So someone attempted to catch me in a contradiction in yesterday's postgame thread. It's funny to me, both colloquially "funny" and actual "haha" funny, because the two quotes he picked out were not actually at all contradictory. Like I said, that's funny because -- and here's a dirty little secret I'll let you all in on because we're all friends, right? -- I do sometimes contradict myself. Even worse, sometimes, I am wrong. Like, really wrong.
I know, I know and here I am sitting beside a marble statue of myself, cussing the world and all its idiots and the worn out "i" key on my laptop, and, let me say, more than a little aghast that anyone would question my Word.
But I don't think I am wrong about the potential of Mike Williams. I think he could fit somewhere within that nebulous body that is the top five wide receivers in the NFL. To make that make sense, we need to define some ideas.
First, what is potential, talent and how does it differ from ability, performance. It seems simple enough, but it's not.
For instance, if we take two names from Seahawks lore, Steve Largent and Joey Galloway, which of those two players would we say was more talented?
Largent was selected in the fourth round of the 1976 NFL draft by the Houston Oilers and then traded to Seattle for an eighth round pick in the 1977 draft. He was not big, did not jump particularly high, he wasn't exceptionally fast, though he was quick, but it wasn't like Largent succeeded soly because of guile and hard work. Largent was certainly talented.
He was coordinated and understood spacing exceptionally well. Do we think of that latter quality, the ability to anticipate coverage and adjust to it, as a talent or a skill? It's not a talent like jumping very high is a talent, but there was certainly something within Largent that allowed him to learn and develop an essential skill faster and to a greater extent than almost any of his peers.
He had great timing and concentration and that gave him some of the most reliable hands in the history of the NFL. "Hands" are often categorized as a talent, but "hands" as we perceive it, the ability to reliably catch a pass plus the ability to make tough catches, is really an umbrella term for disparate skills and talents. Largent's ability to read a defense allowed him to get separation and that allowed him to create more opportunities for easy catches. Great wide receivers are not always making great, Brandon Lloyd-esque catches. Great wide receivers make easy catches by making catches easy, through route running, timing, positioning and reading coverage.
Galloway was selected eighth overall in 1995 in what turned out to be a very weak class for wide receivers. I don't have official NFL Combine data, but I do have memories, and I remember that Galloway was athletic, and explosive and fast like you wouldn't believe. Moon to Galloway are some of my first, best memories of the Seahawks. But in his five seasons in Seattle and first ten seasons in the league, Galloway was only moderately successful.
I am not implying that numbers perfectly capture the value of an individual player or that Galloway should have somehow overcome the mediocre passing offenses he played for, but in his five seasons in Seattle, passes targeting Galloway only once finished in the top ten in DYAR. The reason seems to be, most basically, in his five seasons in Seattle Galloway never converted more than 50% of his targets into completions.
So, we have Steve Largent, not big or fast or an athletic marvel, but he excels because he seems to play football in a way that's smarter than other players. And then we have Joey Galloway, fast as light and an athletic marvel, and he doesn't excel, and though Galloway was incredibly talented, he never excelled like Largent, and it's less clear why. It's as if, as surely as Largent played the game "the right way," Galloway played it "the wrong way."
So who is more talented? And is either more talented than Mike Williams?
The short answer is I don't know.
The long answer is that tools and skills are not discrete but more like a spectrum. Size, for instance, height, arm length, hand size, frame, etc, is a pure tool. You can add bulk but you can't lift until you're taller. Nearly as pure is straight line speed, but even that, from improving quickness off the snap to improving running mechanics, can be tweaked and improved upon. At the complete other end of the spectrum is raw effort. Maybe it's somewhat naive, but studying hard, running every route, hustling back into broken plays, that's all stuff I think any player is innately capable of, but that some players are better at than others.
So what is Mike Williams ability and what is Mike Williams potential?
Williams is big, along with Brandon Marshall, one of the biggest wide receivers in the NFL. He is tall and has long arms and with any kind of leaping ability, he should be exceptional at catching jump balls. His size also allows him to shield corners, practically any corner, and pluck receptions away from his body, creating a passing window without creating separation. Size and physical presence are Williams' two greatest assets and will last throughout his career.
Williams is also very coordinated, especially for someone as large as he is. I don't know exactly why smaller players seem to be more coordinated, better able to cut, run routes, redirect and move at angles, but it's probably because they have a lower center of gravity and produce less inertia. Williams, however, moves like a dancer. His mix of size and body control remind me of Antonio Gates.
Williams also has pretty good leg drive, power, jumping ability (if this is to be believed) and is, and this is strange for someone so tall, seemingly more quick than fast.
Those tools sort of define his potential, or seem to. His ability probably should define his potential, because it's what he's actually building on and not something abstract like "body control", but ability is harder to nail down.
Williams is a sick route runner. He doesn't need to separate as well as he does, but he does. Route running is an ability that also expresses talent. It's an application of talent achieved through practice. And Mike puts DBs on roller skates. He breaks quickly and cleanly and doesn't betray his route, and the effect is consistent separation.
His hands are a bit uneven, which seems counterintuitive to ridiculous. His hands are huge and powerful and snatch regulation footballs out of space like bio-mechanical machines made to snatch regulation footballs out of space. But his mind doesn't always serve his hands, and his hands don't always serve his quarterback. Mike drops some passes. He drops some easy passes. He drops some passes over the middle and in traffic. Is it a lapse in concentration? Probably. Is it a "skill" error that Williams can overcome through experience and hard work? I do not know.
Whatever it is, it, along with speed, are the two major limitations to his potential. Which isn't damning. Calvin Johnson suffers concentration lapses and Larry Fitzgerald isn't ridiculously fast, and neither is as big or as potentially physically dominant as Williams. So to say he can not be the perfect receiver is not to say he can not be the absolute best receiver in the NFL.
Which, can he be?
That brings us back to Largent and Galloway. Galloway will always seem like the more talented of the two. Maybe if Galloway joined the league when Largent did, before rule changes and Bill Walsh changed the modern passing game, he would have been the better receiver. Maybe, if this hypothetical Galloway was drafted by the Denver Broncos and received for John Elway, he would be in Canton today. But though Galloway was maybe, maybe maybe maybe, more talented than Largent, he was not better than Largent. We can say that Largent fulfilled his potential, exceed it if that even makes sense, and that Galloway underperformed because of circumstance and, well, whatever, skills. But it's entirely possible that Largent was just better, better in ways that can not be timed or measured but are tangible, able to be seen and understood and qualified.
So, I think Williams is the most talented wide receiver in the history of the Seattle Seahawks. I think he is because his size and power and coordination and quickness, and also because his combination of talent and skills seem so perfect for the modern NFL and its emphasis on passing and its prohibition of contact by defenders, but we will never really know, even after all the games are played. It's enough that it's possible.