“Don’t worry about it, we’ll pick up the check Tuesday.”

For the last couple days, I’ve had a lot of thoughts about the Seahawks’ loss to the Steelers last Sunday, but not much to say about it.  Well, that’s not entirely true — I’ve had a great many things to say about that game, but they’ve consisted almost entirely of long, unbroken strings of four-letter words.  However, I’ve finally figured out how to express what I’ve been thinking in a way that’s simple, direct, and surprisingly obscenity-free:

Rebuilds suck.

Us fans don’t like to see our team lose.  If we had our way, the Seahawks would go 19-0 every season.  The road to the NFC championship game would run through Seattle on a permanent basis, and every Super Bowl would go our way in a ridiculously lopsided blowout.  There’d be so many Lombardi trophies coming back to the Pacific Northwest that Paul Allen would have to tack another wing onto the VMAC to house them all.

Team of the decade?  Try team of the century.

But outside of the franchise mode in Madden, that’s never going to happen.  In the real world, players are human; they get old, they get hurt, and they make mistakes both on and off the field.  Even when you succeed in putting together a core group of players capable of making a run at the championship, you do so in the full knowledge that they’ll only be capable of doing that for so long.  The simple fact of the NFL is that every one of those core players, whether due to injury, free agency, or plain old retirement, will one day leave your roster, and if the new guys you bring in aren’t capable of replacing their production, well, your win-loss record starts to go pear-shaped in a hurry.

When teams find themselves in that situation, it’s really tempting for them to put off finding guys who can be brought in and groomed as eventual replacements for their star players.  Instead, they cross their fingers that those guys will keep right on producing at a high level for the foreseeable future and concentrate instead on finding quick fixes in free agency to temporarily stabilize a handful of positions.  As we all saw here in Seattle, that approach doesn’t win championships, but it is pretty good for getting general managers fired.

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In all of Tim Ruskell’s drafts, he never found the next Walter Jones, the next Matt Hasselbeck, or the next Shaun Alexander.  Hell, he couldn’t even replace Josh Brown without screwing it up.  Sure, Olindo Mare eventually won the kicking job and became a steady, reliable fixture for three seasons, but not before Ruskell insisted on keeping a second kicker on the 53-man roster in what became a bizarre season-long power struggle that contributed directly to Mike Holmgren leaving the organization and being replaced by a ridiculous, petty manchild of a head coach.

That’s not to say that Ruskell didn’t have his successes, because he did.  His drafts netted the Seahawks some great players like Lofa Tatupu, Brandon Mebane, John Carlson, Leroy Hill, Red Bryant, Ben Obomanu, and Justin Forsett.   But he’s also responsible for bringing in an expensive aging DE with one good year left, an overpaid wide receiver who never seemed to get his routes quite right, another high-priced wideout who missed way too many games with injuries, a running back whose approach to pounding the rock could best be described as “Run to Darkness,” a first round cornerback with no feel for making plays on the ball, a first round center who couldn’t make line adjustments to save his life, and a revolving carousel of overmatched mid-round picks and injuryprone vets to man the left guard position. 

You can’t have that many misfires and expect to keep winning games, and by 2008 free agency band-aids were no longer enough to get the Seahawks back to the playoffs.  The roster Ruskell left behind for John Schneider and Pete Carroll to inherit was one filled to the brim with has-beens and never-will-bes, with a bare handful of legitimately good players strewn throughout.

Two years later, only eight of the thirty-seven players chosen in Ruskell’s five drafts are still wearing Seahawks uniforms, and only one player (Marcus Trufant) remains from the pre-Ruskell days.  If that isn’t a clean sweep, I don’t know what is.  This Seahawks team is full of young, promising, talented players. Unfortunately, this team is also woefully inexperienced, and the drastically shortened preseason has exacerbated that problem by denying the players hundreds of much-needed practice reps.

But even though they’re struggling now, we can take comfort in the knowledge that this scorched earth approach to team rebuilding has paid dividends for other franchises.  For example, take a look at the Dallas Cowboys.  Under Tom Landry, the Cowboys had one of the longest runs of success in pro football history. In an incredible twenty-year span stretching from 1966 to 1985, they went to the playoffs eighteen times, including five Super Bowl appearances (only two wins, but hey), and didn’t have a single losing season.  Not one.  That kind of accomplishment deserves respect, and I’m saying that as someone who hates the Cowboys with a burning passion.

By the end of the 80s, though, the Cowboys had suffered through three horrifically inept losing seasons, and the players who had made Dallas such a juggernaut had largely been replaced by a bunch of talentless, indifferent malcontents.  Wide receiver Michael Irvin spent his 1988 rookie season on the worst of those teams, a putrid squad that half-assed its way to a 3-13 finish.  On the America’s Game episode for the 1992 Cowboys, Irvin describes how much losing all those games bothered him, especially when everyone around him didn’t seem to care.  “Don’t worry about it,” they’d say to him after each game, “we’ll pick up the check Tuesday.”

When Jimmy Johnson replaced Landry in 1989, he wasted no time in throwing out all the dead weight (Irvin apparently helped out by giving Johnson a list of every player who had told him “don’t worry about it”).  The result?  A young, promising, inexperienced team that limped its way through a 1-15 season.  Not a great start, I’ll grant you, but just three years later they were winning a Super Bowl, and two more NFL championships would follow in the years after that.  I don’t know about you, but I’d love to see the Seahawks have that kind of success.

So yeah, rebuilds suck.  But you know what sucks worse?  Not rebuilding at all.  There’s no guarantee the Seahawks’ rebuild will succeed as spectacularly as the one Dallas had under Johnson.  We could very well keep right on losing every year no matter how young and promising our team is right now.  At least now, though, there’s a possiblity that Seattle could become that successful, and that’s more than I could have said about the team Carroll and Schneider took over in 2010.  That doesn’t make losing in the meantime any more palatable, but it’s something.