Now, Hasselbeck’s release I could see coming. Parting ways with Chris Spencer and Sean Locklear was pretty much a foregone conclusion. Losing Will Herring and Olindo Mare was unexpected, but neither loss was the end of the world. But Tatupu? I don’t think anyone predicted his release — the guy was the center of our defense, the lynchpin around which the whole thing revolved.
This is the danger inherent in asking guys to take a pay cut and restructure their contract, as the Seahawks asked Tatupu to do. NFL players can be realists and businessmen, yes, and I’m sure on some level Tatupu understood that his injuries the last couple years have kept his production from matching his salary. But players at the pro level are also fiercely proud of their accomplishments and abilities (which is not necessarily a bad thing — they should be), and they don’t tend to react well to slights. You have to admit, it’s hard not to take it personally when your bosses call you in for a meeting to say “you’re not as good as you used to be, so we want you do do the same job for less money this year.”
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Tatupu has been Seattle’s starting linebacker for the last six seasons, a streak which includes four playoff runs and three pro bowl appearances, one of them all-pro. It’s hard to remember now, but back before he arrived on the scene in 2005 the middle linebacker position was a weak spot on the defense. From 1998 to 2004, the Seahawks had a different guy start at MLB every season. Let that sink in for a minute: six seasons, six different starting MLBs. And really, you have to go all the way back to 1994 before you finally start running into players who held the starting middle linebacker gig for more than two seasons in a row.
And Tatupu did more than just do his job competently — watching him operate at full strength is a thing of beauty. He’s not terribly big, nor is he particularly fast or strong, but his football IQ is truly special. A couple times in every game, you could count on Tatupu to do something that looked completely inexplicable at first, like turn his back on the QB and take off at a dead sprint toward some unimportant-looking spot on the field, a spot which just so happened to put him in the perfect position to jump the primary receiver’s route and make an interception. You have to put in about a billion hours of film study on a given team’s tendencies to make instinctive plays like that, and Tatupu made them happen every single week. You just can’t buy that kind of work ethic.
But as much as I hate to admit it, there’s a big difference between the Tatupu we got from ’05 to ’07 and the one who played for Seattle from ’08 to ’10. Maybe it’s his smaller frame, or perhaps he’s just had a three year streak of rotten luck, but whatever the reason Tatupu has been noticeably hampered by injuries as of late. He’s lost some speed (he never had that much to begin with), his tackling is less effective, and he’s missed games entirely — heck, in 2009 he was out most of the season. As much as we all hoped otherwise, Lofa’s prime years may already be behind him.
Honestly, I think Tatupu’s release would have affected me much more strongly if it wasn’t for David Hawthorne’s extended audition for the starting MLB position in relief of Tatupu in ’09. Hawthorne doesn’t come close to matching Tatupu’s raw football acumen — who does? — but what he lacks in prescience he more than makes up for in solid play, in measurable results (he’s led the team in tackles the last two seasons), and, most importantly, in durability. Instead of being angry at losing Tatupu, I find myself oddly excited at the prospect of seeing what Hawthorne will do as the leader of Pete Carroll and Gus Bradley’s defense. This move also opens up an interesting competition for the starting outside linebacker role vacated by Hawthorne (will Leroy Hill prove he’s still got what it takes to start, or will one of the fresh young guys like KJ Wright win out?) as well as an opportunity for someone to take his job as the primary backup MLB (my best guess at the moment is Matt McCoy).
Don’t get me wrong, I’m going to miss the hell out of Tatupu, but the future still looks pretty bright even without him on the roster. And believe me, I was not expecting to come to such a sanguine conclusion when I first began writing this article earlier today. Here’s hoping that Hawthorne and the rest of the Tatupu-less linebacking corps justify my optimism this upcoming season.