Seattle's Alexander Is Running in Place
Friday, January 4, 2008
KIRKLAND, Wash., Jan. 3 -- The first time was a shock. Seattle Seahawks running back Shaun Alexander lay flat on the turf of his home stadium earlier this season, a failed running play having knocked him three yards for a loss and, as he began to pick himself up, there came from around him a strange sound.
Was it booing?
He looked up at the stands, unsure if he heard right.
Was this for him?
Then he realized it was. And with the noise came an odd realization that even he -- Shaun Alexander, NFL MVP just two years before, on the cover of last year's Madden video game, the most dynamic of the Seattle players -- was not beyond the hoots of his own fans, in his own stadium. Looking back, he remembers laughing to himself.
"Well, yeah," he recalled thinking. "That play was horrible. I guess I'd boo, too."
But the booing hasn't stopped. It has come almost weekly in a season like none he has endured, filled with injuries he's never had and games with statistical lines he's never known. Two years ago, he was the game's best running back, perhaps its finest player; now the home fans spit his name and wonder why Coach Mike Holmgren doesn't bench him and play longtime backup Maurice Morris.
The whole thing is perplexing to Alexander. He'd always been beloved in his football life. As a star running back at Alabama, he was cherished by fans who never forgot him as the player who had a chance to leave early for the NFL and yet decided to stay another season. In the pros, he was the one who put the Seahawks on his back, who helped take them to the Super Bowl in 2006. Then suddenly, this year, when the big yards stopped coming, they booed his very name.
"I think there are only seven players who have 100 touchdowns and now I'm the eighth, so it's kind of funny," he said of the fans after the team's practice on Thursday afternoon. "We've set high standards here, I guess. But life is life."
Then he laughed.
"I find it very interesting," he said.
Football has not been kind to Alexander since they thrust that MVP award into his hands. Last season, he endured the first major injury of his career when he broke his foot and missed six games. This year, he broke his wrist in the first game. Then in early November, against the Cleveland Browns, he twisted both his knee and his ankle and an already dismal year turned worse as he missed the next three games. He is 30 now, a magic age when many running backs head into a steep decline, battered by years of tackles and open-field collisions. He rushed for 716 yards in 13 regular season games, well below the 1,400 and 1,500 he is accustomed to getting, and never, he said, have 716 yards come so hard.
Then to be booed at the stadium he had made his own? The thought still perplexed him Thursday even as he tried to laugh it off.
"To me, overall at the end of the day everyone has the right to feel how they feel," he finally said. "You're thinking 70 percent of the fans in the ballpark are thinking what you are thinking, 'Are they really doing this?' but then the guy next to you is doing it, so you do it, too."
The Seahawks are not the same team that beat the Redskins two winters ago. Their offensive line is not as powerful as the one before -- its most dominant player, tackle Walter Jones, has been injured for parts of the season. Guard Steve Hutchinson, who combined with Jones to make the most formidable side of a line in the league, left for Minnesota in 2006. Fullback Mack Strong, a sturdy, brilliant blocker for Alexander, injured his neck in a game at Pittsburgh and had to have surgery to fuse part of his vertebrae, ending his career. His best blocking tight end is gone, as is wide receiver Joe Jurevicius, who set countless blocks for Alexander downfield in the MVP season.
In wondering why he might not be loved anymore here, Alexander shrugged. He wondered if people think his running style, which makes him look from afar as if he is gliding, gives the impression he is not trying. It is a complaint often expressed by Seahawks fans who still remember his predecessor, Ricky Watters, whose rushing totals paled in comparison to Alexander's but who won hearts for the way his legs seemed to always churn. He looked to be straining to gain extra yards when none were apparent.
Alexander agreed but insisted that his perceived gliding is an optical illusion. Believe him, he said, he is pushing for every yard even if it looks as if he is going half speed. Early in his career, he said several of the league's top linebackers came up to him expressing shock at his speed. He didn't look fast on film, they told him, but in the game he tore right past him. Whenever this happened he smiled and thanked them for the compliment but was also startled. Did people really think he wasn't trying?
As with the booing, he has become accustomed to the accusation.
He is quick to point out that several years ago, Holmgren altered his West Coast offense to allow for Alexander's running skills. Somewhere around 2005, the Seahawks became a run-first, pass-second team. He likens this to the way Holmgren adjusted the same offense when he was in Green Bay to compensate for quarterback Brett Favre's impetuous nature. He proudly says these are the only times Holmgren has changed his cherished offense for a single player.
And maybe he and Holmgren -- the coach he said in 2004 "stabbed me in the back" on the last day of the season when he fell just short of winning the NFL's rushing title -- have come to understand each other better. Thursday, when contemplating his future, he said that in two years he might seriously consider retiring if Holmgren is no longer around as coach. The day before, Holmgren, when asked about Alexander this year, said, "I really appreciate him and the fact he doesn't play as much as he used to.
"You can go to other sports, and typically in this situation, there's some sort of problem, there's something that comes up that's not very healthy for your football team," Holmgren continued. "Someone's mad, they're made at the coach. None of that has taken place and that's a credit to the young man."
Two weeks ago, Alexander had 73 rushing yards in a win over Baltimore. It was not a fantastic number, certainly nothing like before, but it was nonetheless his best since the season's fourth week. He said he is feeling better, the injuries hurt a little less and he is running a little faster. The end has not come, he insisted.
And just maybe Saturday will be like old times. The stadium speakers will blast "Sweet Home Alabama" as they did in the glory years and once again he will open his arms as he did on his best days and let the roar of the home fans wash over him.