Feature Focus: The NFC

Our new weekly "Feature Focus" articles take you around the primary player and personnel stories in both conferences, and for all NFL teams. Even during the "slow season", there's always more than enough player news to keep things hopping!


Picked 11th overall in last year's draft by the Cowboys was not a dream come true for linebacker DeMarcus Ware. Rather, it was like hitting the lottery.

Ware was overlooked coming out of high school, forcing him to play football at Troy University. Though he was an immediate contributor who improved every year, he didn't expect rise as high as he did in the NFL draft. He was considered a mid- to late-round pick before his senior year but rose because of his work at the scouting combine and the Senior Bowl.

Ware lived up to expectations as a rookie, tying for the team lead in sacks with eight and earning all-rookie honors. Still somewhat overwhelmed, Ware said he's ready to take the next step, from hitting the jackpot as rookie to providing a bounty of sacks and big plays for the Cowboys. "In looking back, it's still kind of overwhelming," Ware said. "Everything I went through, where I came from. It was like hitting the lottery."

Ware did hit the lottery contract-wise, getting $13 million over five years, with $10 million guaranteed. However, he knows he can't rest on his laurels and that more work needs to be done. The Cowboys took a step toward helping Ware get better in 2006 by drafting Ohio State linebacker Bobby Carpenter to play opposite him.

The hard-nosed Carpenter can do it all -- rush, stop the run and play pass defense -- and should be a perfect complement to Ware. But Ware plans to do his part. His focus is on building on his rookie year and becoming a consistent dominating force for the Cowboys. After notching eight sacks last year, Ware's goal is to get 15 in 2006.

"I have been working all off-season," Ware said. "I have gained weight. But mainly I have studied. I have learned formations. I have watched what I did wrong last year. I want to be more instinctive so I can just play without thinking."

Ware said he was purely a speed rusher last year. This year he will use his hands more and do other things to add to his pass-rush arsenal. "Anybody can stop speed, just cut off," Ware said. "I need to do stuff to counter that."


For decades, the Giants have been known for their linebackers, from the days of Sam Huff and Harland Svare through Brad Van Pelt and Harry Carson to Lawrence Taylor and Carl Banks, the team has been "Linebacker Graduate School." Now it appears that Giants linebackers are making a strong comeback. The starters now figure to be Antonio Pierce in the middle, LaVar Arrington (signed as a free agent from Washington) on the strong side and Carlos Emmons on the weak side.

Backups will include Chase Blackburn (middle), Reggie Torbor (strong side), converted defensive end Eric Moore, first-round draft pick Mathias Kiwanuka (a defensive end with decided strongside potential, according the coaches), third-round pick Gerris Wilkinson and a good-looking free agent rookie named Nick McNeil.

"You win with defense," coach Tom Coughlin has pronounced.

The Giants also have -- and this might sound like an afterthought but it isn't -- a pair of Pro Bowl defensive ends in Michael Strahan and Osi Umenyiora, a few nose tackles/defensive tackles to choose from, including William Joseph, Fred Robbins and fourth-round draft pick Barry Cofield; a former Pro Bowl cornerback in Sam Madison (a free agent from Miami), free safety Will Demps (a free agent from Baltimore), cornerback R.W. McQuarters (a free agent from Detroit), returning strong safety Gibril Wilson, and returning cornerback Corey Webster, last year's second-round pick.

All the potential of the defensive unit is enough to make coordinator Tim Lewis rest comfortably in his down quilts at night.

The NFC East, which includes the Giants, Eagles, Cowboys and Redskins, is considered perhaps the strongest division in the NFL. Yet with the additions made by general manager Ernie Accorsi (and some of the subtractions, which might prove to be additions), it would appear the Giants have managed to stay ahead of the pack.

They won the NFC East last year at 11-5, a five-game improvement from 2005. If they win it again, it seems they'll do it with a solid defense anchored by a fierce set of linebackers.

Just like the old days.


The scar from the gunshot wound runs down Jerome McDougle's stomach. Framing it are the words: "True Story." "You go through something life-changing like that, it's something besides the scar to remind me of what I went through," said the Eagles defensive end, who missed all of last season after getting shot in the abdomen during a robbery attempt right before training camp. "Everybody loves a story. Everybody has a story. You tell people what you've been through, and they're like, `For real?' Yeah, true story. For real."

McDougle was shot the night before he was scheduled to fly to training camp from his south Florida home. He recovered, but in mid-October, the day he was supposed to return to the practice field, he underwent emergency surgery for a hernia caused by scar tissue and adhesions from the gunshot, ending his season.

