Thursday, January 23, 2014

Seahawks Training Camp Heroes Continue To Wear Their Capes

Photo by Anthony May
Sunshine and sunscreen seem like a distant memory as we barrel toward what may be the coldest Super Bowl in history. The Seahawks kicked off training camp in late July and enjoyed one of Seattle's best Summers. Lombardi trophies were already on everyone's mind. The berm was packed each and every practice after the team sold out the entire training camp for the first time. Percy Harvin watch quickly turned into disappointment. Chris Clemons was injured, and people were guessing when he might return. Sidney Rice was flying off to Europe for knee treatments, and Will Blackmon was playing at a starting cornerback level while sitting sixth on the depth chart. This is where it all began.


The very first minute of the 2013 season
New Seahawks draft picks and free agents were an unknown. Where would they play Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril? Will Jesse Williams and Jordan Hill compete for a starting role? There was much left to be settled, but more was set than had ever been during the Pete Carroll era. For the first time, Seattle entered camp with no competition at quarterback. Nearly every starter on both sides of the ball was back. But even with all those known quantities, the fun was seeing new players emerge and flash potential game-changing ability.

Alvin Bailey and Jermaine Kearse earned my awards for Best Rookie - Offense and Standout Player - Offense. Take a look at the list of awards and honorable mentions here for a walk down memory lane.

Kearse was a constant target and a constant play-maker. He did not look like a developmental project. He looked like a reliable professional receiver capable of big plays. It did not take long to prove that was not reserved for training camp or the pre-season. His gorgeous touchdown catch in game one in Carolina won the game for the Seahawks. His gorgeous touchdown catch against the 49ers won the NFC Championship. Not bad for an undrafted free agent out of local Lakes HS.

Bailey took my breath away, if that is possible for an offensive lineman. I obsess about the Seahawks and would be surprised to find someone who knows this team and this roster better than I do. Still, I had not heard of Bailey beyond seeing his name on the roster. I noticed him during some team drills one afternoon and thought he was Russell Okung at first. A short Russell Okung. He stoned the first speed rusher while playing left tackle. Then the next. Then the next. I went days without seeing any pass rusher beat him in team drills or individual pass rush drills. He dominated in his first game action versus San Diego. And eventually got his chance during the regular season in Atlanta. The team made him an integral part of the game against the 49ers and Bailey proved his worth again, with multiple key blocks, including the one that sprung Marshawn Lynch for a game-tying touchdown.

Few rookies made an impact for the Seahawks this season, but Bailey, Michael Bowie and Luke Willson have all played important roles.

Bennett was a favorite of mine well before he took the practice field this Summer. I bemoaned his loss back in 2009, and reacted like a school girl when I heard the team re-signed him this March.

I knew exactly what the team was getting the moment Bennett arrived. He was everywhere during training camp, and has been everywhere throughout the season. He led the team in sacks, and continued to make key plays versus San Francisco when he had a strip sack and a fumble recovery that he almost returned for a touchdown. It was clear from day one of training camp that Bennett and Avril were going to be friends.

They found each other during warm-ups, and practiced hand placement and hand-fighting drills on their own. They looked like new players on a new team that were bonding through that shared experience. That certainly has proven to be the case during a season when the connection between those two led to numerous big plays while they were 1-2 on the squad in sacks.

Established players like Doug Baldwin, Golden Tate, Red Bryant, Earl Thomas, Walter Thurmond, and Byron Maxwell also had great camps. Each player has stepped up to have either their best season, or close to their best.

We are almost closer to training camp and sunshine for next season than we are to camp from this season. No off-season will feel shorter. There is always a caution around buying into training camp heroes for fear that they will fizzle when the games count. Not here. Players like Stephen Williams and John Lotulelei simply did not get opportunities due to depth. They did not fizzle. One more game is left is this historic Seahawks season. A player like Harvin who is late to the party could play a major role in the outcome, but it will be the guys who were there from minute one that deserve special recognition for all that they have done to get the Seahawks to this point.

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