MMQB - "Lost In Translation"

In reviewing a game the loser probably deserved to win, .NET's Doug Farrar discusses the Seahawks' narrow escape against the Dolphins and wonders about the leadership of the team.

“In football, there is a name for teams that fail to execute the fundamentals: losers. Incredible catches and jaw-dropping runs are fun to watch and can make the difference in a game or two over the course of a season, but they ultimately mean little if a team is failing at the basics. A superb athlete who has been well-coached and has the aggressive desire to make an impact on the game will consistently…make his team’s plays work and force those of his opponents to fail.”

--Timothy Gay, Ph.D., “Football Physics: The Science Of The Game”


So, when did you get tipped off that the Miami Dolphins would stink on ice this year?

Was it the simple fact that they were owned by Wayne Huizenga and coached by Dave Wannstedt? Perhaps it was Dan Marino’s three-second long “Al Pacino In Reverse” tenure in the team’s front office (“Just when I thought I was in…GET ME THE &^%$ OUT OF HERE!!!”)? Would it have been when they signed troubled receiver David Boston and gasped as he went on IR before ever playing a game with the team?

Did it take you as long as the Ricky Williams Fiasco? Or did you know when the Fins embraced the concept of a “quarterback controversy” involving Jay Fiedler and A.J. Feeley? (For Seahawk archivists not in the know, this wouldn't be much better than a “quarterback controversy” involving Brock Huard and Stan Gelbaugh. There’s not an ounce of Marquee in this recipe.)

When did your first nagging concern arise regarding the Seattle Seahawks’ supposed “Dream Season”, which was “destined” to end in a trip to the Super Bowl? Was it when the Rams bulldozed back from a 17-point deficit at Qwest Field with mere minutes left to force an overtime and ultimately a Seahawk loss? Perhaps it is the fact that Darrell Jackson keeps talking smack about other teams that ultimately beat the Seahawks? (To me, it’s the fact that nobody seems to be telling him to shut his mouth and get on with the business of playing football…) Would it have been the loss to the Arizona Cardinals, in which Mike Holmgren was very obviously outcoached by Dennis Green?

Did it take you as long as the game at St. Louis, when the Rams put up 17 unanswered points in the first quarter on a defense that appeared to be thinking about the post-game buffet? Or did you know when the Seahawks had chance after chance to be the team to break the Patriots’ winning streak and just didn’t seem to want to get it done? (For Seahawk archivists not in the know, the Pats’ 21-game winning streak was broken by the Pittsburgh Steelers, a team brilliantly schooled in fundamentals, with a killer defense and a rookie quarterback.)

OK…so we all know that the Seahawks aren’t in the same sorry state as the Dolphins. When your franchise player freaks out and leaves the team to hang out with Lenny Kravitz or climb Ayers Rock or avoid a drug suspension or whatever…well, that’s a major hit. And the Dolphins’ 1-9 record after this game is an obvious representation that things need to change on a global level. In a way, that’s a little easier to deal with.

The Seahawks, a very hypothetically talented team that “anyone with half a brain” had scheduled for at least a very deep playoff run, are 6-4 – first place in the NFC West by an eyelash and a few lucky breaks. What does THAT represent?

See, that’s the problem with mediocrity, and the incremental levels above it. We don’t know what it represents. The Seahawks could run the table the rest of the year and win the Super Bowl, or they could wind up 8-8 and out of the playoffs. They are, without question, the most unpredictable, exasperating team in the NFL.

And why, pray tell, are the Seattle Seahawks the most unpredictable, exasperating team in the NFL?

Because they don’t have a head coach.

Yep…that’s what I said…they don’t have a head coach. I know that sounds pretty dumb as they have a very smart football man by the name of Mike Holmgren who’s had his name on the door for six seasons, but work with me here.

What is a head coach? What does he do? What are the archetypes and parameters?

Authority and Motivation. A successful head coach, at the professional level, is a leader, motivator and organizer of men above all else. When you walk into this position, you are faced with the specter of 53 young, talented, rich men (a very high number of whom are staggeringly immature, as most every young, talented rich man would be in any profession). Your first and most important responsibility is to point those men in the same direction…and keep them there. They are immune to your strategies if they do not respect you.

