By Les Carpenter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 13, 2006
SEATTLE, Jan. 12 -- The words came in the frustration of an opportunity lost and a goal unmet. Even a year of scrubbing can't make them go away completely.
"I got stabbed in the back."
It has been a year and an MVP award since Shaun Alexander fell a yard short of last season's rushing title, then stood in the locker room in the minutes after the Seahawks had clinched the NFC West and uttered that fateful sentence.
There was no doubt as to whom he believed was to blame: Coach Mike Holmgren, the pass-first keeper of the West Coast offense edicts handed down by Bill Walsh. A yard, Alexander thought, could have been found in a carry, maybe not that afternoon but in all the other days he never got the handoffs he expected.
Then when the rushing title didn't come, the words spilled out. Five years of an image built up from goodwill came crashing down.
Some around the team's headquarters nodded knowingly and said this was the Shaun Alexander they always knew, not a man of peace and God with a gentle smile, but something more cunning, more self-serving. They almost reveled in the public scorn.
Ultimately, what it seemed to show was the chasm that had grown between Holmgren, the Seahawks coach who demanded subservience, and Alexander, the team's best player who seemed to have too much of a mind of his own. The coach loved his running backs to be the embodiment of "smash mouth": burly, bruising players who would drop their heads and churn through the middle of the line no matter what stood in the way. His running back was more of a dancer, a player who glided across the turf, falling with the tackle rather than against it.
The coach seemed to prefer his way, yet the player wasn't going to change.
"You have a guy high-stepping through the line, making a big cut around a guy and taking on a tackler head-on to get three yards, or Shaun gets out of bounds after getting three yards, it's still three yards," Alexander's brother Durran said. "Three yards is three yards. If that's all there is to get then that's all there is.
"Which is the right way? The first way? What if he gets hurt trying to take on that tackler? Is that being concerned about the individual and not the team?"
That manifested itself in "I got stabbed in the back."
The thing is, the Seahawks did not have another player capable of gaining 1,800 yards regardless of the way he ran. Somehow player and coach needed to find a common ground. This would take some work because Alexander was a free agent at the end of last season, a huge payday was nearing, and the Seahawks were looking to trap him with the franchise tag.
A battle loomed.
But something happened in the ensuing months. The Seahawks hired a new president for football operations, Tim Ruskell, and he set out to rebuild the Seahawks quickly. He sat down with Alexander and got the player to agree to a one-year contract with the provision that after this year Alexander would be allowed to leave as a free agent. Alexander said yes, then gave the Seahawks the best year of his career.
He is different now, smiling but saying little. This week he offered benign comments about the Redskins and then turned every question about himself into a statement of gratitude that the team is doing well. He makes the blocks and catches the passes the coaches have wanted him to do. He questions nothing and obeys every command.
When the Seahawks had the ball near the goal line against Indianapolis in the next-to-last game of the season and Alexander was a touchdown from tying the NFL record for touchdowns in a season, Holmgren turned to his coaches. The crowd was shouting for Alexander, but the score meant nothing. There was a chance Alexander could get hurt, and for what? Vanity?
"Should I put him in?" Holmgren said.
"I don't know if I can do it," he then said.
Finally he agreed. Alexander ran. Touchdown. There was a roar at Qwest Field. Alexander held the ball aloft. The coach smiled, the player beamed. The next week he broke the record with his 28th touchdown.
The Seahawks have at most three games left before the obligations are over. After that, Alexander is free to leave, and the old mistrust could come bubbling back to the surface.
Alexander has never been understood in Seattle. He has been something of a mystery, different from the other players. He smiled constantly, laughed even after losses and carried himself with an air that many interpreted as conceited. He talked about how beloved he is at the University of Alabama, about how he needs police escorts when he returns to town, and he said it not in a boastful way but as a statement of fact.
Yet all of it confounded his NFL employers. In a sport where many players pray, Alexander took his Christianity to another level, naming his children Heaven and Trinity. He didn't just have a youth foundation, he had foundations in more states. Everything, it seemed, he did in extremes.
"Here's a guy who is smiling even when the team isn't winning games, and then he enjoys his faith in God, then you know people are saying, 'We've got to put this guy in his place because he's the Super All-Star,' " Durran Alexander said. "It has hurt him in the public's opinion."
Alexander has seemed oblivious to this hidden hostility. It startles him when people say he is arrogant or disingenuous. In the months before the 2004 season, he and his wife, Valerie, took a vacation at an Idaho resort with teammate Heath Evans and Evans's wife, Bethann. One night, the other three confronted Alexander.
"Are you aware of how you sound sometimes?" they said.
He didn't have a clue.
Humbled, he began seeking out some of the Seahawks' more significant players during that summer's training camp. He walked up to quarterback Matt Hasselbeck and floored his teammate by saying, "I think I've been a jerk to you."
Then he said, "I got stabbed in the back," and it seemed all the good feelings went away.
It's hard to say what anyone really thinks anymore. The coaches, in trying to show how Alexander has matured, point out that in the 2004 election for playoff team captains, Alexander received one vote -- his own. This year, they point out, he was elected as the offensive representative at the coin toss.
But ask them if they think this is a change, that Alexander sees the world the way they do, and there is a pause.
"I don't know," two of them said.
Negotiations have not started on a new deal. It was clear in the early-season exchange of offers that team and player were far apart, perhaps by $6 million in the guaranteed bonus. Alexander has said he would love to stay in Seattle, and it would seem that despite any mistrust from the past, it might be the best situation for him. He led the league in rushing with 1,880 yards in Holmgren's system. It's clear Holmgren adjusted to accommodate Alexander, giving him the most carries -- 370 -- of his career.
Thursday Holmgren was asked about his relationship with Alexander. "I think a lot of that was overblown," he said of the controversies.
This is something he has said all season as the uneasy peace between running back and coach seemed to solidify just a little.
The answer to how much those words have been left dangling in the locker room will come at season's end. That's when it will become apparent if the Seahawks and their best player still want each other.