Michael himself was a star for the Seminoles as a linebacker, a Bednarik award finalist and Butkus award semi-finalist in his senior season. Selected by Seattle in the second round of the 2004 NFL draft, he was moved to the safety position over time based on his raw playmaking ability and 4.5 speed at the Combine. In his rookie year, four of his five interceptions either won or saved games for the Seahawks. In his second year in the NFL, he picked off a Ben Roethlisberger pass in Super Bowl XL, a rare highlight in the Seahawks’ controversial and dismal 21-10 loss.
So now, we come to the third year, which has hardly been the charm. After giving up a team-high four touchdowns in the season’s first six games, Boulware has been demoted by coach Mike Holmgren, in favor of former backup cornerback/safety Jordan Babineaux. It was a tough, and by no means permanent, decision for Boulware’s coach. “Michael Boulware’s made some of the great plays since I’ve been here as coach,” Holmgren said. “He beat Miami in overtime, he saved the game against Minnesota with a wonderful interception a couple years ago, and he cares as much as anybody on the football team. The fact is that he moved from linebacker to safety, and at times, in reading keys and reacting, he reacts more like a linebacker than a safety. And he has to act more like a safety. It happens in sports all the time. It’s almost like you sit a guy down for a second … look at our quarterback, for Pete’s sake. We pulled Matt out, played Trent for a while, Matt was grinding through some stuff, mad at me I’m sure. Then he got to see. He got to, ‘OK, what was I doing? Why did this happen?’
”Once the initial disappointment and anger is over, and then he is re-inserted into the lineup, which could happen with these players, he’s a better player. Now why does that happen? Because he got a chance to think about it. It’s kind of a maturing process. It’s a tough maturing process, but you hear about it all the time. Michael Boulware’s going to be fine. He’s just going to take a rest for a second and not be on the front lines. He’s going to be in this other area. He’s going to be there in pass defense, and those players play a lot. It’s just that he’s changing positions a little bit.”
When asked about Boulware’s adjustment from linebacker to safety over the last three seasons and how that might have affected his ability to pick up advanced coverage techniques in a relatively short time, Holmgren talked about the big plays given up, and the real reason behind them. He also knows that at Florida State, the coaches wanted to switch Boulware to safety in his senior season and would have done so if not for a shoulder injury.
“He has great ball skills. At times, he’ll take a chance to make the great play,” the coach said. “Then, there are other times I don’t want him to take the chance. I don’t fault him for his competitive nature. I mean, he’s one of the great kids I’ve ever coached. We’re just making a change right now and see if it can help us not give up the big play so much, which has been a little bit of a problem this season.”
Holmgren does understand the perilous nature of secondary play, where any weakness is exposed and magnified. “Everybody in the world sees you on the field, what happens at the play. A lot of times they don’t see the nose tackle. I’ve said this forever and ever and ever, you give a quarterback enough time to throw, I don’t care who’s in the secondary, I really don’t, (the quarterback) will complete (passes). We’ll complete passes, if we have enough time. So the secondary is really a part of the defensive team, and for them to really function at their best.
“The New York Giants, when we were making all those interceptions in that game, it was because we had a great pass rush, and we made the quarterback make decisions that were sometimes poor. That’s all part of this, so we’re just trying a couple of things here, that’s all.
”I’m not blaming one person or one group,” Holmgren continued. “It’s just that I don’t like the fact that we’re having so many deep balls thrown, so they have to play things a little better back there, and we have to put more pressure on the quarterback up there. Then I think things will work out. It’s a team thing. It’s not an individual thing.”
But in the short term, the “individual thing” is the fact that Babineaux, the ever-reliable man in spot duty, has elevated himself to the top of his game after playing on special teams and at whatever DB position the Seahawks have needed since they acquired him in 2004. While Boulware was emerging from a major college and assured of high pick status, Babineaux came out of Southern Arkansas in the same year as an undrafted free agent. Babineaux does have one thing very much in common with Boulware - an older brother who has shared his career path. Jonathan Babineaux is a nose tackle for the Atlanta Falcons. His road to the top may have been less glamorous, but the tracks are similar. On Wednesday, Holmgren talked about what makes this former “Mulerider” the right choice at the strong safety position. Right now, the fit is the thing.
