There was this one time T.J. Houshmandzadeh had nothing to say. Must’ve been a crazy moment, huh? For better or worse, the loose-lipped wide receiver puts some squawk in the Seahawks, but there was this one speechless time.
It happened last year, somewhere in the dregs of a 5-11 season. Houshmandzadeh sat in a meeting room, baffled, unable to fathom what he had just heard. Some of his fellow skilled-position players were expressing indifference over their touches. Others might have considered it unselfishness or sacrifice, but Houshmandzadeh thought of it as passivity or, worse, fear. He didn’t say anything. He couldn’t. The shock wouldn’t allow it.
It’s an enlightening anecdote. It’s not surprising because you must remember the weekly — OK, daily — frustrations that Houshmandzadeh expressed last season. But that story is deeper than his relentless “Throw me the ball!” cries. It hints at the indispensable mentality of a player who made it here, to the top of his profession, in pure defiance of conventional wisdom.
For Houshmandzadeh, the football is a metaphor. It’s his success. He rose from poverty, academic distress and football irrelevance to NFL stardom by catching that ball, over and over again, even when people didn’t think he could catch it, even when he felt people didn’t want him to catch it. To deny him the football is to deny him his American dream. So, how can he be indifferent about that? How can anyone?
“That’s not me,” Houshmandzadeh said, shaking his head all these months later. “I care if I get the ball. Who doesn’t want the ball? That’s like you saying you don’t want a promotion. You want a promotion! Who doesn’t want the ball? I will never understand that. If you’re a competitor, you want the ball. I want everybody on my team to want the ball. And if you’re winning the game and not getting it, it doesn’t matter. You wish you could’ve gotten it, but it’s not a big deal. But if you lose a game, it upsets you. It should. And I don’t understand how people don’t get that.”
And you don’t understand why Hooooooooooosh! won’t settle down, listen to the cheers and be a happy little star. After a subpar debut season in Seattle, you’re wondering if Houshmandzadeh is worth the bluster. You want him to shut up and produce.
But here’s the thing: Houshmandzadeh thought he was too laid-back last year. That’s about to change, he promises. On the field. And, scary thought, in front of the microphones. He refuses to become what he fears most: A guy who doesn’t care if he gets the ball.
“I just kind of let myself go a little bit,” Houshmandzadeh said. “I wasn’t being me. Never again.”
Last season, Houshmandzadeh led the Seahawks with 79 receptions and 911 yards. But those numbers were a significant decline from his previous three seasons in Cincinnati, when he averaged 98 receptions and eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark in two of those years.
There were numerous reasons for the drop-off. He was in a new offense and learning to work with a new quarterback, Matt Hasselbeck. The offensive line was a mess last season, the running game nonexistent. And, quietly, Houshmandzadeh was dealing with a significant injury — a sports hernia — and he opted against having surgery to repair it last offseason because he was a free agent.
But Houshmandzadeh declared there was another factor in his and the entire team’s woes. Once the regular season began, he claims the practices weren’t competitive.
“Why? Don’t ask me,” said Houshmandzadeh, who finally had the hernia surgery this past offseason. “We just had a tendency to ease up a little bit, you know. When the guy across from you is not trying to stop you, you — I wouldn’t say go through the motions — but you don’t go as hard. You’re not perfecting your craft, so to speak, like you would if you knew a guy was trying to stop you.
“That’s just the way practices were. They weren’t competitive, for whatever reason. And for me, it hurt me because I didn’t come from a program that operated like that. Training-camp practices last year were competitive. But once we got into the season, it was a different dynamic.”
In the next breath, Houshmandzadeh detailed his respect for former coach Jim Mora. He loved Mora, but he hated the team’s in-season practice habits.
In fairness to Mora, Houshmandzadeh failed to mention the overwhelming number of injuries that made practices difficult for the Seahawks. Mora’s training camp was, at least, as tough as new coach Pete Carroll’s has been thus far, but he needed to scale back because of the Seahawks’ calamities. Still, Houshmandzadeh’s words sound like an indictment.
Of course, the wide receiver had a bigger beef with former offensive coordinator Greg Knapp. He thought he was joining an offense that would feature him. Instead, he felt like a bit player despite leading the team in receptions.
“I came here last year being told one thing and expecting this and expecting that, and it wasn’t that case,” Houshmandzadeh said. “And I’m an upfront dude, you know. I speak my mind. I’m not going to beat around the bush. I just felt like I was less involved in the offense last year than I was in Cincinnati, and in Cincinnati, we had more weapons. That was baffling to me.”
So, what now? Houshmandzadeh is more optimistic. He likes Carroll’s “Always Compete” edict. He has heard good things in conversations with new offensive coordinator Jeremy Bates. He turns 33 in September, and if you think Houshmandzadeh is aging, he doesn’t care. He’s ready to be the player he was in Cincinnati — if given the chance.
Houshmandzadeh has seen the tapes from last season. He saw a different player, a worse player, one that made him say in disgust, “Wow, that’s me.” The losing, the frustration, the injury — it put him in a bad place.
Now, he’s back in a familiar state, in a place where he has always thrived. Underestimated. Overlooked. Unappreciated. It’s the perfect opportunity to be himself.
“I let a lot of things affect me that I shouldn’t have last year,” Houshmandzadeh said.
He shook his head, ponytail flapping, and recited his new mantra.