RENTON — Golden Tate is gone, and in his wake remains one of Seattle’s few uncertainties: Who will return punts?
The answer, as well as the level to which the new returner performs, could go a long way in defining this season. What’s known is that Earl Thomas, Doug Baldwin, Percy Harvin, Richard Sherman and Bryan Walters are all in the mix, with Thomas as the early leader. What’s not known is if they’ll be able to match Tate’s impact last year.
The Seahawks consider a punt return their first offensive play, and their goal is to pick up a first down on every return. The effects of consistently doing that add up: Over the course of a season, 10- or 15-yard returns can mean the difference between a couple of close victories and a couple of close defeats.
To stress the importance of punt returns to players, the Seahawks tracked the success of offenses and defenses for the past three years in relation to starting field position. The results, not surprisingly, showed that better field position meant more scoring for offenses and worse field position meant more stops for defenses.
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When an opposing offense started a drive inside its own 20-yard line last year, for example, the Seahawks held them scoreless 84 percent of the time. And if Seattle’s offense started a drive inside an opponent’s 40-yard line, the Seahawks scored 87 percent of the time.
“It’s really simple, but until you break it down and show the effects of it, it’s hard to see,” Seahawks special-teams coach Brian Schneider said. “Then, when we get in games, we show them 10 yards here, 15 yards here, and it makes all the difference in the world.”
Tate had special traits as a returner. He had the unique ability to track a punt, glance at oncoming defenders, then look up and relocate the ball. He rarely signaled for fair catches. He never muffed a punt. Russell Wilson called him quick as a cat.
He averaged 11.5 yards per return, ninth-best in the NFL, and finished second in the league with 51 returns last season.
His 32-yard return from inside his own end zone against Houston led to Seattle’s game-winning field goal in overtime. His 71-yard return in the third quarter against Tampa Bay jolted the crowd and his teammates. Even though the Seahawks settled for a field goal and still trailed Tampa by a touchdown, many of Tate’s teammates called his return the defining moment in a 21-point comeback.
But it was harder to assess Tate’s influence on a smaller scale. What if he had a 15-yard return but the Seahawks punted? What impact did that have?
Heath Farwell, the Seahawks’ veteran special-teams captain, calls those “hidden yards” — returns that switch field position or put the offense in field-goal position even if it picks up only one first down.
“There’s so much hidden yardage that we can steal,” Farwell said, “and it has such a big impact on the game.”
In San Francisco last year, neither the Seahawks nor the 49ers budged much defensively. Tate provided a rare breakthrough in the fourth quarter when he returned a punt 38 yards, from the Seattle 35 to the San Francisco 27. The Seahawks’ offense quickly stalled: an incomplete pass, a 3-yard run, a 9-yard pass, runs for 2 yards and no gain and another incomplete pass. But because of Tate’s return, the Seahawks took the lead with a 31-yard field goal.
In a home game against Arizona last year, Tate returned a punt 18 yards, from the Seattle 39 to the Arizona 43. The offense went three-and-out, but Tate’s return allowed the Seahawks to pin the Cardinals at their 4. Later, he returned another punt 29 yards, and after another three-and-out, the Seahawks buried the Cardinals at their 17.
“We talk about that: playing down hill, where our offense and our defense are working together,” Schneider said. “That example is a great analogy. Now our defense is taking over inside the 20, so we’re playing downhill. We’re playing on their side of the field. All those 10-yard or so returns, that’s our first offensive play. It’s shortening the field. All those big ones are great, but we want to be consistent getting that first down. Then whatever is extra is extra.”
The Seahawks couldn’t afford to keep Tate, and the biggest loss might be his return ability.
But the Seahawks think the structure is in place for whomever wins Tate’s old job to succeed.
“There was a lot of times where he was breaking a lot of tackles,” Farwell said. “But we’re so talented on special teams, too. We have so much team speed, and we match up really well with anybody that we play as far as special teams is concerned. We have speed. We have a lot of big, strong guys that are very good. We feel very comfortable.
“It doesn’t matter who we have back there. We’re going to be in the top five in returns.”
Jayson Jenks: 206-464-8277 or firstname.lastname@example.org