"We Have More Guys than Footballs"

With the offensive line down one All-Pro guard (yes, he's returning to Seattle this Sunday, and no, he doesn't want to talk about it), the backfield down one MVP (Shaun Alexander will probably be out longer than this game), and the playcalling on both sides of the ball in a state of flux (did you catch the schizophrenic, first-half/second-half nature of Seattle's 30-28 win over the Rams?)...

...Perhaps it’s about a personnel game of musical chairs at wide receiver for Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren.

Maybe he knew full well that Steve Hutchinson’s departure to Minnesota would render his formerly bulletproof rushing attack comparatively mortal, and his offense would have to be resuscitated through the air.

In any event, the Seahawks’ two most important offensive personnel moves that didn’t involve re-signing Shaun Alexander will collide this Sunday, when the Minnesota Vikings come to town. The first move, Minnesota’s well-disclosed acquisition of Steve Hutchinson, quite possibly the best guard in football, put a hurt on Seattle’s offense that’s still being felt. In case you’ve been living under a rock since March 12, here’s the short version. Hutchinson was a free agent after the 2005 season, The Seahawks decided to place the transition tag on him, allowing Hutchinson to discover his value on the open market instead of using the franchise tag, which would have locked him up through 2006.

The Vikings jumped, signing Hutchinson to a 7-year, $49 million offer sheet, with clauses that would have forced the Seahawks to guarantee the entire contract if they matched the offer. The NFL could do nothing about the “poison pill” language, and Seahawks president Tim Ruskell had a professional embarrassment and a very angry head coach on his hands. Holmgren had assumed that everything possible would be done to retain the player.

With the benefit of hindsight, Holmgren reflected on the specter of the poison pill when he spoke to the media on Monday afternoon. “As far as the structure of any contract like that, I don’t think clubs should do that,” Holmgren said. “We’re competing like crazy against one another. To me it’s a little bit against the spirit of the rule. There are loopholes, but to me it’s against the spirit of the rule. I know on the field there are unwritten rules that the players use, (and) that we as coaches use with one another. That’s what I see that as. I would hope that it wouldn’t happen again to anybody, not just us, but anybody. It surprised me. The whole thing surprised a lot of people throughout the NFL, not just in our building… Obviously we didn’t want to lose Steve - if we’d known then what we know now, we certainly would have done it a different way.”

He’s but a memory now, and the formerly impenetrable left side of Hutchinson and tackle Walter Jones is shored up with imported center prospect Chris Spencer, a real talent whose raw edges show more than the Seahawks would like right now. The 2005 first-round pick played some guard in college, but the unheralded nature of the position does little to reveal and reflect its complexity. Quarterback Matt Hasselbeck has already been sacked 17 times this season, after being dragged down only 24 times in 2005. Seattle is averaging 3.6 yards per carry in 2006 – 24th in the league through five games, after tying for second in 2005 with 4.7. Alexander is out at least through this game, and quote possibly more, with a broken bone in his left foot (“He’s rehabbing, but it’s upper-body stuff,” Holmgren said. “They’ve been mobilizing the foot, and he can’t do a lot on it, even though he thinks he can.”)

Obviously, something had to change. The second most important offensive move of 2006 for the Seahawks (certainly even more so after the Rams game) was the deal for receiver Deion Branch. Seattle gave their 2007 first-round draft pick to the New England Patriots for Branch and then signed the Super Bowl XXXIX MVP to a six-year, $39 million contract with $13 million in guaranteed money, a deal that the Madden 2007 videogame wouldn’t even approve, so one-sided it seemed on the surface. The Seahawks’ front office seemed to some to be reacting desperately to circumstances it should have been controlling, an idea that gained steam when Holmgren’s four-wide sets found nothing but violence against the Chicago Bears in a 37-6 demolition on October 1st.

Though their record stood at 3-1 after that loss, the Seahawks seemed to be springing leaks everywhere. After the bye week, they traveled again – this time to the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis, home of their division nemesis, the Rams. Down 21-7 at the half in that game, the Seahawks rallied behind Branch’s 6 catches for 76 yards and 2 touchdowns to a 30-28 victory, first place in the NFC West, and a measure of stability not often seen this year.

Holmgren talked about the difference Branch has made to the offense. “Obviously he had a very good day,” Holmgren said. “As good as it was, there was a couple times that he and Matt misfired because he’s new. There were a couple plays where he should’ve done a little bit something different. There’s a confidence level building there between the quarterback and the receiver that’s always a good thing. He appears to be able to handle one-on-one situations very well. He’s very quick, has great timing. On those balls that he caught for the touchdowns the coverage wasn’t particularly poor, the guy was right there, but it appears he has a knack to go up and get the ball. He’s going to feel more comfortable, and Matt’s going to feel more comfortable as the season progresses.”

