Starting cornerbacks Marcus Trufant and Kelly Herndon will miss this game with ankle injuries, and dime corner Jimmy Williams joined Herndon on the Injured Reserve list with a torn ACL after the regular-season finale in Tampa Bay. Herndon and Babineaux then knew that the microscope would be on them as the Seahawks face Terrell Owens, Terry Glenn and Jason Witten … Dallas’ three-headed passing attack. Led by first-year starting quarterback Tony Romo, this unit finished the regular season fifth overall in passing offense at 239.8 yards per game. Owens and Glenn both caught over 1,000 total yards in passes, and Owens managed to rack up 13 touchdowns despite his league-high 17 drops.
It’s a stern test for any secondary, especially since Dallas’ recently porous defense has them featuring the pass just to catch up. Especially since Seattle’s cornerback crew now features a rookie, a journeyman, and a street free-agent signing. Can this group match the explosiveness of the Cowboys’ air attack and shock everyone? If you ask Kelly Jennings, Jordan Babineaux and Pete Hunter, the answer is a resounding “Yes”. If their confidence is realized, America had best prepare to be surprised.
Forty-one starts in four years at Miami (the school that fields what could, at times, be referred to as the NFL’s 33rd team), a first-round pedigree and a rookie year in the nickel corner slot should prepare him for this. Taking over for Marcus Trufant when Trufant suffered a high ankle sprain against the Chargers, and covering receiver Vincent Jackson better than Trufant did, certainly raised a few eyebrows. Now, rookie Kelly Jennings will face his most daunting challenge when he faces Terry Glenn, the underrated and highly valuable component of the Dallas passing game.
Jennings knows what he’s up against, but he’s ready. “I have been rolling in and out on the nickel package all year. I started out kind of slow in the beginning of the season because I knew the defense, but I didn’t really understand it in the way that I could go out and make plays like I wanted to,” Jennings said when asked what steps he’s taken this season. “The progression each game, getting in a little more here, a little more there - now I think I have progressed to a point where I can step in, start a game and play it well throughout.”
Though Babineaux told KJR-AM on Wednesday that a Jennings-Glenn matchup might be better, Jennings was asked about the combustible Terrell Owens on Tuesday. “He is a big guy, physical, strong, he is good at running routes, getting off routes and I have to study what he does and just try to pick up some tendencies from it and then go out and take my game and mold it around what he does and make plays from there.”
Jennings won’t be surprised if Romo and Company target him early and often. “I think so, just like the last two teams that I faced, they came after me once I came into the game, so I don’t expect Dallas to do any different. I have to be ready to play.
“From what I have seen on film, I expect them to throw the ball down field, try to spread us out here and there and I think Coach (defensive coordinator John Marshall) will do a great job making the right calls to put us in the right places.”
Jennings also talked about the renewed intensity required for the postseason – both Seattle and Dallas come into this game having lost three of their last four. “That is what I came here for, to try to make it to the Super Bowl,” he said. “Now we have progressed in to the playoffs and I get a chance to start, so it is going to be big scenery, a big game, but I am taking at like every other game.”
Is the focus more intense now? “Yeah, you can tell the difference. Everybody is back in focus, the season is so long, it starts to wear on you a little bit, but we know what is at stake now, you lose and you’re out. I think everybody has their mindset on trying it hit it head on.”
One role that Jennings may not have expected to take on so soon was that of Senior Advisor – but with four new defensive backs on the roster (Hunter, cornerback Rich Gardner, cornerback Gerard Ross from Seattle’s practice squad, and 2005 Seahawk safety John Howell), Jennings can show the new kids the ropes. How has that been for him? “I can just talk to them about what I have learned in my progression,” he said. “What I didn’t understand and what I understand about the defense now - where you have to fill in. That is what I have been doing today. They have been talking to me on things they know from being veterans in the game as well.”
Jennings hopes this exchange of information, as well as his own prodigious natural gifts, will be enough to beat the odds.
The Utility Man
If you think that the prospect of covering Terrell Owens is the first time Jordan Babineaux has been told there’s no way he can do something, you need to review his history in the NFL. “Big Play Babs” has been sticking it to the naysayers since Day One.
