Quite the catch

Posted Aug 19, 2011

The Seahawks have had some quality receivers in their first 35 seasons, including Hall of Famer Steve Largent. But none have had the unique talents the just-acquired Sidney Rice possesses.

In the Minnesota Vikings’ locker room, they referred to Sidney Rice as “Long Man.”

And it hasn’t taken the ridiculously talented wide receiver long to show why during his first training camp with the Seahawks. Hardly a practice has gone by without the long-limbed Rice extending or contorting his 6-foot-4 frame to snag a pass that seemed uncatchable.

“He’s just loaded with those kinds of plays,” coach Pete Carroll said. “He’s really, really talented. He loves to compete in practice. It just fits so beautifully with the way we approach it. He’s embracing this opportunity to show who he is and how he fits in and how we can count on him.”

And Carroll made those comments on the first weekend Rice was able to practice. Since then, “those kinds of plays” have indeed become a regular occurrence.

Routine, but never redundant – even for those who have been watching him make these kinds of catches since he entered the league in 2007 as the Vikings’ second-round draft choice.

“The first day we practiced, I threw him a high ball and he stretched out pretty far and made a great catch,” said Tarvaris Jackson, the ex-Vikings quarterback who also signed with the Seahawks in free agency and then helped recruit Rice.

“You’ve seen the catches he made the other day – diving catches and guys all over him. He makes the hard catch, so that makes it a lot easier for a quarterback. We called him ‘Long Man’ in Minnesota, because he’s kind of tall.”

Everyone will get their first look at Rice in a Seahawks uniform on Saturday night at CenturyLink Field. After sitting out the preseason opener against the Chargers in San Diego last week, Rice is expected to start – and expecting to start – the home opener against his old team.

“It was a lot of things. It was a tough decision,” Rice said when asked what prompted him to change teams. “I love those guys over in Minnesota – my teammates and everything like that. But unfortunately I had to move on. I’m here. I’m a Seahawk and I’m looking forward from here on out. No looking back.”

But let’s get back to Rice’s boarding-house-plus reach. And with Rice, it’s more than his long arms. It’s his long legs. And long fingers. And long torso. And long toes. And even, it seems, his earlobes. Because when he stretches out to haul in the high ball, Rice elongates every inch of his body.

Rice’s off-the-chart catch radius was one of the first things Carroll and general manager John Schneider mentioned after signing Rice on July 29.

Carroll: “His catching range is phenomenal. His ability to body control and position himself to make a play just gives you a whole other opportunity on plays that maybe a normal guy doesn’t have. He’s got great length. He’s tall. He’s fast. He jumps well.”

Schneider: “In free agency, you’ve got to be really careful with older veterans that you sign, and philosophically we’d rather go with the younger guys. Sidney, at 24-years old and having been to the Pro Bowl (in 2009), having witnessed him firsthand with how he can attack the ball, his catching range, his confidence and his size, he’s a young football player who’s extremely talented. To be able to add a guy with size like that is a really good thing for us. I think he’s going to add juice to our football team.”

For the record, Rice’s arms are 32½ inches long and his outstretched hands measure 9¼ inches from the tip of his pinkie to the tip of his thumb; he has a 39½-inch vertical leap and 9-11 broad jump; he ran the 40-yard dash in 4.51 seconds at the scouting combine in 2007 and improved that to 4.49 at his Pro Day workout.

It’s no wonder that when Carroll was asked what Rice brings to the passing game he offered, “Everything.”

But the first thing that jumps out about Rice is that ability to go up – or anywhere, for that matter – and get the ball.

“Sidney can make plays the average receiver can’t,” former Vikings teammate and running back Adrian Peterson told ESPN The Magazine. “His body is so flexible; he can adjust to back shoulder passes or those that are too high. He’s a quarterback’s dream.”

And a defensive back’s nightmare, as he continues to show on the practice field.

In one practice, Rice reached down to grab the back half of the ball as it was tailing away from him, and never broke stride. In another, on a pass that appeared to be sailing out of bounds, Rice dropped his shoulder, which made the cornerback who was trying to cover break stride. At that last nano-second, his arms shot out like the tongue on one of those animation frogs to snag the ball two feet out of bounds. Wednesday, while running full speed up the sideline, Rice stopped, lunged back and grabbed a pass that was only a few inches off the turf.

“Just patience, and trust in yourself,” Rice said when asked about the frog-like snatch. “As long as your quarterback has confidence in you, the easier it is. He’ll give you an opportunity to make plays. If you can make those plays, it will go well for you and your team.”

Oh, and there’s more to him than just making highlight-reel catches. During a run-play drill this week, it was Rice’s block on the linebacker that provided the back a needed lane to break a long run.

Rice also knows how to use his 6-4, 202-pound frame to shield defenders from the ball – a trait honed while also playing basketball at Gaffney (S.C.) High School. Rice’s teams won back-to-back state championships – as he averaged 18 points and seven rebounds as a senior – to go with another state title in football.

“It depends on what the situation is,” Rice said. “If there are a lot of defenders on me, sometimes I’ll use my body to protect myself. But most of the time, you want to catch it with your hands, so you have a chance to move right after that.”

Kippy Brown, the Seahawks’ receivers coach, has had the privilege to work with other wide-outs who had this catch-anything/anywhere knack. There was Carl Pickens while Brown was at the University of Tennessee. There was Calvin Johnson while Brown was with the Detroit Lions.

“It’s a nice luxury,” Brown said. “With Sidney, you could see it when he was at South Carolina. That is not coaching. He just does that. He’s just got a nose for the ball and he’s got the wingspan. That’s just what he does.”

And no other receiver in franchise history has done it quite like Rice. There was the consistent production of Hall of Fame wide receiver Steve Largent. There were ultimate possession receivers Brian Blades and Bobby Engram. There were – if for only one season – the vice-like hands of Joe Jurevicius. There was the speed of Joey Galloway. There were the on-and-off efforts of Daryl Turner, who would do just about anything to get to the ball when it was in the end zone and next-to-nothing on passes over the middle. There was the deceptive big-play ability of Darrell Jackson. There was the untapped potential of Koren Robinson.

But none of them had Rice’s radius when it comes to plucking passes out of the air. Where does this wondrous trait come from?

“I don’t know,” Rice said with a smile and shrug of his shoulder. “Just God-given ability, I guess, and determination. I’m going to catch anything in my area.”

Rice has never had his catch radius measured, and he gets a lot less excited about some of the catches he makes than his teammates and coaches because he figures he’s just doing his job. Get the ball anywhere near him, and he should catch it.

“Catches are hard to come by in this league, so whenever you get an opportunity to make one, you make the hard ones,” he said, as nonchalantly as he makes the catches. “So the easier ones, they’ll just be even easier.

“Some people are excited about certain catches that I’ve made during meetings and film (review). But I just look at it as another regular catch. If the ball is anywhere near me, I should catch it.”

So what’s more disconcerting? His ability to make those kinds of catches? Or his no-big-deal attitude about his ability to do it?

“It’s just something I have,” he said. “My main goal is just to catch the ball, no matter how I do it. Catch the ball and keep those chains moving.”

And the heads shaking. And the mouths dropping.

“Sidney was a young guy when he first came in,” Jackson said, referring to that first season together in Minnesota in 2007. “But obviously we saw the potential and the kinds of catches he could make, the body control he has, the hands that he has. As the years went by, he got better and better.

“He’s still getting better now. He’s still got a little bit of room to grow, and I can’t wait to see when he reaches full potential.”