The setting was appropriate, if only in a metaphorical sense. After completing one of their final practices of training camp at Eastern Washington University, four members of the Seahawks' receiving corps asked to stage a group interview in a locker-room sauna. "It's hot in here," No. 3 wideout Bobby Engram explained, "but that's the way we like it."
With Seattle having emerged as a trendy Super Bowl pick and quarterback Matt Hasselbeck flirting with stardom, there's plenty of heat on the receivers to demonstrate whether they belong among the elite as well. "Our team has some big goals," says fourth-year veteran Koren Robinson, "and we know a lot of it is on us. When this team needs a big play, the ball's going to come to one of us, and we've got to be ready."
If the team's fortunes indeed rest in the receivers' hands, that is sure to send shivers down the spines of at least some Seahawks fans. For, as much success as Darrell Jackson (68 receptions for 1,137 yards), Robinson (65 for 896) and Engram (52 for 637) enjoyed in becoming one of the league's most productive units in 2003, it was the passes these players didn't catch that drew the most attention.
Overall, Seahawks receivers dropped 41 balls--the second-highest figure in the league--during the regular season, with Jackson, Robinson and Engram combining for 25. (By the count of beat writers who covered the team, five of the trio's drops would have been touchdowns.) So rather than being known around the NFL as the only threesome to have amassed more than 600 receiving yards apiece, they were viewed as the monsters of the muff.
The low point came last Jan. 4, when shortly before an NFC wild-card playoff ( Seattle's second postseason game since 1988), Rams All-Pro wideout Torry Holt was asked about the Seahawks trio while serving as a guest analyst on ESPN's NFL Countdown. Holt replied that Jackson, Robinson and Engram could not be considered elite receivers because they dropped too many balls, then spelled out their deficiencies. It was a startling display of public criticism from a division rival.
But the Seattle receivers didn't do anything to convince a national-TV audience otherwise, dropping five passes, including one for a potential touchdown by Robinson, in a 33--27 overtime loss to the Packers. The game ended when Hasselbeck threw a short pass in the left flat to fourth receiver Alex Bannister, who was slow to break off his hitch pattern in the wake of a Green Bay blitz. Packers cornerback Al Harris jumped the route and returned the interception 52 yards for a touchdown.
The memory of what happened in Green Bay has haunted Seahawks receivers in the eight months since, some more vividly than others. Engram's four-year-old son, Dean, repeatedly watched a DVD of the game in the off-season, often yelling out helpful reminders such as, "Daddy, you just dropped the ball." To stay focused on improving their performance--and their image--Engram and his receiving mates have paid special attention to cradling the ball on receptions, and anyone who drops one has had to do 10 push-ups on the spot. In off-season workouts, even when a drop was replayed while viewing game tape, transgressions were treated seriously and conspicuously.
Not that it's all gloom and doom: A smile is the fallback facial expression for Jackson, whose quick burst off the ball evokes images of Jaguars star Jimmy Smith; Robinson, a swift deep threat who is dangerous after the catch; and Engram, a crafty third-down specialist who excels on underneath patterns. The receivers even had their own touchdown dance last season, the Sprinkler, which was off limits to their quarterback. "It's a tough clique to penetrate," Hasselbeck says, "but I don't mind, because they play so much better when they're having fun."
The Seattle plan is to yuk it up all the way to Super Bowl XXXIX, and it's an opportunity the wideouts don't intend to mishandle. "I think we're going to be asked to step up, and that's the way it should be," Engram says. "People talk about the passes we didn't catch, but they can't say we don't get open or beat press coverage or make plays or score touchdowns. All everyone talks about is the drops--and that's something we're going to correct." --M.S.