Much has been made of the hurdles Seattle hopes to overcome in this game - Holmgren’s 0-4 record against the Redskins (they’re the only NFL team he hasn’t beaten as a coach with Seattle and Green Bay), his 0-3 postseason record with Seattle, and the Seahawks’ 21-year playoff victory drought. And while Holmgren had previously discussed what a playoff win this Saturday would mean to him, his team and the city, the coach had last year’s 27-20 Wild Card loss to the St. Louis Rams on his mind. Is it possible to refer to past playoff losses and bring them forward as learning experiences? “I think you do reference what happened,” Holmgren said. “But a lot of those (defensive) guys didn't participate in that game last year. The offensive players certainly can remember it. I think when you look at a game like that and you talk about the magnitude of a playoff game, it is different. The ebb and flow of last year's game, you can refer to that, and you can make corrections saying, ‘we don't want to do this or we missed an opportunity here’. But as far as the game itself, a lot of those guys, particularly on defense, weren't even (here).”
The game that ended Seattle’s 2004 season and augured in a year of historic change for the franchise ended in heartbreaking fashion. On 4th and 4 with 27 seconds left at the St. Louis 5-yard line, Matt Hasselbeck sidearmed a low pass to Bobby Engram that went through the receiver’s hands. Hasselbeck pounded the Qwest Field turf in fury and frustration as a season full of promise evaporated. “The beginning of that game reminded me a little of the beginning of (last week’s) Tampa-Washington (wild card playoff) game,’ Holmgren said. “Right away, we were behind. We turned the ball over, fumbled the ball and the Rams jumped out, and then we played the whole game trying to catch up to them. When we finally caught up, we couldn’t stop them. Typical of last season,” he remembered.
“What helps me when I look at the film of a game we’ve lost, is that I can say, ‘OK, this is what happened’. When you’re watching it from the sideline…you think you know, but you don’t really know until you actually look at the film. And then when you look at the film, you can actually go, ‘OK, this is why that happened.’ It helps me. I might not like it. I might get angry about it. But at least I can say, OK, this is what happened. That’s what I do when I look at film. Yeah, the three times we’ve been in the playoffs, we’ve lost all three games in the last, you could make a case in the last minute of the game. The Green Bay playoff game. The Miami game my first year, (Dan) Marino made a third-down pass -- third and 20 or something – otherwise we win that game. That’s how close it is. That’s how close it always is, not just for the Seahawks but for anybody who loses a game, or for that matter, wins a game.
Holmgren was also persuaded to take a look back at the factors which led to Hasselbeck’s hurried throw: “(Guard) Chris Gray hurt his knee about four plays earlier, four or five plays earlier. We had a couple injuries on the offensive line, so we were playing with some guys in there at the time (who) hadn’t had much practice. So we called the play and our protection broke down just a little bit on that play, and Matt had to move. Instead of being able to see the play and throwing where he could have delivered a better pass, he had to move because of our protection breakdown. And then when he finally threw the ball, it was low. What happened, happened. I’m not pointing the finger at anyone. We were kind of banged up by that point. You just kind of stick (reserves) in the game because they’re standing next to you on the sideline. They know what the play is, but maybe they won’t do it exactly right. So that’s what happened.”
After that game, that dysfunctional team was drastically altered from the top down, with the firing of Team President Bob Whitsitt, the departures of able aides Ted Thompson and Scot McCloughan, the rehire of salary cap maven Mike Reinfeldt, and the protracted search which led to the February hire of top man Tim Ruskell. The positive chain of events that led to Seattle’s current place in the NFC’s catbird seat could not have been foreseen at that time. How does Holmgren feel now about where his team stands? Is he relieved to be on the other side of a formerly faulty operation? "Well, I wouldn't say relieved. I wouldn't use that word. While I might have mood swings, I'm very fortunate to be doing what I'm doing,” Holmgren said. “Sometimes it's good. Sometimes it's not so good. I will say this, though - I am very, very happy about some of the guys on our football team who have gone through some tough things and come out of it and been a part of this season. That makes a coach feel good. I feel good about that. The fact we have a chance to be in these playoffs and have a chance here, that's what I've been working for.
It'd be like any other person in any other job,” he continued. “You work hard to attain something. To make that sale or to build the apartment building. You work, you work, you work. Then all of a sudden, something happens. There's a strike, if you are building. Then all of a sudden you build it. You are there. Or you make that sale after you didn't think you could. That's what you work for. That's what we all strive to do. So that part of it I feel good about. But I want to emphasize (that there is) no complacency. We have achieved some of our goals this season. But we still have some ahead of us."
Of the many free agent acquisitions spearheaded by the new Ruskell regime, one of the most savvy was the signing of former Tampa Bay receiver Joe Jurevicius. Jurevicius led the team in touchdown catches with 10, and caught a career-high 55 passes for 694 yards. He brought a work ethic and reliability sorely needed by Seattle’s wideouts in the wake of Koren Robinson’s troubled history with the team. And when Darrell Jackson missed ten weeks of the season with a knee injury, Jurevicius became the pointman when Hasselbeck needed a clutch catch made. How did Holmgren view his new receiver? “He had the reputation of a smart, tough, possession type receiver, (with) good size and average speed. Not bad speed, average speed. And a great team guy. Having worked with him now for a season, he is certainly all those things. He is a better receiver than I believed he was. He has great hands, he is a tough guy. He is a little faster than people think he is and he has a knack to find the open spot. My feeling is the bigger the game, the better he is. That’s a good thing right now.”