The Eagles had high hopes for McDougle when they drafted him in 2003. They traded up 15 spots in the first round to select him with the 15th overall pick. But he has often been injured, playing in just 19 regular-season games the past three years. He has just two career sacks and 29 tackles.

Coach Andy Reid can't afford to wait for McDougle to finally stay healthy and live up to first-round expectations. He went out and signed free-agent defensive end Darren Howard in the off-season. Anything McDougle gives the Eagles this season will be considered a plus.

But he looked good in mini-camp earlier this month.

"He's made tremendous improvement," defensive coordinator Jim Johnson said. "To me, he was one of the bright spots at mini-camp. He looks like the McDougle we talked about."

McDougle is just happy to be practicing again. "It feels good to be back in the swing of things," he said. "It feels real good after everything I've been through, to get back out there and get that behind me."


Strongside linebacker Marcus Washington has only been a Redskin for two years, but no member of the projected starting defense has played more games for the burgundy and gold. And with vocal LaVar Arrington now an ex-Redskin, Washington is planning to shoulder more leadership this season. The 2004 Pro Bowl pick, who arguably had a better year in 2005 though he didn't return to Hawaii, showed that desire for an increased presence by working out regularly at Redskin Park even before the off-season conditioning program began on Mar. 27.

"You get to know the guys, and you get that cameraderie," Washington said. "I'm here working, and I see guys like Shawn (Springs) and Cornelius (Griffin) working, and I don't want to let those guys down because I know what they're putting into this."

Washington, who like Springs and Griffin signed with the Redskins as a free agent in March 2004, does miss Arrington.

"It's (strange), and it's going to be for a while," Washington said. "We'll notice LaVar being gone more during the season -- his verbal leadership, his enthusiasm on the field, the way he intimidates opposing teams. But the thing I like about this organization is since I've been here, somebody has stepped up."

That somebody is Washington. "If you're out front in the drills and here working, that's when you gain the respect of your teammates," he said. "A lot of times, if you come in late and other guys have been here working and you say, 'C'mon, man, pick it up,' they might say, 'You weren't here in March working like I was when I could have been on the beach in Florida or in Sweden or somewhere.' "

Washington admitted he was a "little worried" a new collective bargaining agreement wouldn't be struck, resulting in a lower salary cap and handcuffing the Redskins in free agency. "I was hoping they would come to some kind of agreement," he said. "Football is the most popular sport and they didn't want to put that in jeopardy. Especially when the deadline kept getting pushed back, I knew they would figure out a way to come to terms. If the sides didn't want a deal, they would have said, 'Forget it, this is how it's going to be.' "


Aside from aging Muhsin Muhammad, who will be 33 on opening day, the Bears don't have any proven receivers, but they've got some young players who could become effective complements and more. That could be significant this year because it's not certain that Muhammad is very special anymore, coming off a relatively pedestrian 64-catch, 750-yard season. The rest of the Bears wideouts are inexperienced players with talent and potential.

After three injury-riddled seasons, quarterback Rex Grossman is looking forward to emerging as a legitimate NFL starter, with the help of some of the young receivers. "I think we've got the guys right now that can definitely do the job," Grossman said. "I'm excited about everyone on our offense because when you go through the running backs and the offensive line there's nothing (we) need. And then wide receivers, we've got some young guys that can definitely step up and be stars in this league."

Mark Bradley, the Bears' second-round pick in 2005, appeared on the verge of stardom as a rookie before he suffered a torn ACL on Oct. 30. He caught 18 passes for 230 yards, including five for 88 yards in the first half of the game in which he was injured. If he's back to 100 percent, he's a solid No. 2 who could become a go-to guy.

Skinny, fragile Bernard Berrian has big-play speed, and he started to step up at the end of 2005. He caught 13 passes for 246 yards, an impressive 18.9-yard average, and for the first time showed that he could be effective on plays inside the hash marks. But it was one of those plays that he suffered an injury in the divisional playoff loss to the Panthers. Before the injury, he was the Bears' leading receiver in that game with five catches for 68 yards.

Six-foot-four Justin Gage was the team's second-leading receiver last year, with 31 catches for 346 yards, but he needs to take another step in his fourth season or he'll be passed by younger players.
Airese Currie is another deep threat who missed all of his rookie season in 2005 with injuries, but he could be a factor this year.


