The Return, 2005 Style

Our good friend, intrepid columnist Steve Utz, marks his return to Seahawks.NET with a review of the offseason. He also puts forth a very interesting set of theories about the future of the team.

Well, now that the team has returned to work, I guess it is time for your intrepid columnist to do the same. I offer no explanations for my self-imposed dearth of publication, other than a massive attack of congenital laziness.

The Seattle Seahawks’ 2005 offseason has been a tale of “the best of times, the worst of times,” but not necessarily in that order.

Following the 2004 season, the situation the Seahawks found themselves in projected to be nothing less than a trainwreck. The number of free agents eligible to negotiate with other teams is well documented. That they retained as many key players that they did for the upcoming season is nothing less than amazing.

To follow that up with coaxing Shaun Alexander into signing the one-year deal he insisted he wouldn’t play under is astonishing. We’ll get back to that later.

To return to the trainwreck analogy, Paul Allen actually did what many thought he might never do. He fired the engineer.

It is probably unwise to try and analyze the thought processes of others. It is also risky to make assumptions about what might motivate someone when you don’t know them personally. But from outward appearances, it seemed obvious to this amateur columnist that Bob Whitsitt was fully prepared to dismantle the Seattle Seahawks in an effort to leverage Mike Holmgren out of the picture, possibly so he could hire a more “manageable” head coach.

Allowing fully 30% of the team roster to attain free agency in a single season, including virtually all of the stars on offense, without even trying to sign any of them falls firmly under the rubric of gross mismanagement that doesn’t take a sports expert to see. Even a techno-nerd like Paul Allen had to be wondering, “What’s going on here?”

The importance of Whitsitt’s firing cannot be overemphasized. If he’s still here, there is no deal to hire Mike Reinfeldt back as a consultant. No Reinfeldt, no contracts for Hasselbeck or Jones, or at least not both. With them not signed, and only one franchise tag, the team probably loses one and perhaps two, of the big three among Hasselbeck, Jones, and Alexander. If the offense is disintegrating, would defensive free agents want to sign with us? Would our own defensive free agents want to return? It could have made things far more problematic.

All in all, the 2005 offseason played out far better than could have been expected back in January.

As of this writing, second-round pick Lofa Tatupu has agreed to terms with the team, and only first-rounder Chris Spencer remains to be signed. .

The deal that Shaun Alexander signed has been fairly well documented and dissected elsewhere, and seems to be pretty fair to both parties. While Shaun fails to get his long term deal yet, and the team received no additional salary cap relief that such a deal might afford, it looks like a win-win proposition.

Certainly, both the team and Alexander benefit from having him in camp from the start. The team, of course, gets to work as a unit on timing and execution for as many reps as possible. Alexander gets time and reps to get into “football shape” by taking some hits in practice and running at practice speed instead of having to ramp up to game speed under real game conditions. That should reduce the chance of injury once the season begins. The only people who would be bothered, presumably, are Maurice Morris, Kerry Carter, and Jesse Lumsden, all of whom would have received a lot more work with the first team had Alexander held out.

Shaun gets promises of control over trades the team might make, protection against further use of the tag, and assurances that the team will continue to negotiate in good faith for a long term deal.

The team gets one more year to evaluate Shaun in light of its long term plans and goals. Here’s where there might be a lurking hidden agenda.

The rest of this column is pure speculation on the part of the author, and there is no evidence that what I’m about to say has any basis in reality. It may all be smoke with no fire to support it. So be it.

This deal has been widely described as a second “audition” for Shaun Alexander. Tim Ruskell himself has even said, “This is good for the team and I look forward to seeing him on the field Friday." The implication here is that Ruskell has to see Shaun practice and play in person before he can decide what kind of player he is and how well he fits.

I don’t believe it.

You see, there is another person that is also probably on a one year “audition.” That person is Mike Holmgren.

“Now hold on here!” I’m sure you’re saying. “There has been no indication whatsoever that the team is contemplating a coaching change. Where in the heck is this coming from?”

Allow me to explain.

I’m not sure that Tim Ruskell is a firm believer in the West Coast Offense. I have no quotes to support this feeling, but there is one thing that points to this. Shortly after Jon Gruden landed in Tampa Bay, Ruskell suddenly moved to Atlanta. Granted, his ties with Rich McKay were probably big motivators in that move, but again, when Atlanta announced that they would be teaching the WCO to Mike Vick, Ruskell is suddenly available to move to Seattle. Of course that was a promotion, which probably could not be blocked by Atlanta anyway, but it is curious that he seems to move away from teams that are installing that scheme.

Here in Seattle, there is a curious situation. The West Coast Offense, and particularly the fairly pure version of it that Holmgren runs, does not normally feature the running back. Historically speaking, Holmgren won the Super Bowl in Green Bay without a 1000-yard rusher. He probably feels he could do so again.

Shaun Alexander, arguably, is not an optimal running back for the system that Holmgren runs. In Holmgren’s system, the RB is asked to get fewer carries and more catches than in more traditional run first schemes. However, probably because of his rather indifferent pass blocking, Alexander has been playing less and less on third down the past couple of years, which has led to a decline in his catches and yardage in the passing game.

Shaun Alexander has been described, at times, as a back that needs 25 carries or more per game before he can be effective. But Holmgren’s offense may only call for 25 rushes per game, total, which would be presumably spread somewhat between Shaun and the other backs on the team. If Holmgren only wants to rush 30-40% of the time, Shaun would likely only get about 15-20 carries per game, not enough for him to reach his “full performance level.”

Frankly, it seems likely that Ruskell is going to be evaluating whether Holmgren and Alexander really can coexist. There has been enough evidence in the past to indicate that there is at least some tension between the two, tied to the play calling and utilization of Shaun Alexander.

Ruskell’s career moves the past few years might indicate a certain preference against the WCO. If the team struggles in 2005, look for Ruskell to make a long term decision. He might just decide that a more conventional offense would be more to his liking, in which case, he might sign Alexander to a long term deal and make a coaching change. After all, Holmgren is in the 7th year of an 8-year deal, and coaching contracts are no more guaranteed than those of the players. Expectations among the fan base have not yet been met. The natives are getting restless.

It doesn’t stretch credulity to assume that Ruskell walked into Seahawks headquarters with a short list of coaching candidates not far out of reach should that be necessary.

Conversely, Ruskell might decide that Holmgren’s version of the WCO is something that he can live with and let Shaun walk because he isn’t a “good fit.” In this case, the one year deal gives the team some breathing room to find Shaun’s replacement.

The third option, of course, is that Shaun Alexander and Mike Holmgren find some way to coexist.

If they can do that, they might both finish their careers as Seahawks.

Steve Utz writes frequently for Seahawks.NET. Send your feedback to Steve at Top Stories