By Brady Henderson
NEW YORK – The Seahawks gave Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett deals totaling nearly $18 million this offseason to help a pass rush the team had identified as its biggest priority.
They gave Clinton McDonald his walking papers, releasing him at the end of training camp and then re-signing him after Week 1 in a cost-saving move.
“What he experienced is something that we all going to experience,” said Red Bryant, McDonald’s fellow defensive lineman and close friend, “and he just gave us an example of how you respond to it.”
He responded with a breakout season that has largely gone unheralded, lost among what Avril and Bennett have done to improve a pass rush that’s among the biggest reasons why this season is ending in the Super Bowl.
For McDonald, though, it began in Arkansas, which is where he went following his release in late August. He had been Brandon Mebane’s backup and a part of Seattle’s nickel defense since he was acquired in a trade with Cincinnati in 2011, but after signing a restricted free-agent tender that would have guaranteed his roughly $1.3 million salary had he been on the team the first week of the season, McDonald was released as Seattle trimmed its roster to 53.
The news hit Bryant and others hard.
“Every man on that team was distraught because we know what Clinton McDonald brings to this team,” Bryant said. “He’s one of the biggest factors into why we was fortunate enough to win 15 games. He’s a personal friend of mine, one of the best human beings I’ve been fortunate enough to meet. I just wanted to keep him encouraged.”
McDonald went back to his home state and trained, unsure of what would happen next.
“To be honest with you, at that point when it happened I didn’t know what was going on in a sense so I just stayed faithful to God and tried to stay grounded in what’s going on,” he said. “It makes you do a lot of thinking because something you put your all and all into and things happen like that, and it’s a part of the business. So in a sense, anybody in the business knows that day is coming.”
McDonald never seemed during training camp to be in any danger of being released, further evidence that the team’s decision was financially motivated. It was only a matter of time before he would get another chance.
“Like a quote from my big homey Red Bryant,” he said, “I stayed ready so I wouldn’t have to get ready.”
McDonald re-signed with Seattle after Week 1 and made an instant impact, recording 2.5 sacks in his first three games. A seventh-round pick in 2009, McDonald went four years in the NFL without a sack before finishing the season with 5.5 of them, third-most on the team. It’s an impressive total for an interior defensive lineman, especially a backup like McDonald who played just over half of Seattle’s defensive snaps.
“That’s very tough to do,” Bryant said. “I’ve been in the league six years. I hadn’t had five sacks yet.”
As he stood on the floor of the Prudential Center during Super Bowl Media Day – attracting small groups of reporters compared to the hoards that surrounded other teammates who were stationed individually on elevated platforms – McDonald reflected on his season.
“Man, it’s just been one of those experiences I wouldn’t trade in for the world,” he said. “This is one of the things I’m going to tell my grandkids when I get older, that your grandfather had a chance to play with great players one day and share in [those] accomplishments that we had.”
Follow Brady Henderson on Twitter @BradyHenderson.