Sunday, September 19, 2004
Raymond James Stadium, Tampa, Florida
In the spring of 1990, Jon Gruden received a phone call that changed his life. At the time, Gruden was the protégé of Walt Harris during Harris’ stints as the head coach of the University of Tennessee and the University of the Pacific. Gruden’s father, who worked as a scout for the San Francisco 49ers, had been talking to the 49ers offensive coordinator about his son.
That offensive coordinator was Mike Holmgren.
The elder Gruden told Holmgren that his son had strong aspirations to join the San Francisco organization (then the class of the NFL after its second straight Super Bowl victory), and that young Jon would work hard, stay loyal and wouldn’t overstep his bounds if given a chance. Coincidentally, Holmgren was looking for a Quality Control Assistant – someone who would help him chart plays and keep everything organized…essentially, somebody who would “sweat the small stuff” so Holmgren wouldn’t have to. After traveling to the Bay Area and interviewing, Gruden got the call – the job was his. It was the beginning of a ride to the top of the NFL for Jon Gruden, and Gruden is the first to acknowledge that it was Mike Holmgren who started that ride.
Gruden’s first task may have been the most daunting. While Holmgren and the other coaches went on their customary month-long summer vacation, Gruden was to learn how to draw up plays on a computer. Having never even turned a computer on before, he had to burn the midnight oil do it. As he wrote in his 2003 book, “Do You Love Football?!”, the complexity of the 49ers offense under Holmgren and Bill Walsh made the task even more difficult: “Drawing plays for the San Francisco offense, in which you could run the same play three hundred different ways, made it that much tougher. You could have Brown Right A Right or Y Shift to Brown Right A Right. You could have Blue Right E Motion or Blue Right E Counter Motion. You could have a whole dozen separate drawings of just 2 Jet Flanker Drive. All summer I’d walk in there at four or five in the morning, draw day and night until I collapsed (Gruden slept many nights in a small office in the 49ers’ complex), then come back the next day to draw some more.”
Gruden’s reward for this work was the princely sum of $800 per month, but when the coaches returned, his “side benefit” was the ability to learn his trade from the likes of Holmgren, Walsh, secondary coach Ray Rhodes and the late offensive line coach Bobb McKittrick (who Gruden still calls his idol). At the time, no better education existed. Gruden spent 1990 helping Holmgren with play charting and other administrative duties. Holmgren saw something in the young, sandy-haired grinder – after the 1990 season, he called Paul Hackett (Holmgren’s predecessor in San Francisco), who coached the University of Pittsburgh, to line up an interview for Gruden. Holmgren told Gruden that it was time for him to get some coaching experience, so as time went on and Holmgren became a head coach himself, he’d feel comfortable in adding Gruden to his staff.
Gruden got the job, coaching Pitt’s receivers and helping with the quarterbacks through 1991. In 1992, Holmgren called again. He had just been hired as the head coach of the Green Bay Packers, and wanted Gruden to come on board as his Quality Control Assistant again – but this time, Gruden would also send in the plays from the sideline and help Holmgren transfer the 49ers offense to Green Bay. He still ran the occasional errand (including a trip to the airport in 1992 to pick up a quarterback that the Packers had traded their first-round pick to the Falcons for – some guy by the name of Favre), but he’d get a better feel of the nuances of pro coaching. In 1993, Holmgren promoted Gruden to the position of receivers coach, where he got to work with the talented but temperamental Sterling Sharpe (perhaps an educational precursor to the Keyshawn situation 10 years later?).
After the 1994 season, the 49ers called Holmgren and asked if Gruden would be available to interview for the position of quarterbacks coach. Holmgren told Gruden about the opportunity, and then said, “I’m not going to let you go. Why would I let you go to San Francisco? We’re trying to beat them!” Certainly a vote of confidence for the young future coach, but Gruden wondered what Holmgren had in store for him.
The answer came very quickly. Holmgren called Gruden back into his office an hour later to inform him that Ray Rhodes, who had just been named the head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles, wished to talk to Gruden about becoming the Eagles’ offensive coordinator. Since the move from position coach to coordinator was hardly a lateral one, Holmgren couldn’t say no this time. Gruden went off to Philadelphia in 1995 with the blessing of his mentor.
