The Island

They say that no man is an island. Try explaining that to Mike Holmgren. There seems to be nothing but the icy black of the Puget Sound surrounding him now, the water either a harbinger of his future or a reflection of his past.

The vicious cycle begins anew each September for Holmgren, as if it’s the bear of expectation emerging from hibernation. The start of another season, “sleepless in Seattle”.

Only on the annual updrafts of the new season’s optimism can a coach be reborn as a “guru”. The same guru who triumphantly swooped into town in 1999, shining from the glorious rays of Super Bowl victory in historic TitleTown.

But a lot has happened in the last six years, enough to make the natives question the shelf-life of past accomplishment.

What has not happened are the victories and spoils that seemed assured when Holmgren accepted the keys to Paul Allen’s football kingdom. Six seasons of varying degrees of frustration, progress and recession have chipped away at his iconoclastic reputation and pedigree.

Six degrees of separation, and six degrees of frustration.

The shine of acclaim and fanfare has dimmed much like the passage of summer days into autumn. Long, trying and ultimately unsuccessful seasons have withered away a man who once loomed larger than life. He left Green Bay with a street named in his honor, and arrived in Seattle ready to resurrect a chronically mediocre franchise. There was hope and excitement, as finally a worthy Captain would take the helm, ready to navigate the franchise through the stormy waters churned up by Ken Behring, Tom Flores and Dennis Erickson.

Six years later, the ship is still adrift. It was never supposed to turn out like this.

Lured away from the hallowed tundra of Lambeau Field, Holmgren signed Allen’s 8-year, $32 million offer to serve as Executive Vice President of Football Operations, General Manager and Head Coach. With a mega-rich owner and his football credentials, there was no way that he could fail.

A half-decade later, Holmgren sports a regular-season record of 50-47 with the Seahawks, and a post-season mark of 0-3. Allen’s pot of gold has transformed into simple ore.

After a foray into the minutiae of serving as general manager for a modern day NFL franchise, he’s now just a football coach again. The days of balancing the intricacies of personnel management and the nuances of the salary cap have been traded for days of balancing expectation and promise.

Holmgren set the franchise on course for the Super Bowl when he took over. These days, the measures of his success have been adjusted to accommodate the shortcomings of his tenure. The expectations of a Super Bowl within the first three or four years of his reign have been whittled down to a nothing more than a framework of twigs supporting the promise of what could – and should -- have been. Acceptable progress, after six full seasons, is now just winning one playoff game.

That makes him not just an island, but a deserted one.

The questioning, once whispered, continues to become more and more audible. Holmgren’s perfectly-honed West Coast Offense seems unable to function effectively against solid, aggressive defenses. Although Holmgren once played sorcerer’s apprentice to Bill Walsh’s Merlin, his offense remains an enigma.

Since the start of the 2004 season, the Seahawks have faced seven top-15 defenses. Those teams include Tampa Bay (#5), New England (#9), Arizona (#12), Miami (#8), Buffalo (#2), the New York Jets (#7) and Jacksonville (#11 in 2004).

The aggregate record against those teams? 2-6. Of course, those losses alone do not indicate a chink in Holmgren’s offensive armor -- to be fair, the team’s porous defense played a role in several of those games. But by this point in his tenure, with the core of the unit having played together for the last three years, shouldn’t the offense be capable of more and better production?

Maybe the blame aim sets its sights on the players, including some of the same ones that Holmgren selected during his days as head honcho. It’s a fair criticism to say his draft picks as general manager are mostly “misses”. Sure, there is Shaun Alexander – but there is also Lamar King, Karsten Bailey and Floyd Wedderburn. Yes, there is Steve Hutchinson – and there is also Chris McIntosh, Marcus Bell and Ike Charlton. Darrell Jackson? The defense offers into evidence Koren Robinson, Josh Booty and Curtis Fuller.

Perhaps the most ominous storm cloud of the Holmgren era, however, is the “Curse of the Bye Week.” The excuses have dried up in the barren landscape decorated with six consecutive post-bye week defeats. That’s right; Holmgren’s Seahawk teams have never won a game coming off of a bye.

That’s a really bad movie and five sequels that are even worse.

Who shoulders the blame? Doesn’t it have to be the one constant – the head coach -- at this point?

It’s not just the losses, but the way the team manages to court defeat. The 4th quarter collapse against St. Louis in 2004, when the Seahawks blew a 27-10 lead. “Sharpie Gate” against the 49ers in 2002, when Terrell Owens embarrassed Holmgren’s defense by autographing his touchdown ball on Monday Night Football. Mike Anderson’s 80-yard run, his career long, to seal the win for Denver in 2000.

This team does not seem ready to play 60 minutes after a week off. Why?

Holmgren is a good football coach - and more importantly, he’s a fine man. There are touchstone events during his tenure that rationalize the ascension and crumbling of his dynasty. He has had to deal with his wife’s breast cancer; the sudden death of defensive coordinator and confidant Fritz Shurmur, who passed away before he could coach one game for the franchise; the overwhelming task of cleaning up the team’s salary cap mess after the Erickson era ended; losing his job as general manager, and then having to deal with Bob Whitsitt, a basketball guy who became a football pariah.

But weren’t we supposed to be shining the Lombardi Trophy by now?

Perhaps Holmgren is haunted by what could have been, but to his credit he doesn’t show it. Maybe he privately acknowledges those who say his Super Bowl victory was on the coattails of one Brett Lorenzo Favre, but in public he still imbues trust and faith in his current gunslinger, Matt Hasselbeck. Or perhaps at this stage of his life, he is content to just do what he loves to do, and could care less, come hell or high water, what becomes of the image that preceded his arrival in the Pacific Northwest.

Maybe he is an island, one too far away from shore to hear the distant voices – some still singing his praises, and some imagining what would happen if he built himself a raft and sailed back in time to the days when his promise was larger than the vast gulf of reality.

Greg Renick writes regularly for Seahawks.NET. Feel free to contact him at grenick@cox.net.


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