Tate’s loss Hawks’ most painful

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“In this league, you see guys come and go so quickly. I’ve seen guys on this team I used to watch just absolutely kill it be released. And I don’t want to be that guy.”

— Golden Tate during training camp last July

SEATTLE — He is that guy now.

The only difference is that Tate wasn’t released. He signed with the Detroit Lions as a free agent. He lived up to his preseason vow to improve and become an integral part of a championship team, and he assumed that would be enough to make him an irreplaceable Seahawk. But there is no such thing.

The Seahawks have a $133 million salary cap to manage, and with the likelihood that they will be doling out $30 million-plus guarantees to Earl Thomas, Richard Sherman and Russell Wilson soon, they didn’t value Tate as much as Detroit did. They couldn’t value him at $6 million per season for five years, not after rolling out a Brinks truck for Percy Harvin a year earlier. And so now Tate carries an interesting designation.

He’s the best player the Seahawks have lost in the Pete Carroll/John Schneider era.

Think about that. The Seahawks have made more than 1,000 transactions the past four years, and they have never lost (or moved on from) a player as productive as Tate at such a young age, with the potential to be even better. The big-play wide receiver/punt returner is 25 years old with 165 career receptions, and he has improved significantly every year. Now that he’s in the Lions’ pass-happy offense, playing with strong-armed quarterback Matthew Stafford and all-world receiver Calvin Johnson, don’t be surprised if Tate’s future is full of 1,000-yard receiving seasons.

The Seahawks have been unafraid to say goodbye to good players under Carroll and Schneider. In 2010, they cut wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh, who had led the Seahawks in receptions the previous year, because his mouth was greater than his diminishing skills. After the 2011 season, they let linebacker David Hawthorne go to New Orleans after he had recorded three straight 100-tackle seasons because they wanted to get faster. And we all remember the polarizing decision to let Matt Hasselbeck go to Tennessee in favor of Tarvaris Jackson.

In every case, whether it was releasing Lofa Tatupu or declaring Aaron Curry a bust by trading him, the Seahawks have been able to justify their decisions because the team has only gotten better. When judging them in a vacuum, they haven’t been flawless, but in the big picture, they’ve made progressive choices, culminating in their Super Bowl triumph last month.

But Tate is a different kind of loss. We’re about to learn more about the front office’s ability to evaluate their own talent. It was easy to get rid of some of those other players because their skills were eroding. But this is the first time they’ve had to say no to a kind of player they like: young, ultra-athletic, still on the ascent, significant production to be so young.

Tate is the kind of player the Seahawks have traded for or signed away from other teams. This time, though, they watched another team take one of their players before he had hit his peak. Even while understanding their need to manage the cap, this move is painful.

Was it a decision the Seahawks will regret for years to come? Doubtful. You must remember that, the way Schneider operates, he doesn’t just have a finite amount of fruit that can’t be replenished once consumed. He has produced an orchard; there will always be fresh talent to pick.

Schneider doesn’t function in a reactionary manner, either. The Seahawks had a plan for keeping Tate, and they already have a plan for losing him. There’s flexibility and fluidity in everything they do. So, they’re not in scramble mode. The Seahawks held firm with what they wanted to offer Tate, and when Detroit offered a five-year, $31 million contract ($13.25 million guaranteed), they wished the receiver well.

That’s how you run an NFL team. You retain only your elite players at all costs. You must be fearless and accept that you’re going to lose good players. And then you better back up your confidence by delivering fresh, young talent.

Human nature dictates that we’ll look at Tate’s stats every week, scrutinize the Seahawks’ revised receiving corps and pass judgment. Schneider and Carroll have yet to be burned by a team-building decision like this. Tate represents the greatest challenge to that track record.

There’s little doubt Tate will put up numbers in Detroit. The question is what the Seahawks will do in response. Sign a stopgap veteran like Steve Smith? Find a cheaper alternative? Strengthen the team elsewhere?

Do something unexpected, win another Super Bowl, and laugh that this was even an issue?

If the latter happens, Tate will surely regret being forced to be that guy.

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