The rest was history for Gruden – after three years in Philadelphia, Gruden was named head coach of the Oakland Raiders in 1998. In his four years in Oakland, he turned a 4-12 doormat into a contender. He then went to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2002, and beat the Raiders 48-21 in Super Bowl XXXVII with a defense built by former coach Tony Dungy and an offense pushed over the top by Gruden himself.
In following the Super Bowl year with a 7-9 season, and with several personnel changes in 2004, Gruden may be hitting a temporary wall with the Buccaneers. But for our purposes, it is Gruden’s mercurial rise, and the major part Mike Holmgren played in it, that should be remembered.
There are many ways to judge the success of any coach. Victories, obviously…but it’s worth remembering that Vince Lombardi and Bill Parcells both considered their best coaching years to have come in less-than-perfect seasons. In Lombardi’s case, it was the 1963 Packer team he was proudest of. That Packer team suffered the season-long suspension of Paul Hornung in a gambling scandal, lost Bart Starr for four weeks with a broken hand, and grieved with a nation after the assassination of Lombardi’s friend, President Kennedy. Although they finished second to the NFL Champion Chicago Bears that season, Lombardi was always careful to mention the heart and resolve of that team. Parcells had similar issues with the 1999 New York Jets when Vinny Testaverde lost the entire season to a torn Achilles’ tendon. The Jets finished 8-8, but Parcells later said that he had no regrets about the job he and his team did under difficult circumstances.
Perhaps it is the overall influence of a coach that should decide his ultimate place in the annals – and although it’s something Seahawk fans are aware of with Mike Holmgren, perhaps this aspect of Holmgren’s career is given relatively short shrift. It’s not just that there are times when it seems that Holmgren can’t coach a game against a man he didn’t somehow mentor or influence…it’s the extent to which that influence took place. No matter how often Gruden, Mariucci, Reid and so many others take the field, it is the lessons of the teacher who shared the truth that they will take with them as they make history of their own.
Perhaps Gruden says it best:
“Confident. Concise. Crystal-clear. No one does it better than Mike Holmgren.”
Today, Gruden and Holmgren presided over a nasty, ugly defensive battle – it was the football equivalent of the 15th round of a boxing match, in which each opponent was just hoping to be the Last Man Standing. It was more about survival than stats, and it is a testament to the newfound fortitude of the Seahawks that they were able to pull off a win and start the 2004 season with a 2-0 road record.
Handouts To The Standouts: Grant Wistrom, for setting the tempo of the defense early on and NEVER letting up…Koren Robinson, for rebounding from a nasty season opener to make some fine catches…Walter Jones, for mitigating the suspect play of the Seattle offensive line by shutting Simeon Rice down…the defense as a whole, for turning in another very impressive effort (when they were “allowed” to bring pressure), but especially Marcus Trufant, Michael Boulware and Orlando Huff.
Things That Made Me Go, “Blech!”: The Seahawk offense in the final 45 minutes of the game…Chris Terry’s confusion regarding the concept of the snap count…the very IDEA of backing off pressure against an opposing QB playing in his first game…some verrrrrrrry – umm – “interesting” officiating in the last two minutes of the game…and just for the heck of it, Heath Evans. Heath, you’re not supposed to barrel into a punt returner who just made a fair catch. Did you not get that memo?
Offense (First half – C. Second half – D): Here, we had a classic “Chicken Or Egg” conundrum: Was the Seahawks’ offense really that “off”, or was the Buccaneers’ defense really that good? Probably quite a bit of both. From the beginning of the game, two things became evident – Matt Hasselbeck would be lucky to have time to set his feet in the pocket before what seemed like 15 Bucs were swarming around him, and the running game just wasn’t going to happen at all.
Hass put forth a valiant effort, but he never really had a chance. The Tampa Bay blitz packages, so voluminous and complex in nature that the middle of the Seahawk line frequently had trouble just keeping up (with the notable exception of Jones), determined Seattle’s ability to move the ball. And beyond his sole TD pass (when he pump-faked Tampa Bay CB Brian Kelly into the next county and found a wide-open Koren Robinson in the end zone), Hass spent a disturbing amount of time just running for his life.
