GLENDALE, Ariz. — Ask any of the Seattle Seahawks’ coaches and players to describe Michael Bennett and the words “unique” and “different” usually surface.
It’s easy to see why.
Bennett, like his journey to stardom, is far from ordinary. It began on the western banks of the Mississippi, and his birthplace in Louisiana. It took him to College Station, Texas, where he played alongside his younger and more famous brother, Martellus. Unlike Martellus, a second-round pick of the Dallas Cowboys, Michael Bennett went undrafted. After making the Seahawks’ final 53-man roster as a rookie, Bennett was waived after four games, catching on in Tampa Bay, where he languished as a role player for three seasons before becoming a full-time starter in 2012.
Two years, two contracts, two Super Bowls and one joyride on a police bicycle later, the older brother is finally in the spotlight, terrorizing quarterbacks and filling quote books with the veracity of a rambunctious 8-year-old.
Super Bowl XLIX: Coverage starts Sunday at noon ET on NBC, Live Extra
“Michael’s a very, uh, interesting human being,” his position coach, Travis Jones, says at media day, only feet from where his star pupil has the rapt attention of the journalism horde.
“At Tampa, they didn’t know about him,” Jones says. “Undrafted free agent. He has a perpetual chip on his shoulder: ‘I’m out to go and prove something every time I play, that I’m a premier player in this league.’ … That’s probably what’s driven him the hardest is the fact that he was overlooked so many times early on.”
Jones speaks glowingly about Bennett, as do the rest of his teammates and coaches. When Bennett arrives at media day wearing a white cowboy hat, fellow defensive end Cliff Avril can only laugh.
“I’m used to seeing Mike looking crazy,” he says.
Bennett’s sense of humor is as overpowering as his bull-rush. When he cracks a joke, the room laughs. When an offensive lineman overextends, Bennett blows by him and into the backfield, bringing running backs and quarterbacks to an immediate stop. When he wrangles quarterbacks to the ground, the two worlds meet. Bennett leaps to his feet and gyrates his hips through the air, a pro wrestling tribute he once described as “two angels dancing while chocolate is coming from the heavens on a nice Sunday morning.”
It’s hard not to laugh with the 6-foot-4, 271-pounder, who calls offensive linemen fat and credits “The Total Gym” for his long, lean physique, but no opponent is laughing, particularly the one he’ll try to punish Sunday night in Super Bowl XLIX.
“He’s a great player,” New England Patriots quarterback Tom – or Thomas, as Bennett calls him – Brady said Monday night. “They move him up front quite a bit. He’s very disruptive in the run game, the pass game. He’s a very stout defender. He’s got a great motor, got a great knack for the ball. He’s the playmaker for that defense, so you have to be able to account for that. It’ll be a tough matchup.”
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Bennett’s football journey has been full of fits and starts. Lightly recruited out of Alief High School in Houston, Bennett committed to Louisiana Tech but was ruled academically ineligible and ended up with his brother at Texas A&M a year later. While Martellus bolted early for the NFL, Michael surprisingly stayed a fourth year. Despite a solid senior season against the run and the pass, 256 picks went by without Michael hearing his name called. Nineteen defensive ends were drafted that year. Scouts worried he was a “tweener,” not strong enough to overpower offensive linemen 60 pounds heavier than him, but still not fast enough to get around the edge.
Bennett signed with the Seahawks as a free agent and made enough of an impression in training camp to stick as one of 11 defensive linemen on the final 53-man roster, an unusually high number for that position group. But four games into the 2009 regular season, the Seahawks’ offensive line was in tatters, and with the team needing the roster spot, Bennett was waived, unwanted yet again. Picked up by the Buccaneers, he sat behind unproductive first- and second-round picks for two years before forcing his way into consistent playing time in 2011. By 2012, Bennett was a full-time starter – and a productive one, at that. That year Bennett led the Buccaneers in hurries, quarterback hits and sacks and was fourth on the team in stops, a Pro Football Focus statistic measuring solo tackles that result in offensive failure.
Still, the Bucs declined to use their franchise tag on Bennett, allowing him to test free agency and essentially risk losing their best pass-rusher for nothing. But Bennett drew no real offers beyond early interest from several clubs, sitting on the open market for days before he settled on a one-year, $5 million contract with the team he’d unwillingly left four years ago – the Seahawks.
“It was just (coach) Pete Carroll and (then-defensive line coach) Dan Quinn. Knowing Dan for so long, it gave me a good insight of what the plan was for the team and what the position they were heading towards,” Bennett said. “And, of course, the city’s so clean, you could eat off the road. People ride bikes around. Fresh fish – once I go somewhere else and eat, the food doesn’t taste the same because in Seattle, everything is fresh and organic.”
