TAMPA — The last time a team successfully defended an NFL title, Russell Wilson was a high school sophomore, hoping to qualify for a driver’s license.
Nine years later, he’s behind the wheel of a potential dynasty.
The Seahawks had hardly gathered around to lift the Vince Lombardi Trophy a week ago when speculation began about whether Seattle is well positioned to become the first Super Bowl champion to repeat since the 2004 New England Patriots.
On the surface, you’d have to say Seattle is poised for an extended run as a league power.
The defense, keyed by three Pro Bowlers in the secondary, is young and stout. Former Bucs defensive end Michael Bennett is suggesting he’ll give the Seahawks a discount before testing free agency. Game-breaking wide receiver Percy Harvin should return healthy in 2014.
But the biggest reason for optimism in the Pacific Northwest is Wilson himself.
Halfway through his four-year, $3 million rookie contract, Wilson is one of the NFL’s biggest bargains. He showed his maturity during the 43-8 Super Bowl rout against Denver, making smart decisions and refusing to force anything on the sport’s biggest stage.
Until Wilson is on his second pro contract, the Seahawks will boast enviable financial flexibility.
We just saw what happened when the defending champion Ravens had to pony up for quarterback Joe Flacco. That six-year, $120 million deal forced Baltimore to jettison some key contributors last spring, and the Ravens failed to make the playoffs in 2013.
With an average player age of 26 years, 4 months, the Seahawks have a lot going for them — and they know it.
“If we stay together, we’re young, we’re talented ... we feel like we can keep doing this and doing this and doing this,’’ linebacker Bobby Wagner said.
Still, the pitfalls are everywhere.
Just ask the Bucs, who began defense of their title by blanking the Eagles 17-0 in the 2003 opener, looking even more dominant than their championship club.
We all know what happened along the way to dynasty status.
Tampa Bay finished 7-9, and by the time the 2004 season rolled around, Warren Sapp was playing in Oakland, John Lynch was with Denver and Rich McKay was in Atlanta.
“Some of the guys around here are still waiting for the rest of the confetti to come down,’’ resident philosopher and pass rusher Simeon Rice said after the Bucs failed miserably to defend their crown.
The same fate could befall the Seahawks, who play in the rugged NFC West — where San Francisco is loaded, Arizona is dangerous and St. Louis is about to emerge.
Seattle coach Pete Carroll and general manager John Schneider know their NFL history. They know how easy it is for a champion to lose its edge — especially after Madison Avenue comes calling and free agents decide to cash in on high-profile success.
“One of the things that happens every so often is teams have a big fallout after they win the Super Bowl,’’ Carroll said. “I think we’re in a very fortunate situation. John has done an extraordinary job of structuring the roster contractually and with the vision of looking ahead, so we can keep our guys together.’’
Easier said than done, Pete. And while you’re at it, beware of that falling confetti.