An undrafted free agent from Southern Arkansas, Babineaux signed with the Seahawks as an unheralded rookie in 2004 and spent his first eleven pro games on Seattle’s practice squad. He saw some special teams action, and very limited time on defense, in 2004’s last five regular-season games, and in the playoff loss to the Rams.
2005 saw his role expand - a special teams standout all season and defensive starter in four games, his classic play in that season was the Drew Bledsoe interception return which allowed Josh Brown’s last-second field goal in Seattle’s 13-10 win over the Cowboys – a game that turned Seattle’s season around and helped the team in finding the Super Bowl path. In 2006, he replaced Michael Boulware at strong safety after six games, and played a big part in stopping some of the leaks in the Seahawks’ admittedly overwhelmed secondary.
For Babineaux, it’s not so much about the fact that can do one set of things specifically very well – were that the case, he’d be a full-time starter with no questions. The Seahawks like him because he can fill any role in that secondary at a replacement-or-better level. In the war of attrition that has been Seattle’s 2006 season, that’s a big deal. Starting safety or starting corner? Nickel man or special teams?
Just put him in, Coach.
“It is unfortunate the way things have happened the last two weeks, our cornerback situation,” Babineaux said on Tuesday, when asked about the Week 17 ankle injury to Herndon that put him back in a starting role. “I think Coach will do a great job in preparing us, mixing in the game plan, mixing in different calls to throw their offense off balance a little bit and the rest will be on us to make plays at the ball.”
Did he think his days as a cornerback were over when he was asked to fill in as Boulware got his confidence back? “No, not really. I was the emergency corner once we made the switch. I just try to master one particular position, whatever position that is, and be the best at it.”
When asked about the Cowboys and his own challenges, Babineaux pointed to preparation above all else as the factor that will allow the Seahawks to come out with a win. “The Cowboys are a great team,” he said. “I think that this week, it will be extra important for us to put extra time in the film room and get the edge a little bit so we can go out there and be successful.”
”Terrell Owens and Glenn are great receivers. One thing is for sure though, we are going to come to play and go out there and compete and try to do our best to have success on defense.”
Does he expect the Cowboys to come out throwing all over the place to take advantage of the new DB situation? “Yeah, at some particular point in the game, I do. But being at the cornerback position this week, just touching up on the technique and the skills at the corner back position will definitely help me when they decide to go to us.”
“They are a different team,” Babineaux said, when asked about this year’s Cowboys versus last year’s. “That is all I can say. They have different guys in the skill position that can open up and threaten the defense at any time in the game. Like I said a little extra film and extra studying on their habits and we should be ok.
“They have a different quarterback, they are changing their running backs, they have a running back rotation and they also picked up Owens in free agency. I think it will be big for us to get the edge a little bit in the film room.”
Babineaux, the man in the shadows, the man nobody drafted, is now the senior member of the cornerback rotation. Part of his responsibility will be in keeping Jennings confident and helping the new players become acclimated in a big hurry. How does he handle that? “I have shared my thoughts with him and gave him a few pointers and just told him to play with confidence and the rest will handle itself,” he said, when asked about Jennings.
And the new guys? “The best thing and most important thing we can do right now is get them up to speed, catch them up as soon as possible and get them moving in the right direction.”
Yet another important role for a man who is more than used to wearing many hats.
The New Guy
When Pete Hunter got the call from the Seahawks, asking him to fly from Dallas to the Pacific Northwest and sign the contract that put him back in the NFL on January 2, the former Dallas Cowboy/New York Jet/ Cleveland Brown was working as in a Dallas-area mortgage company. After a tryout, the fifth-round pick of the Cowboys in 2002 was back in the NFL.
He was released by the Browns during the final cuts on September 2, after a lackluster training camp. Traded from the Cowboys to the Jets on July 14, 2005, Hunter was waived by New York a month later and signed by the Browns in December. More than most players, Hunter has lived on the edge of the NFL, constantly hoping for a chance to show what he can do.
