By Gregg Bell The News Tribune
RENTON — The Seattle Seahawks could sum up their appreciation for O’Brien Schofield’s relentless, revitalizing summer in two words.
In March, on the first day of NFL free agency, the New York Giants agreed to give the Seahawks’ free agent an $8 million contract to be their starting strong-side, “Sam” linebacker and a weak-side pass-rush end for two seasons. It was perfect timing; he and his wife Angela just had a baby, Malaki, their second son after two-year-old Judea, a week and a half after Seattle won February’s Super Bowl. And his wife’s favorite team growing up was the Giants.
“She was excited,” he says now.
Then she wasn’t. A doctor conducting the routine contract physical — the personal physician of the Giants’ owner — failed Schofield because, the player says, the doctor assessed Schofield had a potential for knee arthritis. In Schofield’s mind, so does just about every player in cleats, especially ones that had that knee reconstructed three years earlier coming out of college.
So much for the family’s move east for big free-agent cash. He eventually returned to Seattle on a one-year, $730,000 deal instead, the league minimum for a five-year veteran. That was after the Seahawks had considered Jared Allen in free agency.
That gives Schofield 7.27 million reasons to be motivated for a huge season which would likely land him that elusive, first big free-agent contract every professional athlete in every sport covets.
“I mean, I know a lot of guys are hungry,” the affable Schofield said with a grin days before Thursday’s exhibition finale at Oakland, “but I don’t think they are feelin’ what I’m feelin’.”
That explains the renewed motor that has made the five-year veteran almost unblockable in three exhibition games this month. The guy with all of eight tackles and just one sack in 17 games last season has five tackles, two sacks, seven quarterback hits and four tackles for losses while playing about half the time this preseason. He’s even flying 30-plus yards downfield covering running backs and tight ends in pass routes on zone-blitz assignments; he did that last week against Chicago and this week in practice.
He appears to have beaten out 2013 preseason star Benson Mayowa to be the Seahawks’ third-down pass rusher off the weak side this season, an anecdote to losing Chris Clemons in free agency after February’s Super Bowl.
Schofield doesn’t specifically blame the Giants for his big free-agent deal that got away.
“Basically I failed my physical because the doctor said I was starting to have arthritis in my left knee, and they didn’t want to take a chance on it. As much as I say they it was much more the doctor, because the coaches, they had no clue,” he said. “It wasn’t until I was about to sign I got a text from my agent that the doctor failed me.”
Schofield still shakes his head that the doctor saw him in his office, examined him, let him leave, let him decide to sign the deal — and then told his agent instead of him that he had failed the exam.
“That was shocking in itself,” Schofield said. “Honestly, I felt I was a Giant, I really did. I was excited about the opportunity to go in and be the starting ‘Sam’ backer and left end in nickel (defenses).
“But everything happens for a reason. I’ve got the opportunity to come in and compete for this starting job.
“I have a huge chip on my shoulder, man.”
Schofield weighed similar offers from other teams before deciding to return to Seattle. He knew the system and understood what place the Seahawks and returning defensive coordinator Dan Quinn were going to have for him in it this season.
This is the first time Schofield has had the same coordinator in consecutive NFL seasons. Last year Quinn was his fourth defensive coordinator in four years. Quinn decided this spring that Schofield would play solely on the weak-side, at the “Leo” end. That’s where Clemons was in Seattle before he left for Jacksonville in a $17.5-million deal.
Even before the fiasco with the Giants, Schofield suffered from a year-long identity crisis. The Arizona Cardinals, the team that drafted him in the fourth round of the 2010 draft, released him on July 27. That was on Day 1 of training camp.
“That came to a big surprise to me,” he said. “I took it as, I don’t know … it was really shocking, man. I didn’t know it was coming. That’s challenging to get cut on the first day of camp, you know?”
It took him a few days to find a team, because every other one had its 90-man preseason roster set. His first Seahawks day was a full scrimmage and mock game about a week into last summer’s camp. But through dogged effort that caught every Seahawk’s attention last summer, one the last guys into camp made the eventual Super Bowl champions out of the 2013 preseason.
“To come in with the Seahawks and they gave me an opportunity, man, I don’t take it lightly,” he said. “I really don’t.”
But then he bounced last season between being a strong-side, “Sam” linebacker and the weak-side “Leo” end – sometimes on the same day. Last season Schofield would go to the meeting room for “Sam” linebackers. Then he’d go out to practice a few minutes later and be called over to play the weak side.
“I was like, ‘Uh, I haven’t been coached for this position,’” he says now. “I never really knew what position I was playing.
“It’s exciting to really focus on one position and progress like this. End, to me, it’s my natural position. I’m getting those instincts back, and I’m able to play extremely fast. … Now I’m solely a pass rusher off the defensive end. I think it’s the most fun position in football.”
It is where Schofield had a school-record 24.5 tackles for losses for Wisconsin in 2009, second-most in major college football.
Arizona is where he and his wife still have their offseason home, in Scottsdale. The Cardinals were the team that took a chance on him when the other 31 NFL teams selected 139 other guys before him. He got passed up for half the draft because just before the 2010 Senior Bowl showcase in January, Schofield tore the anterior cruciate ligament in that in that now-maybe-someday-potentially arthritic left knee.
“To have that happen to me right before the combine and the draft, it’s like, ‘Are you kidding me?’” he said. “But I kept my faith. I surrounded myself with positive people. And I worked my butt off, man. That’s been my whole career, just whatever’s been thrown at me. Whether it’s been injury, whether it’s been being a backup or on special teams, I just work my butt off and give max effort.”
Right now, he is working as hard as any player Seattle has on its defensive line. He drills early before practices with Quinn on hand moves and details exclusive to a defensive end. No longer burdened by the responsibilities of stopping the run, too, the guy the Seahawks call “O.B.” is focused on just one thing: Getting to and dumping the quarterback.
That focus is producing results.
“Oh, man, right now it’s just about getting off the ball. We’re not even game-planning,” he said. “I just try to get off the ball and let my motor do the rest.
“It’s really about playing my heart out. … I’ve been doing it in practices, since OTAs. And to be able to translate it over into games it feels good.
“I think I am showing my coaches and my teammates with my play that there is going to be disruption.
“It’s going to be relentless.”