The Anti-Report Card: "Holmgren's Eleven"

In reviewing the most incredible season in the 30-year history of the Seattle Seahawks, where does one begin? Do the readers really want to see another report in which positions and players are generically graded? Or should there be a little something more in the analysis? Seahawks.NET's Doug Farrar is of the belief that with a little "outside-the-box" thinking (and the help of two favorite DVDs), the full scope of this incredible year can be better remembered.

The ideal reasoner would, when he had once been shown a single fact in all its bearings, deduce from it not only all the chain of events which led up to it but also all the results which would follow from it. – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Awards are merely the badges of mediocrity. – Charles Ives

How do you go about accurately grading a season such as this? I mean…really. You’ll see post-season report cards everywhere, but how can you possibly collate the 2005 Seahawks as an entity between five dividers marked, “A through F, minus E?”

When a team expected by many to finish third in their own division finds itself a few bad plays (and a few more bad calls) away from the Lombardi Trophy, and spends the entire journey either ignored or castigated by the national media, it behooves someone…anyone…to go beyond the numbers and hit the nuance.

Most valuable rookie? Best free agent? Sure, you’ll get no argument if you say “Lofa Tatupu” and “Joe Jurevicius”. But why? We all have our beliefs and opinions regarding the Seahawks’ miracle season, and different modes of expression should rule the day.

Of course, if it’s workable for you to call Lofa a “B+” and be done with it, that’s your prerogative. Me? Not so much. And in my own search for the best way to express my thoughts of a season, I found the method of ESPN’s Bill Simmons – using quotes from a select movie as catalysts for analysis – to be preferable. Last year, I used Quentin Tarantino’s “Kill Bill” series to wrap up the Seahawks’ year in my own Part One and Part Two.

This year, I’ll use “Ocean’s Eleven” (2001) and Ocean’s Twelve” (2004), Steven Soderburgh’s cool and entertaining accounts of Daniel Ocean (ably played by George Clooney) and his crew of brilliant reprobates. “Eleven” is actually a re-make of a 1960 Rat Pack movie (though very different under the skin), in which Ocean re-unites with former pal Rusty Ryan (Brad Pitt) after a prison term in order to pull off his biggest score ever.

The cast is certainly a Murderer’s Row – Andy Garcia (casino owner Terry Benedict), Julia Roberts (Danny’s ex-wife Tess), Elliot Gould (con financier Reuben Tishkoff), Matt Damon (big-time newbie Linus Caldwell ), Bernie Mac (manicure maniac Frank Catton), Casey Affleck and Scott Caan (dysfunctional brothers Turk and Virgil Malloy), Carl Reiner (old-timer Saul Bloom) and Don Cheadle (explosives expert Basher Tarr). Ocean’s Eleven the crew is rounded out by Eddie Jemison (tech expert Livingston Dell), and Shaobo Qin (world-class acrobat and “greaseman” Yen).

“Eleven” is the more plausible and entertaining of the two movies, following the Ocean team through their ascent and “gameplanning” to run one of the biggest heists in history. Like the Seahawks’ 2005 season, it is a surprise study in character, with several little connections and occurrences facilitating the near-impossible.

“Twelve”, based primarily in Europe, is more distant and difficult. Like Super Bowl XL, one could say that “Twelve” fell a bit flat in the wake of so much hype. The still-cynical among you might also say that like Super Bowl XL, “Twelve” wasn’t even a very good con.

What will you see? Again, we must look beyond the obvious to the nuance.

We begin where we left off last year: with the firing of former Team President Bob Whitsitt on January 14, 2005, the sixteen potential unsigned free agents the team had on its hands, and the upcoming disaster that was averted by an old friend and a new genius:

“You hear about this new medical discovery they made? It's called a 'sense of direction.' Apparently, we're all supposed to have one...”