How do you build this respect? Well, you can do it through intimidation (Bill Parcells), tactical genius (Bill Belichick), love (Dick Vermeil), or an otherworldly combination of those three aspects (Vince Lombardi). But however you do it, it must stick. The moment you slip from the role of Alpha Male Authority Figure to that Father Confessor or Guidance Counselor, you’re dead. Before you implement your high-falutin’ playbook that will no doubt take the world by storm, you must prepare a formula that includes a very large number of people who are willing to open their heads to everything you intend to convey.

Decisiveness. When you have created a set of strategies, your next step is to instruct. Through sheer repetition, you build a team that can make your Xs and Os real. You must prove to your players that such strategies will pay dividends on the field. At the same time, your players must convince you of the very same thing. Enter the concept of symbiosis!

There are coaches who, like John Nash in “A Beautiful Mind”, get so caught up in the minutiae that they are forever beholden to it. They sometimes struggle with the concept of when to cut bait and bring the hypothetical into the real. Sid Gillman would be a prime example. Gillman, who passed away in January of 2003, was the pioneer of pioneers in the realm of offensive football. While the head coach at the University of Cincinnati from 1949-1954, Gillman revolutionized game film – he was the first to use it as an analytical tool, breaking down film to dissect the trends of the opposition, as well as grading his own players. As the head coach of the Los Angeles Rams from 1955 to 1959 and the San Diego Chargers throughout the 1960s, Gillman developed the modern passing game – both the vertical passing game favored by the vintage Oakland Raiders (Al Davis was once an assistant under Gillman) and the West Coast Offense (the concept of multiple receivers with several short routes) were conceived by Gillman during his time in San Diego in the high-flying American Football League.

Gillman won an AFL Championship in 1963 with the Chargers, and he was the quarterbacks coach for the 1980 NFC Champion Philadelphia Eagles. He is a member of the College and Pro Football Halls of Fame, and is rightly acknowledged as one of the great thinkers in the history of sport.

His record as a pro coach? 122-99-7, and 1-5 in the postseason. Gillman was once asked what the most important aspect of coaching was. His reply? “Studying films is the most important thing a coach can do.”

But what of the implementation of the things you learn from that study? What of the switch that must go off in the head of every head coach that tells him when to stop scheming and start playing? Perhaps Don Shula knew that better than anyone. Bill Walsh? Chuck Noll? Bill Parcells? Bill Belichick? What is the final piece of the puzzle that separates the great coaches from the great thinkers?

Perhaps it’s that the great coaches understand that at some point, the result is more important than the process.

The Ability To Adjust. Crucial to that result is the ability of every coach to adjust on the fly. In the dizzying speed of the modern NFL experience, games can be won and lost in the blink of an eye based on a coach’s talent in adjusting his game plans to the situation at hand.

Recently, I wrote a two-part article detailing the first 20 games of the New England Patriots’ winning streak. In those 20 games, it was easy to point to at least half the victories as resulting from Bill Belichick’s talent at calling a game based on what was in front of him. The coach made the difference in a very obvious fashion. But in Belichick’s case, it was the game after the Steelers broke that streak that was quite possibly the most impressive coaching performance.

With half his wide receivers injured, his star running back probable and his shutdown cornerback hurt against the Rams and their kinetic offense, Belichick conducted a coaching symphony that was part Stravinsky and part Spike Jones. New England beat St. Louis 40-22 with a touchdown pass to a linebacker, another touchdown pass thrown by their kicker, and fine secondary play…by one of their remaining wide receivers. Now, THAT’S how you adjust! There are no excuses…just win.

So, where does Mike Holmgren rate in this discussion? Perhaps I can answer that question by asking a question of my own. When was the last time you were able to make the following statements?

1. “Mike Holmgren really seems to have everyone on this team on the same page. Every Seahawk really understands the team concept, and you can see it on the field.”

