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For Heath Farwell, special teams really are special
To understand why Heath Farwell is so good at playing special teams it helps to understand how he plays special teams.
With passion, of course. And that prerequisite jagged-edge approach, too. But also with attention-to-the-most-minute-detail preparation. It has taken a lot of each, and more, for Farwell to lead the Seahawks in coverage tackles in each of his two seasons with the team – a league-leading 21 last season and 15 this season, when the Seahawks’ special teams ranked No. 3 in the NFL.
But what is it about Farwell, who turned 31 on Monday and completed his eighth NFL season the day before, which allows him to continue whirling down the field and hurling himself into situations where a wiser head might think twice before doing it?
“I have no clue, man,” said fullback Michael Robinson, who was voted a special teams co-captain along with Farwell by his teammates. “The man is a worker. He’s a student of the game. He has a unique gift for it. Some guys just do.”
And Farwell definitely is not only one of those guys, but one of the best in the biz.
“Heath is just a pro, the way he prepares,” said safety Chris Maragos, who finished third on the team in coverage tackles (nine) behind Farwell and Robinson (10). “He’s got a great feel for things. He’s very natural. He really knows how to use his strengths to his advantage.”
This week, Farwell is rediscovering one of the best feelings for any player in the NFL as the Seahawks are preparing for Sunday’s playoff opener against the Washington Redskins at FedExField. Farwell has played into the postseason before, with the Minnesota Vikings in 2009. But he wasn’t with the Seahawks in 2010 when they won the NFC West and then knocked off the defending Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints in one very-wild Wild Card playoff game in Seattle.
“Getting to the postseason is what it’s all about,” Farwell said. “It’s the reward for all the hard work you put in during the regular season, and then the preseason and training camp before that, and then the offseason before that.
“So, I can’t wait.”
And Farwell won’t have to wait long to make his presence felt on Sunday, because he plays a key role on the kickoff-coverage and kickoff-return units.
Asked about his continuing excellence on those units, Farwell offered, “It goes way back to college, when most guys wanted to get off special teams when they started playing on defense or offense. I was one of those guys who wanted to play special teams and knew that was going to be my ticket to the NFL and my ticket to staying in the NFL.”
Farwell was a linebacker at San Diego State University, and a productive one at that. He was the Aztecs’ Defensive MVP in 2004, as well as their Special Teams MVP. But he was not selected in the 2005 NFL Draft, so he signed with the Vikings as a free agent. In five seasons (he spent 2008 on injured reserve), Farwell played a little bit of linebacker (12 tackles) and a lot of special teams. In 2009, he became the first Viking voted to the Pro Bowl as a special teams player since Joey Browner in 1985. By the time he left Minnesota, he was tied for fourth in club history with 113 career special teams tackles.
“I’ve covered as many kicks as probably anyone in the league,” Farwell said.
And he is making a career of honing his obvious skills.
“It’s not just running down the field and playing hard, a lot of my stuff I get done in the classroom during the week,” he said.
Or on one of the players’ “off” days, which this week also happened to be Farwell’s birthday. But he was at Virginia Mason Athletic Center early on New Year’s Eve to load up his tablet with video and then studied more video with special teams coordinator Brian Schneider.
The story that Robinson, Maragos and Schneider keep coming back to when questions are asked about Farwell is a kickoff-coverage play against the Rams in St. Louis in Week 4.
“On the field, Heath alerted everybody, ‘Hey, watch the reverse,’ ” Schneider said. “Sure enough, they did a reverse and Heath made the tackle on the 5-yard line.”
It’s the preparation. It’s the repetitive nature of what he does, coupled with the fact that there isn’t much he hasn’t seen. But it’s also the want-to trumping the can-do, and toughness obliterating finesse.
“I’ve just got a great understanding for what goes on – the different schemes and how they’re going to attack me,” Farwell said. “And then playing special teams is a lot about effort. It’s about going down there and playing hard.”
From that aspect, Farwell and Robinson share more than the captain’s “C” on their jerseys.
“I love just talking ball with Heath,” Robinson said. “Because we communicate on the field so well, because he’s seen so many looks, I’ve seen so many looks. Just to be able to come to somebody like that and talk special teams and have that conversation, we’re able to make a lot of adjustments on the sideline.”
The admiration is a two-way street, as Farwell offered, “Mike Rob is so talented, obviously, at fullback. But his ability to be a leader on special teams and just his knowledge of special teams is second to none. He’s unbelievable. To be able to bounce things off him – what kind of block are you getting? What kind of block am I getting? – it kind of helps us both out.”
And the way Farwell and Robinson play special teams has rubbed off on the others who cover kickoffs and punts; and punt and kick the ball; and return punts and kickoffs, and those who block for them.
“It’s just guys playing with effort. It just shows up,” Farwell said. “You turn the tape on, and that’s all that shows up. And it’s everybody, and every week it seems like it’s somebody different.”
Farwell takes satisfaction in – and is proud of – anyone who makes any play on special teams.
“Being one of the captains of the special teams, and one of the older guys, I kind of look at them and give them as much knowledge as I can,” he said. “But these guys are taking it from there. They take pride in it. I take pride in it.
“I’m proud of the way this group has played.”
In large part, because they’ve also been playing follow the leader. And that starts with Heath Farwell.