His best seasons were his first two in Dallas, before injuries began to conspire against him. In 2002 and 2003, Hunter played in 27 games. He has played in only seven since. It’s a short-notice, short-term assignment, but joining Seattle’s defense before a national stage is his best shot in a long time. “You just have to always be prepared in this business,” Hunter said. “Being a veteran, I always try to stay prepared by working out and trying to keep my legs in shape. But it is hard to gauge that, doing nothing then going the speed of the game, you can’t simulate that. I just try to stay in shape the best that I can and wait for a phone call and it came a couple days ago.”
And how does he feel after his first two days of real practice in months? “Pretty sore. I worked out yesterday morning, came back and practiced, then had practice today, so I am pretty sore just coming from not doing anything. I still work out at home, but you can’t gauge a workout based on a practice. I am getting there.”
The assimilation process is a force-feed, but Hunter says that he’s learning the terminology as quickly as possible. “They playbook is a little different,” he said. “I am going to take some time today and I am going to try to digest everything to coaches have for me. My teammates have been a great help and they are helping me adjust with getting the language down most of all. All the coverages are pretty much the same, just getting the language down is the biggest step, but a lot of my teammates are helping me out.”
Was he surprised to get the call? “I was very happy. I used to play for the Cowboys, so I knew Seattle had Dallas in the first round. A lot of my old teammates and my good friends still play over there in Dallas, so I was really excited.”
Hunter still lives very close to the team that drafted him. “I live exactly 1.2 miles from the (Valley Ranch) facility,” Hunter told the media on Wednesday. “I can walk out my front door and see their facility. I live on the top of the hill and I can see their facility down in the valley.”
But instead of allowing frustration to rule his thoughts, Hunter has remained positive. “Well, Dallas is a big football town, so I see the Cowboys every day. I watch all their games. I am happy for the guys over there and I am glad to see my old teammates succeed and make the playoffs this year.”
Certainly one would assume that one of the reasons that Hunter was signed so soon before the playoff game is his knowledge of the Cowboys’ defensive system. Has he been “de-briefed”, as it were? “They have asked me a few questions on different looks and I try to answer accordingly, but like I said I have watched them, every week. A lot of my old teammates still play over there so I cheer them on. I know the system over there from playing over there for three years, practicing against those guys so I know what to expect and kind of know what they’re going to throw at me.”
Seahawks defensive coordinator John Marshall has said that Hunter will get a lot of looks at nickel cornerback. His size (6’2”, 208) will provide a different challenge for any team used to Seattle’s predominantly smaller defensive backfield.
Hunter is glad to be here, and the feeling is mutual. “You know what; I have never seen a locker room that was so friendly. It is a great locker room. I have been in some organizations where stuff is uptight, but everyone is friendly here. They want to win here so everyone is helping each other out, there are no egos in the locker room and this is a great opportunity and a great environment to play in.”
And though he might be in the verge of the game that could ensure his NFL future if the chips fall the right way, Hunter’s focus has been on paying the bills, and a future outside of football – if that’s what fate decides. “I sold a home loan, I was a loan officer. That is what I was doing before I got the phone call; I was a loan officer for a lending group selling home loans,” he said, when asked what he was doing when he got the call.
Fortunately, his boss won’t mind the sabbatical from the mortgage company. “My broker is actually from Seattle, this is a coincidence,” he said. “Everything happens for a reason. He is a big Seahawks fan living in Dallas. I told him I got the call and he just wished me well. It was a great opportunity and a lot of people are happy for me. They know how hard I have worked and they know I got the short end of the stick sometimes, so I am just happy. I was doing pretty well as a loan officer too, for that little time that I was over there.”
“I closed a lot of loans; I think they will miss me.”
Hunter’s also looking forward to another career. “I got my degree in criminal justice (he went to Virginia Union) and I was going enter the ICU Special Agents part of the government, border patrol and immigration. I was going to take the test on the 19th, but I think I am going to have to reschedule that.”
Hopefully, he’ll be busy until early February.
To hear the scouting reports, they’re the overwhelmed, undermanned palookas who will be shredded by America’s Team. But Kelly Jennings, Jordan Babineaux and Pete Hunter hope to pen the first of the four straight David-vs.-Goliath stories that would be required for last year’s “Unfinished Business” motto to be realized.
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.