“I think he has good instincts and good ball skills, but so does Michael,” Holmgren said of Babineaux. “So the deal here, to my way of thinking, is we’re playing a certain defense, you have a key, you’re supposed to read a key and act accordingly,” the coach said. “That really has nothing to do with athletic ability or ball skills, or instincts for that matter. That has to do with, I want you to go from A, to B, to C, and then, react and let your instincts and all that other stuff work for you. There’s a progression there. Babineaux must do that too. He’s got to be disciplined. We must be disciplined, more disciplined, in that area in our pass coverage.”
Boulware understands the decision, but he couldn’t betray his feelings when he spoke to the media after the decision was officially announced. “It’s definitely different for me. I feel like I’ve let my team down in some ways,” he said. “I want to work harder and do what I can to help this team out now, and my role is definitely different, but I have to give a hundred percent in some different areas. Now it’s a supportive role as far as defense goes, and now they are giving me an opportunity to make some plays on special teams. I’m taking that very seriously. That’s my number one job right now is to make a play on special teams. I’m excited about that opportunity, and hopefully I can get the job done there.”
The real opportunity, as Holmgren had said, is for Boulware to learn and grow from the experience. He’s ready to push past the short-term and make this situation work for him. “Mostly I was a little disappointed and hurt, as anybody else would be,” Boulware said. “No one wants to lose their job, it’s definitely hard, but I’m trying to be a man about it and trying to find the positive, and trying to help the team out in anyway I can. They pay me to help the team in whatever role that is. I don’t make that decision on where it is. It’s when they tell me to go in, I go in and do everything I can.”
“I think I have to start all over. I have to figure out what I was doing wrong, what was getting me out of position. Start there, figure out what was wrong and from there piece-by-piece, step-by-step build it back up.”
For Babineaux, the promotion is a mixed blessing, to be sure – as much as it’s the culmination of a lifelong dream, it’s also at the expense of a friend. Such is the nature of the close-knit, yet ultra-competitive pro football brotherhood, where your one step forward pushes another man back. “All I know is the coaches decided to make a switch, and it’s up to me to go out there and be productive. I have to make plays. I think that’s the bottom line, and that’s what this defense can use. Right now we really need to get going and help this team to get going in the right direction, and bounce back from that tough loss against Minnesota.”
The 31-13 loss to the Vikings was the final countdown for this safety switch – when Boulware was fooled on Marcus’ Robinson’s 40-yard touchdown catch, it seemed to summarize a season in which Boulware has zigged every time he should have zagged.
His replacement knows all about the psychology of the big play, and how damaging they can be in rapid succession. “Definitely devastating,” Babineaux said. “Anytime you get a big play thrown on you, it’s kind of hurtful for the whole defense. I think the biggest thing we can do is keep the big plays, and limit them, and keep those off our head. We will be in a much better position to win the football game.”
Babineaux is ready for the challenge, and he’s got a good handle on what the position requires. “Strong safety is about reading keys and being able to make plays and being a ball hog,” he said, when asked whether safety is a natural spot for him. “That’s the best way I can explain it and the thing I’m real comfortable with, being able to make plays.”
From the game-deciding Drew Bledsoe interception last season vs. Dallas to his pick in the final 2006 preseason game against the Raiders, Babineaux has big play instincts of his own. Now, it’s time to let them shine.
Boulware’s challenge runs deeper; it is time for him to rediscover a predilection for success that seems to be equal parts genetics, family dynamics and personal ambition.
The Seahawks will watch with great interest.
Doug Farrar is the Editor-in-Chief of Seahawks.NET and a staff writer for Football Outsiders. He also writes the weekly "Manic Monday" feature for FoxSports.com. Feel free to e-mail Doug here.