"Human nature, if healthy, demands excitement." -- Oswald Chambers
The 2009 Seattle Seahawks season was probably the least enjoyable I’ve ever had as a fan. The team was 5-11, which is putrid, but I’ve seen the ’Hawks lose double-digit games in a season before. No, the reason I had so little fun as a fan that year went beyond the low win total, it was the seeming disinterest from the players and the tuning out of a head coach who I never liked in the first place. That, and the fact that no one on the roster got me excited.
The stats weren’t pretty: 25th in yards gained, 24th in yards allowed, 25th in turnover differential (consistency!), but even those numbers didn’t tell the whole morose story. The team played badly against any decent competition, with performance tapering off drastically after their anomalous win over Jacksonville. By the time they lost at home to the no-less-than-terrible Buccaneers, I had lost all enjoyment in watching my favorite team. Their season was a long, slow death march.
Those Seahawks were bad, but worse than that, they were boring. Shortly before the 2010 NFL Draft, my friend asked me if I thought the Seahawks would be any good. I said I didn’t think so, but after ‘09 I didn’t really care if they were good, as long as they were interesting. I felt like "good" was at least a couple of seasons away, and I’ve got plenty of experience rooting for teams that aren’t good, so I didn‘t mind being patient. I just wanted to have fun watching them play again.
At the time, you could feel the tide turning. The stern, unimaginative (and Gary Kubiak ` doppelganger) Jim Mora Jr had been ousted in favor of the plucky Pete Carroll. Straight-laced, old-school GM Tim Ruskell had been replaced with a very differently-minded John Schneider. The overall energy of the team was shifting and I was beginning to buy in, although somewhat tepidly, to the new direction the team was pursuing. The momentum and vision were present, but the team still lacked legitimate playmakers. That was about to change.
The Seahawks 2010 draft was brimming with potential difference-makers. Russell Okung and Earl Thomas headlined the 'Hawks haul, but my favorite addition was the dynamic (and Biletnikoff Award-winning) second-round pick out of Notre Dame -- wide receiver Golden Tate. Tate's cartoonishly-impressive highlights and big-play ability provided the perfect fodder for a blooming man-crush. In fact, Tate was my favorite player in the entire draft. Not favorite as in the "he should have been the #1 overall pick" sense, but favorite as in the way McDonald's was your favorite restaurant as a kid. Sure, the Big Mac is no porterhouse, but when was the last time you saw a Wolfgang's with a slide and a ball pit? I actually yipped when Seattle drafted him.
To many of us, Golden Tate represented a shift in offensive priorities. It's doubtful that Ruskell would've picked an undersized receiver in the second round, but Carroll and Schneider seem less interested in "prototype" and more interested in "playmaker," which Tate was. Although diminutive by NFL standards, Tate demonstrated sensational football ability over the course of his collegiate career and seemed prime to make an impact with Seattle. (Vasilii has a great post about this, too). I went into last season with sky-high hopes for the team's new rookie receiver, but was left wanting more when Tate struggled to get consistent playing time. The ability is there, I thought, so where is the production?
Since then, talk has surfaced regarding an expanded role for Tate next season. What will that look like? Will he be the primary slot receiver? Return more kicks? Be involved in the wildcat? Organize team treasure hunts? With so much supposition surrounding Tate, I thought it'd be best to go straight to the source and get some thoughts from the man himself. The Seattle receiver agreed to give Field Gulls an interview, which you can read after the jump.
Tate was kind enough to call me when his plane from Nashville landed in Seattle. Considering that nobody wants to spend anymore time at the airport than they absolutely have to, I was grateful for the 30 or so minutes he gave me. I’ve always pictured Tate as being a bit of a goof-off, and to be sure, he’s got personality coming out of his ears, but if our conversation was any indication, he’s a very thoughtful guy as well.
As we're all far too aware, most football talk this season has been about non-football stuff. With that in mind, I asked him how lockout-life was going and he didn’t hesitate to point out the pros and cons of his off-season. "It’s been good and bad, honestly," Tate said. "I wish I could be there working out with the guys, I think that’s really important -- spending time with teammates. At the same time, this is my first summer off since high-school and it’s been kind of nice to enjoy my time. But I’m very ready to get going again."
NFL players have taken a wide range of approaches to this lockout, from Chad Ochocinco’s bizarre renaissance-man impression to Reggie Bush’s relaxed outlook. Tate, however, hasn’t let the time off keep him from getting his. "I’ve been working out back in Nashville, at my rival high school’s field actually, but 100 yards is 100 yards and I still make sure to get my work in." Tate says he's been doing a lot of things to keep busy but that his workouts are a priority, citing his drills back home in Tennessee and mentioning that he has a series of workouts planned at the University of Washington now that he's back in Seattle. A gifted baseball player (he was drafted twice and played two seasons at Notre Dame), Tate also plans on adding some rec league softball to his regimen, "I'd be the only left-handed shortstop in the league," he quipped.
That Tate is a hard worker is not in question, as he was repeatedly seen staying after practice to work on drills; and that he has the potential to be a breakout player seems to be consensus opinion -- one that I still openly share. Even so, his first season was a bit underwhelming considering the expectations, as he made just 21 catches for a little better than ten yards per grab. Not terrible numbers, but certainly not what the 12th Man was hoping for from their second-round pick. As many of you know, Tate was a highly-recruited running back coming out of high school and only switched to wide-out in college. "Actually, every school I talked to wanted me to be a running back," Tate said, "but I visited Notre Dame and really wanted to be a part of that situation and since (Rhema) McKnight and (Jeff) Samardzija were leaving, I knew I could step in and contribute right away."
