The Seattle Seahawks' 2015 season had been over for less than an hour, having ended in a disappointing divisional round playoff loss to the Carolina Panthers, but already cornerback Richard Sherman was looking at Seattle's future with an optimistic attitude.
The Seahawks had just wrapped a season that fell short of the lofty standard they had set in the previous two years, and as is always the case in the NFL, they were facing some tough personnel decisions in the offseason to come, but Sherman didn't hesitate when asked if the Seahawks were still a team on the rise, even after a season that felt like a slight step back.
"One hundred percent, because we're still young," Sherman said. "I think people get confused sometimes, like our quarterback's 38. I think he's closer to 26 or 27 than 38, Bobby Wagner is 25. We've got a young core. I think people have been astounded by what we've been able to do in our young careers, but we're far from done. Guys are just entering their prime, and we're going to be special for a long time."
Make a list of some of the Seahawks' core players, and you see what Sherman is talking about. That a team that won a Super Bowl as one of the league's youngest teams is now a very experienced one while still being relatively young. What a few years ago was a young, inexperienced nucleus is now a veteran one full of fifth-, sixth- and even seventh-year players, particularly on defense.
"Coach (Bill) Walsh used to say, 'You really can't draw on great experience until you are together for five years,'" Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said last week during the team's minicamp. "You couldn't put enough stuff on the shelf and the experiences for a number of years, he said it was five years. There is something to that. You watch Russell (Wilson), and the level that Bobby (Wagner) and K.J. (Wright) are at now and their understanding of the game. It is not just that they know how to play or they know their assignments, but they have so many past experiences that we can draw from. It allows us to communicate on such a high level and so quickly that we are just connected. It does make a difference and hopefully we will be able to bank on that. We've set out a long time ago to keep these guys together and we've done that, and hopefully it is going to continue to keep us moving ahead."
All of that is why Carroll agrees with Sherman's assessment that, for all the Seahawks have done already, they're just now getting into their prime.
"We don't feel like we are anywhere but in the middle of all this stuff right now, so it is a great time for our guys," Carroll said. "And also they are better equipped now to help younger guys. They've moved to the point where they can look back and appreciate what they have learned, and our guys are willing to share that, so that can help our young guys progress quickly. It is a great benefit having those guys."
On defense, Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor are entering their seventh season, Wright and Sherman their sixth, and Wagner, Jeremy Lane and DeShawn Shead their fifth. Even one-time free agent additions Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril are heading into their fourth season with the Seahawks, yet of that entire list, all are 28 or younger aside from Avril and Bennett, who are both 30.
Carroll didn't fully grasp the truth behind Walsh's message until last season when he was coaching sixth-year players like Thomas, Chancellor and Russell Okung. Up to that point, Carroll had never had players on his teams for that long as a head coach, having previously enjoyed a long run in the college ranks at USC and shorter NFL head coaching tenures with the New England Patriots and New York Jets. And it isn't just on-field experience helping the more-experienced Seahawks. As players have grown and matured, they've been through the highest of highs together; they've experienced Super Bowl heartbreak together; they've dealt with tense contract negotiations, seen beloved teammates move on, and they've grown from so many of the things that come with becoming an adult off the field, including for many players marriage and the addition of children to their lives.
"It is different," he said. "I got to admit to you, I would say that up until we were here like year six, it is pretty much the same (as college). We got guys five years and they move on. You have guys graduate and all that stuff, a lot of similarities. The fact that our guys have been through so much, Super Bowls on both ends of it, new contracts, Pro Bowls, all that kind of stuff, and we're still here working together is something that we are really trying to draw from to help us. We are going to make really obviously value out of the time spent together and bank on these years we've put together."
On offense, Wilson is preparing for his fifth season, which also means five years of working with sixth-year receiver Doug Baldwin, and five with starting receiver Jermaine Kearse. At 27, Baldwin is the oldest of that trio. And while the Seahawks will be less experienced on the offensive line and at running back, their passing game should be better than ever with the time Wilson, Baldwin and Kearse, and to a lesser extent, Tyler Lockett and Jimmy Graham have spent together.
"Well there's no question that time benefits you," offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell said. "There's some nuances to guys running their routes and how they come out of their breaks and obviously the more times Russell's able to see Doug come out of a break, or Jermaine or Tyler (Lockett) or Jimmy Graham—all those kinds of guys—he just gets more familiar with them. It shortens the time that he's got to hold onto the ball, he can anticipate things more, knows how fast they come out, or the different moves that they might put at the top of it. So all that time that we're logging out here on the field is really valuable for us."
That level of experience is a big reason why the Seahawks will likely have a more versatile secondary than they have in past years, and why Carroll is expecting Russell Wilson to be even better in 2016.
"The experience is huge," Wilson said. "Obviously the game experience, the practice experience, and practice really gets you ready for the game—it allows you to play at a high level and play confident and trust one another. It allows you to make the plays that you need to make consistently over and over again. You also learn from your mistakes and use that for the next opportunity you get, the next opportunity you can learn and make the plays. That is the great thing about this game, that is the great thing about practice, that's what you love. I think the biggest thing though about the guys that we have, the five-year guys and the six-year guys and I think a handful of seven-year guys; I think the biggest thing is that nucleus, the togetherness, the thought process, the approach to the game, the preparation that we all know it takes and I think that feeds off to the young guys."
With players out until training camp begins in late July, take a look back at the best photos to come from the Seahawks 2016 offseason workout program.