CHARLOTTE, N.C. — In the aftermath of the Seattle Seahawks’ loss in the NFC divisional playoff round, Richard Sherman was asked about the future of his team.
More to the point, he was asked if the Seahawks are still a team on the rise, or are they yesterday’s men?
“We’re still young,” the Seahawks irrepressible cornerback said. “I think people get confused, like our quarterback (Russell Wilson) is 36. He’s closer to 26 or 27 (27 is the right answer). (Middle linebacker) Bobby Wagner is 25. We’ve got a young core.
“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. We’re going to be special for a long time.”
Even if they weren’t on Sunday.
As much as the Carolina Panthers’ 31-24 win over the Seahawks seemed to mark a changing of the guard in the NFC, neither of these teams will be going anywhere in the foreseeable future.
Sunday’s game marked the sixth time the Seahawks and Panthers have met since 2012. The Seahawks won the first four meetings, including a divisional round playoff game last year. The Panthers have now won their last two encounters, both this season.
But the good news for NFL fans concerns the ages of the leading men in this rivalry and the likelihood of more battles down the road.
For the Seahawks, Wilson, receivers Doug Baldwin and Tyler Lockett, tight end Luke Willson, linebackers K.J. Wright and Wagner and defensive backs Sherman, Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas are all 27 or younger.
True, the Panthers are starting to show some age in their lineup, but the main building blocks are all in their 20s. Quarterback Cam Newton is 26, linebacker Luke Kuechly is 24, defensive tackle Kawann Short is 26 and cornerback Josh Norman and running back Jonathan Stewart are both 28. Throw in rookie receiver Devin Funchess and rookie linebacker Shaq Thompson, who are both 21, and the Panthers should be around for a while.
Both organizations, in fact, built their teams in relatively short order. The Seahawks laid their foundations with three extraordinary drafts from 2010 to 2012, which brought them Thomas, offensive lineman Russell Okung, Chancellor, Sherman, Wright, Wilson, Wagner, guard J.R. Sweezy and defensive end Bruce Irvin.
The Panthers’ roster was assembled more randomly, but it all came together in stunning fashion this season with a 15-1 record.
“It’s interesting,” said head coach Ron Rivera, who’s in his fifth year with the Panthers. “We have a lot of people who’ve come and spoken to our football team.
“The thing that I’ve learned from them is it takes five to seven years to completely change the culture to what you want. You can get lucky if you have some of the pieces in place and sometimes it takes longer. But I think we’re right on schedule.”
The Seahawks, for their part, face a couple of critical decisions this offseason. Running back Marshawn Lynch is 29, carries a cap hit of $11.5 million in 2016 and struggled through an injury-plagued season.
Backup Thomas Rawls, meanwhile, was more productive in a short stint and carries a cap hit of $550,000 next season. The team has also declined Irvin’s option for 2016 and Okung and receiver Jermaine Kearse aren’t signed for 2016.
“It might be the last time for me and some of the other guys,” Irvin said following Sunday’s game. “We wanted to leave it out there for each other.”
But, under head coach Pete Carroll and GM John Schneider, the Seahawks have been able to find replacement parts in the draft. That job is also easier when the foundation is in place and the Seahawks have Wilson, Sherman, Thomas, tight end Jimmy Graham, defensive ends Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril, along with Wright and Wagner, signed through 2017. Baldwin, who enjoyed a breakout season in 2015, has a year left on his deal.
Those players, with the exception of Graham, all go back to 2012 with Carroll and the Seahawks’ first significant success. They’ve all been bred in the system. They’ve all bought into Carroll and his unorthodox ways. And they all believe their story is far from over.
“I’m extremely optimistic about what’s to come,” said Wilson.
“You keep building, keep growing. I think the progression of our offence, the progression of our defence and our special teams, the guys we have and the character men we have in the locker room, can’t get any better. So how could you not look forward to the next opportunity?”
Ed Willes | theprovince.com | January 18, 2016