To the “Vulcan Search Group”, Paul Allen’s cabal of hand-picked executives who were charged with the task of finding Whitsitt’s replacement. As would befit a man of Allen’s privacy, the search was not trumpeted daily in the news…the group merely went slowly and methodically on its way. This led to a great deal of frustration in the fan populace (and some very embarrassing moments for one John Clayton on Seattle’s KJR-AM in which he repeatedly intimated that the committee didn’t really have a clue), but in the end, there was nothing to worry about.

Yes, the Mariners would have hyped their search to the heavens, and Howard Schultz will probably try to create a reality TV show out of his next exec hiring…but that wasn’t the point. The point was to come away with the best possible leader for this team. Someone who not only possessed the “quick-twitch muscle fibers” needed for immediate action, but also a marathoner’s endurance for the long haul.

In the end, there’s no possible way they could have done better. Had New England's Scott Pioli accepted Allen’s generous offer to jump ship and move to the Emerald City, it’s not certain that the two-time NFL Executive of the Year could have re-built and shepherded the Seahawks any better than Tim Ruskell did.

“Okay. Tell me about Benedict.”
“The guy is a machine. He arrives at the Bellagio every day at two p.m. Same Town Car, same driver. Remembers every valet's name on the way in. Not bad for a guy worth three-quarters of a billion. Offices are upstairs. He works hard, hits the lobby floor at seven on the nose. Spends three minutes on the floor with his casino manager…All business. Benedict likes to know what's going on in his casinos. There's rarely an incident he doesn't know about or handle personally. He spends a few minutes glad-handing the high rollers. He’s fluent in Spanish, German and Italian, and he's taking Japanese lessons, getting pretty good at it. He's out by seven-thirty, when an assistant hands him a black portfolio. Contents: the day's take and new security codes. Then he heads to the restaurant.

”As I said: a machine.”

Who else?

He was savvy, he was overdue, and he had perhaps the greatest amount of front office and personnel knowledge of anyone not running an NFL team. When Rich McKay recommended Tim Ruskell to the Seahawks, he must have known this manner of turnaround could happen. And when Paul Allen turned his Seahawks over to Ruskell on February 23, 2005, the former Tampa Bay and Atlanta personnel guru got right to work.

Whether eschewing the Owner’s Meetings in favor of visits to southern Pro Days, heading up a draft with at least two bonafide steals with extremely limited prep time, acquiring free agents Chuck Darby and Joe Jurevicius who were familiar to him from past championships, or building this formerly dysfunctional team in his own high-performance, all-character image, Ruskell performed the single most impressive NFL makeover in 2005, and one of the more notable in recent history.

His short-term reward SHOULD be the NFL Exec of the Year award on his mantelpiece, but one suspects that Ruskell himself cares little for such surface validation. Now firmly and totally entrenched after one full year in Seattle, Ruskell has many asking the million-dollar question: What does he do for an encore?

The answer is simple. Win it all next time.

Don’t bet against him…

“You'd need at least a dozen guys doing a combination of cons.”
“Like what, do you think?”
“Off the top of my head, I'd say you're looking at a Boesky, a Jim Brown, a Miss Daisy, two Jethros and a Leon Spinks, not to mention the biggest Ella Fitzgerald ever!”

To Mike Reinfeldt, who held the team in place in Whitsitt’s wake until Ruskell was hired. Actually, by negotiating long-term contracts with Matt Hasselbeck and Walter Jones (allowing the team to tag Shaun Alexander), Reinfeldt created a situation passable enough for Ruskell to make the choice he did. Not only did Reinfeldt move forward with negligible self-interest and ego (knowing as he did that the Team President role would go elsewhere), he did so as a consultant, having been shoved out by Whitsitt in February of 2004. After Ruskell’s hire, the Seahawks gladly and gratefully gave Reinfeldt the position of Vice President of Football Administration.

While he recently turned down a higher-placed role with the 49ers (more on this later), there is little doubt that Reinfeldt will be running a team…and soon. Seattle is very fortunate to have such an able executive as long as they do – like Ruskell in Atlanta, Reinfeldt may be the most qualified on the NFL’s “soon-to-be” list.

