By Howard Bryant
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 13, 2006
Washington Redskins defensive end Phillip Daniels and cornerback Shawn Springs don't hesitate to talk about how grateful they are to the Seattle Seahawks. Both were drafted by the organization -- Daniels in the fourth round in 1996, Springs as the third overall pick the following year -- and the Seahawks gave them their first chance to play in the NFL.
As they prepare for tomorrow's NFC semifinal in the city where they cut their teeth in the NFL, each player looks back on the franchise as one might remember an alma mater, and both also remember the colder business realities that left them looking for new homes.
Daniels immediately floats back in time, smiling at being part of a stellar defensive line with Cortez Kennedy, Michael Sinclair and Sam Adams.
"The fans, they had so many names for us," Daniels said of the 1999 playoff team that had a top-10 defense in points allowed, interceptions and touchdowns. "They used to call us the 'Fearsome Foursome,' stuff like that. We were a good group together. We played well together."
But the longer Daniels talks about the four seasons he played in Seattle, the less wistful and more hardened he becomes. Daniels enjoyed his best season in 1999, recording nine sacks and 40 solo tackles. But he was also a free agent after that season and when he expected his success to be rewarded with a major payday from the Seahawks, he was mistaken.
Springs, meantime, grows more ebullient as he talks about his former team, sporting a brash vindication about leaving the Seahawks to sign a six-year, $30 million contract with a $10.25 million signing bonus with the Redskins in March 2004. Dogged by injury concerns when he signed, the Springbrook High graduate has been among the league's top cornerbacks the past two seasons.
"You know it's a business. I grew up there as a player," Springs said. "When I first got there, [Dennis] Erickson was the coach. . . . They were making a big deal about how I was the first pick of the new regime, of how they were changing their era, their attitude. It was like the whole city raised me a little bit."
Motivation abounds for the second-round playoff game between the teams. The Redskins have bristled at being a nine-point underdog to a team they defeated, 20-17, in overtime earlier this season. Moreover, the Redskins haven't been to the NFC title game since their last Super Bowl win after the 1991 season.
The Seahawks, meantime, are the top seed in the NFC with a franchise-best 13 wins but have a history of postseason failure. They have not won a playoff game since 1984, when they beat the Los Angeles Raiders, 13-7. They have gone 0-5 since, including 0-2 at home, and have been eliminated in their first game the last two years, including a 27-20 loss at home last year to the Rams.
But on a micro level there is also motivation for players such as Daniels, who following the 1999 season received a five-year, $25 million contract from the Bears (plus an $8 million signing bonus) but thought the Seahawks underestimated his value. Springs became a star in Seattle but was never completely convinced that defense had ever corralled the full attention of Mike Holmgren, the Seahawks' offensive-minded coach. And after two injury-plagued seasons he was not certain that the organization -- Holmgren, in particular -- hadn't begun to think he was slipping just a bit.
"You realize that times have changed," Springs said. "But sometimes times can change for the better. Obviously, it worked out for me because my last two years in Washington have been, well, I'll let everyone else decide. I'm not going to toot my own horn. But it's been good for me."
After four meandering years in Chicago, Daniels, too, is now playing the best football of his life. He has seven sacks in his last four games, highlighted by a four-sack game Dec. 18 against Dallas at FedEx Field. His streak of sacks in four consecutive games is the best of his career. That Daniels is playing well is a sentiment seconded by Holmgren.
"I thought he was great for us. He's another one, guys I would have liked to have kept," he said. "I talked to Phillip after our game in Washington, and he was a young player, just starting out, and we had a lot of money tied up in our defensive line and we couldn't do what we wanted to do with him salary-wise and he went to the Bears. Boy, I wanted to keep him, but we couldn't. He's played in Washington as well as I've seen him. He's a solid, solid football player."
Yet when Daniels thinks about that final year in Seattle -- the elation of making the playoffs, of being part of a strong defensive line -- the joy of realizing his talent is tempered by the difference between the millions the Seahawks offered to keep him, and the millions more that awaited him in Chicago.
"If they had come up a million or two, I probably would have stayed," he said. But Daniels also saw the business side at work. His teammate on the line, Adams, also left that same offseason, signing a free agent deal with Baltimore, and winning a Super Bowl that year. It was in Seattle, Daniels said, where he learned the hard way that the childhood dream of playing professional football for one team and navigating through the unforgiving world of a billion-dollar industry can lead to a nasty collision.
"I had to realize this was a business and it was time to move on," Daniels said. "We could have done some special things keeping that group together. Sam left the same year I did. I don't think anyone ever expected me to have the kind of year I had. I had to go out there and find the contract I got. But it was out there for me and I ended up going to Chicago."
Springs was different. Unlike Daniels, Springs is not on a hot streak, nursing a groin injury that forced him to miss last week's playoff victory over Tampa Bay. After starting each game he played during his first four seasons, he only started 30 of 48 games in his final three years in Seattle, and is particularly sensitive to the idea that injuries had gnawed away at his talents. He seems to be especially proud of his first two years in Washington, where he started 30 of 32 games, and has only missed three overall.
"When I got here, Shawn was one of the more gifted athletes I've ever seen play that position. He was really special. He was an upbeat guy, and helped me a lot," Holmgren said. "Then he went through a series of nagging injuries here. He had signed a contract before I got here, a fairly long one, and he and his representatives were disappointed at not being able to redo another contract when he was here. I would have loved to keep Shawn Springs, but he was offered a wonderful deal by the Redskins."
Springs has never denied a rift with Holmgren, except to say that "it was never as bad as it was made out to be." Still, Holmgren and Springs appear to have emerged with respect for one another.
"We clashed," Springs said. "Sometimes we had our differences, but the one thing we had in common was that we both wanted to win. I think he knew I cared and how much I wanted to win, my desire to win. He won't ever argue that."