Pete Carroll recognized something special in Lofa Tatupu when too many others were blinded by his lack of prototypical size and speed. Now reunited, they’re looking to re-energize the Seahawks’ defense.
At one point during Sunday’s game at Denver, it was suddenly 2004. Or was it 2003?
The time warp was created when Pete Carroll and middle linebacker Lofa Tatupu reached into their past to try and help their present. Carroll, the Seahawks’ first-year coach, first coached Tatupu for those two seasons at the University of Southern California.
“I was reminding Lofa about an adjustment in the game (Sunday) that was something that we did in college,” Carroll explained on Monday. “We ran the exact same blitz and pressure and I was going, ‘Remember how we do this? And how we need to fit this thing up? And how we used to do it?’
“We were able to talk that far back.”
Actually, it was more of a one-sided conversation. But the eye-to-eye, almost forehead-to-forehead, exchange at Invesco Field created a this-picture-is-worth-several-thousand-words image of why Tatupu is so valuable to the Seahawks’ defense, and why Carroll is so happy to be reunited with him.
“When you’ve been with guys for some time, the depth and the reservoir of things that you have in your pocket really makes you versatile and can make you really strong and very adaptable,” Carroll said. “And that’s something you have to have in this league.”
It’s definitely something the Seahawks will need this week, as the defense prepares for Sunday’s game at Qwest Field against a San Diego Chargers’ offense that ranks No. 3 in the NFL and features a Milky Way’s worth of star power – from Pro Bowl quarterback Philip Rivers (632 passing yards and five TD passes in two games) ; to All-Pro tight end Antonio Gates (10 receptions and three TD catches); to rookie running back Ryan Mathews (101 rushing yards), and counterpunch and change-up backs Darren Sproles (4.0-yard average and six receptions) and Mike Tolbert (108 yards and two TDs); to big-play wide receivers Malcolm Floyd (23.8-yard average on six receptions) and Legedu Naanee (20.7 on six).
That’s where the Carroll-Tatupu connection will come in handy, again.
The fact that Tatupu is here is rooted in the endorsement Carroll gave him at the Trojans’ Pro Day workout in the spring of 2005. The Seahawks needed a middle linebacker to slam the revolving door that had seen them start nine players the previous seven seasons at the pivotal position.
The pick was Tatupu, in the second round after the Seahawks traded up to select the middle linebacker who has less-than-prototypical size, but off-the-chart smarts and instincts.
“What really sold us on Lofa was the way Pete Carroll talked about him,” then-general manager Tim Ruskell said at the time. “He went out of his way to praise Lofa’s attributes, and coming from him that carried a lot of weight in our evaluation.”
Reminded of that moment on Monday, Carroll smiled before offering, “Well, I know that (then-defensive coordinator) John Marshall and Pee Wee (then-defensive line coach Duane Board) and those guys that were here, we had been together at San Francisco. So they interpreted the stuff I said a little different than other people because we coached together.
“They banked on it at the time, when other people weren’t willing to take the chance on him. I was surprised when he got drafted, kind of how good he did. But he’s proven everything since he got here.”
In fact, Carroll tried to persuade Tatupu to remain at USC for another season.
“When he was getting ready to come out, I was trying to sell him on the fact that he hasn’t had enough time for people to appreciate you, to realize how special you are; to give him another year to really come to understand and talk about you, I think it would make a world of difference,” Carroll recalled.
Tatupu’s response? “He said, ‘I don’t care about that, I just want to go play,’ ” Carroll said. “He didn’t care about that stuff.”
Instead, Tatupu came to Seattle and made a world of difference for the Seahawks’ defense. He has been voted a defensive captain or co-captain in each of his six seasons. He is the only player in franchise history to lead the team in tackles four consecutive seasons (2005-08), and was only the second rookie to do it. He was voted to three consecutive Pro Bowls (2005-07).
It took losing Tatupu to realize just what he means to the defense. He missed 11 games – and most a 12th – last season because of hamstring and pectoral injuries.
But now he’s not only back, he’s reunited with the coach who showed so much faith in him when others were more concerned about his lack of size and speed.
“Lofa is such a natural player,” Carroll said. “He just gets the game. It makes sense to him. He is on a level of communication with the coaches and the game itself which is about as high as it can get. You can’t go much deeper than we’re going with a guy than we do with Lofa, because he can handle everything.
“He knows the game like a coach knows the game, from a player’s eyes and perspective. He’s just a very, very fun player to work with and to coach because you can do so many things.”
That has been apparent in the first two games. He shares the team lead with 13 tackles – putting him on pace for a fourth 100-plus tackle season. He has deflected a pass. He has pressured the passer. He has plugged lanes to help the defense rank fifth against the run, allowing averages of 57 yards per game and 2.0 yards per carry. He has made countless pre-snap checks and readjustments to help those around him make plays.
“The league is so demanding that the more depth, the more background that you have, I think the better that you can stay ahead,” Carroll said. “Lofa gives us all of those opportunities and that’s why he makes other guys play better. He really does help other guys.
“Like the point guard that’s dishing the ball off, he’s getting guys in the right spots and doing the right thing all the time and then playing well himself.”
Carroll paused briefly before finally adding a final assessment, “I think he’s back to the form that people recognized a couple years ago when he was going to the Pro Bowl.”
And this season, Tatupu is doing for a coach who recognized that potential long before most others.