“The Vermeer is quite good. Simple but vibrant. Although his work definitely fell off as he got older.”
“Remind you of anyone?”

To the professional reclamation of Mike Holmgren. Through his first six seasons as Seattle's head coach (the first four with the dual role of general manager), Holmgren posted a 50-46 record – hardly what was expected when he was hired away from Green Bay in 1999. Busted from a near-certain Hall of Fame perch by bad front office management, miscommunication and his own hubris, Holmgren finished 2004 with one foot out the door. He was sick of mediocrity, sick of backing players who would inevitably break his heart, and especially sick of swimming upstream against the raging tide that was Bob Whitsitt.

With all the turmoil and repair that followed, Holmgren was almost the forgotten man. But 2005 would be the year in which he would be freed from the shackles of his own limitations, and the repression of others – for the first time since Brett Favre was his quarterback, Holmgren would go into a season as nothing but a coach…worrying about nothing but coaching.

The 13-3 season that followed is Holmgren’s triumph as much as anyone’s – like any man who endures his own private nightmare to the end, Holmgren was a different individual on the other side. He wisely put the offense in the hands of his running back and turned away from the prototypical West Coast Offense in favor of balance and clock domination. Barring the occasional reversion to form, that’s where he stayed.

Now, there is talk of a contract extension. And unlike in previous years, Seattle's fanbase doesn’t recoil at such talk.

After all, they have finally seen the Mike Holmgren they were promised.

“Who died and made you Danny?”

To John Marshall, Seattle’s linebackers coach and interim defensive coordinator. When actual defensive coordinator Ray Rhodes suffered a mild stroke on September 4 and was relegated to a consultancy through the season, Marshall took Rhodes’ schemes in hand, added his own spice (including a pronounced emphasis on bull-rushing), and took Tim Ruskell’s drastically modified front seven on a collision course with the rest of the NFL. Seattle's D was tops in the NFL in Football Outsiders’ Adjusted Line Yards in 2005 after finishing 21st in that category in 2004. The Seahawks led the NFL in sacks with 50, and 32.5 of those came from the line. Another 11.5 came from two rookie linebackers.

Of course, Marshall was no newbie when he stepped into Rhodes' shoes – he had been a defensive coordinator in Atlanta, San Francisco and Carolina – and many wonder if Seattle will offer him the position on a full-time basis. Certainly this depends on Rhodes' health and other factors, but there’s little doubt when it comes to Marshall's value. Like Mike Reinfeldt, he toiled in relative anonymity. Few really knew how important his contributions were to the team, but there would have been no Super Bowl without John Marshall.

“You know what your problem is?”
“I only have one?”

To Bob Casullo, and his laugh-a-minute special teams. It would have been impossible for Casullo to do worse than his predecessor, Mark Michaels…but he came close. His first boo-boo came when he signed off on the release of punters Donnie Jones and Chris Kluwe in favor of Leo Araguz, who was eventually released himself. The Seahawks signed Tom Rouen as a desperate measure – not that Rouen was horrible, but Jones was third in the NFL in net yards with the Dolphins and Kluwe was considered a possible Pro Bowler with Minnesota before suffering a torn ACL.

There was Jimmy Williams, getting sent out onto the field again and again, despite his inability to reliably catch punt returns…there was the infuriating run of return penalties that stuck Seattle with field position disadvantages. In the end, Josh Scobey probably did more for Seattle's special teams than Bob Casullo did.

Whether Casullo suffers Michaels’ “one-and-done” fate remains to be seen, but the Seahawks need to ask more of their special teams as a whole. That starts with whoever’s coaching them.

“Now, they tell me I paid my debt to society.”
“Funny, I never got a check.”

To Koren Robinson. After four years of undisciplined behavior, traffic stops, police blotters, the abuse of various substances and the suspensions such behavior generally brings, Robinson was finally released by the Seahawks on June 2. Robinson then went through a rehab program in Charleston South Carolina that worked for him, was signed by the Minnesota Vikings, and made the Pro Bowl…as a kickoff returner. Robinson’s 47 returns, 26.0 yard average and touchdown told the story of his comeback. His trip to Hawaii confirmed it.

