Holmgren's Lost, Last Season in Seattle

By Les Carpenter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 18, 2008

For more than 16 years he has glared down NFL sidelines, his raging eyes and scowling face responding to every ill-timed pass, fumbled opportunity and sheer imperfection. And yet Mike Holmgren has managed to win. Even the bad years, two blips spread across his nearly two-decade record of playoff and Super Bowl runs, hardly look like failures.

But there has never been anything like the 17th season for the longtime coach of the Seattle Seahawks, where each week brings its new share of despair, where his best players are injured and the losses keep coming.

This past weekend he held to a glimmer of hope. His Pro Bowl quarterback Matt Hasselbeck and perhaps his best wide receiver, Deion Branch, came back from injuries. It helped. Seattle was better but ultimately lost again, 26-20, to the Arizona Cardinals.

Holmgren's Seahawks are 2-8 going into Sunday's game with the Redskins at Qwest Field. He has never been 2-8 as a professional head coach. And it was clear to the team that had won four straight NFC West titles it would not secure a fifth. This has worn on the coach.

"Outwardly I think I have handled the team well," he said recently. "Inwardly I hope you will never know how much it hurts."

And yet this has slowly become less of his team. Tim Ruskell, the team president hired before the 2005 Super Bowl year, has replaced several of the players Holmgren and his former general manger, Ted Thompson, picked in the early part of this decade.

Much of this was necessary as players such as current Redskins running back Shaun Alexander were beset with injuries or began to wear down. It went from being a team built around its offense, as Holmgren preferred, to one that relied more on defense.

Last winter, Holmgren said this season would be his last in Seattle. It was time. Ruskell quickly announced former Atlanta Falcons coach Jim Mora, the Seahawks' assistant head coach and secondary coach, would replace him. An awkward arrangement, perhaps, but one everyone figured would work for one year. After all, Seattle had won at least one playoff game in each of the last three years, and with Hasselbeck and star left tackle Walter Jones still around they remained the favorites to win a weak division.

Then the injuries happened. The worst has been to Hasselbeck, who injured his back in an October loss to the Giants and missed the next five weeks, finally coming back on Sunday. This forced the seldom-used Seneca Wallace into his place. And while Wallace performed adequately, the team lost three of the four games. Charlie Frye started the other -- also a defeat.

But even when Seattle's quarterbacks have been healthy there were major injuries to wide receivers. Branch underwent complicated offseason knee surgery and missed all of training camp. Then wide receivers Ben Obomanu, Nate Burleson and Logan Payne went down for the year, and several others have come and gone.

"I've never had a season like this, ever," Holmgren said. "You have a couple years where you might get hit at a position or two, but this is really different. I really can't do what I would like to do."

That doesn't even speak to the strange deterioration of the offensive line, which has never fully recovered after Pro Bowl guard Steve Hutchinson left as a restricted free agent before the 2006 season. Jones, in his 12th year, is starting to slow a bit, and the other linemen -- center Chris Spencer, tackle Sean Locklear, guard Floyd Womack and former Navy guard Mike Wahle -- have not been able to develop the cohesion their predecessors once had.

Seattle ranks 31st out of 32 teams in total yards per game.

In the past it was almost always among the top 10.

"I'm fighting like crazy to set an example," Holmgren said, conceding it is also difficult to rally a team that realizes it isn't any good given its injury status. "I can't come in [the locker room] and con them. Too many of them have been with me for too long. The situation is what it is, and let's see what we can do."

It's amazing to see how fast a team can fall in the NFL. Last season Seattle's defense was ranked 15th in the NFL, giving up an average of 321.8 yards and 18.2 points per game; now it is 28th and yielding 380.7 yards and 25.7 points. For the most part the players are the same, although there have been some injuries on the defense -- most notably to linebacker Lofa Tatupu and defensive end Patrick Kerney, who has missed three straight games after undergoing shoulder surgery.

The worst news is the easy part of the Seahawks' schedule is over. Five of Seattle's last six games are against potential playoff teams. But there also is good news for the Seahawks. Hasselbeck played on Sunday. Branch is getting healthier, and Kerney, who rattled the Redskins in January's first-round playoff game, might even play this weekend.

Maybe for one or two last times before Holmgren goes away the Seahawks can be the old Seahawks again.

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