When the New York Jets traded a conditional sixth-round pick to the Seattle Seahawks for receiver Percy Harvin, they became the third NFL team to take a chance on Harvin's superior athleticism and mercurial personality. Calling Harvin a receiver in a traditional sense is a misnomer, though -- the Florida alum does everything from returns to quick screens to runs out of the backfield, and when he's on, there isn't a more explosive player in the NFL.
The Seahawks waited through nearly all of the 2013 season for Harvin to return from a hip injury, and rejoiced as he turned the Broncos inside out in Super Bowl XLVIII with his returns and end runs. They thought he would be a key part of their offense in 2014, but a healthier Harvin ran into the same issues he had in Minnesota before Seattle traded a first-, third- and seventh-round pick and gave him a six-year, $67 million deal in 2013. With a player like this, you have to implement specific plans and schemes, because he doesn't readily fit into traditional roles.
This season, the Seahawks used Harvin in a few ways, and each had their pluses and minuses. Beyond his alleged attitude issues, and picking fights with teammates and refusing to come back into a game because he didn't like the way he was being used; beyond all that folderol is that at his core Harvin is a limited player whose limitations are nearly limitless. By that, I mean to say that Harvin does a few things well, and he does those things better than just about anyone in the game, but the offensive coordinator who's trying to get him in the mix without upsetting the current offensive identity may run into trouble when reconciling the player Harvin is, and the player Harvin thinks he is. That's no longer the challenge presented to Seahawks offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell; it's now on Jets OC Marty Mornhinweg to figure it out.
The Seahawks' and Jets' offenses do have common overall structures. Both have mobile quarterbacks, though Russell Wilson is far further along in a traditional quarterback sense than is Geno Smith, and both teams would like to base the deep passing game off of play action, which comes out of a power running game that both teams possess. Both teams have receivers who understand route concepts, but struggle to gain separation in a purely physical sense. This was readily apparent in New York's 27-25 loss to the Patriots last Thursday, one day before the Harvin deal was struck, when Smith's receivers often struggled to get free and catch the ball versus New England's coverage concepts.
The Deep Ball
And when Smith does try to throw deep, it doesn't generally go well, partially because he's erratic in that area, and partially because his targets can't elude trail coverage on vertical routes. According to Pro Football Focus, Smith's Accuracy Percentage of 19.0 on balls thrown 20 yards in the air or more (three completions in 21 attempts) is the NFL's lowest among qualifying quarterbacks.
Harvin isn't an advanced route-runner in any sense, and teams don't seem to run him deep that often, but he can blow by defenses against certain coverages and make everyone else on the field look as if they're moving in slow motion. He did just that on a 41-yard pass from Wilson in Seattle's Week 5 win over the Washington Redskins. The touchdown was called back due to a penalty on guard James Carpenter, but against a blitz package that left Harvin one-on-one with safety Brandon Meriweather, Harvin simply jetted by the coverage and was easily open for the throw.
With a corner/safety blitz look on the other side of the field, and both inside linebackers spying Wilson in the pocket, Meriweather was alone upfield. Not a good look. Interestingly enough, this was the only deep target to Harvin the Seahawks ran all season. Among plays not penalized, Seattle's fastest receiver caught exactly zero passes of 20 yards or more on 26 overall targets.
"All those guys are very talented, we can use any of them," Bevell said after Seattle's Week 6 loss to the Cowboys; the game in which Harvin begged out in the fourth quarter because he was allegedly unhappy with his overall role.
"Do we want Percy [Harvin] to get the ball in every way we possibly can? I think it’s obvious because we’re trying to do things to get him the ball. We’ve run him down the field on the play for the touchdown it got called back. But the same thing with a lot of other guys -- usually that’s the easiest way to get it to [Harvin] is to turn around and hand it, and we didn’t do it enough."
Perhaps, but the Seahawks gave Harvin the ball on a lot of jet sweeps (how appropriate it seems now), and the mere threat of Harvin running across the field and breaking contain affected defenses in all kinds of ways. In particular, it opened things up for Seattle's inside running game, something we saw evident in the Seahawks' Week 1 win over the Packers where Marshawn Lynch took inside handoffs following Harvin's pre-snap jet sweep motion.
Motion Creates Emotion
The Seahawks were hit-and-miss with these fake motion plays, and as the season went on, defenses generally adjusted to the threat of Harvin by employing better gap discipline. But once in a while, Harvin in motion set defenses on edge, creating additional opportunities for Marshawn Lynch. That happened on this six-yard run against the Broncos in Week 3's Super Bowl rematch with the Broncos. With 14:13 left in the second quarter, Lynch gained 12 yards on the ground, and it was set up by Harvin's motion from left to right. As Harvin moved, cornerback Chris Harris pulled off Seattle's twins alignment to the defensive right side, and safety Rahim Moore came down from coverage to attend to the possibility that Harvin was going to get the ball. Tight end Zach Miller crashed down to the left side for a seal block, and Lynch took the free area for a productive gain.
What will the Jets get?
Clearly, the Jets see no issue with the inconsistency with which Harvin has operated through his NFL career. They believe he will create explosive plays, and his other explosive qualities, which tend to show up at the worst possible times, can be managed.
“It means a lot to this team," Smith said Monday of Harvin's addition. "Obviously he’s a tremendous player. I will get to know him as a person, but we see the things he’s done on the field and we appreciate having him here. I think it’s really going to help everyone on this team and really boost everyone up on the offense and make us all better.”
The Jets have nowhere to go but up with six straight losses, they have some real potential on the offensive side of the ball, and Harvin will change things for New York's opponents. Maybe the third time will be a charm, and Percy Harvin has finally found his NFL home.