Matt Hasselbeck surveyed his options while completing his drop. Rather than making the quick – and obvious – throw, the Seahawks quarterback hesitated oh-so-briefly before threading a pass to John Carlson.
That extra half-a-blink was needed to allow the second-year tight end to position himself to make the catch. Carlson did just that, despite one defender slapping at his hands and another seemingly trying to join him in his jersey.
Quite the catch
In his first season with the Seahawks, John Carlson set franchise records for receptions and receiving yards by a tight end, and tied the mark for touchdown catches. The top five performances by a tight end in each category:
Player (year) No.
John Carlson (2008) 55
Itula Mili (2003) 46
Jerramy Stevens (2005) 45
Itula Mili (2002) 43
Ron Howard (1976) 37
Christian Fauria (1998) 37
Player (year) Yds.
John Carlson (2008) 627
Jerramy Stevens (2005) 554
Charlie Young (1983) 529
Itula Mili (2002) 508
Itula Mili (2003) 592
Player (Year) No.
John Carlson (2008) 5
Jerramy Stevens (2005) 5
Itula Mili (2003) 4
Mike Tice (1991) 4
Jerramy Stevens (2006) 4
It was only one play – and in a June minicamp, at that – but it also was an indication that even though Carlson led the team in receptions, receiving yards and touchdown catches as a rookie, the rest of the league ain’t seen nothing yet.
This portent of even better things to come in his second NFL season is tied to the way Carlson uses his now-stronger body to shield defenders, his still-developing skills and inherent savvy to gain separation and his soft hands to secure the ball.
Another factor is the way coach Jim Mora and offensive coordinator Greg Knapp talk about their four-receiver formations, and include Carlson in that mix rather than a fourth wide receiver.
“John really could be something in this offense, and he should be,” said tight ends coach Mike DeBord, who also is in his second season with the Seahawks. “Greg highlights the tight ends, that’s part of the offense.”
Smart move, considering that Carlson set franchise records last season for receptions (55) and receiving yards (627) by a tight end and tied the mark for touchdown catches (5) – and also became the first rookie to lead the team in each category since Steve Largent in 1976.
Carlson accomplished all that despite learning on the fly, and catching passes from three quarterbacks – Hasselbeck (23, including his only 100-yard game against the Cowboys), backup Seneca Wallace (28, including a career-high eight catches against the Patriots) and since-departed No. 3 Charlie Frye (4).
Yes, Carlson also is learning a new system this year. But Knapp’s scheme will feature the tight end even more than the West Coast hybrid run the past 10 seasons by Mike Holmgren. And, no one is expecting Hasselbeck to miss nine starts because of the back problems that plagued him all of last season.
“The guys that have fallen off that West Coast tree understand the importance of the tight end position, and Greg is one of those guys,” Mora said.
When Knapp was Mora’s offensive coordinator for three seasons in Atlanta (2004-06), Falcons tight end Alge Crumpler averaged 56 receptions, 810 yards and six touchdowns – and was voted to three Pro Bowls. The past two seasons, when Knapp was the offensive coordinator in Oakland, Raiders tight end Zach Miller averaged comparable numbers (50 receptions and 611 yards).
So why not Carlson in ’09? He will, after all, be playing with a better quarterback and a more-talented collection of wide receivers than either Crumpler or Miller had – including free-agent addition T.J. Houshmandzadeh, the on-the-mend duo of Nate Burleson and Deion Branch and third-round draft choice Deon Butler.
Carlson is the first to point out that his numbers last season likely were inflated because of the rash of injuries that claimed the team’s top four wide receivers, leaving the Seahawks to start receivers who were too inexperienced or had been signed off the street.
“You have to look at there’s never been a year like this in terms of injuries at the receiver and the quarterback positions,” Carlson said in December, when a season that saw 26 players miss a combined 164 games was drawing to a merciful close.
True. But there also has never been a tight end on the Seahawks quite like Carlson.
“This kid is different now,” is the way former offensive coordinator Gil Haskell put it. “He’s the guy we’ve been looking for. The other guys? Not even close.”
Now comes Season Two, and even greater expectations for the tight end from Notre Dame that the Seahawks traded up in the second round of the 2008 draft to select.
“John looks like he’s going to be pretty special,” Mora said. “He’s a worker. He’s created a really good-looking body for himself. He’s strong. He’s physical. He’s got soft hands. He’s smart. He’s conscientious. He’s serious about being a great player.
“He’s fun to watch. It’s fun to watch him develop.”
Carlson also gives the Seahawks some needed flexibility as they attempt a return to the philosophy of dictating to the defense. Because of his versatility and receiving ability, Carlson can line up as a traditional tight end or be used in the slot. Or go in motion. Or even be flanked in multiple-receiver sets.
It’s a situation that will allow the Seahawks to show regular personnel in the huddle, but then line up in three- or four-receiver sets.
“John is very smart, so he can handle a lot,” Mora said. “The thing you have to be careful about is not overburdening him by asking him to do too much.”
Too much? Is it possible to ask Carlson to do too much? Last year, he was thrust into the starting spot, despite Holmgren’s reservations that a rookie could pull it off, because the team simply had no one else.
This year, the gap between Carlson and whoever will emerge as his backup is just as great. DeBord has no qualms that Carlson will once again be up to the challenge.
“With one more year of experience, he’s got more knowledge,” said DeBord, who was the assistant offensive line coach last season. “Plus, he’s stronger right now than he was last year. So physically and mentally, with the experience at this level, that’s just continued to make him a better player.”
It’s DeBord’s take that Carlson is able to play more physically because of his added strength.
That assessment elicited a smile from Carlson. “I’ll say this, I’m stronger, but it still doesn’t feel like I’m quite strong enough out there,” he offered. “Our defensive ends and linebackers are big, strong, physical, athletic guys, so it’s a continual work in progress.”
Carlson can’t argue with the assessment that just being in his second season is a definite plus. He can now admit to hitting the “rookie wall” last season.
“That rookie year is a tough year,” he said. “It’s long and it’s physically and mentally demanding.
“I had friends that went through it and told me about it, but I didn’t know if I would experience it. It was Week 8, Week 9, Week 10. Up to Week 8, I was thinking, ‘Wow, we’ve already got eight games done.’ After that, I was like, ‘Wow, we still have eight games left.’ ”
During that stretch, Carlson had three of his least productive games. The offense, meanwhile, was making the switch from Wallace to Hasselbeck and, eventually, back to Wallace.
This year, Carlson is better prepared to handle that tough physical/mental adjustment, and he’s playing in an offense that will continue to highlight his talents.
Still, could the Seahawks be planning too much for Carlson? Not a chance, said the look that washed across Carlson’s face.
“I’m excited for the year, because offensively I think we’re going to be much improved,” Carlson said.
As for the demands of digesting a new offense, he added, “We have so much time for meetings and OTAs and minicamps that you really have plenty of time to learn. There’s a lot of carryover in terms of schemes and concepts. A lot of the verbiage is different, but we practice it so much that you pick it up pretty easily.”
This stronger, more experienced version of John Carlson is ready for whatever they might throw at him – or to him. That’s why he’s here, to give this passing game, this offense and this team everything he has.
Which obviously is a lot.