It’s a stretch to say that anyone who dealt with Robinson’s antics for four years in Seattle would want the receiver back – and there’s nothing about him that says, “Ruskell”. Still, Robinson knows he has the love and support of many of his former teammates, as well as the fans who saw him play to his potential only occasionally, in exasperating fits and starts.  

“The last time we talked, you hung up on me.“
“You used nasty words.”

To Chike Okeafor, Ken Lucas, Chris Terry, Anthony Simmons and all the other departures. Lucas was the only player who either took a better offer, or was jettisoned by the Seahawks, who came close to matching prior performances (Robinson’s special teams contributions come at a different position).

In the end, Ruskell’s personnel acumen wasn’t just demonstrated by who he acquired – in this cap-driven league, it is just as much about who you kick, and when you kick them, as anything else…

“We'll need Saul.”
“He won't do it. He got out of the game a year ago.”

…and then, there’s who you DON’T acquire. Seattle’s predominant off-season search was for a dedicated pass rusher, and former Baltimore linebackers Peter Boulware and Edgerton Hartwell were tops on their dance card. In the end, Hartwell signed a huge contract with the Atlanta Falcons, played in five games, and suffered a season-ending injury to his right Achilles tendon. Boulware re-upped with the Ravens, missed nine games, and recorded nine tackles.

In the end, Seattle got a bargain in former St. Louis DE Bryce Fisher, and drafted Clemson OLB Leroy Hill to help from the edge.

Fisher and Hill combined for 16.5 sacks.

"I’m out, fellas. As ranking old-timer, I gotta say…I just can’t do it. At my age, I think I’ve earned the right to be selfish. I want to thank you all for the wonderful opportunity – you’re all aces in my book, but I want the last check I write to bounce.”

To Trent Dilfer, Matt Hasselbeck’s mentor and erstwhile backup. Dilfer had a standing agreement with Mike Holmgren that if another team came along offering the possibility of a starting job, the Seahawks would do everything in their power to make that happen. Such an offer hit the table from the Cleveland Browns, and Dilfer was traded for a fourth-round pick in March. Cleveland then signed Dilfer to a four-year contract extension that included a $2.1 million signing bonus, insuring at least the immediate future in this league for this absolute pillar of integrity.

The Browns improved a bit under Dilfer and new coach Romeo Crennel, but considerable front-office turmoil, and injuries to Kellen Winslow and Braylon Edwards, proved fatal to their competitive prospects. Dilfer himself rotated with Charlie Frye towards the end of the season after suffering a knee injury, but he also proved to be a pleasant surprise as an addition to the NFL Network’s postseason coverage. As the Seahawks’ “mole”, Dilfer flew back to Kirkland, interviewed players, and gave expert analysis…and a bit of hilarity with his “metrosexual” comments about one Matthew Hasselbeck and his rather iffy argyle sweater.

It was a great reminder of what we in Seattle love and respect about Trent Dilfer…and why his contributions to the franchise will not be forgotten.

“Are you hosting a telethon we don't know about?”

To the unnerving run of “Bob Whitsitt – Fine Human Being” stories which prefaced the Super Bowl. If Dilfer is the friend we’ll always remember, Whitsitt was the equivalent of the girlfriend who got plastered, crashed you car, drained your bank account and forced your dog to run away from home. His reign of terror, only documented after his firing, nearly cost the Seahawks their head coach…and quite possibly their competitive future, given his seeming blindness to the realities of the salary cap.

So why, in the week before the Super Bowl, were Northwest sportswriters penning puff pieces about him?

On February 3, The Oregonian’s John Canzano wrote an article in which he proclaimed Whitsitt to be the Seahawks' “unsung hero”. Jim Moore of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer blew a similar snow job on January 21. Such “character studies” paint Whitsitt as a reflective, misunderstood, somewhat wronged architect of the Seahawks’ revival.