He admits that the wide-receiver learning curve has been steep and that he is still a little rough around the edges at the position, "I still need to get better at understanding my assignments and coverages, you know, and work on my route-running. You can never perfect route-running and I know it's something I need to keep getting better at in order to excel." He does, however, credit his backfield roots with giving his game an extra facet, "When I'm lined up, I'm a wide-receiver, but as soon as that ball is in my hands, I become a running back and I think that's something that I bring to the table that not a lot of other guys can. I'm just trying to get the other stuff down so I can be that guy that's able to do some different things for the team."
It was interesting to hear Tate mention the challenge of refining his position, especially from a mental standpoint. I think at one time or another last season, we all wondered why he wasn't on the field more often, given his athleticism and draft-slot. It's no secret that making the jump from college to the league is difficult, and for many young players, the toughest aspect of transitioning is the increase in the speed of the game. I asked Golden if that was the case with him, "Yeah, the biggest thing is that it's faster, especially when it comes to learning my assignments. I feel like I can keep up with the speed of it physically, but I need to improve my knowledge of the game. I felt like those first few games, I was still trying to get a feel for the coverages and the play would be over so fast."
Tate mentioned how prepared he felt going into games at Notre Dame and remarked that not having a full knowledge of the NFL game was frustrating during his first year as a pro, and that his goal is to make sure that doesn't happen again this year. "Athletically, I'm confident in my abilities," said Tate. "But I've got a long way to go to perfect the wide receiver position. I'm just working hard to keep getting better and remembering to play within myself. When I do that, the game starts to slow down." The playbook that Tate will learn this season will be different than the one he had last year, as offensive coordinator Jeremy Bates has been replaced by former Minnesota OC Darrell Bevell. Tate had a very business-like response when he heard that Bates wouldn't be back the following year, "It was just news to me, honestly. Coach Carroll knows what's best for the team and I'm just gonna work hard for him. I mean, I was little surprised at the move since we'd just made the playoffs but I support Coach Carroll and I'm excited to work with Coach Bevell."
I asked Tate if he'd ever met Bevell. "I did get a chance to meet him, you know, when we were allowed to talk to the coaches for the couple of days when the lockout was lifted. He seemed like a great guy and I'm happy he's on board." It makes sense, really; Tate's size and skill-set are more reminiscent of Percy Harvin than say, Larry Fitzgerald, and Bevell found some creative ways to get Harvin the ball while calling plays for the Vikings. Tate is fully aware of that and mentioned it unprompted, "I see myself as being able to do a lot of the same things that Harvin does," he told me. And what exactly are those things? "I definitely think I'm better with the ball in my hands when I have some space because I know I can be a difficult guy to bring down in the open field." There's evidence that Bates recognized that trait, as 16 of Tate's 21 receptions last year came within ten yards of the line of scrimmage, but I think most fans would like to see those skills maximized more.
It doesn't take an advanced scout to see that Tate has a special ability to stay on his feet once he has the ball in his hands. His college career was littered with highlights of Tate breaking short plays into big ones, and he's already flashed that ability as a Seahawk. The question for Golden isn't whether he can make big plays at this level, it's whether he can make them consistently. If what we've heard from Carroll can be believed, he'll get plenty of opportunities to prove it in the future. The 'Hawks head coach said publicly that he's looking forward to seeing his second-year receiver break through and plans for him to play a "huge role" for Seattle this season.
"There’s nothing that we would like to see more than to elevate Golden’s effectiveness," Carroll said. "We just didn’t get him over the hump last year, and we need to do that. He’ll be in position to take over a huge role for us."
As you can probably imagine, Tate was not only happy to hear that, but eager to show that he's up to the task. "Yeah, I heard that. It's exciting, I'm just trying to stay prepared. In a perfect world, you know, I'd love to get sixty snaps on offense every game, but that's in a perfect world. I just need to keep working hard." The effort to get the ball in Tate's hands last year extended to special teams, where he returned 16 punts for 202 yards, including this 63-yard sparkler against Denver. I asked him if he'd heard of any plans to keep him involved in the return game. "I haven't had any conversations about it, but I'm hoping to do as much as possible -- whatever's gonna help me help this team." If he had his preference, though? "Sign me up!" Tate said, laughing.
While many rookies would be happy just to sniff significant playing time, Golden Tate's remarkable athleticism and staggering productivity at Notre Dame don't afford him that luxury. For the Seattle offense to take off, they'll need their shifty second-year receiver to take a big step forward. The groundwork is being laid for him to realize his potential, but with a new offensive coordinator and a quarterback situation that remains in flux, he'll have some obstacles to overcome along the way. With any luck, the new-look Seahawks offense will put Tate in a position to make a major contribution. An increased role inevitably leads to greater expectations, however, and Golden said that he understands that. "Absolutely," he agreed. "They say the biggest jump is from your first season to your second, so I just need to make sure I'm ready."
Tate also mentioned that he loves being a Seahawk and living in Seattle. "It's great being able to walk through the city and talk with the fans. I like that people recognize me as a member of the team and I love interacting, you know, with the 12th Man." If Tate can make the leap that we all want to see from him, he's going to love interacting with the fans even more.
For what it's worth, I think that Golden Tate can and will be a big part of the Seahawks offense moving forward. He looks most comfortable after the catch and has shown the ability to make NFL defenders look silly when he has some room to work. The obvious needs for improvement lay with his route-running and grasp of the offense, but he seems aware of that and those are skills that can be coached. He certainly sounds willing to put in the necessary work to improve those aspects of his game and if he gets to a point where he can just let his natural abilities take over, I think Seattle will have a special player on their hands.