Searching for a spark against winless Tampa Bay, Golden Tate planted his feet on Seattle’s 10-yard line.
Most punt returners are governed by rules that instruct them not to catch anything inside the 10. Tate operates under different guidelines and not just because Seattle’s no-catch line is the 8.
With the ball in the air against Tampa, Tate slowly backpedaled toward his own end zone. Then he did something very few players can do: He looked up at the punt soaring 50 yards above him, quickly looked down to scan the field, then looked up to relocate the descending ball.
“If I would try to coach another player to do what Golden does,” said Seattle special-teams coach Brian Schneider, “it wouldn’t be fair. And it wouldn’t be right.”
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What Tate saw was a lot of open field. His coverage team had done a good job of blocking and Tampa Bay’s punter boomed the ball, outkicking his coverage.
Tate caught the punt at the 4, slithered across the field and broke six tackles on the way to a 71-yard return. Seattle settled for a field goal, which almost seemed beside the point. Tate had flipped momentum, getting the crowd and his teammates into the game.
“He’s got a couple knucklehead plays in him, obviously,” Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said. “But in general, he’s a guy that has so much creativity that you want to let him create, and that’s really what this is about.”
This is the risk/reward Carroll and his coaching staff accept with certain players. So how does the trade-off work? And, more importantly, what does it say about the Seahawks?
IT’S ALMOST COMICAL to read old draft-day interviews from Carroll and general manager John Schneider. Inevitably, when explaining the rationale for selecting a player, Carroll, Schneider or both will reference a unique trait that led them to make the pick.
Some of that is cliché, but it also stems from an organizational desire to find players with special qualities. And then, once those players are in the system, find the proper way to accentuate those qualities.
“It almost falls under the label of artists: Don’t stifle creativity,” NFL Network analyst Charles Davis said. “You may color outside the lines a few times, but guess what? That’s OK because sometimes when you color outside the lines it becomes much better looking.”
This isn’t a new concept. Nor is it unique to the Seahawks. But Seattle doesn’t mind toeing the line between risk and reward. Players such as Tate, Earl Thomas, Russell Wilson, Doug Baldwin and Richard Sherman are given freedoms to occasionally step outside the box.
More often than not, the Seahawks say, that leads to positive results. Sometimes, however, it bites them.
“If you play that way, then it’s all in,” said Louis Riddick, a former NFL player and scout now at ESPN.
Riddick has watched plenty of Seattle tape and is a big fan of their roster and style of play. But he offers caution.
“If it costs you,” he said, “then it’s going to be really easy for everyone to second guess. It’s good — until it’s not. All of this stuff will be judged at the end of the day if they’re playing in the big game.”
IN ONE OF THE MOST IMPORTANT moments of the Tampa Bay game, safety Earl Thomas trusted his instincts.
The score was tied at 24 with 44 seconds left. Rookie quarterback Mike Glennon faced third-and-seven from his 46. Kicker Rian Lindell had made a 50-yard field goal earlier in the season, so the Bucs needed only another 15 to 20 yards to get in range.
On third down, Glennon dropped to pass but quickly bolted for open field. At the moment Glennon took off and Thomas charged forward, the pair were separated by 28 yards. Glennon needed only 7 for a first down.
When Thomas saw Glennon start to run, he didn’t hesitate. He left his spot deep in the middle of the field and came roaring forward. Had Glennon looked, he would have seen a receiver running open in the area Thomas had just vacated.
Instead, Thomas stopped Glennon for a 4-yard gain.
“You’ve got to take chances to have success,” Thomas said. “If that play occurred and he would have stopped and thrown the ball, I’m willing to take that. I always tell myself that I’m going to trust my instincts and go.”
That play doesn’t happen by chance or simply because Thomas is fast. It happens, in part, because he is allowed to take risks. In other words, he is given a long leash.
“You still play within the system,” Thomas said, “but you’re not a robot.”
His risks are not blind. They are influenced by hours of studying film. On Bruce Irvin’s interception against St. Louis, for instance, Thomas called out the route Irvin’s man was going to run before the snap.
