RENTON, Wash. – T.J. Houshmandzadeh(notes) caught 79 balls last season, but if you're looking for the moment that encapsulates the high-priced wideout's first season with the Seattle Seahawks, you should know about a throw he made in the second game of a frustrating campaign.
The Seahawks, fresh off a season-opening shutout of the St. Louis Rams, were playing the 49ers in San Francisco for first place in the NFC West, the type of big game the longtime Cincinnati Bengals receiver envisioned when he signed a five-year, $40 million, free-agent deal with Seattle in March 2009.
The first quarter went by, and Houshmandzadeh, as he'd been the previous week against the Rams, was an invisible man. He finally touched the football in the second quarter, and after catching a Matt Hasselbeck(notes) pass in the middle of the field, Houshmandzadeh engaged in a display of frustration that earned him a reprimand from then-coach Jim Mora.
"I took the ball and [angrily] threw it toward our sideline," Houshmandzadeh recalled Thursday between training-camp practices. "I was obviously frustrated; it was like [I was saying], 'I can do this all the time.' Jim had to tell me to calm down. But I was like, 'Wow – they brought me here for this?' "
Houshmandzadeh's frustration mounted as the year continued, a 5-11 debacle that got Mora fired after a single season and had plenty of Seahawks fans questioning the franchise's financial commitment to Chad Ochocinco's(notes) former sidekick.
It's not a stretch to call Houshmandzadeh's '09 season a major disappointment – he absolutely agrees, as many of the expectations were of his own making. Having averaged 98 receptions over his final three seasons in Cincinnati – his best season came in 2007, when he caught 112 passes for 1,143 yards and 12 touchdowns – Houshmandzadeh approached free agency with an Ocho-esque bravado, choosing the Seahawks over the Vikings and proclaiming that he'd put up massive numbers.
He even griped publicly about his rating in the Madden 2010 video game, vowing not to play it " until they get my rating right." Says Hasselbeck of his teammate: "I'm sure he'd like to have that one back."
In that context, Houshmandzadeh's numbers – his 79 catches produced 911 receiving yards, three TDs and very few memorable moments – were decidedly underwhelming. He frequently told reporters of his desire for an expanded role in the offense, but on the field he often became strangely passive, resigned to another Sunday of disappointment.
"I remember he fumbled in one game at home and came back to the sideline with his head down," fellow wideout Deion Branch(notes) recalls. "He said, 'Dawg, I'm not even there. I don't feel it.' He's not that type of guy normally. He's a high-energy guy, always into the game. But when it's bad, it's bad."
Houshmandzadeh doesn't use losing as an excuse – "I came from Cincy," he says. "I've been on teams where we lost." Nor does he cite the painful sports-hernia injury with which he played all last season (and that wiped out most of his 2010 offseason as he recovered from surgery) as a cause for his reduced productivity.
The culprit, he believes, was a combination of former coordinator Greg Knapp's offense, which was explicitly designed not to favor one pass-catcher over another, and his own inability to stay mentally strong in the face of mounting disappointment.
"I evaluate myself," Houshmandzadeh says. "It was just one of those things where I wasn't myself, for whatever reason. I wasn't getting the ball, and I let that affect me too much. On tape, I looked bad. And I'm sure other people who watched me on tape thought I looked bad, too. I didn't understand it. That completely baffled me. It took me away from who I was."
Determined to make a big splash with his new team, Houshmandzadeh got into a funk early when he felt he wasn't involved in the offense.
"I go back and look at the first three games of the season, and I can probably count on one hand the number of balls that came my way in the first half of those games," Houshmandzadeh says. "Sure, I might've gotten some touches when the games were out of reach, but those were garbage opportunities.
"I came from a team with Chad and Chris Henry, where I was the go-to guy. People on the outside might think it was Chad, but those who were there know better – it was me. Not to discredit anybody, but we didn't have a Chad on [last year's] team, and I wasn't the go-to guy. That confused me."
Houshmandzadeh said he became uncharacteristically introverted during games, with the team's 38-17 road defeat to the Cowboys in November a notable exception.
"I'm usually crazy during games, and the only time I was talking and acting like myself was against Dallas," Houshmandzadeh says. "I felt we could beat Dallas; I felt we should have. Literally, during the game, the Dallas DBs were saying, 'Whoooo, I'm glad they didn't throw it to you on that play.'
"Things were boiling over. I'd run my route and come back and say, 'I'm open again.' I would talk to Matt, and he'd say, 'You're like the third option on this play.' "
At one point Hasselbeck also provided enlightenment about Knapp's offensive approach – Houshmandzadeh says he never complained directly to the coordinator – one apparently shaped by the coach's unpleasant experiences with ball-hungry Terrell Owens(notes) in San Francisco from 1996-2003.
"I had a long talk with Matt at about the midpoint of the season," Houshmandzadeh says, "and he said things that blew my mind. He told me, 'He doesn't believe in getting the ball to [specific] guys. Once he left Terrell, he stopped believing in that.' "
It didn't help Houshmandzadeh's mindset as he watched the Vikings, energized by Brett Favre's(notes) ageless right arm, reach the NFC championship game, and saw his former Bengals teammates roll to their first AFC North title since 2005. Did he regret his decision to sign with the Seahawks?
"Hindsight is 20-20," he says. "The Vikings, the Bengals … it was tough. But it's a new year. Neither one won the Super Bowl, so that helps."
Houshmandzadeh is optimistic about the switch to new coach Pete Carroll and offensive coordinator Jeremy Bates, though he concedes that he is far from feeling comfortable with the new scheme because of the abdominal surgery he underwent in April. The recovery essentially kept him away from the team's entire offseason training program, though he did work out in Los Angeles with a group that included Patriots quarterback Tom Brady(notes) and wideout Wes Welker(notes); Cardinals quarterback Matt Leinart(notes); and Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer(notes) and Owens, who ended up signing with Cincinnati to play opposite Ochocinco.
"I'm real rusty right now," Houshmandzadeh says. "The offense changed, and the fact that I didn't do anything in the offseason makes it tough. I'm thinking too much out there."
Says Carroll: "He had a difficult offseason. He could not have been in good shape coming in, with all the time he missed. He's really behind in his development. He's out there working hard and doing well, but it's going to take him awhile. He's getting crushed with a lot of stuff right now."
Early in camp Houshmandzadeh told the Seattle Times' Jerry Brewer that he felt Seahawks practices weren't competitive enough last year, a situation he believes will be remedied under Carroll's leadership. If he fails to become the impact player Seattle fans expected him to be upon his arrival, it won't be for lack of passion.
"You have to understand where I came from," he says. "In Cincinnati, me and Chad would compete with each other in practice. If one of us took extra reps, the other one would. If one of us lined up for the scout team, the other one would do it, too. If he was catching more balls, I wanted more for me. We competed with each other in practice, and in games. He pushed me, and I pushed him. You have to have that. You want your guys to want the ball.
"I'm not a selfish player. Do I want the ball? Yes. Do I want it a lot? Yes. That's me. I don't see the problem."
Unless, of course, he's throwing it at his own sideline.