The wait is over for middle linebacker Lofa Tatupu.
After suffering a torn pectoral muscle that required surgery in October and forced him to miss the last 11 games of the season, the veteran Seattle Seahawks linebacker watched impatiently from the sidelines in 2009, unable to help halt the string of losses his team suffered during a 5-11 campaign.
“It was tough being around and not being able to contribute,” he said. “But as far as the record, we were not pleased with that. It’s tough to sit there and think that I could have at least impacted two or three of those games. And while 7-9 or 8-8 is not what you shoot for, it’s a better record.”
Tatupu promises this year will be different. And it begins tonight, when he gets his first start of the season against Minnesota in Seattle’s third exhibition game.
Tatupu has been saddled with a string of nagging injuries that have hampered his production recently, including a broken thumb and a balky knee two years ago.
With Pete Carroll, Tatupu’s former coach at USC, in the fold and making wholesale changes – 127 roster moves and counting – many league observers expect the losing to continue in Seattle.
However, the 27-year-old said no one uses the dreaded “R” word – rebuilding – in the locker room, and he believes the Seahawks can once again contend for an NFC West division title.
“You’re not much of a competitor if you sit there and think that you’re not going to win your division,” he said. “But that’s where it starts. You’ve got to win your division games. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. I’m getting ready for this preseason game right in front of us against the Vikings and looking forward to it.”
Carroll took his time in getting Tatupu back on the field, but now that he’s back in the huddle it should help younger linebackers such as Aaron Curry and David Hawthorne.
The three-time Pro Bowl selection has had lingering hamstring issues during this year’s training camp, so even though he practiced, trainers decided to hold him out against Green Bay last week. But Tatupu received the go-ahead for tonight’s game, and he will start with the first unit on defense.
Linebackers coach Ken Norton, Jr., who also coached Tatupu when he played for the Trojans, said his pupil is the kind of player that makes everyone around him better.
“He’s good at figuring things out in terms of what the offense is trying to do to you,” Norton said, “He’s great at body language, and reading the movement of fullbacks and linemen. He picks up every little thing, and I’m just trying to make sure he helps our younger players pick up those things as well.”
The defense could use the infusion of talent and energy from a healthy Tatupu, along with another important returning player, defensive tackle Brandon Mebane, who has been nursing a sore calf and did not play last week.
Seattle’s defense struggled in the opening quarters of exhibition games against Tennessee and Green Bay, giving up three touchdowns in the first four possessions. So Tatupu understands the need for the defense to set the tone against Minnesota for how they need to play in the opening regular-season game two weeks from now against San Francisco.
“We never go out there with the intention, no matter if it’s the ones or twos, of looking bad,” Tatupu said. “Those guys on the other side of the ball, they’re paid professionals, too. And they got their job to do.”
Tatupu will see a familiar face across the line of scrimmage in Minnesota quarterback Brett Favre, who once again wrestled with the possibility of retirement but returned for his 20th season.
Favre played in just three plays against San Francisco last week but likely will play at least a quarter against Seattle. It’s the eighth straight year the Seahawks will face a Favre-led team.
Tatupu said it’s tough to deal with such an experienced player as Favre, who can change the game by changing the play at the line of scrimmage, or force the defense to jump offside with a hard count.
“Sometimes he won’t even change the play,” Tatupu said about Favre. “He won’t let anybody know but the receiver. You don’t see a hand signal or anything.”
Seattle quarterback Matt Hasselbeck admires Favre’s durability. Favre holds the regular-season record for consecutive games started with 285. But Hasselbeck also understands he won’t be facing him on the field.
“I don’t have to play against him,” he said. “I’ll let (rookie safety) Earl Thomas worry about that.”