While most Seahawks were finding beaches and families or homecomings with former teams during last month’s bye week, Paul Richardson and Russell Wilson were back at school.
Same thing happened this past spring, when the most of the Seahawks were focused on the upcoming NFL draft.
The wide receiver and Seattle’s franchise quarterback were at USC, taking classes in Onfield Chemistry 404.
During each of the last free times the Seahawks have had, Wilson has called Richardson, a native of Los Angeles, to run pass routes and catch his throws at a practice field on the campus of the University of Southern California.
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"Oh, we did a lot. I did a lot of running, let’s just say that," Richardson said with a laugh. "He had a few guys out there so I won’t kill my legs.
"But it’s good, man, to see the ball come out of his hands, to see where it is going to drop, and building that repetition. Visualize and building that trust."
Trust this: Richardson is one of the league’s hottest receivers entering Sunday’s game at CenturyLink Field between his Seahawks (5-2) and the Washington Redskins (3-4).
The Seahawks began the season searching for a second wide receiver to emerge behind Doug Baldwin. Tyler Lockett was coming off a broken leg. Richardson was coming off a second knee reconstruction in three years in 2014, a pulled hamstring in ’15, more hamstring issues in 2016 and minor shoulder surgery this past summer.
But after Richardson’s offseason work with Wilson at USC, and even though Lockett was not yet fully back, the Seahawks trusted Richardson’s bond with their quarterback enough to trade former No. 2 wide receiver Jermaine Kearse and a draft pick to the New York Jets for Pro Bowl defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson.
Now Richardson has the second-most touchdown catches of any NFL wide receiver. His five scores in seven games are one behind Green Bay’s Jordy Nelson.
He’s even made one, to beat San Francisco in week two, with a dislocated finger that needed sewn closed earlier in that game.
"I think what Paul Richardson has been able to do this year is a testament to his hard work, and is a testament to everything he’s been doing all offseason, honestly," Wilson said. "He had an unbelievable offseason. He was getting tons of work down in LA. We were getting together throwing a bunch. And it’s really proving that he’s really back at a high level.
"He’s gotten better every year. Obviously, he’s had some circumstances that have held him back--that’s the only thing that’s held him back. He’s a phenomenal receiver, phenomenal player. And we love that we have him on our football team.
"This bye week, we were definitely talking a bunch about ‘Hey, what are we going to do? What’s the plan? When are we going to get together?’ Trying to figure out when we could throw," Wilson said.
"That’s been really important for us."
This is why the Seahawks drafted Richardson in the second round in 2014 out of Colorado. They wanted his game-breaking speed to add another threat to the offense that lacked that. But he couldn’t stay on the field for two-plus years.
The last two weeks, Richardson has as many touchdown catches (three) as he had in his first three years combined.
Yes, all those off days catching passes from Wilson at USC are paying off.
"I like that over the bye week they had a chance to work some," Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said, "and just understand that the opportunity is going to come for those guys, and they’re going to have a chance, and it might make a difference. They worked hard at it and it looks like it does (make a difference), to me."
The key play that brought Seattle all the way back late to beat Houston last weekend was an example of how that extra work is working for the Seahawks.
Down 38-34, Seattle was 80 yards away from the Texans’ goal line with 1:39 remaining and no time outs to use. On the first play of the deciding drive, Wilson sent Richardson out wide left. He was one and one with Houston safety Marcus Gilchrist. One second before the snap, the quarterback and his receiver just looked at each other.
At the snap Richardson sprinted into a corner-post route, a double move outside then inside on an angle, toward the opposite goal post in the middle of the field. Like he did over and over on that practice field at USC in April, Wilson chucked the ball on little more than faith and familiarity toward Richardson and Gilchrist. It really was no better than a 50-50 ball. As the pass was descending Richardson cut inside Gilchrist. Richardson leaped and pulled the ball into his torso before he hit the ground for a reviving, 48-yard gain.
Two plays later Wilson threw 18 yards to Jimmy Graham for the winning touchdown. Seattle stole a 41-38 victory over the stunned Texans.
