Wide receiver Michael Floyd makes a catch against division rival San Francisco in the 2013 season finale.
The view for the NFL elite feels more like a glance out an airplane window than a comfortable gaze from a mountaintop. The scenery is no less beautiful, but the time to enjoy it can be fleeting.
Just ask the Ravens, who never had a chance to defend their Super Bowl title in these playoffs, sputtering to an 8-8 regular season record which sent them home before the postseason began. There have been 10 different Super Bowl champions in the past 10 years, with the Patriots (2004-05) the last franchise to repeat in this famously parity-driven league -- a dose of caution for a Seattle team which looks like it could be unstoppable for the foreseeable future.
The Seahawks are undoubtedly talented, with a burgeoning star at quarterback, the league's best defense and a bevy of key players just reaching their prime. Even before the confetti finished raining down on Sunday at MetLife Stadium, Seattle was named the favorite to win the 2015 Super Bowl.
The 49ers -- their NFC West counterparts and the foe in that classic NFC championship game three weeks ago -- have been
given the second-best odds at winning next year's Super Bowl. Both teams have done a fantastic job at managing the salary cap of late, and each found starting quarterbacks after the first round of the NFL draft – selections worth their weight in gold because of the financial flexibility it gives a franchise.
Soon, though, Russell Wilson and Colin Kaepernick will need to get paid. Then what? Can both front offices sign their signal-callers to lavish extensions and still keep the depth around them?
"If it was like baseball with no salary cap, then we would be like the Yankees," Seahawks cornerback Walter Thurmond told USA Today, "just hording guys and really creating a dynasty."
Football, of course, has a hard salary cap, one expected to hover around $126 million in 2014. It's the reason teams have such a hard time staying on top for a prolonged stretch.
The Seahawks can ride the gravy train for at least one more season, as Wilson is not yet eligible for a contract extension. Star cornerback Richard Sherman is expected to get a handsome new deal soon, but Seattle has the maneuverability to sign him and keep the core in place.
The Seahawks won the Super Bowl with minimal contribution from wide receiver Sidney Rice, a player they can cut for $7.3 million in savings. Tight end Zach Miller is also overpaid relative to his production, and a restructure would free up more space.
In 2015, Wilson and the team can discuss a long-term contract. The top quarterbacks get in the range of $18-20 million per
year, which would be a giant uptick from his slated $817,302 cap figure for 2014. Despite the need to eventually lock up stars like Sherman, Wilson and safety Earl Thomas, Seattle is still in good shape, according to Jason Fitzgerald, who runs the salary cap website overthecap.com.
"Their drafting has been so good the last few years that it's really overcome some of the lack of performance from some of the bigger priced guys," Fitzgerald said. "I think in their case as long as they continue to draft well and make the difficult decisions to release veterans they probably won't miss a beat."
The 49ers could be in a tougher spot. They did such a good job managing the cap in recent years that it allowed them the flexibility to bring in wide receiver Anquan Boldin ($6 million cap hit) this season as another offensive weapon.
However, the contracts for the team's stars are escalating, and Kaepernick is now eligible for an extension after counting only $1.4 million against the cap in 2013. If the sides agree to a deal, it would make it tougher to re-sign Boldin and safety Donte Whitner without cuts in other spots.
The 2015 offseason is even trickier, as the 49ers currently have 43 players under contract for nearly $97 million -- although many can be cut without a salary cap hit -- and that list doesn't include Boldin, Whitner, Kaepernick, running back Frank Gore, wide receiver Michael Crabtree, guard Mike Iupati and linebacker Aldon Smith, among others.
"If you look at the 49ers' cap the last two or three years, you won't really find a high cap player because of the way they structured their deals," Fitzgerald said. "That allowed them to build this team of fantastic depth, (but that's) going to change. While you can avoid cap charges for a year or two, it kind of changes their dynamic in that they may begin to get higher capped players on the team, which means much less depth than they (currently) have. It's doubtful they can maintain solid veterans like Frank Gore or Anquan Boldin even in the short term. So I'd imagine they jump backwards without a leap forward from (Kaepernick)."
The Cardinals are the third piece of the ultra-talented division, and have a tricky tightrope to walk, with many key veterans complemented by young impact pieces. If the team made only small improvements last year, perhaps General Manager Steve Keim would have been content to wait out the Seahawks and 49ers, building around a talented young core of cornerback Patrick Peterson, running back Andre Ellington, safety Tyrann Mathieu, defensive end Calais Campbell, wide receiver Michael Floyd and linebacker Daryl Washington.
However, after seven wins in the final nine games in 2013 and with important veterans on a shorter shelf life, the front office knows the window of opportunity is already here. The team restructured wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald's contract on Tuesday for a reported $9.4 million in cap room this offseason, making it feasible to re-sign key free agents or go after players on the open market.
Would the Cardinals love to find a cheap quarterback of the future in the draft? Of course. And if Keim becomes enamored with one, it would be no surprise to see him make the selection. However, the dead money owed to offensive linemen Levi Brown and Adam Snyder combined with the team's future cap situation makes going for it all now the prudent move, according to Jason Fitzgerald.
"The one thing that could prevent Arizona from building the same way (as the 49ers and Seahawks) is that San Francisco drafted (Kaepernick) at the same time they brought in some other pieces via the draft or free agency," Fitzgerald said. "(Wilson) was brought in at the same time as guys on lower cost rookie deals. In some ways, it was the perfect storm.
"Arizona is going to be two or three years removed from their great cheap pieces like Patrick Peterson and Michael Floyd who will now be up for extensions, so by Year 2 of (a new) QB's tenure, it might be time to turn around and start paying big bucks to players."
The Cardinals may one day switch their focus to reloading around a drafted quarterback and the young pieces already in place, and it very well could coincide with a decline of the Seahawks and 49ers.
But when a team gets this close to the peak, it must keep pushing forward. By restructuring Larry Fitzgerald's contract to allow for maximum cap room this offseason, the Cardinals' front office has spoken: No matter how powerful their counterparts, the team believes three's company in the NFC West.