“It becomes an instinct, a reflex,” linebackers coach Ken Norton Jr. said.
The players given the most leeway are the ones the coaches trust most. That’s earned over time, not only through their play but through their work habits.
“Those are the types of guys we want here — guys who think ball all the time,” Norton said. “A guy like Earl, he’s the ultimate ball guy.”
But Thomas’ gambling hasn’t always paid off.
In a game at Houston this year, Texans quarterback Matt Schaub kept targeting star receiver Andre Johnson. With Houston deep in Seattle territory, Thomas took off from the middle of the field toward Johnson. He thought Schaub was going to the well once more.
Instead, Schaub floated a touchdown pass to the other side of the field, a ball Thomas should have contested had he not guessed wrong.
“I’m willing to take chances knowing that I can learn from that,” Thomas said.
Carroll and his staff haven’t stifled Thomas’ go-now instincts. They’ve tried to work with him so his risks are less risky and his guesses are more educated.
“He’s to the point where he can really use his creative ability to make things happen, sometimes well outside the lines and confines of the defense,” Carroll said. “But he does it properly.”
OF ALL THE LABELS slapped on Russell Wilson, one that’s rarely mentioned is risk-taker. In fact, the perception of Wilson early in his career — that he was a game manager — implied the exact opposite.
“He’s as much of a risk-taker out there as anybody playing the game,” Carroll said. “But I think he can manage that risk really well.”
One of Wilson’s greatest gifts is his instinctual feel for escaping pass rushers. He has played Houdini plenty in his brief career, slipping out of a sack to make a big play.
But doing so comes with inherent risks. He lost a fumble in the red zone against Carolina and lost two more deep in Seattle territory against Arizona.
“I understand that this is an issue that kind of comes with the territory of utilizing his great talent,” Carroll said after playing Arizona.
In the aftermath of that game, Wilson and quarterbacks coach Carl Smith worked on limiting those mistakes. Sometimes, Smith told Wilson, you just have to surrender, protect the ball and fight another day.
In his next game, against St. Louis, the Seahawks had one of their worst offensive nights, but Carroll kept highlighting an underrated part of Wilson’s performance: Despite facing heavy pressure, despite getting sacked seven times, he didn’t turn the ball over.
The defense carried Seattle to a 14-9 win.
The intent wasn’t to put Wilson in a box or take away his scrambling ability. Carroll and his staff wanted Wilson to recognize when he would be better served protecting the ball instead of running wild.
“The thing the coaches will tell them is, ‘On this one maybe be a little smarter or on this one you could have done this differently,’ ” tight end Zach Miller said. “But they don’t tell them never to do it again. They don’t shut it down completely.”
Receiver Doug Baldwin is given similar latitude when running routes. As long as he gets to his right spot at the right time, Seattle’s coaches allow him to improvise.
If he thinks he can get open by extending his route a few yards before breaking, he is trusted to do that.
“If defenses see things over and over, they’re going to pick up clues,” Baldwin said. “But if I can change it up once in a while, it gives me freedom to get open and create more space and separation. The coaches give me some leeway in running my routes knowing that it’s not going to be run exactly as they drew it up.”
He is on pace to have the best year of his three-year career.
IN THE FIRST GAME of the season, Tate fielded three punts inside his own 5-yard line. The first two went OK. He returned one to the 25 and the other to the 17.
But on the third return, he fielded it at the 5 and was quickly dropped at the 9. Amplifying the mistake was the time and score of the game: Seattle trailed Carolina 7-6 late in the third quarter.
Carroll didn’t blink when asked about Tate’s risks after the game.
“He is a tremendous feel player, and I want to champion that and make sure that we take full advantage of his uniqueness,” Carroll said at the time. “I want him to learn how to do this so we can take advantage.”
Schneider, Seattle’s special-teams coach, has come to terms with that thinking, even if it’s not how he would typically operate.
“I probably would never let it happen if Pete wasn’t for it so much,” he said. “Really. Because the smart thing to do is run away and hope that’s a touchback.”
The only problem? There’s little reward in that.
Jayson Jenks: 206-464-8277 or firstname.lastname@example.org