2. “Mike Holmgren’s ability to implement his offensive strategies is manifesting itself in the juggernaut that Seattle’s offense has become – on a consistent basis.”

3. “Mike Holmgren impresses me with his ability to adjust his schemes, based on what’s happening in a game.”

4. “Mike Holmgren, although an offensive coach at heart, seems to grasp the importance of defense and special teams as well.”

Still mulling those over? You’re not alone.

In many ways, the construction of a successful head coaching career in the NFL is an exercise in dysfunction. So great are the responsibilities that it’s a wonder anyone is able to do it. Jon Gruden doesn’t need more than a few hours sleep every night – a fortunate oddity that allows him to drive to One Buccaneer Place at 4:00 every morning to grind in the film room and build the better mousetrap. Bill Parcells has suffered from arrhythmia for years – he’s 63 years old and he can’t stay away. So great is his obsession with the coaching art that one wonders if it is more dangerous for Parcells to continue or quit. Dick Vermeil endured a well-documented case of burnout as the head coach of the Eagles in the early 1980s – he took 15 years off, came back, and won a Super Bowl with the Rams. Pikers like Steve Spurrier who join this fraternity from the collegiate ranks convinced that it’s cool to work 7-hour days with golf clubs in the trunks of their cars get spat out of the machine with nary a second thought.

Why is this job so debilitatingly difficult?

The Big Picture. The successful coach today must be a master of delegation - because of the complexity of modern offenses and defenses (not to mention the monumental task of constant motivation), coaching has become as much about quality control and hiring the right assistants as anything else. Belichick is able to do what he does, in part, because he has Charlie Weis running his offense and Romeo Crennel running his defense. This allows Belichick to monitor the big picture. The Steelers are quite possibly the best team in football right now – did Bill Cowher suddenly grow a brain? Not really. What he did do was welcome back defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau (who devised the nightmarish “Blitzburgh” defenses of the 1990’s) with open arms. In this age of specialization, it is the head coach who must become the generalist – the ultimate Sporting CEO. He must see all and know all.

And this, dear readers, is what Mike Holmgren fails to understand.

It appears from the outside that Holmgren stubbornly holds to the tenet that a beautiful mind is all you need to win. Long known as an offensive genius and the premier oracle of the West Coast Offense, Holmgren has never looked at the big picture, In Green Bay, he didn’t have to – he had a staff that may have been the most talented in NFL history with Jon Gruden, Andy Reid, Steve Mariucci and Fritz Shurmur. Holmgren was able to avoid asking the tough questions in areas that didn’t really interest him, because the people taking care of those areas were so very gifted. (Instructive example: Reid, Mariucci and Gruden have all fared better as head coaches than their former mentor since the Green Bay braintrust went their separate ways). Holmgren appears to prefer to outsmart the opposition when he really needs to out-think them. It’s a subtle difference…and then again, it really isn’t.

Mike Holmgren is not an overseer – he is a miscast specialist. He is a teacher at heart. A theorist. He is married to the process when it is the result that matters. Why else would he accept the idea of an eight-year plan? Why else would he tinker with a team to the point of frustration? Why else would he continue to start underperforming players? Why else are the Seahawks seen by the rest of the NFL as the team with so much talent and so little heart?

Because there is nobody guiding them. Nobody guiding Koren Robinson through his personal issues. Nobody guiding Darrell Jackson to the idea of letting his play do the talking. Nobody guiding Matt Hasselbeck through his rough patch – better to just keep leaving it up to Hasselbeck, blaming him in the media when shoddy playcalling should share the load. Nobody guiding his receivers through an infuriating two-season stint in which their inability to make the clutch catch has cost the team countless opportunities – just keep throwing it to those guys in the red zone against the Rams when Shaun Alexander was ripping their defense to shreds! Nobody holding defensive coordinator Ray Rhodes accountable for the defense’s recent performance (in the last few games before this one, they’d been falling faster than a fan at a Pacers-Pistons game). All you hear from Holmgren in the press is, “I don’t know about the defense – that’s Ray’s job”.

Who’s driving this plane?

