John Bates was likely not a familiar name to Washington fans in early May, but everything they need to know about him can be summed up in his answer to this question posed by Ron Rivera: "Shouldn't they have thrown you the ball more?"
It's a fair question to ask, considering what Rivera and Martin Mayhew saw on film. They liked Bates' power, hands and catch radius whenever the ball was thrown his way, but he only had 570 yards in four seasons to show for it. His answer was simple: "Coach, I just did what they asked me to do because it's important. It's what the team needed me to do."
"And I thought, 'What a great answer that is,'" Rivera said on an episode of the Washington Football Talk Podcast. "'This is a very unselfish football player and the type of guy you want on your football team.'"
Unselfish is the right word to describe Bates, according to his former Boise State coaches and teammates. It's why the stats don't give the full respect that Bates' skillset has earned. All he wants to do is help his team win, whether it's making plays downfield or opening a lane in the running game. Whatever the team needs, he will do it to the best of his ability.
"He's not a flashy guy now who makes some flashy plays," said Boise State tight end coach Kent Riddle. "He's not going to be a guy out there promoting himself."
Bates is used to working out of the spotlight; in fact, that's where he excels the most. Of course he wants to make big plays for his team whenever he gets the opportunity, but that doesn't always mean making catches downfield. More often than not, Bates' biggest moments have come by making room for others as a blocker, and it's a role he has come to embrace.
"I actually love run blocking," Bates told Idaho Statesman in 2019. "When I first got here, it wasn't initially my first thought, but I eventually had to step into that role and fill it."
There are some important elements that Riddle believes go into blocking. Players need functional strength, good technique and a willingness to improve. Bates possesses all three; his bench press is well over 300 pounds, according to Riddle, and he works hard at mastering his technique, particularly in using his leverage to his advantage.
"He was such a force," Broncos tight end Riley Smith said of Bates. "Everybody would go out full speed trying to get through him, but he would just feel the way they're going and feel the way he wants them to go. He would just use that leverage and just dominate them."
Riddle instilled a dominant mentality in Bates and the rest of his tight ends. Sometimes they're required to base block the defensive end; other plays might involve blocking down on a defensive tackle or working up to a linebacker. Either way, the goal remained the same: dominate your assignment and do your job.
"John really brought that into his game," Smith said. "It's really just about winning your one-on-one, whatever it is."
Boise State often needed Bates to be an extra blocker, so he did not get as many opportunities to be a pass-catcher. He made the most of his chances, though, averaging 12.3 yards per receptions in four seasons. He isn't explosive, Mayhew said, but he is functional and shows quickness coming off the ball.
"He just makes plays," Smith said. "And a big part of it is that mental game that he plays. He knows what the defense is doing before he even runs his route. And so he goes out and he just finds a way to get open. ...He was a great receiver when he had to be."
National analysts have also pointed out that people underestimate what Bates can do in the passing game. Todd McShay even said that "he catches the ball as well as any tight end in this class not named [Kyle] Pitts," when Washington drafted. Riddle believes a lot of that comes from his previous athletic experience, which includes basketball as well as track and field.
"He'll make big plays in crowds," Riddle said. "It's just the understanding of, 'Hey, man, if it's close to you, go get it. It's your ball.'"
But Riddle doesn't see Bates and Pitts in the same category. Instead, he sees his former player fitting a similar mold as George Kittle, meaning he is a "do-it-all" type who isn't just a pass-catcher or a blocker. In actuality, he's a little bit of both.
"He's definitely a guy that wants to be on the field and wants to contribute any way he can," Riddle said. "He's a guy that just loves to be on a field playing."
Bates might be the player whose stats pop off the box score, but that doesn't mean he lacks value. Sometimes an offense needs a player like him who is willing to do whatever is needed, even if it doesn't mean getting the attention.
Other people might not notice that, but his coaches and teammates certainly will.
"It's just that hardworking, blue collar mentality," Riddle said. "You do what's required of you, and he's got that. Sometimes that might affect his production in terms of statistics, but I don't feel like it ever affects his production in terms of what the team needs."