By John Boyle Herald Columnist
RENTON — The week of Wilson.
That’s what we’ve been seeing in the Seattle area ever since rookie quarterback Russell Wilson thrust himself into the national spotlight Sunday when he led not one, but two late-game touchdown drives to give the Seahawks a road victory over Chicago in what was the best performance to date of his impressive rookie campaign.
Wilson has suddenly been the focus of features in national publications; he sat down for a one-on-one with the NFL Network that will air this morning; and his teammates have been asked questions all week long about how great their rookie leader is performing.
And while Wilson deserves all the praise and attention he has been getting — seriously, he’s been nothing short (no pun intended) of spectacular in the season’s second half — let’s shelve the Wilson hype for the length of this column. Let’s take a moment and spread the praise around — particularly to receivers Sidney Rice and Golden Tate, who along with Wilson, have played big roles in Seattle’s offensive improvement.
Just as even the best receivers need a competent quarterback in order to show off their talents — just ask Arizona’s oft-frustrated Larry Fitzgerald — a quarterback needs dynamic weapons to take full advantage of his abilities as a passer. And more and more each week, Rice and Tate have been those dynamic weapons.
The growth of Tate, and value of a healthy Rice, were apparent in Chicago when Tate caught five passes for 96 yards and the go-ahead touchdown late in regulation, and Rice had 99 yards on six catches, including the game-winner in overtime.
Some of the improvements in the passing game have had to do with the growing chemistry between Wilson and his receivers, but there was also a point earlier this season when the coaching staff realized it had to make a conscious effort to get the ball to its biggest playmakers.
Last season, Rice struggled to stay healthy in his first year with the Seahawks and Mike Williams was unable to recapture his 2010 form. So, rookie Doug Baldwin ended up leading the team in receptions and receiving yards as a slot receiver. This is no knock on Baldwin, he had one hell of a rookie year, particularly for somebody who went undrafted, but it’s not a great sign for an offense when its leading receiver is, well, an undrafted rookie playing in the slot.
Which brings us back to Pete Carroll and the coaching staff deciding it was time to get the ball to Rice and Tate more often.
“What we did is we really focused in on those two guys,” Carroll said. “We decided to push those guys to the front and see if we couldn’t accelerate the process of the chemistry and just the continuity you sense, because those guys are uniquely different.
“That was probably one of the best decisions that we’ve made. Things have really turned up since then. They’ve done a tremendous job; they’ve made big plays, been consistent. It was just the commitment. They were there for it, they were ready, and they’ve come through in a big way.”
If you want to know the impact Rice and Tate have had, there is no more telling stat than touchdowns. Each has seven touchdown receptions, which is tied for 12th in the league, three behind league leaders Rob Gronkowski and A.J. Green.
Rice and Tate are in that elite company despite playing for the team that has attempted the fewest passes in the league this season, and the only other teams with duos that can claim seven or more receiving scores each are three of the pass-happiest offenses in the NFL: New Orleans, Denver and Green Bay. And this is the first time the Seahawks have had two players with seven or more touchdown receptions in a season since 1999 when Derrick Mayes had 10 and Sean Dawkins had seven.
“The start of the season didn’t go as I expected or as we expected, but as each week came, as a whole we all got better,” Tate said. “We all started to learn what we do best, how to put this team in the best position to win. Every week we’ve gotten better and I see us getting better until the season is over, and carrying it over in to the offseason and continuing to get better.”
One thing that has been particularly helpful, according to Tate, has been film study with quarterbacks and receivers in the same room. Rather than have Wilson study film on his own, and the receivers do the same, they can offer feedback to each other when it’s a joint process.
“Wilson will say what he thinks. I’ll say what I think. Sidney will say what he thinks,” Tate said, noting that this process is different than how things were done with previous quarterback the past two years.
“We’re all on the same page — we’ve still got some work to do — but we’re all on the same page and moving in the right direction.”
Last year, Tate and Rice would have been characterized as a disappointing duo rather than a dynamic one. Rice, whose red flag coming to Seattle was his health concerns, fought through shoulder injuries, only to have two concussions end his season. Tate, meanwhile, continued to be a maddening combination of jaw-dropping physical talent and head-scratching inconsistency.
But finally, it looks like Rice is healthy (knock on wood), Tate has started to mature as a receiver, and the Seahawks have found the right quarterback to have a dynamic passing attack. That’s no small feat considering how much time, effort and money this team has spent trying find playmaking receivers. Brian Blades was the last Seahawks receiver to make a Pro Bowl, and that was in 1989, and in recent years the Seahawks have invested draft picks and big money (T.J. Houshmandzadeh, anyone?) hoping to finally find what it appears they just might have this season.
“They’re playing great,” offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell said of Tate and Rice. “They’re really coming up big. You see some of the catches that both of them have made. … What kind of a run after catch was that that Golden had? Just a special play to finish that catch and break all those tackles to get into the end zone.”
So yes, Wilson has been special this season, but in Tate and Rice, he’s had some help.
Herald Writer John Boyle: firstname.lastname@example.org.