SEATTLE – Sometimes, Percy Harvin lined up at receiver, and sometimes he lined up in the backfield, and other times he returned kickoffs on Thursday night. He played, as Harvin does when healthy, multiple positions, and he played them all well enough to remind the NFL that he should not be classified as a receiver.
His position should read: SPEED. Or, simply: THREAT.
In the Seattle Seahawks’ 36-16 victory over the Green Bay Packers at CenturyLink Field, Harvin turned short passes into long gains, spun through tackles, outran defenders, and – this is a big AND, warranting all caps, bold type, an underline or five – he finished the game healthy, limbs intact. Thus the 2014 season started the way the 2013 season ended back in February, with another blowout of a supposed contender by the Seahawks. They won those games by a combined 55 points.
For all the stumbles of Super Bowl champions in the past decade, for all the teams that won championships and relaxed or disbanded or got beat, Seattle made a convincing opening statement Thursday that it could become the first team since the 2003-04 New England Patriots to repeat. The best argument, the case for that, is Harvin. He’s what’s different – and better – about this Seahawks team compared to last year’s squad.
That statement, of course, comes with a disclaimer. It has to. Harvin is an MVP candidate when healthy, a player among the fastest in pro football and among the most versatile, too. He can single-handedly obliterate defensive game plans. He makes Marshawn Lynch better and makes Doug Baldwin better and, on Thursday, he even made Ricardo Lockette better. But he must be on the field.
Twenty minutes after the game ended, Harvin stood at his locker, shoeless, sleeveless, surrounded by reporters packed in tight, in closer proximity than Packers defenders on the field. He said the last time he felt this healthy was before he went to college, before he burned SEC defenses at Florida and starred in Minnesota, before injuries limited him to 10 regular-season games the past two seasons.
“This is what everyone envisioned,” Harvin said, and by “everyone,” he meant the Seahawks brass that traded a first-, third- and seventh-round pick for him, then turned around and offered him a $67 million contract with a full $25.5 million guaranteed.
It's a scary thought that a team that won the Super Bowl last season, that bludgeoned the Denver Broncos from the opening kickoff and triumphed 43-8, was not what it had envisioned offensively, was less than it expected. Harvin made an impact in that game in February, too. His kickoff return touchdown to open the second half effectively sealed the victory with nearly 30 minutes left. That was a glimpse, a flash, of what happened here on Thursday.
On Thursday, quarterback Russell Wilson targeted Harvin on seven passes. He caught all of them, for 59 yards. He also lined up the backfield, or sped through it to take handoffs. He carried four times for 41 yards, but that was a misleading number, because Wilson often faked handoffs to Harvin and gave the ball to Lynch, who bulled his way to 110 yards and two scores, the holes wide enough for his Lamborghini to roll through in part because the Packers had to account for Harvin.
Harvin was the Seahawks’ leading and most-targeted receiver, their second-leading rusher, and he added 60 yards on three kickoff returns, and one of them he almost broke. Any one of those facets, on their own, would represent a solid NFL game. Taken together, they’re the difference between a close contest and a blowout.
As reporters flooded into the Seahawks’ locker room, Wilson stood at his locker, smiling, still in pads. He shrugged. “How about Percy Harvin?” he said.
“He’s so explosive,” Wilson continued at his press conference. “He can do so many different things. To add Percy Harvin, to add his explosive mentality and how really good he is, it makes it really tough.”
That’s the thing. For all the Seahawks lost in free agency – receiver Golden Tate, defensive tackle Red Bryant, defensive end Chris Clemons – they basically did add Harvin. He played in one regular-season game last year, caught one pass, for 17 yards. This was like adding a first-round draft pick with a sprinter’s speed, a versatile skill set and a proven NFL track record. That happens about … never.
There’s always a but, though, and one sequence in the second quarter spoke to both the risk the Seahawks took with Harvin and the potential rewards he can provide.
On first-and-10 at their own 36-yard-line, Wilson dumped a short pass to Harvin, the same kind of pass he made all night. As Harvin caught the ball, linebacker Clay Matthews leveled him, the impact loud enough the crack echoed. Harvin fumbled the ball. The crowd held its collective breath. He recovered and bounced up and jogged back to the huddle, but it seemed fair to wonder how many of those kinds of hits he can take this season. It’s not like he can provide an expiration date.
On the next play, Harvin ran a deep route and crossed the middle of the field. Wilson threw a laser toward him. Harvin caught the ball in full stride and gained 33 yards, and on the next play, with the Packers' defense even more mindful of his whereabouts, the Seahawks faked a read option and Wilson found Lockette for the touchdown. The Seahawks led, 10-7. The rout had started.
Whether this lasts for a week, or a month, or the NFL season, remains to be seen. But the defense is good enough, stout enough, fast enough, to carry Seattle back into the postseason. If Harvin is healthy and even half this effective – again, big IF – they will be better on offense, too. More dynamic.
If Thursday was only one game, the smallest of sample sizes, it was one game that went exactly the way the Seahawks wanted. Back at Harvin’s locker, an energy gel lay nearby, unopened.
He didn’t need it.