If you’d scanned the schedule before the season, it would have been logical to foresee Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson leading the team to a late, game-winning drive at Carolina.
It would not have been logical, however, to envision him connecting on crucial passes on that drive to former practice-squad tight end Cooper Helfet, and rookies Paul Richardson and Kevin Norwood.
Nor would you have guessed Wilson would be taking snaps from Stephen Schilling, or, on defense, the importance of a nickel cornerback named Marcus Burley, who was not even on the team at that point.
But the next-man-up philosophy has been common in recent seasons for the Seahawks, when depth-chart dwellers have turned into key players like Richard Sherman, Byron Maxwell, Doug Baldwin and many others.
Injuries happen to every NFL team, but the effectiveness of the replacements has been a difference-making factor for the Seahawks along the way.
At this point, Burley, who was picked up in a trade from Indianapolis before the first game, has more interceptions (1) than All-Pro Sherman (0), and Helfet has more TD catches (1) than valuable-but-injured tight end Zach Miller. And it was backup tight end Luke Willson who caught the game-winning touchdown against the Panthers.
Burley remembers the news of his being traded to the Seahawks.
“I was in shock, but very excited about it,” he said. “I got the opportunity because of some injuries and I’ve tried to do the best to take full advantage.”
But how could he fit in so smoothly despite having never had game experience in the league?
“Being a part of the a great group with Sherm, Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas has helped me out on and off the field,” Burley said.
“They made the transition so much easier. They’re the hardest working bunch I’ve been around, without a doubt. There’s a real brotherhood on and off the field. Guys help out with anything you need.”
Helfet, who started out as the fourth-team tight end, said the attitude of the staff and players keeps the back-ups engaged.
“We’ve got a pretty special group in the locker room and around the facility because we don’t have a lot of huge heads — they treat everybody the same way,” Helfet said. “The coaches buy into it; the theory is that we practice every day like we’re going to play, and everybody gets treated with the same respect.”
The result of having to play backups early in the season, Helfet points out, is that the experience of the team is so much better when the injured starters return.
“It’s great for us, as we go deeper into the season; we know there’s a lot of guys who can come in and make plays,” Helfet said.
Norwood’s catch late in the Carolina game showed such quick reflexes that it seemed impossible.
“My teammates said that the ball caught me, not the other way around,” Norwood said. “Everybody is putting in the work and effort to gain the coaches’ trust. Everybody wants to be on the field; this is a Super Bowl team and we all want to help us get to another one.”
It appears that rookie free agent Brock Coyle will get the start against Oakland at middle linebacker in the place of injured Bobby Wagner. K.J. Wright is expected to go back to his natural spot at outside linebacker after recently filling in for Wagner.
“It’s just always preparing every week like you’re going to be the starter,” Coyle said. “Coach (Ken) Norton (stresses) that in our meetings every week. Prepare like you’re going to play … do your job to the best of your ability.”
Wilson had no qualms passing to the inexperienced receivers when the game was in the balance.
“I have all the confidence in the world in those guys,” Wilson said. “That’s the great thing about our team: When somebody has to step up, they step up every time and that’s what we need.”