In the NFL, Revenge rarely follows breakups


Russell Wilson has outgrown the Seattle Seahawks over the years. Together they won the Super Bowl after the 2013 season, Wilson’s second in the NFL. But Wilson continued to thrive as a quarterback as the Seahawks’ Legion of Boom defenses slowly faded and the organization became less successful but more stubborn and needy.

It was like Striesand’s “A Star is Born”, but with Marshawn Lynch flattening defenders instead of “Evergreen”.

After several seasons of whispered disenchantment, Wilson finally got the trade he desired. Wilson, who now leads the Denver Broncos, returns to Seattle Monday night to face the Seahawks. Such reunions have traditionally been promoted as “revenge” games because the tropes of grindhouse kung fu movies — or classic Hollywood romances, for that matter — are far more compelling than the messy realities of NFL roster management.

Before the Broncos traded a hefty dowry of draft picks and players for Wilson, the Broncos spent the six seasons since Peyton Manning’s retirement swiping right every quarterback whose dating profile read, mature, willing to let the defense take charge. Wilson, 33, who sealed his new band by signing a $243 million five-year deal last week, represents the Broncos’ effort to broaden their horizons and live a little.

The Seahawks, on the other hand, are still in the ice-out-of-the-box stage of breakup. Former Jets quarterback Geno Smith is their temporary starter in what can best be described as a relationship of mutual despair and pity.

Legitimate Super Bowl contenders from the AFC, Wilson’s Broncos are 6.5-point favorites to defeat the Seahawks, who are expected to be among the weakest teams in the league. Under the circumstances, mercy might be a more appropriate impulse than revenge.

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Week 1 of the NFL season may feature two more quarterback “revenge” matchups. Such encounters are more common than in the recent past, when successful quarterbacks rarely switched teams, no matter how dissatisfied both sides (and fans) were with the arrangement.

Take Joe Flacco and the Baltimore Ravens. Like Wilson, Flacco once led a team full of defensive stars to a Super Bowl victory early in his career. Unlike Wilson, Flacco’s development stalled: Ravens football in the mid-2010s felt like an endless succession of 53-yard field goals.

Despite declining returns, Flacco remained the Ravens’ starter until 2018, when Lamar Jackson arrived and taught the Ravens to have fun again.

As employer-employee relationships go, Flacco and the Ravens were about as good as it gets during late-stage capitalism. Flacco is also four seasons away from the Ravens. After a brief stint as the Broncos’ starter (see above), he became an on-and-off backup for the Jets. At publication, Flacco was still slated to start Sunday’s season opener against the Ravens, although on Monday, Jets Coach Robert Saleh said sophomore quarterback Zach Wilson may be returning from his preseason knee injury earlier than planned.

If revenge is a dish best served cold, Flaccos should be dipped in liquid nitrogen.

Flacco, 37, downplayed any possible revenge angle when asked about the Ravens showdown in mid-August, saying, “I’m going to try and make sure this isn’t the biggest deal in the world.” Most fans of Jets and Ravens would agree.

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Baker Mayfield can be forgiven for feeling different. Last year around this time, Mayfield was coming out of a breakout season in which he led the Cleveland Browns to their first playoff appearance since the 2002 season. He was poised to earn the nine-figure second contract bestowed on all successful young quarterbacks. However, a shoulder injury derailed Mayfield’s 2021 season and in March the Browns unexpectedly jumped into the bidding war for Deshaun Watson’s services.

The Browns acquired the rights to Watson, then charged with sexual misconduct in 24 lawsuits, from the Houston Texans in exchange for three first-round picks and change, and signed him to a $230 million fully guaranteed five-year contract as part of the deal. Mayfield, meanwhile, was waiting for a trade. And waited. The Browns held onto Mayfield via free agency, as quarterbacks like Matt Ryan (also thwarted by his team’s pursuit of Watson) found a new runway. They held onto him through the draft, when the needy quarterback teams found affordable solutions.

Facing the prospect of starting the season with former Jets quarterback Sam Darnold at center, the Carolina Panthers acquired Mayfield in early July in exchange for a conditional mid-round selection for 2024. The Browns and Panthers even agreed to pay Mayfield’s compensation. before 2022 as a couple who becomes half-hearted after a failed date.

Mayfield was then forced to compete with Darnold for the runway, a sign that Panthers coach Matt Rhule is just as lukewarm about the new arrangement as everyone else.

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Mayfield, more to blame for a mistake than Wilson or Flacco, got into a media frenzy last week over how colorfully he expressed his desire to beat his former team to NFL Network’s Cynthia Frelund. He also licensed beltless T-shirts to commemorate Sunday’s showdown, suggesting he was tied up in his former team’s offense.

Media uproar and a flair for “distraction” marred Mayfield’s tenure in Cleveland, but he has emerged as the most likeable character in his off-season saga. And with the journeyman starting Jacoby Brissett for the Browns in place of the suspended Watson, Mayfield earns a measure of revenge simply by showing up.

T-shirts and semantics aside, quarterback revenge stories are often contrived. Players usually feel a bittersweet tangle of emotions when they see former teammates and coaches as opponents for the first time, or when they are shunted into the locker room of a well-known stadium. Anyone who comes ‘home’ for a visit weekend after a divorce can tell.

In contrast, head to a sub-Reddit or to a corner taproom, and you’ll find seething fans who view a quarterback’s departure as disloyalty or betrayal, on either the player’s part or the team’s. Seahawks fans in particular may feel a little rejected by Wilson and long for a refund.

But win or lose in Week 1, Wilson will remain in the spotlight, while the Seahawks will be wearing sweatpants on the couch until they find his replacement. After all, living well is indeed the best revenge.

The post In the NFL Revenge Follows Rarely Follows Breakups appeared first on New York Times.