Rookie LB Shaquem Griffin meets with fellow different-limb athletes from NubAbility after Seahawks’ preseason finale
Shaquem Griffin’s potential and unique circumstance beat Austin Calitro’s present.
That’s why Griffin remains a Seahawk entering Sunday’s season opener against Cincinnati, and Calitro is a Jacksonville Jaguar.
Jacksonville claimed Calitro on NFL waivers Tuesday, one day after the Seahawks put him there and kept Griffin and rookie linebackers Cody Barton and Ben Burr-Kirven as their backup linebackers instead. Seahawks general manager John Schneider told Seattle’s KJR-AM radio Tuesday that three teams put in claims for Calitro. That includes the Bengals, the team the Seahawks play this weekend, according to ESPN’s Field Yates.
Calitro out-performed the injured Griffin during training camp and last month’s preseason games. He had 25 tackles in the four preseason contests. Griffin had one. So, many people are wondering why Calitro is not the backup linebacker he was for Seattle in 2018 behind Bobby Wagner in the middle and K.J. Wright at weakside.
“It’s just numbers, and we just couldn’t hold onto him. We wanted to,” coach Pete Carroll said Monday of the third-year veteran and former undrafted free agent from Villanova. “We love him. We love the way he played. He had a fantastic preseason for us.”
Calitro’s was the cruelest of cuts.
It’s one thing to be waived on cut-down day, Saturday, when teams had to set their initial 53-man rosters for the regular season. It’s a colder, crueler cut to be called in to see Carroll with your playbook two days later, after a player thinks he’s made the team. Schneider told KJR that Calitro was the last player cut, after the Seahawks tried to finalize a trade for him.
“That was a real hard one,” said Carroll, who even shared an inside joke concerning Calitro. “He’s done everything we ask of a guy. He’s a good ball player. He’s a great team guy. I told him I didn’t hold it against him that he’s from Villanova or anything like that — inside joke there.
“There are no hidden messages. We’re going to miss having him.”
But not as much as they’d miss not having Griffin. That’s what Carroll, general manager John Schneider and the Seahawks decided.
Thing is, there is a lot to Griffin and the Seahawks. And it runs deeper than performances in exhibition games.
The switch that’s yet to happen
In the summer of 2018, Wright had knee surgery midway through the preseason. The Seahawks promoted rookie Griffin to starting weakside linebacker. It was an all-encompassing, off-the-ball role that was new to him. He was reading formations to change alignment before the snap, reading run and pass keys immediately after it, then executing run fits in the middle when the play was away for him, or covering the correct receiver on a pass.
All the new, simultaneous tasks overwhelmed him. He lasted one quarter of his first NFL game, at Denver in early September 2018.
Calitro, on the team to be Wagner’s backup at middle linebacker, replaced Griffin at weakside linebacker in the second quarter that day against the Broncos. Calitro stayed there until late October when Wright returned from his knee rehabilitation.
Griffin played just nine snaps on defense over the final 16 3/4 games last season, including the playoff loss at Dallas in January. He became a special-teams stalwart, maximizing his straight-line speed and tackling ability in the open field.
“Up and down,” Griffin said describing his rookie season.
“It’s been a crazy year,” he told me near the end of it.
This year, Carroll and defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr., a former Super Bowl-winning linebacker, decided to get Griffin back to what he does best: be an outside edge rusher just off the line and sprint into the opposing backfield. The plan was to have him be a strongside linebacker on run downs and a weakside edge rusher in nickel defense on passing downs.
That was the outside speed role in which he starred two years ago as the Peach Bowl MVP for undefeated Central Florida.
His speed is why Seattle selected him in the fifth round in 2018, making him the feel-good story of the draft and league as the first one-handed player drafted into the modern NFL.
By minicamp this June, the coaches were liking Griffin in his new-old role.
“Yeah, it’s been really a good deal for him,” Carroll said June 11. “We see how much background he has on the edge. He’s played safety and outside linebacker for the most part in his career. He’s just more comfortable out there.”
Griffin loved the return to being in one-on-one tests of speed on the outside edge of offenses.
“You’ve just got to have the mindset it’s him or me,” he said in June. “So I’m not worrying about that. I’m being very aggressive. It’s me, or him.
“And I like me. Every time.”
But soon after training camp began, Wagner had knee therapy. He missed two weeks into August. Burr-Kirven had a sports-hernia surgery late into the spring that set him back into camp. Wright, 30, took summer days and games off to preserve his surgically repaired knee that limited him to five of 16 games last regular season.