Without Richardson’s play—and Wilson’s connection with him—the Seahawks would be 4-3. Instead, they are riding a four-game winning streak into Sunday. They are tied atop the NFC West with the Los Angeles Rams, who they’ve beaten.
"One of the final routes that we always do when we work out is that route," Richardson said, wearing a slouched Dodgers ball cap with their interlocking "LA" logo of his hometown baseball team that just played in the World Series.
"We do some sort of corner-post or post-corner. I’m just happy we were able to do it at a key time and put points on the board and steal the game. We work on it a lot. In practice and when we are away from the facility.”
It wasn’t the first time Wilson went to his L.A. training partner with last weekend’s game on the line. On the previous drive, with just under 3 minutes remaining and the Seahawks down by four points, Wilson tried to connect with Richardson on an out route to the far left sideline. Houston’s Marcus Williams saw it coming and stepped in front of Richardson for an interception.
After Seattle’s defense got a key stop with 2 minutes to go, the undaunted Wilson came right back to his L.A. training buddy on the Seahawks’ next offensive snap.
"Russell trusted me to come back and make a play," Richardson said.
Just like he trusted Richardson would answer his text messages in mid-October and all last spring, to come to USC on their off time to catch his passes.
"I think it’s helpful because the way Russell works, he is used to seeing guys being in certain spots. He’s real good with familiarity. So if he used to seeing me in the offseason running these routes, he’s going to trust me to be able to do it (in games). And he’s going to trust me even more because he’s seen me do it in the offseason, then he’s seen in practice that I am going to do the same thing in the game.
"So it helps in our chemistry, and his confidence in giving me the ball."
Wilson just doesn’t play catch with Richardson during these sessions, either. Not only does the QB send his receiver down the field on Seahawks’ routes out of Seahawks’ formations, he makes it game-like in Richardson’s reaction time.
"Even when we are in workouts in the bye week, or in the offseason, he will call out routes, or a coverage right before he snaps the ball. Or right after he snaps the ball," Richardson said. "We make the adjustment mid-route, mid-drop. And we bend a lot.
"That helps. A lot."
Richardson is so in synch right now with Wilson, he’s stealing touchdowns from Baldwin.
Last week in the first half of that crazy win over Houston, Wilson was scrambling to his left and curling away from the line to find guys down the field on improvisational routes--as he usually does about 10 times each game. Wilson saw Baldwin break his route deep into the end zone, so he threw to him.
Richardson had run a corner route to the opposite sideline. He ran left, to his quarterback. He kept running all the way to the other half of the field and picked off Wilson’s line-drive pass in the end zone before it reached Baldwin, who was about 5 yards behind him.
"I think I might have cut Doug off," Richardson said, sheepishly after the game. "But he knows I love him. I never saw him.
"I’m sorry, Doug."
Richardson admits to low moments immediately after each of his two major injuries that prematurely ended his first two Seahawks seasons, and then frustration that it wasn’t clicking for him last season, either.
Not that you’d know it right now, in the prime of his suddenly blossoming career.
"I was this player last season (when) I was healthy," he said. "I was this player my rookie season; I was healthy the whole year (until the playoffs). I tore my ACL two games before the Super Bowl.
"This is the player that I’ve been. It’s just making plays when I get the opportunity."
Now his opportunity includes a potential payday. This is the final season of Richardson’s rookie contract.
"It is interesting," he said. "Yes, I know I’m going to be a free agent soon. Do I think about it a lot? No. But that is my reality. My agent reminds me from time to time. He asks me, ‘Hey, has the team said anything?’ We kind of bounce around the idea.
"But my agent wants me to stay focused, just like my family wants me to stay focused. Don’t play with hypotheticals, because that can affect my play on the field. And that’s the last thing I want affected.
"I know the more I do on the field, the more that speaks for itself. The plays I make, they are going to scream. They are going to hop off the tape. That’s what I really work toward, to be able to have my film speak for myself."