Lions coach Rod Marinelli wasn't eager to release 350-pound defensive tackle Dan Wilkinson, but by doing so, the Lions have opened the way for the quicker, more athletic type of nose tackles that typify Marinelli's defense. "The nose (tackle) has to be stout at the point, tough and (play) technique," Marinelli said. "But he's also got to have some good movement. The guy I had in Tampa is a good example -- (Chris) Hovan, who was a 3 and then went to a 1-technique."

Although Wilkinson teamed nicely with equally large Shaun Rogers to give the Lions a strong inside tandem the past three years, it is expected that second-year defensive tackle Shaun Cody -- who is about 40 pounds lighter than Wilkinson -- will take over the job.

"Shaun Cody is a good, young, 310-, 312-pound kid who can really move," Marinelli said. "He not just has to hold the point in a one-gap system, he's got to be a good rusher and he's got to be able to play the field laterally."

Marinelli says it would be an oversimplification to say he prefers smaller, more athletic players to the 350-pounders that frequently man defensive tackle jobs in the NFL. "I had Darrell Russell with me for awhile," he said. "I coached him in college and I had him in Tampa for a little bit. Darrell was big -- 345 pounds -- but he had great feet, great movement and pad level."

The one additional quality that Russell had and that Marinelli wants to see in his Lions defensive tackles? "Balance," he said. "Balance has always been a key for me, guys that can stay on their feet."

Wilkinson had expressed thoughts of retirement at the end of the 2005 season and indicated reluctance after 12 years in the league to start over with a new staff in a new system. Because he was unable to commit to playing the 2006 season, the Lions released him. "He's a heck of a player now," Marinelli said. "But we've got some really good young players, too. Cody's a second-round draft pick. Marcus Bell and Damian Gregory, all those guys are young guys, working hard and I see some real upside with those guys."


The Packers apparently have another disgruntled starter on their hands, though they're not expecting any drawn-out soap operas like the ones they've endured in recent off-seasons with Mike McKenzie and Javon Walker, and lately with Mark Roman.

Cornerback Al Harris, arguably the best defensive player on the team, skipped the voluntary mini-camp May 19-21 because he reportedly isn't satisfied with his contract. Coach Mike McCarthy said during the mini-camp he wasn't aware of any such discrepancies and that Harris was missing to tend to a personal matter.

However, a source close to the situation told the Wisconsin State Journal that Harris stayed home for the five practices because he's angling for a pay raise. Harris signed a five-year, $18.6 million contract extension at the outset of the 2004 season, just as a recalcitrant McKenzie was forcing the team to trade him to New Orleans. However, the $7 million in bonus money contained in the deal wasn't entirely guaranteed. Harris apparently was miffed after Pro Bowl cornerback Charles Woodson signed a more substantial free-agent contract with the Packers, worth $39 million for seven years, including as much as $10 million this year. Woodson will start opposite Harris on the left side.

Harris, who has four years left on his contract, is scheduled to make a base salary of $1.5 million next season. Harris, 31, said during the first mini-camp that he felt his deal paled in comparison to what Woodson commanded in April and wasn't happy.

"Hell no!" he said, adding, "But I won't do what Mike McKenzie did. That's not me. That's not my style."

Harris' agent, Jack Bechta, told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that he would possibly wait until toward the end of next season before asking the Packers to rework his client's contract.

"The (salary) cap has gone up 23 percent in the last two years, so there should be some room there," Bechta said. "But as for a new contract right now, no. That's probably not going to happen." Bechta tried to put to rest the speculation that Harris backed out of the mini-camp for financial reasons, saying the ninth-year pro was needed for a personal issue with his parents. Harris has never been selected to the Pro Bowl, though he came close last season. Cincinnati receiver Chad Johnson went so far as to rank Harris as the second-best shutdown corner in the league, behind Denver's Champ Bailey.

Incumbent strong safety Mark Roman, meanwhile, participated in the recent mini-camp after he threatened to skip it because of his unhappiness about the team signing Marquand Manuel in March to a lucrative contract without informing Roman ahead of time. The Seattle free agent is expected to replace Roman as the starter, though Roman, who initially demanded to be traded, has vowed to fight for the spot in the coming months.


Chad Greenway's adjustment to the NFL began with the Vikings' first mini-camp this month. Greenway, the 17th pick overall in the draft out of Iowa, is expected to be given every opportunity to win the starting job at weakside linebacker.

The coaching staff wasted no time in getting Greenway work, giving him extensive time with the second and third teams and also mixing in some snaps with the first unit. "It felt good," Greenway said. "The first practice (of mini-camp) was obviously a huge adjustment, just to get the feel for everything and knowing where you're supposed to be on the practice field. The game is extremely fast and there are a lot of adjustments you are trying to make. The second practice, I felt a lot better, a lot more comfortable out there."

