Seattle Seahawks

Late zoomer: Flying rookie Paul Richardson gaining trust of Russell Wilson, Seahawks

Paul Richardson has been down three different times before getting to the NFL — and then again during the first half of his pro-debut season.

So, no, he couldn’t wait to get up.

The rookie wide receiver had just slid onto the blue, end zone turf at CenturyLink Field early in the fourth quarter to avoid a hit from San Francisco safety Eric Reid. He had just caught his first Seahawks touchdown pass — the one that sealed last weekend’s 17-7 victory and has Seattle (10-4) in position to win the NFC West and perhaps the conference’s top playoff seed entering Sunday night’s showdown at first-place Arizona (11-3).

And now all Richardson wanted to do was rise.

“I had to just embrace the moment, man, because you never know how many of those you are going to get,” he said. “I had to catch it, get down.”

Doug Baldwin hugged him. Jermaine Kearse tapped his helmet. Russell Wilson, who had thrown the pass, ran down to bear hug him from behind.

“I definitely could feel my teammates around me,” Richardson said. “Definitely, I wanted to celebrate.”

Then Baldwin, ever a team leader, retrieved from an official the ball Richardson had just caught and handed it to Richardson to keep. Seattle’s ultra-fast, second-round draft choice tucked it under his left arm and floated to the sideline.

Where’s that first NFL touchdown ball — from his first TD catch since Nov. 23, 2013, for Colorado against USC — going?

“It’s a Christmas gift for somebody, man,” he said, grinning.

Who?

“I can’t give it away.”

Richardson is in prime position to grab another gift, perhaps one for himself, before next week’s holiday.

The Seahawks have been working on an antidote to their sickly pass protection: throwing it before the bad guys get there. And Richardson is gaining prominence by the week as the quick-target third receiver in Seattle’s many three-wide receiver sets.

For two seasons the offense of coordinator Darrell Bevell has relied on Marshawn Lynch’s power running to keep defenses “honest” — which is to say, keeping foes from teeing off on Wilson trying to pass.

But what happens when a defense stymies Lynch?

That’s what happened the last time the Seahawks played Arizona. The Cardinals throttled Lynch last month in Seattle with run blitzes and gang tackling, allowing him just 39 yards on 15 carries. Then they blitzed from everywhere at Wilson, sacking him seven times. If Wilson wasn’t so extraordinarily elusive he would have been sacked at least eight other times, and the Seahawks might not have won 19-3.

In the last three games Seattle has been having Wilson do more quick drops and throws in an effort to get the ball out before the inevitable arrival of pass rushers blowing past struggling rookie right tackle Justin Britt and others on the offensive line. And this weekend that line likely be missing left tackle Russell Okung (bruised lung). It might not have back two-time Pro Bowl center Max Unger, who has missed the last four games with a high-ankle sprain and twisted knee.

All the more reasons for Wilson to throw quickly — to Seattle’s quickest receiver, who has run a 4.28-second 40-yard dash.

Richardson’s first NFL score came after Wilson took two, quick jab steps and made one read, to the left slot to Richardson down the seam. Even then, Wilson had a 49er in his face but completed the pass for the TD.

“That’s one aspect of it that we’ve kind of put some focus on and think we can improve so we’re going to try and keep pushing it,” Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said of Wilson getting rid of the ball more quickly. “That’s just part of it but it’s really exciting to see it when it’s really sharp and crisp and the ball is out.”

Expect to see more of this Sunday night. The Cardinals will come flying at Wilson. They know if they can control what is essentially the NFC West championship game with their swarming, blitzing defense they will likely win the division.

“I had to cross the safety’s face; that’s my job on that play,” Richardson said of his blueprint score. “Russ delivered a perfect ball. It was perfect timing, and we put six (points) up.”

The 22-year-old had just one catch and one target in the first five games this season. He was not even active for the fifth one; he watched the Oct. 12 loss to Dallas in team sweats from the sideline.

Yet Bevell, 21-year veteran receivers coach Kippy Brown and Carroll kept giving Richardson practice and game chances to improve the nuances of his craft: releases off the line; reading coverages and blitzes; breaking off routes and coming back to Wilson more aggressively when he scrambles.

“Definitely, I could feel from my teammates and the coaches and the reps that I had to find another level to take it to,” Richardson says now. “I appreciate everyone pushing me, and everyone trusting me, and that’s what’s been showing.

“The progression for me working in to the point I am now was perfect.”

He has only 19 catches this season, but six of those have come on nine targets by Wilson in the last three games, all Seahawks wins.

Two games ago at Philadelphia, the Seahawks had a third and 15 with 28 seconds to go in the first half of a tie game. Wilson found Richardson crossing the field for a 20-yard gain. That set up Steven Hauschka’s field goal, and the Seahawks led for good.

When Seattle had a third-and-10 at the San Francisco 24 midway through the third quarter down 7-3 last weekend, it was Richardson whom Wilson targeted again. The rookie made the catch inside with defenders all around him for the first down. That set up Marshawn Lynch’s go-ahead score, and Seattle never trailed again then, either.

“Paul Richardson has really stepped up for us,” Wilson said. “He ran right to the right depth, he gets his depth and makes a great catch on that. Then, he had another great catch that got called back.

“He’s electric.”

Wilson was amped the day early this spring when his general manager told him he intended to draft the zooming Richardson.

“I saw it the first day that John Schneider told me about Paul Richardson, in terms of the guy we were going to get. I do my research, so I was able to look up those guys,” Wilson said. “I really noticed just watching film on him, and I also noticed when he actually got here, his work ethic. How he was wanting to learn as much as he could. He’s on that constant quest for knowledge.

“Catching the football, he catches it so clean. Obviously, he’s as fast as it gets. So, having a guy that can be electric in that way is good for us.”

The speed and hands are partly from genetics; Richardson’s father, Paul Sr., played wide receiver at UCLA, and in one game for the Eagles in 1993.

But the younger Richardson also is empowered by what he’s gone through to get here.

He thought his NFL dreams were finished in the spring of 2012. Before his junior season at Colorado, Richardson shredded his knee in a noncontact, special-teams drill. His doctor told him to expect the standard nine-to-12-month recovery from knee reconstruction.

“I started running before I was three months out of surgery,” he said.

He accelerated his recovery in part by flying one of his four brothers in from California to literally drag his reconstructed leg out of bed in Colorado soon after the surgery.

“That’s what I pride myself on, not necessarily proving people wrong — but proving myself right,” he said.

He starred in the 2013 spring game at CU that his trainers told him not to play in. Then the first time he touched the ball in the 2013 season, he sprinted 82 yards with a catch for a touchdown against Colorado State. He flew past everyone for another, a 75-yard score. He ended up with 10 catches for 208 yards — on a freshly rebuilt knee.

A year before the knee reconstruction he played through his sophomore season on a damaged medial collateral ligament. A year before that, in 2010, hometown UCLA released him following his arrest on suspicion of felony theft on campus. Richardson and two fellow incoming freshmen teammates were alleged to have stolen a student’s backpack with $1,200 worth of goods inside it.

Soon after, he was released from his letter of intent. He signed with Colorado and eventually pleaded to a misdemeanor charge. He said this summer going to CU allowed him to “grow up.”

Now he’s rising for the Seahawks at the height of this season’s drama.

“My drive comes from just knowing how fortunate I am to be in the position I am in,” he said. “I try to capitalize on each opportunity I am given.”

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