After being benched, Garry Gilliam decided that if he got another chance, he would play more instinctually.
When it may have mattered more than ever, Garry Gilliam had to figure out a way to stop worrying so much.
On Nov. 27, after three plays against Tampa Bay, Gilliam was replaced as the Seahawks right tackle by Bradley Sowell.
And for all Gilliam knew in that moment, he might never return again — not just to starting at right tackle, but to the field.
A few weeks earlier he’d seen Christine Michael, at the time the team’s leading rusher, waived once the Seahawks decided they had better options.
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And he’d seen J’Marcus Webb, a veteran who had signed a two-year deal with the Seahawks in March, similarly cut once Seattle had decided he was no longer worth a starting role.
Gilliam admits he had at least a fleeting thought he could be next.
“Exactly, exactly,’’ Gilliam said. “And for me it was like ‘am I not doing my job right? What’s going on?’ ’’
Gilliam was inactive the following two games, during which time he says he came to a few realizations.
One, was noticing that the team had kept him around.
“My point was like they didn’t have me starting at right tackle, but if they didn’t want you on the team, you wouldn’t be here, you would be cut,’’ he said. “They want you here, so do what they want you to do. Handle your business.’’
Gilliam also decided that if he got another chance, he would play more instinctually.
“Just stop thinking so damn much, Garry,’’ he said he told himself during that time. “And just go play football. But I’ve always had that problem.’’
The couple weeks on the sidelines, though, reinforced that he had nothing to lose by trying it a different way if he got another shot.
He’d entered the season as the team’s presumptive left tackle, tabbed initially as the replacement for the departed Russell Okung. Then, after an offseason surgery to repair a cyst on his knee cost him a lot of practice time, he was moved to right tackle. Then, suddenly, he was on the bench.
Gilliam said, “I was just trying to be real right, almost being passive because I was almost trying to be perfect.’’
In the fourth quarter of a Dec. 14 game against the Rams, Gilliam heard his name called by coaches, asked to replace Sowell in a contest in which the Seahawks were struggling to put Los Angeles away.
It’s not a complete stretch to say that could easily have been a last chance for Gilliam in Seattle. In his third year with the Seahawks, Gilliam will be a restricted free agent at the end of the season. If he failed again to secure the right tackle job, anything could happen.
But Gilliam says none of that was on his mind as he took the field.
Instead, “it was just go out there and play free, not thinking about a lot. Just go have fun, go ball.’’
That approach has worked as Gilliam returned to his starting role the next week, and on Saturday helped pave the way for a rushing attack that gained 177 yards —second-most this season for the Seahawks — in a 26-6 win over the Detroit Lions.
The football analytic site Pro Football Focus has given Gilliam an overall grade of 76.3 for the last three games compared to 43.3 for his play before he was benched. In 135 pass snaps since returning to the lineup, he has allowed just two pressures compared to 44 in 423 snaps before his benching.
Gilliam says his new-found mental approach has led to improvement in what the coaches had told him was the main flaw in his game — physicality.
Instead of focusing on “being perfect,’’ which he said led to playing passive, Gilliam said being more carefree is leading to being more aggressive.
“What I tell myself is ‘win the first second of the play and win the last second,’ ’’ he said “You win the first second, that’s you being physical and aggressive. And win the last second, that’s you being physical and aggressive.
“They want you to be more physical? Well, I’m not 6-8, 340 pounds (he’s officially 6-5, 315). And I’m not some bruiser. So how can you do that? You are fast and you are athletic. So get on them fast and when they try and finish you, finish them.’’
Seahawks offensive line coach Tom Cable said he believes Gilliam has played more physically since returning to the starting lineup, and Cable said he sought Gilliam out to tell him that last week.
The truest test yet of Gilliam’s re-emergence comes Saturday in Atlanta when he will likely spend much of the day going against Vic Beasley, who led the NFL this season with 15.5 sacks.
Beasley more often lines up on the left side of the defense, going against the right tackle.
If the Seahawks are to beat Atlanta, Gilliam will have to win more often than he loses against Beasley.
In the locker room Saturday night, that was a topic for another day.
Instead, he took a moment to revel in the revival of the offensive line, one that mirrored his own.
“Why not go out there and show who we really are and who we know we can be,’’ he said the line told itself before the game. “And put this team on our back if we need to and do it.’’