The primary argument in favor of Whitsitt’s tenure – his tenaciousness in keeping the team in Seattle – is duly noted, but his actions since then have all but rendered that currency “unspendable”. Lest we forget, let’s take another look at Whitsitt’s quotes to Clare Farnsworth only three days before his firing:

His role in saving the Seahawks? “I've still got the press release where I was having the press conference to say that Paul has withdrawn. It was Easter Sunday, and I talked him into it. He was going to Japan. I'm home on Easter Sunday, convincing Paul, 'Let me not do that press conference.' We got far enough with the politicians, and he didn't like the vibe. He said, 'We're done.' And when he's done, he's done. I said, 'Give me until you come back from Japan. I'm going down there ( Olympia ) and I've got an idea where you negotiate an option.' Then we got the whole year to work with the politicians. Long story short, he said, 'OK.' I went down there and got it done in a week."

His role in bringing Mike Holmgren to Seattle? "I hired Mike Holmgren. Paul Allen didn't even know who he was. I got (Mike) to come back on a 32-hour trip to have dinner at Paul's house the night before we announced it. Because Paul agreed he should at least meet the guy before we do it. And it was important for Mike's ego. It was all me. I did the money, which was massive. So nobody wants him to succeed more than me, because it's on my report card."

On Holmgren himself? “Two years ago, I took his GM stuff away from him. Which he wasn't doing anyway. I know he can coach. But I've got to get him energized. I've got to get him working a little harder. It was a little bit of a hiccup. Did he want it to happen? No. But we got through that."

On the sixteen free agents the team had apparently made no effort to re-sign, or even negotiate with? "Let's pretend that we loaded them all up last year with big contracts and you have a monster payroll, you're monster tapped out on the cap, and have a very mediocre team. If all these free agents are so good, and Paul has to write that big a check, why haven't we won a playoff game in six years?"

Compare and contrast with Tim Ruskell…and you tell me why so many Seahawks employees were celebrating after Whitsitt was shown the door.

“You gotta walk before you crawl.”
“Reverse that.”

Danny’s admonition to Linus as the con develops in “Twelve” goes to the San Francisco 49ers. Hoo boy…where does one begin? The Worst Damn Team in Football in 2004 got off to a promising start in'05 when they poached Seattle's talented Scot McCloughan as their new Vice President of Player Personnel. McCloughan was fighting an uphill battle, to be sure (several, in fact), but manning two quality drafts for the Seahawks under the random iron fist of Bullet Bob Whitsitt gave him a taste for capricious executive behavior that would serve him well in the John York regime.

With the first pick in the draft, the Niners selected QB Alex Smith. They then signed Smith to a $49.25 million contract, which includes $24 million in guaranteed money over six years. While it could be argued that the team had no choice but to make this kind of big splash in order to appease an apoplectic fanbase, Smith was doomed in his rookie year to an almost unprecedented degree. First-round picks will generally fight uphill battles surrounded by horrible teams, but Smith’s final line (84 of 165 for 875 yards, 1 TD and 11 INTs in nine games, and the TD didn’t come until the second quarter of the season finale against Houston) spoke to his own inexperience and the near-total lack of impact players around him. He also missed five games in the middle of the season with strained knee ligaments.

From an overall personnel perspective, San Francisco seems to be in desperate trouble. OLB Julian Peterson, the team’s one undeniably elite player when healthy, could hit the open market. Desperate needs rear their ugly heads at nearly every position on defense, and the offense isn’t much better. WR Brandon Lloyd, a restricted free agent, may be one beacon of hope…but it will take a series of moves worthy of Daniel Ocean himself for McCloughan to bring this team up to respectability. Contention in the short term is out of the question. Stealing Mike Reinfeldt (the Jimi Hendrix of the salary cap) away from the Seahawks would have helped, but Reinfeldt turned away from San Francisco's overtures and headed back for another go in Seattle.

