In the NFL, revenge rarely follows breakups
By Mike Tanier
Russell Wilson outgrew 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 blossom at quarterback while the Seahawks’ Legion of Boom defense slowly faded and the organization grew less successful but more obstinate and needy.
It was just like the most recent remake of “A Star Is Born,” but with Marshawn Lynch flattening defenders instead of “Evergreen.”
After several seasons of whispered disenchantment, Wilson finally received the trade he desired. Wilson, now leading the Denver Broncos, will return to Seattle to face the Seahawks on Monday night. Such reunions are traditionally touted 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 trading a hefty dowry of draft picks and players for Wilson, the Broncos spent the six seasons since Peyton Manning’s retirement swiping right on any quarterback whose dating profile read “tall, mature, willing to let the defense take charge.” Wilson, 33, who sealed his new bond by signing a reported five-year, $243-million contract, represents the Broncos’ effort to expand their horizons and live a little.
The Seahawks, by contrast, are still in the ice-cream-from-the-carton stage of the breakup. The former New York Jets quarterback Geno Smith is their temporary starter in what could best be described as a relationship of mutual desperation and pity.
Wilson’s Broncos, legitimate Super Bowl contenders out of the AFC, are 6.5-point favorites to beat the Seahawks, who are projected to be among the league’s weakest teams. Under the circumstances, mercy might be a more appropriate impulse than vengeance.
Week 1 of the NFL season may feature two other “revenge” matchups for quarterbacks. Such meetings are more common than in the recent past, when successful quarterbacks rarely changed teams, no matter how disgruntled both parties (and fans) became with the arrangement.
Take Joe Flacco and the Baltimore Ravens. Like Wilson, Flacco once led a team loaded with defensive stars to a Super Bowl victory early in his career. Unlike Wilson, Flacco’s development then stagnated: Ravens football in the mid-2010s felt like an endless succession of 53-yard field-goal attempts.
Despite ever-diminishing returns, Flacco remained the Ravens’ starter until 2018, when Lamar Jackson arrived and taught the Ravens how 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 removed from the Ravens. After a short stint as the Broncos’ starter (see above), he became an on-and-off backup for the Jets. At publication, Flacco was still scheduled to start Sunday against the Ravens, though on Monday Jets coach Robert Saleh said that the second-year quarterback Zach Wilson might return from his preseason knee injury ahead of schedule.
If revenge is a dish best served cold, Flacco’s must be dipped in liquid nitrogen.
Flacco, 37, downplayed any possible revenge angle when asked about facing the Ravens in mid-August, saying, “I’m going to try to make sure it’s not the biggest deal in the world.” Most Jets and Ravens fans concur.
Baker Mayfield can be forgiven for feeling otherwise. This time last year, Mayfield was coming off 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 upon all successful young quarterbacks. A shoulder injury derailed Mayfield’s 2021 season, however, and in March the Browns leaped unexpectedly into the bidding war for the services of Deshaun Watson.
The Browns acquired the rights to Watson, then accused of sexual misconduct in 24 lawsuits, from the Houston Texans in exchange for three first-round picks and change, signing him to a fully guaranteed, five-year, $230-million contract as part of the deal. Mayfield, meanwhile, waited for a trade. And waited. The Browns held on to Mayfield through free agency, when quarterbacks like Matt Ryan found new starting jobs. They held on to him through the draft, when quarterback-needy teams found affordable solutions.
The Carolina Panthers, faced with the prospect of starting the season with former Jets quarterback Sam Darnold under center, acquired Mayfield in exchange for a conditional 2024 mid-round draft pick in early July. The Browns and the Panthers even agreed to split Mayfield’s 2022 compensation like a couple going halfsies after a failed date.
Mayfield was then forced to compete with Darnold for the starting job, a sign that Panthers coach Matt Rhule is as lukewarm about the new arrangement as everyone else.
Mayfield, more quotable to a fault than Wilson or Flacco, got into a media tussle last week over just how colorfully he phrased his desire to defeat his former team to NFL Network’s Cynthia Frelund. He also licensed “off the leash” T-shirts commemorating Sunday’s showdown, suggesting that he had been tethered in his former team’s offense.
Media dust-ups and a flair for “distractions” marred Mayfield’s tenure in Cleveland, yet he has emerged as the most sympathetic character in his offseason saga. And with the journeyman backup Jacoby Brissett starting 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 narratives tend to be contrived. Players typically feel a bittersweet tangle of emotions when facing former teammates and coaches for the first time as adversaries, or when shunted to the visitors’ locker room of a familiar stadium. Anyone returning “home” for a visitation weekend after a divorce can relate.
Venture onto any subreddit or into any corner taproom, on the other hand, and you’ll find seething fans who consider a quarterback’s departure as disloyalty or betrayal, either on the part of the player or of the team. Seahawks fans in particular may feel rejected by Wilson and eager for some comeuppance.
Yet 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. In the end, living well is indeed the best revenge.