RENTON – Matt Hasselbeck has been looking for a new security blanket – someone he can consistently trust to be in the right spot on third down – since Bobby Engram left two years ago.
And he’s found it in receiver Brandon Stokley.
A free-agent pick-up a month into the season – after he recovered from a groin injury suffered in Denver’s training camp – the 34-year-old receiver hit the ground running. In his first game, against St. Louis, he had four receptions for 62 yards and has been a key part of Seattle’s passing game ever since.
Stokley is considered one of the best slot receivers in the game, possessing an innate feel for finding the windows in zone coverage and quickly getting in and out of cuts to pick up first downs.
The Seahawks picked up Stokley to serve as a mentor for Seattle’s young receivers after veterans T.J. Houshmandzadeh (now with Baltimore) and Deion Branch (traded to New England) moved on. They also liked the fact that Stokley had an intimate knowledge of Seattle offensive coordinator Jeremy Bates’ offense from his time in Denver.
“He was the missing part, really,” Hasselbeck said. “We were running a lot of these plays that were – we called them ‘Stokley plays’ because this offense is, in large part, the Mike Shanahan 2008 Denver Broncos offense that Jeremy Bates is running.
“There’s a lot of plays that are kind of for that slot receiver – ‘Get a feel for what the defense is doing and win’ – and we tried a bunch of people there. They were all right, but they weren’t Stokley.”
Stokley grew up a son of a coach in Lafayette, La. His father, Nelson Stokley, was head coach of Louisiana-Lafayette from 1986 to 1998. He died of complications from Alzheimer’s disease in June 2010.
Stokley played quarterback his freshman year in high school but stuck to basketball and baseball his sophomore and junior seasons. He decided to get back on the football field as a senior, this time as a receiver.
He led the state in receptions that year, but at 140 pounds he didn’t attract a whole lot of attention from college scouts, so he chose to stay home and play for his father.
“At that time I didn’t want to play college football,” Stokley said. “But I decided to give it a shot and see if I liked it, and ended up doing well with it.”
It proved a wise choice. Stokley finished college as the Ragin’ Cajuns’ all-time leading receiver, and the only NCAA Division I receiver to average 100 yards a game for four straight seasons.
A fourth-round pick by Baltimore in 1999, Stokley has produced wherever he’s played. Peyton Manning called him the best slot receiver he ever played with. He has 338 career catches and two Super Bowl rings, one with Baltimore in 2001 and another with Indianapolis in 2007.
And at 6-foot, 192 pounds, Stokley’s an underrated athlete. He says he could dunk a basketball in college, although he got rim-rejected during a high school game against a school rival and received a technical for hanging on the rim. The technical served as his fifth foul, so Stokley had to take as spot on the end of the bench.
“It was a good way to end the game,” he said. “We were blowing them out. They had embarrassed us in football so I was trying to dunk on them. I just didn’t get it done in high school, but I was able to in college.
“But definitely not anymore. I don’t know if I could touch the rim now.”
Because of his familiarity with the offense and his 12 years of experience in the league, Stokley is someone players seek out for pointers on how to run routes and read defenses.
And because of his experience growing up in a coaching household, Stokley knows how to draw up a play or two.
“I’m constantly running things by him just to see his thought, his mindset,” said fellow receiver Ruvell Martin. “They’ve got me playing in the slot a little bit, too. And obviously he does a great job. It’s his career, so he’s taught me a lot on just how he runs different routes and how he handles the defense when he sees different things, stuff like that. So for me, it’s huge to have a guy like that here with that experience.”
Like Stokley, the Seahawks have done a nice job of developing specific roles for each of the five receivers still on the active roster, keeping them focused and involved as Seattle continues its unexpected playoff run.
“We have learned and we really now feel very comfortable with the guys that we have, and like going to them, and surely like it when they’re all there,” coach Pete Carroll said. “We’ve had a lot of games when they haven’t been all there and we’ve missed guys. So the word is ‘process’ and we’ve learned well, and I think (offensive coordinator) Jeremy (Bates) and (wide receivers coach) Kippy (Brown) and the guys working with those guys have figured out how to utilize them effectively and functionally for us at this point.”
ALL SEAHAWKS, ALL THE TIME
Follow John McGrath this week as he checks in from the Windy City at blog.thenewstribune.com/ seahawks