RENTON, Wash. – Golden Tate talks like a veteran now. He’s fascinating to listen to, so introspective and honest and self-deprecating.
You can hear his maturity before even looking onto the practice field and seeing that his game is growing accordingly. The Seahawks wide receiver is still just 24 years old (he turns 25 on Friday), but this is his fourth NFL season, which means that he should be as wise as he sounds. He’s not a green, developing player anymore, and he knows it.
“In this league, you see guys come and go so quickly,” Tate said. “I’ve seen guys on this team I used to watch just absolutely kill it be released. And I don’t want to be that guy. Every day, I’m going to show up. Every camp, I go into it thinking I have to earn my job. Not I have to keep my job. I have to earn my job.”
He wants to dominate. The articulate Tate has made that clear many times in the past. What’s different in 2013 is that he understands there’s a process to excellence.
Tate thought it would be easy. He will admit that now. We always assumed that because he entered the NFL too brash for his own good. Tate thought that after putting up ridiculous numbers his junior season at Notre Dame – 93 receptions, 1,496 yards, 15 touchdowns – he would do the same in this league.
The Seahawks selected him in the second round of the 2010 draft, and when he started making spectacular plays in practice, he only grew more certain of his stardom. Former Seahawks offensive coordinator Jeremy Bates once told him after a practice that he had the potential to catch 90 passes as a rookie.
He caught 21 and wasn’t even active for the season opener.
“When I came into the league, I was making plays all over the place in practice,” Tate said. “I wasn’t sure what I was doing, but I was going up, jumping, catching balls over people, making people miss. The coaching staff knew I could do that, but they also didn’t know if I was going to run the right route to get open. Or if I was going to get open the way they want.”
Tate comprehended those hard lessons about discipline and attention to detail, and since then, his career trajectory has been similar to a lot of raw receivers who dominated on athleticism in college. His progress has been slow and incremental. Thirty-five catches, three touchdowns in 2011. Forty-five catches, seven touchdowns, 15.3 yards per catch last season.
In 2012, Tate made the most of limited opportunities in Seattle’s run-dominant offense. Sidney Rice led the Seahawks with 50 receptions, but Tate shared the big-play spotlight with him. Tate always does something memorable, from his vicious block on Dallas linebacker Sean Lee to his infamous Fail Mary reception against Green Bay to his hurdles and flips and that wobbly touchdown pass to Rice against the New York Jets.
Tate has had no problem with spectacular. The hard part, for him at least: Consistency. And I think the fate of the Seahawks’ offense rests in his ability to make maximum use of his strong hands.
There are more important players to the offense. Russell Wilson. Marshawn Lynch. Russell Okung. But they’re all constants as well. Their production shouldn’t really waver. Tate represents an X-factor, and depending on the condition of celebrated free agent acquisition Percy Harvin’s hip, he could be an enormous X-factor.
Even if Harvin can play the entire season, this should be Tate’s finest year. It’s time. He has learned enough. And he’s in a contract year, playing for future NFL millions. Tate is the rare player who’s so gifted that he only needs to decide he wants to do everything necessary to be great.
He says he wants it. Badly.
“There are a lot of good players in this league, but what makes a great player?” Tate wondered. “I think a great player is a complete player. He’s someone who takes care of himself on and off the field. He understands the game mentally. He runs great routes, but he also blocks just as well as a tight end. That’s how I want to evolve.”
You know Tate can be brilliant in his best moments. But can he remain good in his worst?
That’s an underrated question in the Seahawks’ Super Bowl quest this season. And only Tate can answer it. There was once a time when he didn’t even know the answer. Not anymore. Now he must prove what he has learned.
“It did take him a while just to catch on to the whole expectations of what it takes to play here,” Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll said. “It was never because he wasn’t talented. It was never because he wasn’t a good athlete or any of that type of stuff. It just took him a while.”
These days, when Tate makes an incredible play in practice, the excitement doesn’t come with tempered curiosity over whether he’ll ever do the little things well enough for his talent to shine in games. There’s an anticipation of amazing now.
On Thursday, the 5-foot-10 Tate found himself battling tight coverage from 6-4 cornerback Brandon Browner on the sideline. Somehow, he beat Browner and caught a beautiful back-shoulder throw from Wilson.
“Golden is spectacular,” Wilson said later, grinning.
Only one statement could be more exciting than that: Golden is solid.
He’s almost there.
The young sage is almost there.