RENTON - The talent is undeniable, the work ethic admirable and the physical toughness a given.
But more than a few NFL observers raised eyebrows during the offseason after witnessing the type of swagger T.J. Houshmandzadeh exhibited after joining the Seattle Seahawks, perhaps thinking that when the team signed him to a five-year, $40 million deal, maybe Seattle got the bravado of Cincinnati’s other playmaking receiver, Chad Ochocinco.
Among Houshmandzadeh’s more boastful claims during the team’s run-up to training camp, he said he and quarterback Matt Hasselbeck will go to the Pro Bowl as a tandem, guaranteed a top-five receiving season and considered boycotting the 2010 version of the Madden video game because he was not pleased with the rating assigned to him.
But Houshmandzadeh says don’t misunderstand – the brimming confidence he shows is not an act to bring attention his way.
“This is what people don’t understand,” said Houshmandzadeh while sitting at his Seahawks locker after a recent practice. “I’ve always had confidence. From the first day I was on the Bengals, I always was the best receiver on the team, and the coaches will tell you that.
“But because the way the NFL works, I was drafted where I was drafted and they were going to give guys opportunities before me. Granted, I did get some opportunities and I was hurt a lot early on, so I have to take some of the blame for that.
“I probably spoke my mind more than a person in my position should have. But a lot of the swagger you’ve seen in Cincinnati, to be blunt that’s just me. But people take on certain personas and that’s really not them.”
Houshmandzadeh, who will be 32 in two weeks, was selected 204th overall in the seventh round of the 2001 draft, while then fellow Oregon State teammate Johnson, now famously Ochocinco, was selected by the Bengals in the second round.
The two took different paths to the Cincinnati starting lineup. Houshmandzadeh had to fight his way onto the field, while Johnson was starting sometimes as a rookie and then became a regular starter in his second year.
That’s how it’s been for Houshmandzadeh throughout his life, from his time as a tailback at Barstow (Calif.) High to his tenure at Cerritos College, where he joined the team without much fanfare and without a high school diploma, but eventually found his way onto the field.
“The only credit I can take is that we played him, and then I have stayed close to him all these years,” said Frank Mazzotta, now in his 32nd season as head coach at Cerritos. “He hasn’t forgotten where he came from.
“He was one of those guys where you don’t want to challenge him, because boy, you’re in for trouble.”
Mazzotta found that out first hand. Houshmandzadeh finally convinced Mazzotta to put him in as a kick returner one game, telling him he could take it all the way. And as Mazzotta tells it, Houshmandzadeh was true to his word, twice returning kickoffs 100 yards for touchdowns.
Houshmandzadeh has become known around the league for his competitive nature. It’s on display with regularity during practices and games. On more than one occasion he would disgustedly punt a ball down the field after a rare drop.
Former Bengals quarterback Jon Kitna, who played with Houshmandzadeh for five seasons in Cincinnati, vouched for Mazzotta’s assessment.
“T.J. just doesn’t lose one-on-one battles,” Kitna said. “And so as a quarterback that’s comforting. If you know that he’s got one-on-one, you can just lock in on him and know he’s going to win that. He’s tough. He’s tough-minded. But I think above everything else, he kind of sees the game like a quarterback. And that’s comforting as a quarterback to know that this guy is looking at things and seeing them the same way you see them. Seattle is getting a heck of a football player.”
Houshmandzadeh has good speed, but he’s not exactly a burner. He said what he’s learned over the years is the art of taking his time and running precise routes in order to get open. In particular, Houshmandzadeh excels getting open in tight spaces in the middle of the field and near the goal line.
“I have learned to not rush things, and I think that’s a quality for a receiver that people don’t really understand,” he said. “Like, a lot of times you’ll rush stuff. It sounds simple, but you have more time than you think you have when you’re running a route.”
He certainly has reason to puff his chest out. His 372 receptions over the last four seasons are the most catches for any receiver in the NFL. Further, he excels when the game is on the line, leading the league in catches on third down with 31 in 2008.
With 507 receptions, Houshmandzadeh is 23rd on the all-time active list, sitting between Plaxico Burress (505) and Carolina’s Steve Smith (509).
Even with the success he’s had over his nine seasons in the NFL, Houshmandzadeh has been invited to only one Pro Bowl, after his 2007 season when he finished with career numbers in yards (1,143), receptions (112) and touchdowns (12).
Still, the Seahawks coaching staff believes they have their true No. 1 receiver in Houshmandzadeh.
“He’s a self-made man and he understands that his work ethic is one of the things that’s gotten him to where he is,” said Seahawks coach Jim Mora. “He’s not going to let that slip. He’s a good influence for those younger guys, a really good influence. When your best players are your hardest workers, that’s a real positive for your team.”
Offensive coordinator Greg Knapp likes Houshmandzadeh’s ability to work the middle of the field.
“He sets up DBs well,” Knapp said. “He creates windows by the way he comes off the ball, his releases. At the top of his routes he gives defenders a thought that maybe he’s going in when he’s going out, and when he’s goes out that he’s going to go in. So he runs great routes to create windows for himself.”
So can we expect a humbler Houshmandzadeh when the season begins?
“I’m not going to catch everything, but I’m going to catch damn near all of them, the majority of them, like 99 percent of them,” he said. “So that’s how I feel, and that’s how I try to prepare myself. So when the opportunity comes, I’m there and I’m ready. I’m going to seize it because guys come in here every year. And to play as many years as I have played so far, and to continue to play, you got to work your ass off to play at a high level, and that’s what I do.
“I just need to make sure me and Matt (Hasselbeck) are on the same page. And once we get on that page, I think we can put up some really good numbers. And hopefully it starts Sunday. I think it will. Just throw me the ball – it’s going to be a catch.”
Eric D. Williams: 253-597-8437