When the Seahawks take the field Sunday down in the desert of Arizona, they may look like a normal pro football team at first glance. But a closer look should reveal some sort of Billy Bean-like “Money Ball” experiment:
• A 6-4 cornerback whose knees seem to bend in all four directions;
• A monstrosity of a man who looks out of place at defensive end;
• A linebacker whose arms and legs are so long it seems he might never get himself underneath a blocker;
• An offensive guard who was playing defensive tackle this time last year … in college;
• Oh, and a quarterback who makes Doug Flutie look like an NBA center.
Welcome to Pete Carroll and John Schneider’s Island of Misfit Toys. Maybe it’s not fair to call them misfits. After all, anyone who has ever seen Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer knows that even a squirt gun that shoots jelly and a cowboy who rides an ostrich can find a home.
But these guys make up what I would call the weirdest looking team in NFL history.
Just as King Moonracer (the ruler of Misfit Island) and Santa Claus found homes for these odd toys, Carroll and Schneider have found starting positions in the NFL for these odd football players.
Red Bryant. Big Red was the first experiment. Moving him to defensive end even though he’s built like an interior defensive tackle was a move that not only lit a fire under Bryant’s career, but also helped catapult the Seahawks’ defense into the top 10 in 2011.
Bryant is a playmaker but it’s the things you don’t see that make him such a valuable cog in Seattle’s defense. He’s the immovable object on the corner of the defensive line and when he’s not making tackles and batting down field goals and extra points, he does things that allow his teammates to make plays. Reminds me of a certain Seahawks defensive tackle who just entered the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Cortez Kennedy.
I became a believer for good last training camp when I witnessed a play that turned my head. As I watched the offensive line explode into what turned out to be a play-action pass, out of the corner of my eye, something wasn’t quite right. There was a very large object where it shouldn’t be moving at a very high rate of speed. It was Bryant running man-to-man coverage on tight end Dominique Byrd. Bryant chased him, imitated Byrd’s cut precisely and then broke on the ball like a trained defensive back. A perfect pass was completed for a 10-yard gain, but Bryant was all over him and immediately made the tackle.
It’s hard to square that level of athletic ability with that size of body.
K.J. Wright. As I watched Wright take the field on the first day of camp last year, my first thought was this: “He’s too tall and too lanky to play linebacker in this league.” He’s 6-4, all legs and arms and doesn’t look like he has the leverage to play linebacker, yet he does – so well, in fact, he started last season at inside linebacker, where leverage is everything.
Wright has terrific instincts and has proven to be a playmaker and a leader on the field whom coaches trust to run the huddle when necessary.
Brandon Browner. This guy leads the league in distance between his knee caps and ankles. He looks too tall and awkward to play corner yet his statistics tell a different story. Those stats earned him a trip to the Pro Bowl as an alternate last year.
I’m sure there’s a list of coaches and personnel people a mile long that tried to move him to safety when they first laid eyes on him. His legs go on forever and take an awkward turn just below the knees, which makes his speed deceiving because of the length of his stride.
He did lead the league in penalties last year at that position but he also led the league in passes broken up and interception return yardage. He was second in interceptions with six, and he returned two for scores.
J.R. Sweezy. Without the quarterback competition and the arrival of Terrell Owens, Sweezy would easily be the biggest story to come out of training camp. The last time he played O-line, he got a ride home from practice in a station wagon while sipping on a juice box. Now, he’s been as Pete Carroll would say, “dominant at times.”
If someone had come to me at the end of my college career and told me they wanted me to play tight end or running back instead of linebacker, I would’ve told them to get a CAT scan. How in the world do you look at a college defensive lineman and predict that he will be a good NFL offensive lineman?
Sweezy will be the starting right guard Sunday and this is on a team whose offensive line averaged 135 yards rushing the last nine games of the year and averaged 184 yards in the preseason. Mind boggling.
Russell Wilson. Top all of that off with a 5-10 rookie quarterback who looks much shorter than that in person. Wilson has done nothing but both meet and exceed every goal the Seahawks’ coaching staff has set for him.
Yes, it’s risky but you’d have to be crazy to ignore the numbers that Wilson put up in the preseason. His 110 QB rating was best in the NFL, his 536 passing yards ranked fifth and he led his team on eight 75-yard touchdown-scoring drives. Those are just numbers.
What have really impressed are plays like a 5-yard completion to tight end Sean McGrath. Wilson took a three-step drop, avoided pressure with excellent footwork and maneuvered to his right all the while going through a progression that took his vision from one side of the field to the other.
His maturity and unwavering drive to be the very best is icing on the cake. He’s a player that seems to be able to stay positive, yet he’s never satisfied – a rare combination.
Other misfit toys
• Doug Baldwin. A misfit toy in that no one wanted him. Baldwin led his team in receptions, yardage and touchdowns last season, becoming the first undrafted rookie to do so since the great Bill Groman of the 1960 Houston Oilers.
• Allen Bradford. Bradford was a USC running back who scored 20 touchdowns in college. Today, he’s a practice squad linebacker who may be the hardest hitting player on the team. He hit a ball carrier in the final preseason game so hard that it made me jealous.
Talk about a diamond in the rough. He’s so raw that I’ve watched him mistakenly put his hand down in the dirt twice while lining up at his inside linebacker position. The kid is having running back flashbacks, I guess, but if Bradford can pull off this Sweezy-like conversion, he’ll definitely be the talk of next year’s training camp. Unless T.O. shows up again.
• Richard Sherman. Four years ago Sherman was a pretty decent college receiver and three seasons ago he was just beginning to learn to play defensive back. This year he may be the most promising defensive back in a secondary loaded with Pro Bowlers. Sherman’s performance during training camp was also overlooked because of less meaningful yet more dramatic stories, but coaches, teammates and certain football nerds that watch all the little boring things (me) think Sherman is in for a breakout season.
This whole experiment may work and it may not. Either way, I admire it. It’s not safe. It’s not what everyone else is doing. It’s bold, ballsy, and iconoclastic.
The first guy through the wall gets bloody in the copy-cat world of the NFL. But if it works out the way I think it will, you may see teams scouring the country for big, lanky corners, converting mediocre defensive tackles to offensive guard and throwing out the rulebook on quarterbacks under 6-feet tall.