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Seattle's Finest

Led by rookie linebacker Lofa Tatupu, the Seahawks' remade defense has helped lift the team to the top of the NFC

Despite being a leading candidate for Rookie of the Year and starting for the team with the best record in the NFC, Seahawks middle linebacker Lofa Tatupu has never been asked for an autograph. In fact, the only person who recognizes him when he's out of uniform is his mailman, who occasionally congratulates him on a good game. "I couldn't imagine being Shaun Alexander," says Tatupu, whose team is 8--2 after a 27--25 win over the 49ers on Sunday. "Everywhere he goes, he's mobbed. I like my privacy."

Of course, Tatupu's letter carrier has the benefit of seeing his name on various envelopes. If not for that, Tatupu might never be acknowledged. One reason for the lack of recognition is that he plays on the wrong side of the ball: Seattle is an offensive juggernaut led by franchise running back Alexander, the NFL's leading rusher. The Seahawks are No. 1 in the league in total offense, and Alexander already has 19 touchdowns, the most ever through 10 games. Another factor in Tatupu's anonymity is his unimposing frame: At 5'11" and 238 pounds, he is far from what a fan expects of a professional football player.

But Tatupu seems to have made a career out of being overlooked. He was not offered a scholarship by any major colleges although he was a star at King Philip Regional High in Wrentham, Mass., and the son of former USC fullback and 14-year NFL veteran Mosi Tatupu. Lofa spent his first year at Division I-AA Maine before leaving Orono to try to latch on with a bigger program. Several schools passed before his game film caught the eye of USC coach Pete Carroll, who offered him a scholarship. After helping the Trojans win back-to-back national championships, Tatupu gave up his final year of eligibility to enter the draft, even though he was considered undersized for an NFL linebacker. The Seahawks were criticized for trading up nine spots to pluck Tatupu with the 45th overall pick.

But Tatupu's speed and savvy have helped him reverse those perceptions. Demonstrating a knack for evading blockers, he has amassed a team-best 68 tackles, including 3 1/2 sacks, and is on track to become the second rookie in franchise history to lead the Seahawks in tackles.

Tatupu is not the only young Seattle defender making an impact with a unit that has eight new starters and therefore is largely unknown to fans. Rookie outside linebacker LeRoy Hill has five sacks. Second-year strong safety Michael Boulware has 47 tackles and two sacks. Fourth-year cornerback Kelly Herndon, signed as a restricted free agent, has 51 tackles and two interceptions. The Seahawks start only three players with more than four years of experience, yet they lead the NFL with 34 sacks and are giving up 35.5 fewer yards and 4.6 fewer points per game than they did last season.

Seattle has not won a playoff game since 1984, the longest drought of any franchise. But fullback Mack Strong believes the '05 squad will end that streak of futility. "I've been on teams where we had guys who were great individual players," Strong says, "but this is easily the best team."


Keyshawn Johnson, a far better blocker and team player than Terrell Owens, will feel betrayed if the Cowboys pursue TO instead of redoing Johnson's contract. But that may not stop Dallas. Owens is an explosive playmaker, Johnson (above) a possession receiver.... Kurt Warner is 34, he's moved his family from Missouri to New Jersey to Arizona in the past two years, and he doesn't know if he'll be wanted in 2006 by the Cardinals. But he wants to play beyond this year. "I think I'll play," the two-time MVP said last week. "It's been frustrating to try to recapture what we had in St. Louis, but that's what drives me, to play at that level again. And you don't throw for 300 yards a game, which I've done here, with no talent." ... In the seven seasons since Brian Billick, once considered a quarterback maestro, took the Ravens' coaching job, Baltimore's composite QB rating is 70.3, the lowest in the AFC in that span.... Bad Redskins Omen of the Week: Joe Gibbs is 11--15 in his second Washington tenure--the same record as Steve Spurrier in his first 26 games. --Peter King



MUST-SEE HAWKS While Alexander gets most of the attention, Tatupu (inset) has been just as valuable.