I’m not suggesting that the baby be thrown out with the bathwater – there’s no question that Holmgren is one of the more intelligent football men in the world. He has forgotten more about the game than most people will ever know. But is it what he does not know – what he cannot defer to others – that will keep his Seahawks out of the Promised Land as long as his name is on the door, while the absence of a Head Coach continues to be felt. Perhaps it should be General Manager Holmgren who could address this issue? Or Team President Holmgren who could oversee the hiring of such a coach?

In any case, the Seahawks redefined the concept of “winning ugly” in this game. Against a determined but depleted Miami squad who seemed to want it far more in defeat, Mike Holmgren’s team eked out a victory that raised far more questions than answers. The Seahawks’ flair for unnecessary drama reared its ugly head yet again...

SPECIAL MICHAEL BOULWARE SECTION: Note to the Seahawk Brass – This kid has four INTs in limited action in his rookie year. Two of those INTs (today’s and the one against the Bucs) sealed Seahawk victories. Even if he’s not “ready” to play safety in the NFL yet (he’s done all his damage as a nickel linebacker), there have got to be ways to get him in the game more. Make it so!!!

Handouts To The Standouts: Jerry Rice, for replacing Koren Robinson (who was apparently benched for disciplinary reasons – nothing to do with the alleged upcoming four-game suspension) and showing his first flashes of brilliance in Seahawk Blue…Isaiah Kacyvenski, for overcoming an early blown assignment that allowed Miami’s first TD and recovering to post seven tackles, two assists and a sack…Grant Wistrom, for proving that the Seahawks desperately need his skill, determination and drive…Bobby Engram, for reminding us that over the last two seasons, he has been the team’s only reliable receiver…Antonio Cochran, for posting a sack and an interception (not bad for a DT!)… Dolphins QB A.J. Feeley, for treating us all to the gutsiest performance of the year….and Ray Rhodes, for actually taking advantage of the situation and calling more than three blitzes all day!

Things That Made Me Go, “Blech!”: Robinson AND Chris Terry supposedly benched for disciplinary reasons? Get out of the playpen, guys…the offensive line (especially the right side), for making Trent Dilfer’s job a lot harder than it had to be…Darrell Jackson, for providing as many drops and short-arms as he does incendiary soundbites…the special teams as a whole…and head official Mike Carey, for his traditional ticky-tack calls.

Offense (First Half – B-, Second Half - D): With Matt Hasselbeck out of the game (sore right thigh), Trent Dilfer made his first regular season start in two years. And although he struggled in some rusty moments, Dilfer did set a tone early on with a 21-yard TD pass to Jerry Rice with 9:25 left in the first quarter. The drive that led up to the TD was predominantly Shaun Alexander’s – the NFL’s leading rusher took the ball 7 times for 27 yards.

However, on the Seahawks’ second drive, the gremlins came out in force. Seattle started at their own 19-yard line and gained momentum after Miami DE Jason Taylor was penalized 15 yards for a late hit on Alexander. After the drive stalled on first and second down, Holmgren called a sweep to Mack Strong on 3rd and 12 which resulted in a fumble, a Dolphin recovery on the Seattle 35 and soon after, Miami’s first touchdown. Can’t blame Holmgren for the fumble, but what was he thinking running a sweep on 3rd and 12? Perhaps the same thing he was thinking when he called a draw on 3rd and 17 against the Rams last week…quite baffling.

Between drops, penalties, indifferent line play and curious playcalling, Seattle’s offense would never again hit its stride on this day. Although Dilfer did show an expert touch with the screen pass at times (something we’ve seen far too little of this year), he also threw up a grapefruit INT to SS Arturo Freeman with 3:08 left in the first half.

The Dolphins keyed on Alexander all say, daring Dilfer to beat them (a wise strategy, as it turned out), and as a result, Shaun rushed for only 96 yards on 29 carries. He did score one TD – a 4-yard run in the I-Formation behind the lead blocks of Mack Strong and Steve Hutchinson. This would seem to be a virtually unstoppable combination, and this formation is one that I would like to see more of.

