Carroll's response, he said, always has been to tell the receiver, "Don't tell me, show me."
Well during the past two weeks, Tate certainly has been showing everyone just how dangerous he can be with the ball in his hands.
Last week in St. Louis, Tate made an impressive leaping grab on a slightly underthrown ball, then raced down the sideline -- we'll get to the taunting part of that play in a second -- on his way to an 80-yard score. It wasn't just a key play in an ugly Seahawks victory; that catch accounted for more than half of Seattle's offensive yards. On Sunday against Tampa Bay, with the Seahawks inexplicably trailing the winless Buccaneers, Tate had a classic "no, no, no, yes!" moment when he fielded a punt at the 4-yard line, then returned it 71 yards to help ignite the largest comeback in franchise history.
"In the midst of the game, I'm just looking for an opportunity to make a play," Tate said of his punt return. "I feel like I can give this team a spark when they need it. I feel like I'm dangerous when I get the ball in my hands."
To much of the country, Tate is still the villain from last year's controversial win over Green Bay. And to many more he's the player behind one of the more egregious cases of taunting in recent memory, spending a solid 30 yards of his 80-yard catch against St. Louis waving at the Rams defender giving chase. But to the Seahawks, Tate has become their polarizing playmaker; a receiver who, controversial or not, unconventional or not, has become one of their most important weapons on offense and special teams; or as he puts it, the spark.
"He's got a couple of knucklehead plays in him obviously, as we've seen over time," Carroll said. "But in general, he's a guy that has so much creativity to him that you want to let him create, and that's really what this is about."
Tate can come across as both cocky and also as a player humbled by a career that didn't start as expected. That cockiness popped up again Sunday when he was asked about his ability to make at least six would-be tacklers miss on his 71-yard punt return against Tampa Bay: "That's just god-given talent. That's something you can't teach."
Before last year's breakout season, Tate struggled to make the impact he and others were expecting when Seattle picked him in the second round of the 2010 draft. And over and over again, Tate has admitted that he didn't work hard enough early on, that he didn't understand how much harder things would be in the NFL than in college, where he could get by on that "god-given talent" while juggling two sports at Notre Dame.
As Tate put in the work and became better at the little things, he began convincing Carroll to trust a player who might not always do things the conventional way. At USC, Carroll realized Troy Polamalu didn't play like a traditional safety, but that he'd also be foolish to try to limit a playmaker of that caliber. That's also why Carroll likes that Russell Wilson walks a very fine line when he tries to escape pressure and keep plays alive, even if all of those big plays come with the occasional fumble or interception. It's also why Carroll is just fine with Tate catching a punt at the 4-yard line when by-the-book thinking says let it bounce into the end zone.
"He's an extraordinary natural athlete with natural gifts that sometimes get masked, and you have to come to appreciate him," Carroll said. "I think we saw it in the process of drafting him and then for a while, we couldn't find them. They got lost in the mix of his development as a young player.
"He's been the same athlete all along; we didn't respect it enough to take the risks and the rewards of it as he was learning how to be a player in our system and all that. He's a very gifted, really a free-spirited and a confident athlete that really does believe that he could do special things in a game. He's rare that way."
That rare ability has allowed Tate to have plays of 71 and 80 yards on just 14 touches in the past two games; yet it's that swagger that sometimes comes out that can rub some people the wrong way. Tate's teammates respect his playmaking ability more than they worry about how he might react to those big plays -- though Michael Robinson said another taunting penalty like that and they'll make Tate take on coverage duty on the ensuing kickoff. And Tate, too, would just as soon have the focus shift to his big-play ability and away from those moments in his career of which he's less proud.
Tate was apologetic after the St. Louis game, then again when asked about it the following week. But by the time he received a fine from the league, one he said was merited, you could tell all the negative attention started to get to Tate, even if he brought it on himself to a degree.
"I received a fine, I think it should be kept at that," Tate said last week. "I don't know why days later, the national media's still talking about it, still showing it. I made a silly mistake by waving bye, and I've seen guys do way worse and not get talked about for days and day and days after.
"But I'm taking full responsibility, I don't need to put this team in that type of situation. I don't need to draw that type of attention to this organization, and it won't happen again.
Tate then paused, "Why are we still talking about it guys? We've got another week of freaking football, why is it being highlighted as a bigger deal than it is?"
Maybe this is just what we should expect out of a player who started his professional career with a late-night maple bar heist. When it comes to Tate, there probably always is going to be a mixture of laughter, outrage for the traditionalist who says the player doesn't respect the game, and most important to the Seahawks, big plays that help win games.
That's the life of the polarizing playmaker, a role Tate created both with a couple of bad decisions, and a bunch of impressive plays. And as long as those big plays keep coming, Carroll has no desire to change Tate.
"There's been guys like that over the years that you're better off cutting them loose, because they'll make great plays for you," Carroll said. "You can restrict them and make them pretty ordinary too, if you do it that way, so we don't do it that way."
Herald Writer John Boyle: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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