For Branch, it’s all about adjustment, and he’s happy to be in another offense led by an elite quarterback – from Tom Brady to Matt Hasselbeck, the fifth-year Louisville grad knows nothing but the best when it comes to signal-callers. “We’re getting there,” Branch said about his relationship with Hasselbeck. “We still missed a couple plays yesterday that I think personally I took a step in too far on the route(s). Those things, everybody looks at the good things that happened yesterday, and we will go back and look at the bad plays that we should have hit that we didn’t hit. Hopefully next week we will hit those.”

What did he learn about his new quarterback as the Seahawks came back to beat the Rams? “Nothing. The reason why I say I haven’t learned anything is because he is the same calm guy that I have seen on TV before I got here. Just to see him do and perform the way he did yesterday, it is nothing new. This guy is as pure as he is on the football field as he is off the field.”

For Holmgren, having at least four receivers with star potential isn’t necessarily the logistical nightmare it might seem – players get sick or hurt, lose effectiveness, and need to be rotated in and out if they’re tired. Branch and Darrell Jackson are the core of this unit right now, with slot man Bobby Engram down with a thyroid condition (Engram will not likely play this week, but should be ready soon after, according to the coach) and Nate Burleson, acquired from the Vikings after the Hutchinson deal, seems to be sniffing around Holmgren’s doghouse after a season start that has been less than anticipated. Holmgren had big plans for Burleson at first, but he seems to have moved on to other concepts.

“I envisioned him as one of our three wide receivers,” the coach said about Burleson when he was signed. “We had Jackson, Engram and Burleson, and then we got Branch, and Hackett was here. I don’t think you can keep Deion Branch off the field. He obviously displayed yesterday (that) he is a playmaker. As soon as he came on board and was up to speed and knew the stuff, (we had) to figure out a way to get him on the field.

”Now to Nate’s credit, he’s handling it. It’s not really a demotion. The other guy has to be on the field. He’s an outstanding player, and Nate is. Nate is handling it very well. He’s being very professional with this. Before the season’s over, he will make big plays for us, and he will make his place. I can’t go four wide-receivers all the time. It’s not the best thing for our offense.”

Perhaps the X-Factor in this equation is the fifth man – third-year receiver D.J. Hackett, the Colorado grad who has made big plays in a reserve role when asked. “On occasion, we might send him out for a long one,” Holmgren said of his deep threat and largest (6’2”, 199-pound) wideout. “He’s a big man. He’s different, size-wise, then our other guys. If all of a sudden you’re playing against Bobby Engram or Deion, and then Hackett, it’s a little different feeling.

”Like I said, you can’t get them all on the field at the same time. Bobby Engram, when he’s healthy, he’s playing for us, he’s always going to play for me. What Hackett has done the last couple of years is when called upon, (is that) he has really stepped up. He’s had a great attitude throughout. He’s a good player in his own right. It’s that you can’t get them all on the field all the time.”

Branch, the man who will be on the field as much as possible from now on, had the last word when asked how he would rate the Seahawks’ current cadre of receivers. “It is hard for me to do it because I play,: he said. “I never rate us; I just know we have a bunch of good guys on this team. Even the guys that aren’t playing, you all haven’t seen Willie Ponder playing receiver. I think we have a bunch of great guys and I think it is you’re job to rate us. We just go out and play.”

No matter who’s playing, the 2006 Seahawks will go as far as these receivers take them.


Seattle Seahawks - 2006 Receiving Totals

PLAYER

REC

YDS

AVG

LONG

TD

Darrell Jackson

26

387

14.9

49

4

Bobby Engram

18

198

11.0

25

1

Deion Branch

11

156

14.2

31

2

Nate Burleson

7

104

14.9

36

1

D.J. Hackett

4

80

20.0

37

0

Itula Mili

7

57

8.1

15

0

Mack Strong

11

55

5.0

10

0

Maurice Morris

5

41

8.2

27

0

Will Heller

3

28

9.3

12

1

Shaun Alexander

5

22

4.4

9

0

Seahawks Totals

97

1128

11.6

49

9

Opponent

112

1327

11.8

67

9



Doug Farrar is the Editor-in-Chief of Seahawks.NET and a staff writer for Football Outsiders. He also writes the weekly "Manic Monday" feature for FoxSports.com. Feel free to e-mail Doug here.

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