The highlight of Greenway's mini-camp came during the second practice on the opening day, when he picked off a pass by backup quarterback J.T. O'Sullivan. "He's really done some good things," Tomlin said. "To be quite honest with you, he needs to do a better job of hustling. But I say that and we're giving him extra reps. He's taking reps with the second group, the third group and he got a couple reps with the first group, and then we're getting on his butt about hustling.

"It kind of comes with the territory. We want to accelerate his learning curve, and at the same time he understands the good and bad that comes with being Chad Greenway."

Greenway, who is 6-2, 242 pounds, has been spending time working on his conditioning. However, he quickly learned he needed more work in that area. "I thought I was in great shape, and then we did the pursuit drill six times in a row," Greenway said. "You can soon feel like you're out of shape. It's a different type of shape to be in football shape, doing four-second speed bursts rather than doing long sprints like I have been doing."


Taking handoffs from Michael Vick was a surreal experience for Jerious Norwood. "That's pretty cool, man," Norwood said after the first day of mini-camp. "There's nothing like that. I've been grinning about that all day. If I just look at him and see him do something, I'm smiling, because I'm used to seeing him on TV. Now I'm here with him and hopefully we can make some good things happen around here."

Vick, the star quarterback and Atlanta's franchise centerpiece, was the fastest player on the team in his first two years with the Falcons. A leg fracture robbed him of 12 starts in 2003, and when he participated in mini-camp the following year, Vick knew rookie cornerback DeAngelo Hall could beat him in a footrace.

Now with Norwood and Alex Jennings joining the 2006 rookie class, Vick might be the fourth-fastest Falcon. According to Atlanta president-general manager Rich McKay, Norwood posted the fastest time for a running back -- finishing the 40-yard dash in 4.33 seconds -- at the scouting combine.

Jennings, a sixth-round receiver, is impressive when he's tearing down the field, too. With four receivers ahead of him on the depth chart, Jennings needs any advantage he can take, and the same goes for Norwood, a third-round pick who's the No. 4 running back behind Warrick Dunn, T.J. Duckett and fullback Justin Griffith.


Nobody has ever questioned Dan Morgan's ability as a middle linebacker, but plenty have questioned his durability.

In five seasons with the Panthers, Morgan, the 11th player chosen in the 2001 NFL draft, has yet to play a full 16-game season because of various injuries. That raised questions about whether the Panthers should have given Morgan a five-year, $25 million contract extension last off-season.

Last year, Morgan played most of the season with a severe shoulder injury that required him to wear a shoulder harness. After the season he had surgery to repair the problem.

"I think some people realized what I was going through," Morgan said. "But for the most part, people didn't. I'm not one who is going to go out and toot my own horn and say, 'Hey, look at me, I'm playing hurt.' So I just went out and I played.

"I was hurt pretty much the whole last part of the season. After the Detroit game, I was hurt. I came back and played two weeks after that, but I had a dislocated shoulder. I mean, every hit I took felt like bee stings all over my shoulder. It wasn't a good feeling, but you know, that's the job. That's what we get paid for, to come out here and go through this stuff. It's a physical game."

Despite his accomplishments, which include one Pro Bowl appearance and a record 25 tackles in Super Bowl XXXVIII against New England, Morgan can't seem to get away from talking about injuries.
But he said he isn't hiding behind them.

"You know what? I'm not tired of talking about it," Morgan said. "It's stuff that happens and I deal with it. It's hard at times going through injuries, but I definitely feel like it makes you stronger as a person. If you come out here and you play through injuries, I think it definitely makes you stronger person on and off the field, dealing with those struggles. So I just feel like it's done nothing but made me stronger." Morgan said he hasn't tried anything different this off-season in his physical preparation.

"If it were like injuries that I could prevent, I would do different things to try to get ready for a season," he said. "But dislocating a shoulder or getting a concussion, things like that you can't really prevent. Stuff like that is just what happens out there on the field. It's a physical game and not everything is going to go perfect for you. You've got to just keep fighting."

As for the surgically repaired shoulder, Morgan said, "It feels great now. I'm ready for a new season."

And, he hopes, a healthy one.


Since being drafted by the Saints on April 29, Heisman Trophy-winning running back Reggie Bush has talked many times about getting off on the right foot with the organization as well as his new community. While his first mini-camp was derailed by a sore hamstring that limited his activity on the field, Bush hasn't disappointed the team or the hurricane-ravaged area that has embraced him with open arms.

