By Danny O’Neil
They were signed the same week in 2011, a pair of top-drawer free agents Seattle lured to town with top-dollar contracts.
And in their first two seasons as Seahawks, tight end Zach Miller and receiver Sidney Rice were downright solid and occasionally spectacular.
But if we’re being honest, they were not quite the Pro Bowl performers many hoped they would be, which is what made Seattle’s 45-17 victory over Jacksonville on Sunday so important. In a game that was as lopsided as expected, Miller and Rice accounted for Seattle’s first four touchdowns and provided a reminder of just why they were so highly regarded when Seattle signed them.
Miller may never reach the 57 catches he averaged in Oakland before signing with Seattle, but he scored Seattle’s first two touchdowns in a demonstration of just how dangerous a well-rounded tight end can be when opponents start loading up for the run.
Rice probably won’t replicate the 1,300-yard receiving year he had with Minnesota in 2009, but he’s still capable of scraping the sky and dropping jaws as he did on his third-quarter touchdown when he leaped to pluck the ball out of that marine layer that didn’t do much to dampen the scoring of this Seattle team on Sunday.
Running back Marshawn Lynch may be the focal point of this team’s offense and quarterback Russell Wilson embodies its future, and the fact Rice and Miller top the list of salary-cap expenses for Seattle’s payroll in 2013 has led many to write them off for the future.
Not so fast. There’s still the present to consider, and Sunday’s game showed what a clear and present danger they remain to opponents. Just ask Jacksonville. Miller had scored three touchdowns in his first two seasons as a Seahawk; he had two in the first 15 minutes, 34 seconds of Sunday’s game.
“Zach is one of the best tight ends for sure in the National Football League,” Wilson said, “and I love playing with him.”
You could see why Sunday when Miller caught two passes that produced more points (12) than yards (5). He scored Seattle’s first two touchdowns, but to understand the significance requires looking at the circumstances. Each play began inside the opponent’s 5, both involved a run fake and in both instances Miller found himself wide open.
“He finds a way to get wide open,” Wilson said. “I don’t know. He’s very, very clever, has sure hands.”
Sidney Rice had five catches for 79 yards and two touchdowns on Sunday. (AP)
He’s not the only one.
Rice’s gift of grab has never been in question, more like his durability. Since coming to Seattle he has gone on injured reserve after suffering two concussions in the span of less than three weeks, undergone surgery on each shoulder and this year missed all of the preseason schedule after getting an injection in Switzerland to treat an injured knee.
But on Sunday?
“Sidney looks so great right now,” Wilson said. “He’s 100 percent finally, I feel like. He’s running extremely fast.”
And those defenders he can’t outrun he can outjump. He showed that on the second of his two touchdown catches, a 23-yard pass that Rice asked for despite the fact he had two Jaguars guarding him.
“He was kind of pointing, ‘Hey, throw it up,’ ” Wilson said, “That type of thing.”
Wilson did exactly that.
“Russell did kind of throw that ball kind of up for grabs,” coach Pete Carroll said. “But that’s because he trusts Sidney and he believes Sidney can go make that play.”
Sure enough, he did go and make that play, cutting back toward the ball, leaping and extending every inch of his 6-foot-4 frame to grab the ball before either defender had a chance to make a play on it.
“It felt good to be back in the end zone,” Rice said. “I have been waiting for that.”
Faith. It’s what Wilson put into that pass he lobbed to Rice in the third quarter and it’s what Seattle loaded into those two contracts in 2011 when the lockout ended and the Seahawks emerged as one of the most aggressive teams in free agency.
Sunday showed that it’s way too soon to write off those investments. In fact, they might start paying even bigger dividends.