Since being selected in the second round of the 2008 NFL draft, the only constant for the Seattle Seahawks’ tight end has been constant change.
But this offseason really is different, because the offense being installed by coordinator Jeremy Bates relies heavily on two-tight end sets and Carlson is being called upon to transcend the expectations – and limitations – of the traditional tight end role.
In fact, watching a practice – even an OTA practice, like the one held Thursday – can quickly turn into the pigskin equivalent of “Where’s Waldo.” On any given snap, Carlson will be matched with Chris Baker in a two-tight end set, with accompanying wrinkles. Or in the traditional tight end spot, just off the shoulder of a tackle. Or lined up in the slot, on either side. Or flanked to one side, or the other. Or just about anywhere else Bates’ imagination can muster.
“John is super intelligent. His football IQ is off the charts,” said Bates, who was an assistant under Mike Shanahan with the Denver Broncos for three years before joining Pete Carroll’s staff at USC last season and then following him to Seattle in January. “So we can move him to wide receiver, tight end, fullback, and he can do it all.
“John has shown us he can play all those positions. He’s flexible. He can run all the routes. He has great hands and he can block. So it’s exciting.”
It’s not that Carlson has been unproductive in his first two seasons. He already has shattered the franchise record for his position in receptions, receiving yards and touchdown catches.
In 2008, under coach Mike Holmgren and offensive coordinator Gil Haskell, Carlson became the first rookie to lead the team in receptions (55) and receiving yards (627) since Hall of Fame wide receiver Steve Largent in 1976. Last season, under coach Jim Mora and offensive coordinator Greg Knapp, Carlson had 51 receptions for 574 yards and a team-leading seven TD catches.
All this change has turned Carlson into a sponge. A 6-foot-5, 251-pound information and formation magnet with soft hands, but a sponge nonetheless.
“It’s important when you go through football, and you have different coaches and you’re in different systems, to try to learn as much as from everyone as possible,” Carlson said.
As a rookie, he was exposed to the nuances of Holmgren’s hybrid of the West Coast offense – one that separated itself from the others, as former tight end Brent Jones once explained, because of its innovative use of the position to stretch the field vertically. Last year, Carlson became a better blocker while playing for Knapp and with since-departed tight end John Owens. This year, it’s all about what Bates and Baker bring to the Carlson smorgasbord.
“It’s a process,” Carlson said. “It’s a learning process. And the goal is to try and get better.”
Carlson does have more to offer, and Bates plans to tap into that potential.
“The first impression you get when you see John is his work ethic,” Bates said. “He’s here every day working – in the weight room, in the film room and on the practice field. You just get excited seeing that.
“He’s very coachable. He wants to be great and he’s easy to work with.”
And Carlson works very well in the two-tight end sets that Bates used with such success in Denver – where Tony Scheffler (40) and Daniel Graham (32) combined to catch 72 passes in 2008. Baker, who played for Bates when he was an assistant with the Jets in 2005, was signed in free agency to fill the role Graham played with the Broncos. That leaves Carlson to, well, do anything and everything Bates can devise.
“We majored in two tights in Denver,” Bates said. “It really neutralizes the defense, because you can be 50 percent run, 50 percent pass.”
It also allows the offense to show two-tight end personnel in the huddle, but then give a completely different look at the line – with Carlson lining up at various spots.
“It really handcuffs the defensive coordinator at the end of the day,” Bates said, “because they’re playing the guessing game.”
While Carlson and his fellow tight ends are enjoying the deceptive elements that Bates and tight ends coach Pat McPherson bring to that game.
“It’s exciting,” Carlson said. “Because as a tight end group, we get to do basically everything you can do on offense.”
Carlson then paused and smiled before adding, “Except maybe carry the ball.”
A tight-end around? Hmmm.
“Never say never,” Carlson said.
Especially if Jeremy Bates has anything to say about it.