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.

In a way, though, it is ironic that it should come down to Holmgren and Hasselbeck. After all, the two have been through so much already. Holmgren was Green Bay's coach when in 1998 the Packers drafted Hasselbeck in the sixth round, a relative unknown from Boston College who hadn't even been invited to that year's scouting combine. Three years later, when Holmgren needed a quarterback of the future in Seattle, he traded for Hasselbeck using first- and third-round draft picks and immediately installed him as the starter until Trent Dilfer stole the job away less than a year later.

Hasselbeck became the starter again halfway through the 2002 season and yet for years he and Holmgren seemed to test each other's patience. Holmgren often blew up at Hasselbeck's impetuousness and Hasselbeck sometimes proved too emotional for the head coach's taste.

This changed in recent seasons as Hasselbeck took the Seahawks to the Super Bowl in the 2005 season and developed into the leader Holmgren hoped he could be. Now he calls the Seahawks "his team."

"I'm very proud of how Matt has worked to become the player he is," Holmgren said. "I think some of the other guys that I've been privileged to be around were higher draft picks. There was more expected from them, faster. They had physical skills which made them very attractive which is why they were high draft picks and Matt, on the surface of things, was coming out of college and everything.

"He's a good player, but he was a sixth-round draft pick."

Asked late Wednesday afternoon about his relationship with his coach, Hasselbeck laughed slightly.

"I don't have to try and get inside his head," he said.

For several seasons he did -- Hasselbeck would scan the field, size up the defense and then change the plays Holmgren had scripted. When the new play didn't work, Holmgren fumed as Hasselbeck took the verbal barrages, his eyes looking anywhere but at his coach's reddening face.

The other day, Holmgren gave Hasselbeck instructions to run a certain play if the opponent was showing blitz. The quarterback stepped to the line of scrimmage, saw blitz and realized instantly that the prescribed play would not work. But Holmgren had been insistent, so Hasselbeck shrugged, ran the play Holmgren asked for, and watched as it fell apart.

Holmgren was furious. But at least this time he knew he couldn't direct his anger at Hasselbeck. The blame was his.

Perhaps it was a sign of yet another development in the still-evolving Holmgren-Hasselbeck relationship.

"I think there's a perception that I audible and change plays just because I feel like it," Hasselbeck said. "I don't. I do it because I think it's what he wants."

Maybe now in the autumn of Holmgren's coaching career they have finally figured each other out. If this is truly Holmgren's last playoff run, it is going to be up to Hasselbeck to take him as far as he can go.

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