negotiated Seattle’s deals with Branch, Milller and cornerback Kelly Jennings.

If that sounds like a lot it’s because it was. There was no way to prepare for what the crush of business would be like.

“Unprecedented waters,” Dogra said. “You tried to prepare for the unknown.”

For nine days, he went to sleep between 4 and 6 a.m. and was up by 7. The business of football became a treadmill that operated without pause. The minute you stepped off, it would take forever to catch up.

“If you missed one phone call, it might take three hours to get back to that call,” Dogra said.

It was after 1 a.m. on July 28, which meant Thursday night had officially given way to Friday morning, and John Idzik was on the phone with Brandon Mebane’s agent.

Idzik is Seattle’s vice president of football operations and its salary-cap expert. Schneider and Carroll were in the room, hearing half the conversation and becoming increasingly entertained by Idzik’s hair. It was kind of sticking out, fittingly frazzled given the circumstances.

Maybe it was the sleep deprivation or perhaps the knowledge Seattle was nearing an agreement to re-sign its starting defensive tackle, but all of a sudden there was a junior-high giddiness hovering around a deal worth millions. Schneider went behind Idzik, further mussing his hair as the coach laughed.

Carroll spent a good chunk of these past two weeks yo-yoing between the offices of Idzik and Schneider as they negotiated. He could hear only half the conversation, but he was listening for signs of a deal.

“I couldn’t hear what the other guy was saying,” Carroll said. “I just wanted to stay abreast of what was happening and keep the urgency going.”

There was no absence of that in the NFL. Not these past two weeks as 32 teams compressed months of transactions into just a few weeks, racing against the calendar, the clock and other teams.

The result was a free-agency period that may never be repeated, and one that changed the face of Seattle’s football team.

 

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