Bush has done and said all the right things, considering that he has already stepped up and given $50,000 to a New Orleans school for students with special needs when he heard it was going to close because of Katrina. He has also pledged to give 25 percent of the proceeds from his jersey sales to hurricane relief, a promise the former Southern California star will keep even though the NFL competition committee ruled last Tuesday he won't be able to wear the No. 5 he wore in college.

"Obviously, I am disappointed by today's decision, but I respect the NFL competition committee's judgment," Bush said in a statement. "The number five is special to me, but with the proceeds from the jersey sales I was trying to do something special for the city of New Orleans and the entire region.

"However, I'm going to keep my pledge of donating 25 percent of my jersey sales to aid the Hurricane Katrina relief effort."

The jersey issue aside, Bush also made some reporters sit up and take notice when he said during the rookie mini-camp that he has instructed his agent to get a contract done by the start of training camp in late July.

It should be noted, however, that Bush was simply responding to a specific question when asked how important it is for him to be there the first day.

"Very important," he said. "I told my agent I wanted to be here in camp on time, and whatever it takes I want to be in camp on time. I don't want to get caught up in holdouts and things like that.
"I think it is important to start off on a good foot and on a good note, not only with the team but with the city."


Hope springs eternal this time every off-season when it comes to the Buccaneers' kick return game. Tampa Bay, of course, has never returned a kickoff for a touchdown in the 30-year history of the franchise and only once has taken a punt back for a score during the regular season.

Two veterans -- receiver Mark Jones and running back Michael Pittman -- will begin training camp as the Bucs' returners for punts and kickoffs, respectively. But special teams coach Richard Bisaccia said there are several rookies who are turning heads and could challenge for those jobs.

"Good college players, and I look forward to working with them every day," Bisaccia said. "It's getting better and it'll be an interesting fall." Among the rookies that might challenge Jones for the punt return job is Oregon defensive back Justin Phinisee, a seventh-round pick who was a special teams standout for the Ducks.

"We like Phinisee," Bisaccia said. "He's a good college player who's tough and was special teams player of the year for his team, makes tackles on kickoffs, he returned punts. So he's got a chance to show us what he can do."

Another candidate to return punts is South Florida running back Andre Hall, an undrafted free agent.

"It's crazy because I talked to about five other running backs coaches around the league and other coaches from around the league and none of them can believe he didn't get drafted," said Bucs running backs coach Art Valero.

Pittman will complete with veterans Torrie Cox, running back Ernest Graham and receiver Edell Shepherd. "I feel like we have a good enough group to be really good," Bisaccia said.


There has been plenty of excitement about The Edge and the Pro Bowl wideouts and the quarterbacks. The Cardinals have sold out their first season in their new retractable-roof, retractable-field stadium in Glendale, Ariz. But perhaps the most interesting piece that they added to their offense -- and heretofore most inconspicuous -- as inconspicuous as someone 6-foot-8 and 265 pounds can be -- is rookie tight end Leonard Pope.

Not only is the third-round pick the tallest player on the team, he should give it yet another weapon with his size and athleticism. Imagine Pope running 20 yards up the seam with Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald outside, Edgerrin James carrying the ball and Kurt Warner heaving it.

At Georgia, Pope caught 59 passes for 994 yards and nine touchdowns. He may have skidded to the third round only because he was a junior who declared very late in the process. The Cardinals believe they got a first-round talent. Not only is Pope big, he is athletic. He runs a 4.6-second 40-yard dash. Most eye-popping, though, is that at his height he has a 37 1/2-inch vertical leap.

Pope got his first taste of the big-time during a three-day mini-camp with the veterans. He now is completing the Cardinals' two-week rookie camp. "From the transition of college to the pros to the speed of the game, it is really just another level," Pope said. "In college, you have one or two superstars that outshine everyone, but everyone out here is a superstar, everyone is fast, everybody out there is just as big as you are.

"It was great thing working with the other tight ends. Adam (Bergen) and Eric (Edwards) are both great guys. They taught me a lot of things about my blocking schemes and running routes and whatnot. They really take the time to show me a lot of plays on and off the field. They pretty much showed me the ins and outs of things."

Practicing in triple-digit heat the past two weeks was an eye-opener to Pope, as well. "We are out here in the desert and it's a different kind of heat then we had in Georgia," he said. "In Georgia we had a lot of humidity, but out here it is dry so you have to stay watered-down. So you have deal with that."


