RENTON, Wash. -- T.J. Houshmandzadeh was stunned. He had no time to process that a guy he just met was asking him to hand over his custom-jeweled, multi-thousand-dollar watch.
"I respect you as a man and I think you should honor your commitment to go to Minnesota -- but you need to take that watch off and leave it here as collateral," Seahawks coach Jim Mora told Houshmandzadeh on Saturday, just before the top wide receiver in free agency departed Seattle to follow through on his promise to visit the Vikings.
|T.J. Houshmandzadeh and Jim Mora enter the honeymoon phase. (AP)|
"I didn't even think about," he said. "I just took it off. I was so surprised."
Three stressful and sleepless days of indecision later, the former go-to guy for the Cincinnati Bengals got his watch back -- along with a huge, five-year contract to be the centerpiece of Mora's revamped offense in Seattle.
"Had he chosen to go to Minnesota, I would have certainly and gladly mailed it to him. But I'm glad he came back to pick it up in person," Mora said with a wry smile.
Multiple reports say the contract is for five years and $40 million, with $15 million in guarantees for the 31-year-old, who dismissed the Bengals for being too late and too insincere.
"I never had stress in my life -- until this weekend. I was waking up in the middle of the night," Houshmandzadeh said.
He caught 204 passes in the last two seasons in Cincinnati. Seattle's top wide receiver last year was Bobby Engram with just 47 catches. The Seahawks had seven injuries at the position last season and slid from NFC West champions to 4-12.
Seahawks president Tim Ruskell said the team hasn't ruled out retaining Engram, but that seems unlikely. Engram is 36 years old and became a free agent after Seattle refused to give him the multiyear deal he wanted last year.
The Seahawks didn't expect to make a big splash in free agency. And Ruskell said they expected the Bengals to keep Houshmandzadeh. He teamed with Chad Johnson to give them one of the best receiving tandems in the NFL since 2005, the season in which Cincinnati had its only winning record in the past 18 years.
The Bengals then surprised Seattle two weeks ago by using their franchise tag on kicker Shayne Graham instead of Houshmandzadeh.
Houshmandzadeh said the Bengals made a late offer to keep him -- far too late for him.
"If Cincinnati wanted, they could have had me. They wanted me, but at their convenience," he said.
Houshmandzadeh has had three consecutive seasons with at least 90 catches, including a league co-leading 112 in 2007, when he made his first Pro Bowl.
Seattle has had just one receiver with 90 catches in a season -- in 2007 when Engram had 94.
No wonder the Seahawks pulled out tricks to woo Houshmandzadeh.
Beyond Mora's watch-as-collateral caper, Houshmandzadeh, wife Kaci and daughters Karrington (8) and Kennedi (6) got a surprise flight over Seattle on the float plane owned by team owner Paul Allen, the Microsoft Corp. tycoon.
The receiver said his daughters especially loved that ride, which was a stroke of Seahawks luck.
Allen's plane was heading north for annual maintenance during Housmandzadeh's visit when the pilot made an unscheduled stop to check out the new dock that had been finished at the Seahawks' luxurious headquarters on Lake Washington only the night before. Ruskell looked at the window of the building, saw the plane at the dock and seized the opportunity to schmooze.
"That's when you get the 'Whooo-whoo!' feeling (about a possible deal)," Ruskell said, throwing his hands up as if fate had joined the Seahawks and Houshmandzadeh.
Houshmandzadeh will team with Deion Branch and Nate Burleson, both of whom were injured last season, in three-wide receiver sets. He will wear jersey number 18 in Seattle, the number he wore while at Oregon State a decade ago -- and the number now in-limbo Koren Robinson wore while a fill-in for the desperate Seahawks last fall.
Mora still remembers Houshmandzadeh tying his career high with 12 catches for 141 yards and a touchdown in Seattle's close win over Cincinnati in Week 3 of the 2007 season, when Mora was the Seahawks' defensive backs coach.
"He gives teams huge matchup problems," Mora said, describing the 6-foot-1, 199 pound receiver's physical play. "And he is known as one of the finest route runners in the NFL."
Houshmandzadeh said he picked Seattle because of three-time Pro Bowl quarterback Matt Hasselbeck and the franchise's recent history of dominating its division. Minnesota's quarterback situation remains unsettled.
"I just wanted to come to a team that had a chance to win. And I think I did that," he said. "I wanted to come for a team that wanted me. And I think I did that."