LB Lofa Tatupu has undergone successful arthroscopic surgery on both knees, the Seahawks announced Thursday. (I wonder how it gets announced when a surgery is unsuccessful.)
Those knees have been an increasing source of concern for the Seattle defense in recent years, and are a crucial player in its future. This is now the third year in a row that Seattle's "defensive quarterback" has been slowed by injury, first with a knee in 2008, then with a fluke pectoral injury cutting short his 2009, and then seeing Tatupu grit through 2010 and playing very much like he had two bad knees.
That's no small matter. Tatupu's decline has been quiet, his struggles much less spectacular than others' on this defense, and so less noticed. But it's huge. Tatupu has lost the punch with which he used to pop fullbacks, instead getting swallowed up on blocks and losing tackles far too often. His burst and agility have suffered, making him less effective on blitzes and coverage. He's lost a ton of speed; he looked painfully slow even in his biggest play of 2010, a 26-yard pick six of Carolina QB Jimmy Clausen. Even his concentration seems to be suffering; he drops too many interceptions and bites more and more on misdirection and play-action. And the broken tackles are continuing to pile up, mounting in the form of long, inexorable drives in which nothing happens to disrupt the momentum of Seattle's opponents.
Tatupu simply hasn't been effective since 2007's defensive banner year, and a number of theories have been tossed around to explain Tatupu's regression. Part of it is the extra weight that Tatupu put on a few years to ago in order to withstand blockers and heavier ball carriers, robbing him of some of his agility in the process. Such weight would naturally wear down a smaller LB like Tatupu, placing extra load on those knees. His size is a big part of the reason he had so many detractors before 2005's season, when he seemingly silenced his critics with precocious instincts and field leadership.
In 2009, Tatupu's problems - and a lot of others' - lay with the underperforming defensive line, which did little to stop blockers from reaching the second level. Tatupu wasn't the only LB getting washed out that year; no linebacker is going to play well when consistently having to fight off blocks from offensive linemen. In 2010, however, the D-line found some integrity, and outside linebackers Aaron Curry and David Hawthorne did a better job containing the edges and keeping Tatupu between the tackles where he plays best. But it hasn't helped.
As a fan favorite, Tatupu is one of those players who gets a lot of credit for his field leadership, instincts, awareness, tape-watching, and other intangibles as the main measure of his worth. To be sure, he has the on-the-field presence of Mike Singletary. But intangibles were also supposed to be the big plus for FS Brian Russell, who was a huge tackling liability and too slow to cover half the field, much less the whole thing. Tatupu has disappeared in both his "big play" potential and his fundamentals. If he is to be judged on his leadership of the defense alone, then it must be pointed out that the defense he leads is terrible right now. A linebacker does not succeed through intangibles; he succeeds by tackling other football players.
Tatupu used to succeed by delivering game-changing plays such as sacks and turnovers. We saw how his pick-six of Jimmy Clausen altered the landscape of the Carolina game, and it was vintage Tatupu; good awareness and a good route jump (albeit on a play that was poorly telegraphed and executed by Carolina). I'm not saying a player should be judged purely on the basis of how many sacks and turnovers he delivers; such analysis is lazy and bad analysis. But on the same token, a defense does need turnovers from somewhere, and a middle linebacker is usually a crucial supplier with big hits and disciplined play.
Call it injury if you must, but Tatupu has lost that edge and, as Mike Sando put it, "gone from being one of the best inside linebackers in the NFL to being one of the best on his team." He still has good games from time to time. He stepped up well in the "win and you're in" game against St. Louis. He remains the only linebacker on this team who has a clue in zone coverage. But without the quickness to actually do something about his instincts, he's compromised. Intangibles are no longer a pass for Tatupu; his own play needs to start making an impact again.
And so it is that the 2011 season, if it happens, may prove to be the defining season for Tim Ruskell's "Seahawk for Life". If Tatupu can regain his quickness and power - well, a healthy, agile, fundamentally sound Tatupu brings benefits to this defense that would be welcomed like water in the desert. Forget Red Bryant - it's Tatupu popping lead blockers in the hole a la 2005 that this run defense really misses. Get him scaring away pass attempts over the middle, and jumping routes with burst and breakaway speed, and Seattle might actually be able to stop a third down once in a while. Without this stuff, Tatupu is merely an expensive nuts-and-bolts linebacker who can be easily replaced.
Holding off on Tatupu's surgery speaks to the confidence the coaching staff has in him. Given a solid D-line to protect him, Tatupu has the tools to claw himself out of the pile of struggle that comprises Seattle's defense. Up until this point, he's been buried. I don't want to see Tatupu's grace period to run out before he can return to form, as is happening with Matt Hasselbeck. I want him to succeed, want him to avoid the flash-in-the-pan profile that is starting to catch up to Tim Ruskell's draft successes. This defense needs him even more than most folks realize.