Seattle's Warrick plots way to make impact with returns

Sunday, February 5, 2006

DEARBORN, Mich. -- Peter Warrick arrived in Cincinnati in the spring of 2000 as the league's fourth overall draft choice, a two-time All-America and a touchdown dynamo from Florida State.

A catch-me-if-you-can savior for a Bengals franchise that desperately needed saving.

Warrick took one look at the hills overlooking the Ohio River on his first NFL day and said they reminded him of Hollywood.

He got Hades instead.

Five mostly lost seasons as a wide receiver led the Bengals to cut him in September. Then came this past regular season in Seattle, which he spent dragging a still-injured leg through practice-squad duty.

Now, suddenly, he is the Seahawks' unexpected punt returner in the game few expected his team -- or Warrick -- to be in, today's Super Bowl against Pittsburgh.

"It's overwhelming," he said this week, oversized earphones around his neck below his braided hair as he sat in a ballroom of the Seahawks' team hotel. "This is the experience I was hoping to be in, but never thought I would."

One of the first people he saw when he arrived in Seattle was former 2002-03 Bengals teammate Marquand Manuel, also waived by Bengals coach Marvin Lewis.

"Man, Marvin got me, too," Warrick told Manuel.

"You're one of us," Manuel said. "We're part of winning here."

But Warrick really wasn't. He spent the first half of this wondrous Seahawks season hobbling around. He spent the last half of it waiting for a chance to play receiver, to return punts, to sell hot dogs -- to do anything but watch from the sidelines while Seattle won 11 consecutive games.

"We were committed to Peter early in the season, but he was about 75 percent healed with his legs," special teams coach Bob Casullo said. "And we kind of threw him into the fire too early. And then you found out, geez, we were putting the kid into a situation that wasn't really helpful to him. So we went with Jimmy [Williams]."

Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren said: "He really looked very uncomfortable back there. And so, why throw him into the frying pan?

"Why do it [now]? It's the championship game and we're throwing everyone into the frying pan."

Williams got burned. After he fumbled twice in the Jan. 14 playoff win over Washington, in went Warrick for the NFC Championship game.

Warrick then cleanly fielded his four chances against Carolina. Now he's in the biggest game there is.

"I found out [last week] no one ever ran back a punt return [in the Super Bowl]," Warrick said. "And I'm a punt returner. I had a dream about it last night. It was actually a good dream."

Warrick also thinks of Desmond Howard.

Nine years ago, Howard became the first special teamer to win the Super Bowl MVP award. He returned a kickoff 99 yards and equaled a Super Bowl record with 244 yards on punt and kick returns during Green Bay's 35-21 win over New England -- now-Seattle coach Mike Holmgren's first and only Super Bowl victory.

Howard parlayed that day into a four-year, $12 million contract with Oakland in 1997 -- though the Raiders ultimately cut the ineffective Howard with two years left on the deal.

Like Howard's deal, Warrick's contract ends after the Super Bowl. Warrick knows a big game in the biggest game could mean another digit onto his $900,000 base salary from this season.

That makes today the biggest audition of his life.

"It is, just for personal reasons, trying to get my career jump started," Warrick said. "You know, I haven't had the best five years I would have liked."

In 2000, he was the first Bengals rookie to lead the team in catches since 1973 -- and the first player in team history to score receiving, rushing and on a return in the same season. But he also averaged a dropped pass per game. His position coach said it appeared Warrick was hurrying too much.

The next three years brought 70-, 53- and 79-catch seasons -- good, but not the game-breaking, spectacular shows Warrick put on as Florida State's career receiving leader in yards and touchdowns.

He then fell out of favor with Lewis in 2004 while rehabilitating his knee from arthroscopic surgery. In a game last September against the Jets, he cracked a shin bone. Two weeks later, he aggravated the break. He tried to play in another game, in October, and then went on the season-ending injured reserve list.

Warrick said this week an open scar on the knee got infected playing on turf and getting paint in it.

This preseason, Warrick was faced with either a Cincinnati pay cut or a release. He asked to be cut. He was, at the end of training camp. He came to Seattle -- and did basically nothing for five months.

Yet Pro Bowl quarterback Matt Hasselbeck apparently had the same thought Warrick did.

"When I first got here and things weren't working out the way I wanted to, the guy who really kept me going was Hasselbeck," Warrick said. "He said, 'Pete, we're going to go to the Super Bowl and you are going to be a star and return a punt for a touchdown.'

"At that point in the season I was like, 'Whatever.' But now he'll be the first one to tell you I've gone back to him and said, 'Thank you."'

As Casullo said: "Now Peter's locked. You can see it in practices as the year has progressed. Peter has become the old Peter. And he's ready."

Ready to erase the pain of his Bengals past. Ready to potentially cash in on his future.

And ready to fulfill one last desire: bringing a smile to the face of 9-year-old daughter Alyric. She lives in Brandon, Fla., east of Tampa.

"My daughter, she keeps me going," Warrick said, smiling. "Every time I look at her, I think, 'I've got to do something special."'

Sunday, he'll get the biggest chance of his life.

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