Jurevicius has been to two Super Bowls – XXXV as a New York Giant on the losing end against the Baltimore Ravens, and XXXVII In 2003 when the Buccaneers blasted the Oakland Raiders, 48-21. How does Holmgren, who has a Super Bowl ring of his own as a head coach, feel about coaching in the postseason?
“I don't know. I can't be a phony and the players have to be themselves,” he said, when asked how he relates the postseason experience to those players who haven’t seen the elephant. “To tell Lofa Tatupu, 'Act like you've been there before,' well he hasn't been there before. We have played a certain way, and done a decent job of establishing a level of play this season, and my point of emphasis is going to be 'you got here because of hard work and this and that and the next thing. Let's keep doing that.' We all understand sudden death and it's the playoffs and it's big. You're down to the last few teams but this is how we got here. Let's have good practices. Let's have a healthy respect for our opponent, and let's take it into Saturday. My whole thing this year has been this is a different team, different year, and that's going to be the point of emphasis for me.”
Holmgren, for his part, is intimately familiar with the dynamics of postseason coaching. "The intensity level is cranked up just a notch,” he said. “The fans in the stadium make the game different. If you watched any of the games last weekend, there was electricity in the stadium(s). So that changes emotions or can change emotion. The other thing you learn about the playoffs is, the mistake in the playoffs - the turnover, whatever it may be, the missed tackle - takes on much greater meaning in the playoffs then in the regular season."
One thing Holmgren does know is that when facing Hall of Fame coach Joe Gibbs, one must be ready for a chess match…crossed with a heavyweight championship bout. The Seahawks learned that on October 2nd, when the Redskins beat Seattle 20-17 on overtime at FedEx Field. After that game, the Seahawks stood at 2-2, on the precipice of another disappointing season, and few could have imagined the 11-game winning streak that would immediately follow. It has been hypothesized that the Washington loss was a turning point for this team, and Holmgren doesn’t deny it.
“I wasn’t there, I’d swear we lost 35-3, but as it was, we had a chance to win it with a field goal right at the end. It was a battle. We went on the road in a tough place to play, a very difficult venue to play in, and we hung in there pretty good against them, I thought. To the point where if (Josh Brown’s 47-yard miss on the last play of regulation) doesn’t hit the crossbar, we win the game.”
”So after the end of the game, I said, ‘Well, you know, unfortunately we hit the crossbar, or hit the upright on the field goal, but we can compete.’ I thought our guys did a nice job. We went on a (91)-yard drive at the end of the game to tie the game with a few seconds left to go. I thought that told me something about our offensive team. Even though we didn’t get the ball very much in the first half, the guys settled down and they made an interception at the end to give us a chance to win the game. That told me something about our young defense. So no one could have guessed we would 11 games in a row. That doesn’t happen, but it happened. I did learn some things about our football team after that game. The next week, we beat the Rams in St. Louis, and that’s before all their guys got hurt. That was a heck of a win for us, and then we were off and running.”
Holmgren is very familiar with Gibbs – the two coaches have known each other for many years, all the way back to Holmgren’s days as a USC quarterback. In fact, were it not for a last-second call from the Bay Area, Holmgren might have made a move to Gibbs’ Redskins staff. “After (the San Francisco 49ers) won the Super Bowl in 1988, I was getting ready to go back there and interview for the quarterback position with the Redskins,” Holmgren said. He had been San Francisco’s quarterbacks coach from 1986 through 1988.
"Before I could get on the airplane, San Francisco offered me the offensive coordinator's job. We'd won the Super Bowl. (The coaches’) contracts were all up, (and) Coach Walsh had just retired. So we didn't know. I had little kids. So I was in a panic. Had to work. So they hired George Seifert as the head coach. And George called me in and offered me the (offensive coordinator) position in San Francisco. And I stayed."
While Holmgren has coached constantly throughout his adult life, Gibbs left the game from 1993 through 2003. Famous once again for becoming a success as an owner on the NASCAR circuit when he founded Joe Gibbs Racing in 1992, Gibbs found the pull of football impossible to resist when he returned to Washington D.C. in 2004.
What sort of challenges does Holmgren think an all-time great like Gibbs faced after more than a decade away from the game? “Getting used to some things was going to take a little bit of time,” Holmgren said. “There was no salary cap in those days (pre-1993) and if you want to categorize his teams in Washington the first time around, he had a lot of veteran guys and they'd been with him a long time and they were very much a veteran group. You don't see that so much now. Things change more rapidly now.
”Some of the rules in instant replay, he just had to get used to it or someone on his staff had to get used to it and give him the information. But the football part of it, he is very good at, he has a system, he believes in it and he's good at teaching it clearly. So it's just a matter of it getting taught and to my way of thinking, he's a great football coach. Regardless of what era or what decade, he was going to be good. It was just a matter of time.”
Does Mike Holmgren have a NASCAR – a dream that could take him away from coaching and become an equivalent obsession? “I don't know. I know he had to work hard in NASCAR. I think when I'm done with this, I'm not going to work that hard.”
For Mike Holmgren, this life's work continues into the second season once again.
Doug Farrar is the Editor-in-Chief of Seahawks.NET. Feel free to e-mail him at email@example.com.