Seattle Seahawks Coach Mike Holmgren said the other day that "my life hasn't really changed that much" since relinquishing the title of general manager after a 7-9 season in 2002. His life may not have changed, but this year his team has.
The Seahawks are 3-1 after last week's loss in which they botched a 17-point lead with 61/2 minutes remaining and lost to the St. Louis Rams in overtime. The loss was particularly disappointing because it means that Sunday's game at New England will not be a battle of unbeatens. Still, Holmgren believes he has one of the best teams in the league, one with a chance to end New England's NFL record-setting streak of 19 victories.
Holmgren, who has a street named after him in Green Bay as a Super Bowl championship coach of the 1996 Packers, had been under heavy fire from Seattle fans and the media after that 7-9 season. It was said he was spread too thin and that the franchise would be better served if he only had to worry about coaching.
Last year, the Seahawks brought in Bob Ferguson to oversee personnel as general manager, and Holmgren said then and now he's had no problem with it. He also indicated in a recent telephone interview that he could have insisted on keeping the general manager title and forced a confrontation with owner Paul Allen, and could have walked away with a lot of money if the Seahawks had decided to buy him out of his long-term contract.
"I could have shaken hands, gotten a big check and gone to Hawaii," he said, "but I didn't want to leave. I really liked this team, liked what I was seeing and I wanted to finish what we had started. The question I was most often asked last year was whether it freed me up to do more coaching.
"I guess you could have made the case that I was always thinking about the personnel and everything else that went with it. But believe me, that's overrated. I had good people in place and they took care of most of that stuff. We had a pretty good thing going, and we had it set. If I'd won more games [in 2002], none of it would have happened. But we didn't, and that's how it is. The best part now is I don't have to deal with the agents. More than anything, like I said, I really do like this team."
Until the Rams debacle, the Seahawks led the league in defense and, had they made any one of a number of plays on offense at the end of the game, they almost certainly would have won. "They're pretty consistent in not giving up big plays, and being strong against the run," Patriots Coach Bill Belichick said. "They try to play defense that makes you drive it down the field, makes you convert a lot of plays. If you're not careful, they'll knock you out of there and that's the end of the drive."
Patriots quarterback Tom Brady knows he'll be tested Sunday after watching the Rams-Seahawks tape.
Rams quarterback Marc Bulger "was just threading the needle on all those passes and the receivers were making so many great plays," Brady said. "There was one touchdown pass the St. Louis tight end caught with three guys draped all over him. That was one of the best catches I've ever seen. I know they have a very active group of linebackers, and when they swarm around the ball, they'll strip it and pick it off. We have to be very conscious of taking care of the ball Sunday."
For Holmgren, "the key for us has been the defensive line," adding that the offseason free agent addition of former Rams defensive end Grant Wistrom has been a major reason the Seahawks' entire defense has improved this season. Wistrom signed a six-year, $33 million contract to play in Seattle, including a $14 million signing bonus that even his former coach in St. Louis, Mike Martz, predicted would be "well worth" the investment.
"For us," Holmgren said, "he was the perfect guy because of his motor. It never runs down. All our young guys watch the way he does things, and they do them the same way. Our guys are talking, they're having fun. We're so young, they don't know what they don't know, but they've played very well so far."
The other critical component for the Seahawks has been the play of quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, who had a breakthrough season last year and seems to have a handle on Holmgren's version of the West Coast offense.
"He went through some tough times," Holmgren said. "But now I trust him, and he trusts me. This offseason, he was the guy who came in and led the workouts. People in Seattle love him. He's got it all right in his hands now, and he's a tough kid who will get even better than he is right now."
Hasselbeck is completing 60 percent of his throws, with six touchdown passes and only two interceptions. His quarterback rating is 91.8, almost 10 points higher than his career average and he has been particularly effective inside an opponent's 20. He is tied for second in the NFC, converting 66 percent of scoring opportunities.
"He's been a big difference for them," said Patriots tight end Christian Fauria, who played for Holmgren for three seasons before leaving in free agency after the 2001 season. "The one thing we were always missing when I was there was the quarterback. We had a bunch of guys -- Warren Moon, Rick Mirer, John Friesz, Jon Kitna, Trent Dilfer -- but none of them really ever established themselves, and that's what you've got to have. Now it's Matt, and he's been the best thing that could have happened to them."