The young middle linebacker was far from overmatched. Not only did he dart all over the field shooting gaps, but he visibly raised the level of play of those around him. Many fans remember seeing him slap lineman on the butts to slide them over after Tatupu noticed something that required a pre-snap adjustment. His experience as a quarterback earlier in his career appeared to give him an advantage in diagnosing formations and tendencies from opposing offenses.
He had two of the most memorable plays of the 2005 NFC Championship game when he picked off Jake Delhomme with a beautiful read-and-react sequence, and then knocked running back Nick Goings (and himself) silly with a brutal collision on a sweep. Tatupu famously made the Pro Bowl in each of his first three seasons, and the All-Pro team in 2007.
His size and intensity eventually led to more and more injuries. Knees, shoulders, pectoral tears all added up. The tackles per game declined steadily, as did the impact plays. Gone were the sacks (his career high came in his rookie season). Gone were the interceptions (no more than 1 since 2007). Tatupu was morphing into the player scouts had thought he might be when he was drafted, slow, undersized and over-matched. His wits remained, but professional football is a cruel business that requires more than wits to contribute.
Pete Carroll’s defensive philosophy put less emphasis on the middle linebacker spot as well. Having a massive DE like Red Bryant and large strongside linebacker like Aaron Curry on one side of the line funnels runs to the weakside linebacker and smaller LEO end (Chris Clemons). Additionally, the rise of heavy defensive back packages like the Bandit (7 DB, 3 DL, 1 LB) further reduces the reliance on linebackers in general. A player like Kam Chancellor who plays strong safety, but is as big as some linebackers, gives the coaches license to be creative. Carroll also is a fan of specialization. If a linebacker is great in coverage, but struggles against the run, you will see situational substitutions that put those players in the best position to succeed. There will be fewer “three-down” linebackers with that sort of system.
Tatupu had reached a point where he was a liability against the run, and there were ample alternatives against the pass. His know-how and leadership will be missed, but in less tangible ways. The defense may not bounce back from a bad play or series as quickly. The disparity between their road performance and home performance may grow even more.
This, however, need not be a step backwards for the team. Linebacker is a position that takes very little time to adjust to the NFL from college. Look back at the defensive rookies of the year, and quite a few are linebackers. Cornerback, quarterback, and wide receiver usually take at least a full season to adjust. Linebackers and running backs tend to hit their first season, if they are going to hit at all. The team drafted KJ Wright and Malcolm Smith this year. Leroy Hill is already an upgrade when he is healthy. This is not a Matt Hasselbeck situation where the team is stepping backwards in capability. As painful as it might be to admit, this is addition by subtraction.
Tatupu was a great player for a few years with this team, and was a key part of the best season in franchise history. He deserves our gratitude and recognition. The team, and the fans, deserve to move on to a younger and more athletic linebacker corps.