AMHERST, N.Y. – When Seattle Seahawks wide receiver Nate Burleson caught a 68-yard touchdown pass in the team’s third preseason game, it reaffirmed what he once knew wholeheartedly: He’s a playmaker. There was a time, Burleson can admit now, when he had his doubts.
It was his first year in Seattle, after he had left Minnesota and signed as a free agent, when he wondered if he was worth the $49 million contract he signed, if he would ever return to the form that saw him catch 68 passes for 1,006 yards in 2004.
An injured thumb and a transition to coach Mike Holmgren’s complicated West Coast offense left Burleson with only 18 receptions for 192 yards that year. At the age of 25, he began to wonder if he was on the downside of his career in the NFL.
“When I was in Minnesota, I felt like I was a playmaker,” Burleson said. “I felt like every time I touched the ball, I was going to do something special. Then I came here, I lost it for a minute.
“Just being completely honest, I was looking in the mirror going, ‘Where’s it at? Am I getting old? Are these injuries wearing on me? I don’t know what it is.’ Then, slowly but surely, I started to get healthy, started to feel better about myself, gain some confidence as a player, my self-esteem on the field, and I feel like I am back to where I needed to be.”
The Seahawks certainly hope so because, when they begin their 2008 campaign against the Buffalo Bills today at Ralph Wilson Stadium (10 a.m., Ch. 13), Burleson will be their starting split end and the most experienced wide receiver on the field.
Both the Seahawks’ running game and passing game are works in progress. Nobody is exactly sure what will happen today when the offense goes against an improved Buffalo defense, which effectively has seven new players.
But at least with the running game, if starter Maurice Morris is not successful, Holmgren can call on Julius Jones. If Jones struggles, he can substitute in T.J. Duckett. If Duckett fails, he could go with rookie Justin Forsett.
In the passing game, Burleson is it. His young teammates have a combined five NFL receptions, all by starting flanker Courtney Taylor. If Burleson is not able to make plays, Holmgren has few other options.
“I feel in a sense that I almost have to score more touchdowns,” said Burleson, who had nine last season. “Last year, being the second or third wide receiver on the team, I wanted to take advantage of my opportunities. I was happy whenever I touched it and I was trying to score.
“But now it is almost like, because I am not doing the (kickoff or punt) returns, I need to get it in the end zone.”
That’s why his 68-yard touchdown against the San Diego Chargers in an exhibition represented a confidence boost. Burleson had been used rarely in the preseason to that point, Holmgren choosing to allow his younger receivers to get as many reps as they could.
But on that particular play, Burleson was experimenting as the slot receiver, moving inside of Taylor with Jordan Kent on the opposite side. Burleson caught the ball 25 yards downfield, bounced off a defensive back, got a block from Taylor and sprinted unhindered into the end zone.
“It gave me a ton of confidence,” said Burleson, who will likely play only the split end spot today.
There are those who question whether Burleson can handle the responsibilities of a No. 1 receiver. When he accomplished his team-high numbers last season, some of it was because he took advantage of defenses designed to stop Deion Branch or slow Bobby Engram. Both of those players are injured and off the field, so Burleson will be the focus of Buffalo’s secondary.
But Burleson points to that 2004 season, when Minnesota’s dynamic No. 1 receiver, Randy Moss, was injured, thrusting Burleson into the spotlight. He responded with four 100-yard games and nine touchdowns.
“When Randy went down … was when I had my best year,” Burleson said. “A healthy Nate Burleson, with opportunities, can contribute to the team. I don’t want to sound too full of myself, but I know I can make plays. I just need health and opportunity. It doesn’t matter what option I am, I just need to touch it.”
SEATTLE (0-0) at BUFFALO (0-0)
Kickoff: 10 a.m., Ralph Wilson Stadium.
TV: Ch. 13.
Radio: 710-AM, 97.3-FM.
The series: The Seahawks lead the series, 6-4, though they lost the last meeting in 2004, 38-9. The Seahawks won in Buffalo in 2001, the last time they played the Bills on the road.
What to watch: This is the season opener for both teams. Seattle has designs on its fifth consecutive NFC West championship, while Buffalo is attempting to snap its streak of eight consecutive seasons without a playoff berth, a franchise record. The Seahawks will not have either defensive tackle Rocky Bernard or defensive back Jordan Babineaux, who are suspended. Craig Terrill and Josh Wilson will replace them. The Bills will not have left tackle Jason Peters, who returned to the team Saturday after a lengthy contract dispute. He will be replaced by Langston Walker, with Kirk Chambers stepping in at right tackle. Chambers has one career start. Maurice Morris will start at running back for Seattle, though Julius Jones also will get carries. Coach Mike Holmgren still has not revealed who will return punts.
TNT pick: Seahawks, 21-17.
5Trent Edwards (QB)6-4/231/2nd
Firmly entrenched as starter after platooning with J.P. Losman last year.
23Marshawn Lynch (RB)5-11/215/2nd
Will be asked to establish the run game after eclipsing 1,000 yards last year.
73Kirk Chambers (OT)6-7/315/4th
In second career start will face Patrick Kerney, the 2007 NFC leader in sacks.
20Donte Whitner (S)5-10/208/3rd
Guaranteed that the Bills would make the playoffs this season.
8Matt Hasselbeck (QB)6-4/225/10th
Played in only one preseason game after a sore back limited him.
20Maurice Morris (RB)5-11/216/7th
Getting the start in the first game of the post-Shaun Alexander era.
51Lofa Tatupu (LB)6-0/242/4th
Three-time Pro Bowler recovering from a bruised knee.
95Lawrence Jackson (DE)6-4/271/1st
First-round pick took job from Darryl Tapp; faces 366-pound Langston Walker.
Frank Hughes, The News Tribune