“Shane, you've got three pairs. You can't have six cards! You can't have six cards in a five-card game!”

To the Arizona Cardinals, and the prognosticators who loved them. When football writers began making their preseason predictions in the summer of 2005, it was, indeed, the implausible Cardinals of Arizona many had as their Surprise Team. A fate they could do without, to be sure – the Seahawks were many a writer’s Surprise Team in 2004, and there are guys like Gregg Easterbrook of who manage to spin entire articles out of horrible preseason predictions. Nonetheless, Arizona it was.

Why, you may ask?

Well, there was the acquisition of quarterback Kurt Warner, a two-time NFL MVP. There were the great receivers, led by Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald. There was the draft, which had the team taking Miami CB Antrel Rolle and Cal's J.J. Arrington, a highly-regarded running back. There were other free agent deals, including former Seahawks Orlando Huff and Chike Okeafor. There was the esteem most football writers hold for head coach Dennis Green. So, why did Arizona finish the season with only five wins?

The Cards endured a horrific amount of roster churnage – a total of fifteen players found themselves on injured reserve. Many of those fifteen resided on the offensive and defensive lines, leading to the Cardinals’ alarming inability to run the ball and stop the run (they were last in the NFL in rushing TDs scored, and tied with Buffalo and St. Louis for most allowed). Warner struggled with a recurrent thumb injury and a season-ending MCL sprain in December, and Green didn’t have enough glue when all was said and done.

This season, they’ll do their work under the radar, and it will be interesting to see if a team that finished eighth overall in both total offense and total defense can put together a decent run. Signing Warner to a 3-year deal may not be the best move for Warner himself – the 34-year old QB will need a line of some stability in front of him, and a running game of any renown behind him, simply to survive.

“Watch it, bud.”
“Who you calling bud, pal?”
“Who you calling pal, friend?”
“Who you calling friend, jackass?”
“Don't call me a jackass.”
“I just did call you a jackass.”

Turk and Virgil Malloy’s hilarious “Balloon Boy” distraction scene in the Bellagio goes to Seattle's chief rival and former Achilles’ heel, the St. Louis Rams. After a most frustrating 2004 in which the Rams beat the Seahawks three times despite losing the NFC West to Seattle (resulting in perhaps the most hollow division win in NFL history), the rivals faced off for the first time in 2005 on October 9 th at the Edward Jones Dome. The Seahawks came into the game on the heels of their debilitating loss to the Redskins, sans Darrell Jackson AND Bobby Engram. Both teams were 2-2 going in, and this game just had the fetid odor of one of those contests in which the “Same Old Seahawks” would once again show their skunky stripes.

Not so fast, Archuleta-breath! Matt Hasselbeck completed 27 of 38 passes for 316 yards and 2 TDs, and this was the game in which the real wisdom of the Joe Jurevicius signing became obvious. Jurevicius caught 9 balls for 137 yards (career bests), the defense stepped up when it needed to, and J.P. Darche and Jordan Babineaux collaborated on a key special teams turnover late in the game to seal the deal.

The follow-up match at Qwest Field on November 16 th was almost anticlimactic, but far more decisive – a 31-16 victory in which Shaun Alexander rushed for 165 yards and 3 TDs on 33 carries. In the gauntlet Seattle would run to the Super Bowl, these victories were perhaps the biggest monkey discarded – after the win at St. Louis, the Seahawks would not lose another meaningful game for over four months.

The Rams will be back in 2006, and with a new coaching staff (led by head coach Scott Linehan and defensive coordinator Jim Haslett), they’ll be looking for revenge. There’s little doubt that 2006 will pen fascinating new chapters in this burgeoning rivalry.

Stay tuned for this weekend's conclusion, "The Anti-Report Card: Holmgren's Twelve", in which we'll look back at the players, games and special moments that made the Seahawks' 2005 season so unique and important.

Doug Farrar is the Editor-in-Chief of Seahawks.NET. Feel free to e-mail him at Top Stories