It turned out Bennett played most of the 2012 season with a torn rotator cuff, which led to questions about whether the Seahawks were taking too big of a risk. General manager John Schneider even admitted that Bennett would eventually need surgery but wouldn’t have it in time for the 2013 season. It was a gamble, by both player and team, but one that paid off handsomely.
Bennett was a monster in 2013. Despite playing on just 58 percent of defensive snaps, Bennett led the Seahawks in hurries and quarterback hits, and he tied for the team lead in sacks. But it wasn’t just the pass rush where Bennett excelled – the all-around game that Bennett had developed since college was flourishing in Seattle’s defensive scheme. His PFF grade against the run grew from 5.6 in 2012 to 8.6 in 2013 and PFF ranked Bennett fifth among 52 4-3 defensive ends against the ground game.
“Sometimes guys have a tremendous amount of ability and they get just good enough but they can’t get in there and finish it,” Jones said. “He’s one of those guys that’s got a lot of instincts and wants to finish on the ball and knows how to find the ball. It may sound simple about being able to ‘find the ball,’ but it isn’t.”
As the Seahawks marched toward the franchise’s first Super Bowl championship last January, Bennett helped find the ball plenty, leading the way on defense with 12 hurries, five stops and two sacks in three postseason games. And when the Gatorade flowed and the confetti fell at MetLife Stadium, Bennett took to the ground to do pushups amidst thousands of shards of neon paper.
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Bennett’s gamble paid off. He was about to be a free agent again, but this time, he had a Super Bowl ring and a second straight stellar season despite the damaged shoulder. The rumors flew that he would reunite with his brother in Chicago, where the Bears had a desperate need for a dominant defensive lineman and the money to afford one.
But Bennett opted to stay in Seattle, re-signing with the Seahawks on a four-year, $28.5 million deal with $16 million guaranteed – not peanuts by any stretch, but far less than Everson Griffen got from the Vikings only a day earlier and reportedly less than both the Bears and another team were willing to pay Bennett.
Except it wasn’t just about money to Bennett – the Seahawks were a home to him, a place where he flourished and felt accepted, wanted and appreciated.
“You think about Google, you think about how they let their people be who they are,” Bennett said. “You think about any successful business in America right now, and it’s all about letting people be themselves and letting them work. Sometimes when you have people doing too much, they just forget who they are and they aren’t happy. And when you’re happy, you do a lot of things better.”
Bennett did plenty of things better this season after he took on a full-time role following the offseason departures of defensive end Chris Clemons and defensive tackle Red Bryant, Bennett’s former A&M teammate and one of his best friends in the league. Already a versatile defender, Bennett flourished despite being asked to line up at nearly every position across the defensive line on a weekly basis.
“In a game, he’ll line up over the right tackle, the left tackle, the right guard, the left guard … that’s why he’s so unique,” Quinn, now the team’s defensive coordinator, said Tuesday. “He’s strong enough and stout enough to play inside, but has the speed and the quickness to play at the end.”
Although he finished with just seven sacks and 13 quarterback hits, Bennett’s 53 hurries and 31 stops were both career highs. By season’s end, he was the second-highest-graded 4-3 defensive end in the entire league, according to PFF.
“He came from a tough background … it was just hard for him growing up and he’s just been able to overcome a lot of obstacles,” Jones said of Bennett’s childhood, which included three surgeries at the age of eight that left him unable to walk at one point. “And I appreciate knowing that about him that kinda makes him who he is. … That’s what drives a guy in the fourth quarter, and we’ve got three minutes left to go in the game, we need to try to get the ball back, and then you go out and make two tackles for losses within that drive.”
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There’s no one quite like Michael Bennett, not even his outspoken brother. Funny, creative, personable, smart and unbelievably talented, Bennett has become one of the most indispensable players on the greatest defense in three decades.
“I think we try to celebrate when a guy has uniqueness,” Quinn said Tuesday. “Mike certainly is a unique guy. As opposed to going the other way, we certainly try to celebrate how some guys are different in terms of their approach or how they go about it and I think Mike appreciates that, too.”
With a second straight Super Bowl only days away, that much was evident. There were no worries, no outward concerns about Brady or the Patriots offense – just a bushy beard and an ear-to-ear smile under that stark, white Cowboy hat.
After a strange journey, it’s good to be Michael Bennett.
“I’m never stressed, man,” Bennett said. “I wake up every day and look in the mirror and say, ‘Damn, I look good,’ so I can’t be stressed.”