He got off to a rocky start, missing more than two weeks of his first training camp because of contract difficulties. But when 2005 first-round pick Alex Barron got in the lineup earlier than many expected, he basically staked his claim to the Rams' right tackle job for years to come. "He played very well for a rookie," coach Scott Linehan said. "Obviously, being a first-round pick, you expect a lot out of a guy. What he showed was that he was a rookie at times.

"But when he settled down and started playing well, he was very technically sound and was a lot more competitive maybe than the impression he gives you, because he's kind of a quiet guy."

Despite that low-key personality, Barron has displayed a toughness that some didn't think he had. Said Linehan, "He's a very tough competitor. That's what you don't see until you get him out here competing. And he's very prideful. So that was obviously a good thing for us to find out about the guy."

Line coach Paul Boudreau said of Barron, "I think he had a knock on him in college. Maybe it was because he's quiet, because he's laid back, they tag him as not being physical, or being lazy, or whatever. I don't see that. When you watch him play, you don't see any of that. And sometimes, college coaches, they tend to generalize on guys. And then the word of mouth (goes through) scouts throughout the league.

"In Alex's case, he can be physical when he wants to be physical. We want him to be physical on a more consistent basis. Not to the point where he's cheap and doing stupid stuff. But he's got to play on the edge a little bit."

Barron has been working hard learning the new offensive system being implemented.

"To me, you've got to learn everything all over again as far as plays and stuff," Barron said. "It's a different type of system. Some of the plays are the same, but the pieces are different. And (Mike) Martz and Linehan are two different people. So it's an adjustment to (Linehan's) style of play."


Free agency began with the 49ers in a unique situation. The club, which had regularly experienced salary cap troubles in the past, had more than $20 million in cap space. Yet free agency has not exactly produced a bounty for the 49ers, which has won a combined six games the past two seasons.

The 49ers failed to re-sign starting linebackers Julian Peterson and Andre Carter. In return, the club added only two free agents who are considered starters: guard Larry Allen and receiver Antonio Bryant. The 49ers have promised to remain active in free agency, but there is not a lot of talent available to them at this point. They signed fullback Moran Norris, a five-year veteran who has touched the ball on offense just 13 times in his 62 career games. Norris is likely to compete against journeyman Chris Hetherington for playing time this season.

The 49ers' biggest need two months before the opening of training camp continues to be in the secondary. The 49ers signed 10-year veteran cornerback Walt Harris, who is currently atop the team's depth chart, earlier in the off-season. However, the 49ers would like to acquire another cornerback to compete with Harris and Mike Rumph for the starting job.

The only remaining top-flight cornerback available in free agency is Ty Law. But the 49ers do no appear willing to spend the kind of money it would take to sign Law. Moreover, the 49ers believe Law is exclusively a cornerback to be used in two-deep coverage.

The 49ers had hoped that some quality cornerbacks might shake free in June. But because of the large increase in this year's salary cap, most established players who might have been cut in June for cap purposes were jettisoned before the start of the new cap year.


Coach Mike Holmgren won't say whether his contract extension includes language that would allow him to become a general manager elsewhere. Holmgren was pretty firm, however, in saying he feels indebted to Paul Allen, the Seahawks owner whose loyalty allowed Holmgren to keep his job through leaner times. "When you shake hands with somebody, and when you have an owner that has been very good to me, I think it's very much a two-way street," Holmgren said.

The Seahawks endured 6-10 and 7-9 seasons in Holmgren's first four years with the team. Allen and then-president Bob Whitsitt told Holmgren could stay as coach if he stepped down as general manager.

Holmgren swallowed hard and accepted their proposal.

Holmgren's relationship with Whitsitt was never a comfortable one. The Seahawks finished with a 10-6 record in 2004, but Holmgren considered stepping down because he was increasingly frustrated with Whitsitt. His feelings made their way to Allen, who responded by firing Whitsitt in a move once considered unlikely.

The decision was essentially an endorsement of Holmgren, who responded with some of his best coaching as the Seahawks advanced to their first Super Bowl. Holmgren's appreciation for Allen came through during the recent press conference to announce the coach's two-year extension through the 2008 season.

Even so, Holmgren did not entirely dismiss the notion that he might be interested in becoming a GM again. By extending only for two additional seasons, Holmgren will be able to consider his options sooner rather than later. It remains unclear whether the contract forces him to wait until 2009.

"Who can read the future?" Holmgren asked. "I don't think any of us can. Right now our intention is very much to honor the contract we signed."

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