Man of steel

Posted Dec 16, 2010

Leon Washington is having a Pro Bowl and Comebacker Player of the Year season for the Seahawks, even if not enough people have noticed. But that’s alright with Washington, who puts his team first.

Lofa Tatupu was in midsentence in his analysis of fellow linebacker and Seahawks’ leading tackler David Hawthorne, when Leon Washington walked past on the other side of the locker room.

“How about that guy?” Tatupu said, offering a statement that was 10 percent inquiry and 90 percent admiration.

“Why isn’t anyone talking about Leon going to the Pro Bowl? Or being named Comebacker Player of the Year? Why is that? The guy deserves both.”

Another astute read of a situation by the team’s middle linebacker.

A year ago, while still a member of the New York Jets, Washington was in the early stages of rehabbing a severely broken right leg. The injury, which occurred in an Oct. 25 game against the Raiders in Oakland, ended his season – not to mention his career with the Jets, who traded Washington to the Seahawks during April’s NFL draft.

Entering Sunday’s game against the Atlanta Falcons at Qwest Field, all Washington has done for the Seahawks is:

Return a league-leading three kickoffs for touchdowns – a 92-yarder against the 49ers in San Francisco last week and 101- and 99-yarder in the Week 3 upset against the San Diego Chargers at Qwest;

Break an 84-yard punt return in the Week 13 win over the Carolina Panthers at Qwest;

Average 27.8 yards on 43 kickoff returns, which ranks fifth in the league – 2.1 yards behind league-leader David Reed of the Baltimore Ravens;

Average 18.1 yards on 12 punt returns, which would lead the league if he had enough returns to qualify;

And, become the big-play performer on the special teams units that have been the best and most consistent element of the Seahawks during their 6-7 season.

All this with a steel rod in his leg. All this 13 months removed from the horrific injury that required the surgery to insert that rod to repair the compound fracture of his leg. All this with a constant smile on his face and a spring in his every step.

Pro Bowl, indeed. Comeback Player of the Year, for sure.

“I mean, just look what Leon has done this season,” Tatupu said. “It has to happen, doesn’t it.”

Not necessarily.

The Bears’ Devin Hester is the leader in fan balloting for the returner spot on the NFC Pro Bowl squad, although the players and coaches don’t cast their ballots until next week – votes that count two-thirds toward who will make the trip to Hawaii for the Jan. 30 all-star game.

Also included in decisions for Comeback Player of the Year – and usually ahead of Washington – are Eagles’ quarterback Michael Vick, which is ludicrous because he came back last season from his prison stay; Patriots’ wide receiver Wes Welker, who suffered a serious knee injury last year and has 80 receptions this season; Bears’ middle linebacker Brian Urlacher, who went down in Week 1 last year and this season is leading a rejuvenated Chicago defense; Jaguars’ quarterback David Garrard, who has Jacksonville in first place in the AFC South; Broncos’ wide receiver Brandon Lloyd, who has 63 catches and nine touchdowns after catching eight passes last season; and teammate Mike Williams, who leads the Seahawks with 52 receptions after being out of the league the past two seasons.

Washington’s take? He just smiles, of course.

“Honestly, I don’t even think about it,” Washington said. “I’ve been to the Pro Bowl before, so I know as a veteran not to concentrate on that stuff or not focus on that. Because that’s personal, and this thing is about our team.”

A team that remains tied for the NFC West lead with the St. Louis Rams, but also a team that needs to find a way to steal a win in the next two weeks – when it faces the Falcons at home and Buccaneers in Tampa – before hosting the Rams in the Jan. 2 regular-season finale at Qwest.

That is, and has been, Washington’s focus all season: The team, and how he can help it win.

Washington went to the Pro Bowl following the 2007 season – as the AFC returner, after he averaged 27.5 yards on kickoffs and 9.2 on punts.

“Even when I went to the Pro Bowl before, it was really because of our entire special teams units,” Washington said.

“Like the return we had last game. You just see me busting through the hole, nobody really touches me and I score a touchdown. It’s been that way all year long. I don’t get those returns if the other guys don’t make their blocks.”

Washington actually dwells more on the returns where he didn’t score, but feels he should have. Like the 84-yard punt return, where the punter clipped his heel and he went down at the 2-yard line. Or his first kickoff return last week, when he slipped on the slick field at Candlestick after a 22-yarder. Or a couple others earlier this season where he was half-a-step from going all the way.

Still, Washington is the only returner in the league with three scoring returns; which plays directly into the Comeback-Player-of-the-Year discussions.

Did Washington ever envision this kind of return – and these kinds of returns – after last season’s surgery and the arduous rehab to get right?

“I didn’t have any doubt that I’d be back,” he said. “There are those thoughts of, ‘Are you going to be the same player? Are you going to be better?’

“My thing is, I always knew if my body felt great I was born to play football. I can go out there and make plays. So I just got my body to the point where it felt great and it feels good going into the games. And I know if I prepare myself the right way, I’m eventually going to make something special happen.”

Washington says he already has received ample rewards by just being part of the Seahawks’ special teams units that really have been special.

Asked about the Seahawks this week, Falcons coach Mike Smith offered, “The most impressive thing that stands out to me is the play of your special teams. Leon Washington is someone that we have got to make sure that we account for – not only on kickoff returns, he also has done a great job on punt returns.

“They’ve blocked field goals. They’re blocked punts. I think their special teams are something that is playing at an elite level right now.”

Smith will get no argument from Washington.

“I’m just so honored and so fortunate to be part of this special teams unit,” he said. “When I look back at the opportunity to come here and you look at this year – all the great things our special teams have done, giving us a chance to win games – that’s why I’m so appreciative.”

So while the talk of Pro Bowls and Comeback Player of the Year awards is nice, Washington has other priorities.

“My focus right now, it’s on Atlanta and trying to win this game,” Washington. “The accolades and stuff, that comes after the season. We’ll address that then.”