As reported by several news outlets, starting tight end Zach Miller has undergone surgery on his ankle and will miss at a minimum the next two games.  Miller has been playing through ankle problems through the first few weeks of the season, but it seems the decision has been reached to take care of the issue now rather than wait until later.  The procedure was a relatively minor one — a scoping of the joint, likely to remove loose bodies — but there’s a strong likelihood he’ll be out much longer than two weeks.

Until he returns, the team will turn to some combination of Luke Willson and Cooper Helfet to take his place, and that’s a problem. Don’t get me wrong, I like both players, but they’re both receiving tight ends with little in the way of blocking prowess.  The offense can always compensate by subbing out Willson or Helfet for a backup o-lineman as an extra blocker, but that brings with it its own set of problems.

Miller is an increasingly rare breed of player, a tight end who can block and catch passes with equal effectiveness, and that’s no small thing.  Need a guy who can throw a block in space to spring your speedy new Harvin for a long gain?  Miller’s your man.  Is your rookie right tackle struggling to hold up against the pass rush?  Line up Miller in line next to him.  Need a pair of sure hands in the middle of the field?  Miller can do that, too.  With him in the game, it’s that much harder for an opposing defense to key in on what the Seahawks are planning to do next.  Sub in Willson or Helfet, and the defense knows a pass is probably coming, while a sixth lineman signals a likely run play.  It seems like a small thing, but the talent level in the NFL is so rarefied that a few small advantages can often make the difference between winning and losing.

There was a lot of talk before the season about the possibility of Miller being released, and I for one was ecstatic to see him restructure his contract and stick around.  When he came over as a free agent from Oakland in 2011, many Seattle fans were expecting him to be a dynamic game changer, and when he failed to deliver Tony Gonzalez-sized stats a lot of folks soured on him.  And yes, he’s probably never going to outrace DBs for 80+ yard TDs up the seam, but what he lacks in pure athleticism he more than makes up for in reliability (well, aside from his 3 penalty day versus San Diego in week two, but that game was an anomaly for most of his teammates as well).

I think most fans at least understand his value as a blocker, so I won’t go into that here, but he’s a better receiver than he’s given credit for being.  Since the beginning of the 2012 season (i.e. the Russell Wilson era) and including the postseason, Seattle has had four members of its receiving corps earn 100+ targets in the passing game, and two of them are now gone.  Any guess as to which one of them leads the pack in catching percentage?

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Name Targets Catches Catch % TDs
Golden Tate 166 109 65.66% 12
Doug Baldwin 139 89 64.03% 8
Sidney Rice 117 65 55.56% 10
Zach Miller 116 77 66.38% 8

(Note: I’m still getting used to the interface here, so the readability of these tables should improve with practice.)

That being said, the sky is not falling; Percy Harvin will still be fast, Doug Baldwin will still be a third down pass magnet, Marshawn Lynch will still be Beast Mode, and Russell Wilson will still be Russell goddamn Wilson.  But their prowess doesn’t make the loss of Miller for any length of time any less significant, and one of the major things I’ll be watching for versus Washington is how Bevell game plans around his absence.

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