Brandon Stokley was in his basement when the NFL season began, Ben Obomanu was covering punts, and Mike Williams was playing in his first game in three seasons.
So saying they’ve come a long way doesn’t quite capture the distance that trio traveled this season. They’ve gone from being injured, overlooked and underestimated to becoming Seattle’s top three receivers during the franchise’s first playoff victory in three years.
It is nothing short of remarkable. After the millions of dollars Seattle spent signing T.J. Houshmandzadeh and Nate Burleson, after the first-round draft pick it traded to acquire Deion Branch, the Seahawks ended up finding capable hands in the most unlikely of places.
Williams was overweight and unemployed the past two years. Obomanu was a seventh-round pick in 2006 who has been on the chopping block every training camp since. Stokley is a 12-year NFL veteran left for dead by the Broncos, only to wind up showing just how valuable experience and intuition remain in the league.
Combined, the trio made $2.5 million in base salaries this season, which translates to about 35 percent of the $7.2 million Seattle paid Houshmandzadeh not to play in Seattle. But the most important measurement was against New Orleans on Saturday, when they combined for 14 catches, 184 yards receiving and two touchdowns.
“It has just been a process trying to fit it together,” coach Pete Carroll said. “You do have to come to appreciate the special talents of your guys, and it takes a while.”
The position has become known for ego since receivers are among the league’s loudest personalities. They plan touchdown celebrations in advance, talk incessantly, and their body language needs no interpreter.
But that’s not what distinguishes Seattle’s receivers nearly so much as their ability to grab hold when opportunity presented itself.
There is no group on this team that epitomizes this team’s success more than its receivers, from the incessant turnover to the chance to earn playing time under Carroll. The Seahawks have cut their highest-paid player at the position, they traded a starter in Branch after four games and they have seen their second-round pick languish at the bottom of the depth chart all season.
But Saturday, these three were the key cogs in an offense that set a franchise record for points in a playoff game.
The biggest loser? Nope. Biggest winner.
Williams was a great story before the Seahawks ever played the Bears on Oct. 17. He had lost more than 30 pounds, regained his career and was starting at split end.
Chicago was his first great game, though. He caught 10 passes, the most by any Seahawk in three years, and finished with a career-high 123 yards receiving. At 6 feet 5, he was the biggest factor in the game.
“A career day,” Bears coach Lovie Smith said Wednesday in Chicago.
Except Williams caught 11 passes the next week against the Cardinals at Qwest Field and then doubled down again with 11 catches in Arizona three weeks later.
That was about the time everyone stopped talking about what Williams used to be (when he weighed as much as 270 pounds in 2007) and started focusing on what he could become.
He is 27 now, and after finishing the regular season with 65 catches, he signed a contract extension with Seattle that will pay him $11.2 million over three years and could be worth as much as $13.2 million with incentives.
In the first 34 seasons of Seattle’s franchise history, there were 11 games in which a Seahawk caught 10 or more passes. Williams did that three times in the span of five weeks during the regular season.
That string started in Chicago, something the Bears are well aware of heading into this playoff game.
“We can’t let him have another day like that,” Smith said. “If we let him have another day like that, we’ll lose.”
The season started in a basement.
That’s where Stokley watched the first three weeks of the NFL season. There wasn’t any furniture yet in his new home theater, just Stokley and his 7-year-old son Cameron watching the games from beanbag chairs on DirecTV.
“I enjoyed it,” Stokley said, “spending that time with him, being able to kind of sit back.”
A groin injury limited Stokley to a single exhibition game for Denver in training camp. He negotiated an injury settlement from Denver after he was placed on injured reserve. Three weeks was enough time to let him know he wasn’t ready to watch. Not yet.
“You start getting that itch,” said Stokley, 34. “It kind of made me reflect on life after football and know that I still have the passion and you want to play that game.”
Seattle had a role already written into its playbook for him. That was shorthand offensive coordinator Jeremy Bates used to describe plays for the slot receiver.
“We called them Stokley plays,” quarterback Matt Hasselbeck said. “Because this offense is, in large part, the Mike Shanahan 2008 Denver Broncos offense.”
Stokley played under Bates in that offense for two years, logging two of the best season reception totals in his 12 NFL seasons.
The Seahawks signed Stokley on Sept. 28, and not only did he play five days later in St. Louis, but he caught four passes for a team-high 62 yards receiving.
“He was the missing part, really,” Hasselbeck said.
Stokley caught four passes in the victory over New Orleans, including a 45-yard touchdown catch that gave the Seahawks a lead they never lost.
Even now — more than a month after the injury — Obomanu can’t straighten out his right hand.
And as far as body parts go, that’s kind of an important one for a receiver. Obomanu’s livelihood depends on it, in fact, and he suffered a severe cut between his pinkie and index fingers in the first half of Seattle’s game against Carolina on Dec. 5. The injury required two layers of stitches. He had to wear a plastic bag when he showered so the wound wouldn’t get wet.
Obomanu missed only one game, and while the stitches are gone, the hand is still so swollen he can’t flatten it completely.
Then, on Saturday, his right shoulder popped out of place after a first-quarter catch against the Saints. He went to the locker room, had the joint reset by a trainer and returned.
When you’re a seventh-round pick like Obomanu was in 2006, you don’t survive four training camps and three coaching staffs by taking much time off. And when you’re a fifth-year receiver finally getting the ball thrown your way, sore joints and deep cuts aren’t going to keep you out.
“That’s what got me to this point,” Obomanu said. “It’s probably going to be the same things that will keep me where I am, too. I just suck it up and keep playing and keep participating. Heal in the offseason.”
He knows how rare this opportunity is. He caught the second touchdown of his career Nov. 7 against the Giants, started the first game of his career the following week and never looked back.
“He kept hanging in there and was so consistent and would not give in and say, ‘OK, I’m a backup,’ ” Carroll said. “He kept fighting to be the best … (and) when he finally got his chance, he proved it.”
Obomanu caught 30 passes in 2010, double the total he had in his first four NFL seasons. He has scored four touchdowns.
He’s not the fastest receiver on the team and he’s not the biggest, in a league where being all-around adequate can be a death sentence. For Obomanu, it finally earned him an opportunity.
He has grabbed a hold of it no matter how sore that right hand is.