Secret Superstar: Golden Tate
Pete Damilatis chronicles how Golden Tate overcame his playing time and position woes to establish a dangerous duo with Russell Wilson.
Secret Superstar: Golden Tate
In a league where athletic specimens like A.J. Green and Julio Jones seem to shine the moment they step foot on the field, it’s easy to forget that the wide receiver position has one of the biggest learning curves of any in the NFL. Some wideouts have to fight for playing time against more knowledgeable veterans. Some are asked to fill a role that they’re not suited for. Some need time to find a quarterback who will trust them. And some need to do all of the above. Such was the case of the Seattle Seahawks’ newest Secret Superstar, Golden Tate.
Fighting For Snaps
Coming out of Notre Dame, Tate was short on measurables (literally), but big on production. With a 5-foot-10 frame and a 4.42-second 40-yard dash, Tate didn’t have the size or speed teams look for in a premiere No. 1 receiver. But he’d used his reliable hands and running-back-like elusiveness to rack up 2,576 receiving yards in his final two college seasons, earning the Fred Biletnikoff Award in 2009 as the nation’s best receiver. When the Seahawks nabbed Tate at the end of the second round of the 2010 Draft, many thought Seattle had gotten a steal.
Tate’s rookie season was a mix of promise and patience. His first career touch was a 62-yard punt return against the Denver Broncos. His first reception, later in the same game, was a 52-yard adventure that included a twisting sideline catch and a dodged tackle. It was the first of five missed tackles that Tate tallied on just 21 receptions that season, but they were bright spots in an otherwise quiet rookie year. As new coach Pete Carroll relied on veterans like Mike Williams who fully-grasped his system, Tate played less than 25% of the Seahawks’ offensive snaps and was even left inactive on some game days.
Struggling In The Slot
Despite the arrival of high-priced free agent Sidney Rice and undrafted rookie Doug Baldwin, Seattle’s coaches found a way to get Tate more playing time in his second season. Unfortunately, it involved putting him in a spot he was ill-suited for. Tate lined up in the slot on 43.8% of his pass routes in 2011, but was targeted on just 14.3% of those plays. Despite playing the second-most snaps of any Seahawks wideout that season, his 382 receiving yards were fewer than Baldwin, Rice, and even Ben Obomanu.
Nevertheless, thanks to his always-reliable hands and ever-dangerous runs after the catch, Tate still finished his second season with a +4.4 overall PFF grade. He didn’t drop a single pass in 2011, and totaled 13 missed tackles on 35 receptions. In fact, his average of a missed tackle every 2.69 receptions in 2011 was the best rate of any NFL receiver with more than five catches. After two seasons as a pro, the potential was there for Tate, but the production had yet to follow.
If Tate’s measurables were holding him back from being a top player at his position, then his new quarterback in 2012 could certainly relate. When the height-challenged duo of Russell Wilson and Tate connected for their fateful Monday night Hail Mary against the Green Bay Packers in Week 3, the off-field impact sparked the beginning of the end to the controversial referee lockout. Less noticeable was the on-field impact, which sparked a QB-WR chemistry which proved fruitful for Seattle for the rest of the season. While many angry fans noticed Tate’s offensive pass interference, Wilson may have seen the drive of a undersized player who will do anything to make a catch.
For the rest of the season, Wilson continued to deliver the ball to Tate, no matter how covered he appeared. With 9:17 left in a Week 6 game against the New England Patriots, Devin McCourty blanketed Tate’s post route. Yet moments later, it was Tate coming down with the 51-yard reception while McCourty was draped on his back. In Week 10, New York Jets cornerback Kyle Wilson was running step-for-step down the sideline with Tate, but was left flailing as the receiver out-jumped him for the catch and shuffled into the end zone. Two weeks later, R.J. Stanford was in perfect position for an interception, but Tate dove over him and caught the 32-yard pass while laying on top of the Miami Dolphins cornerback.
Tate is not what many envision when they think of a deep threat, but that’s what he became with Wilson last season. After catching just three Deep Passes in his first two seasons, Tate tripled that number in 2012. His 343 yards on deep targets were among the Top 20 totals in the NFL, ahead of Andre Johnson and right behind Roddy White. While he couldn’t outrun many cornerbacks or outleap many safeties, the aggressive approach that Tate showed on that touchdown against Green Bay established a trust from his quarterback befitting of a No. 1 receiver.
You may think that these risky passes would have caught up to Wilson at some point, but that was not the case. With a 69.2% completion rate, seven touchdowns, and one interception on his throws to Tate, the duo’s 133.0 WR Rating was the second-highest in the NFL for any QB-WR tandem with over 20 targets. And as further signs of the chemistry between the two, Tate’s 114 receiving yards on quarterback scramble plays was the fourth-highest total of any wideout in the league.
With the increased opportunities that Wilson afforded him, Tate had even more chances to show off his good hands and open-field elusiveness. His Drop Rate was once again one of the lowest in the league, and his 21 missed tackles at his position (including the postseason) were second only to new teammate Percy Harvin. With 52 seconds left in the first half against the Minnesota Vikings in Week 9, he dodged three defenders on a screen pass before leaping in the end zone. In Week 13, four Chicago Bears defenders got a hand on Tate before he lunged across the goal line with the go-ahead touchdown. And with 3:19 left in the season finale against the St. Louis Rams, Tate earned a whopping three missed tackles one play alone to help set up the game-winning touchdown.
Holding On To What’s Golden
Thanks to his newfound chemistry with Wilson, Tate’s days of battling for playing time or struggling in the slot seem to be over. He led the Seahawks receivers in receptions, yards, and snaps played after the bye week, and finished 2012 with a positive grade in nine of his last 10 games. Valiant even in defeat, Tate tallied six catches, 103 yards, four missed tackles, and a touchdown in the Seahawks’ Divisional Round loss to the Atlanta Falcons.
Tate’s long-term future is murky as enters a contract year on a team that’s already invested a lot of money in their receivers. But for this season at least, he and Harvin will make up the most elusive receiver duo in the league. Throw in Wilson’s ability as a scrambler and Marshawn Lynch’s bruising running style, and Seattle’s offense will challenge their opponent to defend every inch of the field and punish them for every tackle they don’t wrap up. And even when the defense has everyone covered, we know that Wilson won’t be afraid to throw it up to his favorite deep threat. Odds are, Golden Tate will catch it.
Follow Pete on Twitter: @PFF_Pete