Nearing End, Holmgren Counts On Hasselbeck

By Les Carpenter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 3, 2008

KIRKLAND, Wash., Jan. 2 -- A frigid rain was falling on another playoff January in the coaching career of Mike Holmgren. And as he has for so many years now, he pulled up the collar on his Seattle Seahawks jacket, scrunched his face against the falling drops and walked into another practice.

But all around the team's headquarters there lingers a question as to how many more times he wants to repeat this ritual. Earlier Wednesday, he sat at a news conference and dropped the same hints he has for more than a year now -- that an end could come someday soon. Maybe after this season. Maybe next. He doesn't know. Nobody knows.

Still, there looms a real sense that the coach at 59 is coming upon his last postseason, that after 11 playoffs and three Super Bowls he might want to do something else. He will not deny this.

"I know this: At the end of the season, I am very much wiped out," he said in a poignant moment at his Wednesday news conference. "You play your last game and you fall apart. You get a cold, you get all screwed up. The losses, and I've said this, are much harder than 10 years ago for me. Much harder. I lose my patience, I get more angry.

"I think coaches, and not just me, eventually ask the question: Am I getting out of whack? And if I am, maybe it's a sign."

All around him a team is being built in someone else's image. A general manager, Tim Ruskell, who helped build him a Super Bowl team two years ago, has kept adding to a roster filled with players Holmgren himself might not have chosen. The running game, once a strength, has fallen apart. In a way, he has never been more alone in his nine years in Seattle.

And so if this is truly the last roundup, the coach will ride out with the player he has come to trust the most: quarterback Matt Hasselbeck. Perhaps this is the way it was destined to be. After all, Hasselbeck was the one he wanted all those years ago to run this franchise, to take it to the places he promised it would go.

If the Seahawks are going to take Holmgren to one last Super Bowl, they probably will have to go on Hasselbeck's arm.

Holmgren came to this decision one early November day with the offense going nowhere and the season quickly fading. The Seahawks stood 4-4, with half a season left and little promise that things would improve. Running back Shaun Alexander, the league's MVP in 2005, had broken down, the result of years of overuse. Suddenly the answer seemed clear to the coach. They would pass their way to the playoffs.

He called it "getting back to my roots." And he coyly hinted at the decision in a news conference with Seattle media members on the day after an overtime loss at Cleveland on Nov. 4. The problem was, no one was sure whether they believed him. Nor was Hasselbeck when the coach popped out of an elevator at the Seahawks' headquarters and summoned him for an impromptu meeting. The elevator chugged between the first and second floors as Holmgren quickly laid out his plan. Hasselbeck listened. The doors opened and he walked away unsure exactly what to think.

His years with Holmgren have taught him this: When his coach wants something, don't question it. Just listen and see later if everything turns out as he said.

It did. The Seahawks, once a fine balance of run and pass, have thrown the ball 33 or more times in six of their last eight games. They have gone 6-2, scoring 24 or more points in seven of those eight.

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