In the second half, Miami upped the pressure on Dilfer, sending multiple players in different packages. Seattle had difficulty adjusting (blitz pickup has been a problem all year for this team, especially among the running backs), and it was this difficulty that shut the offense down for good. The sole highlight in the second half was Dilfer’s 52-yard pass to Jerry Rice, which caused the Qwest Field crowd to chant, “Jerry! Jerry! Jerry!” – a great moment for a great player.

But again, momentum could not be sustained. With twelve minutes left in the fourth quarter, Dilfer threw another INT directly to CB Patrick Surtain. This mistake was followed by two more ineffective drives and the exit of the offense.

Defense (First Half - B, Second Half - C): The Seahawks’ defense straddled the line between pretty good and damn lucky all day. After Kacyvenski’s brainfreeze allowed Feeley to zip into the end zone with 4:30 left in the first quarter (he left the middle completely unoccupied, preferring to pursue God knows what to his right), Seattle’s defense clamped down (for the most part) in a way we haven’t seen in a while. Specifically, the defense clamped down in a way we haven’t seen since Grant Wistrom last suited up. And that raises a question: Does Seattle’s defense belong to Ray Rhodes or Grant Wistrom?

Refusing to allow Anthony Simmons’ season-ending wrist injury to affect the defense’s ability to blitz (especially after Feeley suffered an injured hip on a Rocky Bernard tackle, which caused Antonio Cochran’s interception), Rhodes sent blitzes almost non-stop in this game. There were times when he reverted to form (3-man rushes and 10-yard cushions on marginal receivers), but I was fearing a replay of the Washington game last year in which Rhodes fake-blitzed his way into oblivion against Patrick Ramsey and the worst offensive line in the NFL at the time. Not so. Seattle’s D grabbed four sacks and brought good pressure. Massive, huge enormous props to Feeley for hanging in there and hobbling his way through a very dificult game.

The Seahawk secondary was a mixed bag – hamstrung by passive zone coverage, Ken Lucas (in my mind, the best over corner in the NFC) made an incredible near-interception of a Feeley throw. While horizontal in the air covering Marty Booker, Lucas reached out and somehow grabbed the ball. Unfortunately, Lucas could not keep control of the ball on his way down, but the play had to put a scare in the Dolphins. With the possible exception of Champ Bailey, I know of no other CB who could have made that play.

In what has become a worrisome trend of late, Marcus Trufant was burned more than once (victimized by Chris Chambers, who caught 9 balls for 103 yards and a touchdown, leading all receivers on the day). Trufant was called for two facemask penalties and appeared overwhelmed in coverage far too often. This is difficult to explain, since Trufant has made his talent abundantly clear.

The defense also found good fortune on two occasions – with 8:10 left in the game, Olindo Mare missed a 34-yard field goal that would have tied the game at 17. And with 2:25 left in the game, Feeley overthrew Bryan Gilmore, who was wide open for what would have been an easy touchdown after Gilmore beat Kris Richard. Mare kicked the tying field goal on the next play, and the momentum had shifted to the Dolphins’ side.

Enter Michael Boulware.

The Dolphins had driven to the Seattle 41-yard line, and needed about ten yards to enter Mare’s field goal range to pull out the upset. On 1st and 10 from the 41, Feeley threw a slant to Chambers which Boulware read perfectly. Boulware jumped the route, picked Feeley off, and ran the interception 63 yards for a touchdown. Seattle 24, Miami 17.

Ballgame over. Season saved. Thank you, Mr. Boulware!

Summary: The Seahawks have no right to feel anything but relief, and a bit of sheepish guilt, after such a win. Every encouragement was mitigated by a key error. This team has several fundamental issues to resolve before it can begin to think of itself as a legitimate playoff contender, and we’ll just have to see if, for once, we hear more than the usual stuff from the usual sources. Quite simply, it is time for the Seahawks to match their sense of fundamental correctness to their talent. If they cannot find a way to do this, a lost season awaits them.

Doug Farrar is the Editor-in-Chief of Seahawks.NET. Feel free to e-mail him at doug@seahawks.net.


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