The Seahawks needed Calitro and Barton, who had been playing middle and outside, to fill in for Wagner in the middle. Griffin went to off-the-ball linebacker to fill in for the injured. Back to his failed role from last season.
Those injuries and the ensuing shell game of personnel at linebacker this preseason put the plan of having Griffin do what he does best on hold.
Griffin got hurt himself
Then, just as Wagner came back and Burr-Kirven emerged late in the preseason, Griffin got what Carroll first described as a bruised knee. It lasted for weeks. Griffin got it scanned and scanned again. Carroll eventually said it was an unusual injury, the result of a direct hit in his knee earlier in August.
While Calitro stood out in extended play in the second and third preseason games, at Minnesota and the Los Angeles Chargers last month, Griffin stood on the sidelines.
Griffin returned for the preseason finale against Oakland last week.
On the opening kickoff, lined up inside near kicker Jason Myers, Griffin steamrolled the only Raider to cross his face as Myers’ kick sailed into the end zone for a touchback. Griffin planted the guy across the 20-yard line. Later in the first half Griffin made an open-field tackle on a punt return as the second defender sprinting to the ball.
He left the game with his knee hurting again, without playing a snap on defense. He spent the second half of that final exhibition game with an ice bag on the knee. His roster place was in doubt.
The injury seemed to give the Seahawks an out: the possibility of putting Griffin on injured reserve.
If they did that before Saturday’s cuts, he’d be out for the season. If they did it after, he’d be eligible to return from IR after eight games. Seattle usually saves one of its two such designated-to-return designations per season on starters; starting tight end Ed Dickson went on IR Monday, after the initial roster was set, so he’s eligible to return after eight weeks.
Griffin didn’t go on IR.
The twin factor
Carroll nor anyone else with the team won’t say so publicly, but there also are deep intangibles at play here.
It’s not just that Griffin is in the NFL with only one hand, the result of a congenital disorder known as amniotic band syndrome that cost him his hand at age 4. It’s not just that Griffin being a Seahawk has inspired different-limb athletes and people worldwide.
Griffin’s twin brother, roommate and soul mate, Shaquill, is entering his third season as the Seahawks’ starting cornerback.
How close are they?
Shaquill insisted to college programs recruiting him in high school out of their home in St. Petersburg, Fla., that they must recruit Shaquem, too, if they wanted to get Shaquill signed. That’s how they both attended and played for UCF in Orlando.
Shaquill and Shaquem started a track club, St. Pete Nitro Track and Field, for kids ages 4-18. They founded that when they were 14 years old.
The twins were separated in 2017 for the first time when Seattle drafted Shaquill, one minute older, and Shaquem became that all-conference linebacker for a 13-0 team in his redshirt-senior season back at UCF.
Last year, they hugged at the draft in a hotel room in Texas when the Seahawks announced their wildly popular pick of Shaquem.
Their reunion in Seattle was a huge part of what made Shaquem’s story such a feel-good one last year. When Shaquem and Shaquill started that 2018 opener together in Denver, they became the first twins to start as teammates in an NFL game since 1928.
They studied game and practice film together. They moved back in together after their one-year hiatus, into the place Shaquill had in the Seattle suburbs as a rookie. They got dogs. The hired a personal chef — to fix Shaquem’s diet mainly, Shaquill said.
This was what the twins did in between practices of organized team activities in May:
Yes, the NFL is a cold business — just ask Calitro about the Seahawks right now.
But it takes an even colder, calloused heart to believe Shaquem’s inseparable bond with his brother and the value it brings Shaquill having his twin with him on the Seahawks are not considerations for Carroll and Schneider in finalizing their roster.
To put it mildly, there would be an issue with their starting cornerback if the Seahawks cut Shaquem Griffin just over a year after making worldwide news by drafting him.
Monday, during the first practice of the regular season, Griffin looked renewed. The knee issue looked like that decision on final preseason cuts: behind him.
It appears he will be ready to play Sunday in the opener against the Bengals.
Wagner and Wright are back, ready to go. The Seahawks also have Barton, their third-round pick, and Burr-Kirven, the draft pick from the University of Washington, to back up the traditional middle and outside-linebacker spots and play special teams with Griffin. It appears that will be where Griffin will make his mark again this season, at least until the coaches get back to that interrupted plan to have Griffin in a personalized role of zooming outside as an edge rusher, UCF style.
“Yeah, he went well (Monday). I think he practiced hard,” Carroll said. “It will come back to him returning. But if he makes it back on Wednesday and he’s going, I think we are in good shape.”