BY Doug Farrar 01:01PM 12/20/2010

Michael Robinson, through different eyes

Multi-faceted player starring for Seahawks in yet another role

Michael Robinson has become a multiple threat in a new offense. (Drew Sellers/Sportspress Northwest)

In football, the closer you get to the pros, the more important it generally is to have a defined position – and to define that position as much as you possibly can. There are the occasional outliers who defy definition, but in the NFL, “versatility” is generally typified by quarterbacks who can run a bit, or running backs that can actually catch the ball without falling down.

In the case of Seahawks fullback Michael Robinson, positional specificity is a tougher go. The athletic 6-1, 223-pound Robinson resembles the traditional NFL fullback about as much as Pete Carroll resembles Mike Holmgren in body type, but that doesn’t mean that Robinson isn’t effective. When the Seahawks beat the Carolina Panthers, 31-14 in Week 13, Robinson led the way for the team to enjoy a season-high total of 161 rushing yards, often out of three-wide, two backs sets in which all tight ends were on the sideline. Robinson put on a blocking clinic, which was made all the more impressive by the fact that the former quarterback/running back/receiver was still in Fullback 101 mode.

“He’ll even say that blocking was something that he needed to work on,” said Seahawks running backs coach Sherman Smith last week. “He was a quarterback in college, then he started playing running back . . .  the blocking was something that needed to develop. There are so many types of blocks that he has to learn, but the attitude and toughness are there, so the technique will be nothing for him to grasp.”

Attitude is Robinson’s linchpin at any position, and it’s allowed him to take a guided tour through offensive skill positions at the NCAA and NFL level. A three-year starting quarterback at Varina High in Richmond, Virginia, Robinson went to Penn State as a different type of signal-caller.

“We were at a point at Penn State where we didn’t have the recruits we were accustomed to getting, and (head caoch Joe Paterno) said, ‘Mike, you’re probably our best quarterback,’” Robinson recalled. “’Problem is, you’re probably also our best running back , and our best wide receiver. If we can put somebody at quarterback to get you the ball, that will probably be the best for both situations.’ That’s how that came about. He actually told me in my sophomore year, ‘You can be a great quarterback here, but you’ll be a running back in the NFL.’ I didn’t understand it until I analyzed myself and the way I ran the ball when I got out of college.”

Before that happened, Robinson started a series of position switches that saw him go from scout team quarterback in 2001, to a QB/RB/WR hybrid in 2002, to a more defined role as a running back and receiver in 2003 and 2004, to a trip back to the quarterback position for his senior season of 2005. In that year, Robinson was Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year and made the semifinals for the Davey O’Brien Award, given to the best quarterback in the nation. He put up 2,350 yards through the air, and another 806 on the ground. Robinson said that as he came out of college and entered the daily grind of the pre-draft process, he tried out for different NFL teams at different positions and discovered a reason for the end of his progress as a functional quarterback..

“I worked out as a quarterback, also as a running back, and as wide receiver,” he said. “I backpedaled for some coaches in defensive back drills. Again, I wanted to be a football player — I wanted to show the coaches that I could do whatever I put my mind to. I remember meeting with Miami when Coach (Nick) Saban was there, and I don’t know if it was coach’s jargon or whatever, but we talked privately, and he said, ‘You know we were really thinking about making a move on you as a quarterback – we like what you’re doing and you got a lot better from the end of the (senior) season until now. But Vince Young and Matt Leinart; those guys have game reps, and you don’t. They’re 500 snaps ahead of you.’ And I couldn’t do anything about that.”

Selected by the San Francisco 49ers in the fourth round of the 2006 draft, Robinson tried to find a role on a rebuilding team that switched offensive coordinators every year and didn’t see a major place for an unorthodox player. He never rushed for more than 121 yards in a season, never caught more than 202 yards in passes in a campaign, and never had more than 414 return yards. He was finally released by San Francisco on September 3, and signed by the Seahawks three days later. In Pete Carroll’s system, players are expected to do more and fit in whenever their talents dictate – more of a college approach for a coach who spent his last decade at USC – and Robinson fit in as expected.

But as a fullback? A true blocking fullback? In truth, Robinson’s approach to blocking has been enhanced by his multi-position past. As a quarterback, he had to identify the middle linebacker on every play and adjust protection calls based on formation. As a tailback and wide receiver, he thought – and fought – outside the traditional fullback box. And at its heart, Robinson’s approach to total football made for a 3-D view.

“It helps you anticipate better, and this game is all about anticipation. The guys are just too good in this league – you can’t see it and then react. My quarterback background has helped me better anticipate when the blitz is coming, or I know when Matt (Hasselbeck) is going to check out of a play. Because I know what he’s looking at. I read it holistically; I can’t just look at one aspect of it.”

Smith agreed. “Oh, no question – he prepares like a quarterback. He wants to know what everyone’s doing. So, he not only knows what he’s doing, and that makes a difference. Some guys just go out there to run the run, but they don’t know why they’re running that way. But he understands why he’s running that way, and why he has to make adjustments. He’s got great football intelligence, and it really helps that he’s played so many positions.”

The next challenge for Robinson and for the Seahawks may be to take that hybrid fullback position forward as a facilitator for a potential offense unfettered by positional and personnel limitations.

“I think the fullback position is going to get better – that hybrid type of guy. It’s kind of like what Lawrence Taylor did with that hybrid linebacker/defensive end spot – if you can find an offense where you can go with any formation, run the ball and pass the ball, and keep the same personnel on the field, that’s when you start to hurt a defense. With a hybrid fullback, if the defense runs nickel, we might run the ball. You put in big guys, we can spread out and go empty backfield, and now you have matchup problems.”

And then, the player who was all over the place would be the epicenter of it all.

It had to be asked, though – with more Wildcat and other option sets gaining a foothold in the NFL, with three times more shotgun sets in the pros than a decade ago, and with Michael Vick breaking specific barriers and stereotypes regarding running quarterbacks, does Robinson ever wonder if that could have been him as a real NFL quarterback? His answer came as much in the person of Auburn quarterback Cam Newton, who just won the Heisman Trophy, and is next in line to possibly be the bionic version of John Elway and Steve Young the league is waiting for.

“I think the NFL is still 10 years behind college football (from a formation perspective). It will get there. You have a guy like Cam Newton, and I think he’s going to blow the doors off this new age of running quarterbacks. Because I’ve been watching him – he can really throw the ball. I think we just need a guy like that to win a Super Bowl. You get a guy like that winning a Super Bowl, and all of a sudden, teams will be looking for those players.

“I remember talking to (former Ohio State quarterback and recent 49ers starting quarterback) Troy Smith a couple years back about it, and telling him, ‘Man, you know, we were about eight years too early.’ You look 10-20 years from now, and the league will be full of those guys. Can you imagine Mike Vick at 6-3, 240 pounds, can run the ball and take the hits, and keep on getting up and throwing the ball? You put a guy like that behind center, and what are you going to do as a defense?”

If you ask Michael Robinson what position he plays, he’ll make it very simple for you – “football player.” That’s the short version. The expanded edition of that particular player has a story still unraveling, and unfolding in a way that could help save the Seahawks’ season.

No matter where a player lines up, what more can you ask of him?