Making the Grade By Getting a 'D'

By Les Carpenter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 12, 2006

KIRKLAND, Wash. -- Draft week always brought nods and smirks. The needs never changed for the Seattle Seahawks -- a hulking defensive end, a middle linebacker, a safety who could knock people flat. The choices were always obvious. Reports were made, arguments pursued, the data delivered and everyone knew just where it would go.

In the days when Mike Holmgren served double duty as coach and general manager here, the most compelling arguments for a defensive star were always for naught.

Holmgren was an old quarterback, his coaching mind sharpened in the thin pass-filled air at BYU and at the feet of Bill Walsh and the West Coast offense. As long as Holmgren was picking, everyone around Seahawks headquarters knew exactly what the team was choosing. And it wasn't some boring, old defensive tackle.

Which is how the Seahawks, who will host the Washington Redskins on Saturday in an NFC playoff game, came to build the framework of the league's second-most-potent offense, taking players such as league MVP Shaun Alexander, Pro Bowl guard Steve Hutchinson and tight end Jerramy Stevens. Yet the construction came at the price of a defense that seemed to get worse and worse by the season.

At one point during his last season in Seattle, Redskins cornerback Shawn Springs threw up his hands and complained, "We've got a lot of talent on this team, it's just all on the other side of the ball."

In an era when teams are building their Super Bowl runs with great defenses, the Seahawks were trying to be something of an anomaly -- a team that would try to win big by outscoring everybody. And for years it didn't work.

The coaches would talk about how all they needed to be were the St. Louis Rams of a few years ago, a team with a dominating offense and a defense that was ranked somewhere around 15th out of 32 teams. The problem was, the Seahawks weren't even close to being what those Rams teams were. Instead, the defense was in the 20s.

Last year it finished 26th.

This was the first thing Tim Ruskell, the team's new president of football operations, noticed when he arrived last winter. Springs's words had become obvious to everyone. The Seahawks could score but they couldn't stop anybody.

"You knew you had a great football team and it was lopsided," Ruskell said. "It was all on the offensive side."

So Ruskell met with the defensive coaches and asked what they thought was missing. The response came quickly. There was no consistency. Players would miss practices, they'd duck out of training camp sessions, they would claim injuries some suspected weren't there. And as players fell off, the defense fell apart.

"The problem was they lacked an identity," Ruskell said. "They lacked a quarterback for the defense. Usually that comes from the middle linebacker spot."

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