The Seattle offense was 1 for 14 in third down conversions, the team averaged 3.4 yards per offensive play, Shaun Alexander rushed for 45 yards on 17 carries, and the Seahawks punted 10 times. Not what anyone expected from this offense, but it’s my belief that in the disappointment that the Bucs have become since their Super Bowl title in 2002, the continued dominance of their defense has gone unnoticed. This just in – they’re still that good. About the only positive things one can say about the offensive effort today is that nobody got hurt, and Alexander showed no aftereffects of the bone bruise to his right knee that he suffered in New Orleans last week.
Other than that? Film day is going to be ugly, especially for right tackle Chris Terry, who basically killed two drives with false start penalties (both on third down). The running backs won’t enjoy seeing their inability to pick up blitzes and block, either. Holmgren looked fairly disgusted all day on the sidelines…just a frustrating day for the Seahawks’ offense.
Defense (First half – C. Second half – B): Ahhh, yes. Here’s where there’s reason for encouragement…with one very large caveat.
First, as to the matter of one Grant Wistrom, his $14 million signing bonus, and the great hue and cry when said signing bonus was given:
Relax. He’s probably underpaid.
In a fine team defensive effort, Wistrom led the charge. Coming off a foot injury in the season opener last week, we hadn’t really seen his motor at 100% yet. Today, there was no question who the leader of the defense was. From the Bucs’ opening drive (when Wistrom beat Derrick Deese like a drum and sacked Brad Johnson to force a punt) to the deciding play of the game (with 1:03 left, when he had Chris Simms in the grasp, Simms made a desperation throw, and Michael Boulware intercepted it), the “Better, Faster, Stronger” credo of this defensive unit is realized because of Wistrom’s disruption, intelligence and ability to make plays at crucial junctures. And if you went back in time to the offseason and told me that the Seahawks had a choice between Wistrom and Jevon Kearse again, I wouldn’t change a single thing.
What I WOULD change in today’s game was whatever happened to DC Ray Rhodes in the middle of the second quarter. When Gruden pulled starting QB Brad Johnson because he simply couldn’t get the job done (going 4 for 7 for 34 yards and an INT) and inserted Chris Simms into his very first NFL game, Rhodes…well, he pulled his horses back. And it took him a full fifteen minutes to set them after Simms. Is there something about the art of defensive gameplanning I just don’t understand? Quite possibly. However, when I see a defense that’s pressuring a savvy veteran QB out of the freakin’ game and said QB is replaced with a kid who’s greener than the turf at Raymond James, I’m thinking that it’s “feeding time at the zoo”! Bring the house and see what the kid can take, right? Evidently not. Not even when the opposing offense is putting three backup wideouts on the field because of Keenan McCardell’s holdout and the injuries to Joey Galloway and Joe Jurevicius? Nope…not even then. Ummm…OK…
When Seattle did bring extra men, their effectiveness in disrupting an offense was indisputable for the second week in a row. And when they’re set in schemes that allow them to use the speed and aggressiveness so rarely seen last season, this defense is truly a force to be reckoned with. More, please!
Special Teams: How do you know that you’ve just seen an ugly game? When your team’s MVP is your punter! Tom Rouen kept the Seahawks alive several times, averaging 47.5 yards per punt, trapping the Bucs within their own 20-yard line 4 times (including once when an incredible assist by Alex Bannister left Tampa Bay at their own 4-yard line). In a game where field position would prove to be the most precious commodity of all, Rouen proved the oft-overlooked value of his job.
you had told me that the Seahawks would finish their opening road trip with
a 2-0 record but that the second game would have very few “NFL Films-worthy
plays”, I’d reply that I didn’t care how they got it done.
And in the larger sense, I don’t. The Seahawks have now proven beyond
a shadow of a doubt that they can win in a hostile environment, even when they’re
far from their best. With the horrifically depleted 49ers coming to town next
Sunday, the team’s next challenge is to recognize an opponent who should
never have a chance in the game. We’ve seen what the Seahawks can do at
half-strength…now, it’s time to show the world what the Seahawks
can do when they can’t be stopped.
Doug Farrar is the Editor-in-Chief of Seahawks.NET. Feel free to e-mail him at email@example.com.