The diagnosis – a Grade 2 Medial Collateral Ligament sprain in Hasselbeck’s right knee and up to a month on the bench – seemed to be yet another kick to the head of a team that nobody can seem to get a handle on. They are 4-2, but few even among the faithful feel the same confidence brought about by last season’s identical record after six games. The offensive line, so confident and competent in 2005, is a threadbare, patchwork quilt. The rushing attack that led the Seahawks to the Super Bowl last season, is tied with Kansas City and Baltimore at fourth-worst in the NFL with 3.5 yards per carry, and there’s no firm timeframe on the full recovery of Shaun Alexander’s left foot. The defense that brought big plays seemingly at will last year rank 31st in red zone defense through six games in 2006.
Now Hasselbeck, the centerpiece of the Seattle offensive attack that was leaning more and more to the air by necessity, will be watching backup Seneca Wallace, a quarterback who has never started an NFL game in his four-year career. You could hardly blame coach Mike Holmgren for betraying a bit of worry having surveyed the landscape, but the Seahawks head man has been around far too long, and has groomed too many quarterbacks in a hurry, to act like this isn’t business as usual. “Just plug Seneca in, and off we go,” Holmgren said on Monday about Wallace, the fourth-round pick in 2003 out of Iowa State.
“That’s how we do it. What I talked to the team about was; don’t worry about Seneca, worry about what you do, and then we can maybe make Seneca’s job easier. He’s very excited about playing, obviously. He gets a chance to play now after watching for a long time, preparing and then watching. I’m sure he’ll make the most of it, and I have confidence in his ability to play.”
Wallace has mopped up in various garbage time situations, run the scout team, learned at the feet of the league’s primary quarterback guru and his newest master apprentice, and he’s ready to show what he can do. For Holmgren, the danger is the temptation to give the young player too much as a reaction to the fear that oversimplifying the gameplan will play into opponents’ hands. “It’s a very fine line,” Holmgren said. “You have to guard against overloading him, but at the same time I don’t want to insult his abilities either, or his preparation, or his ability to play the game. We are going to be looking at that. I want him to be confident when he plays, and feel good about the stuff. Same thing I want Matt to be.
"There are plays in every week’s game plan, where on Friday I’ll talk to Matt and he (says), ‘I’m kind of lukewarm on this, or I’m not…’, I just take them out. It doesn’t matter how smart my coaches are. What it matters is how the player can function what we teach him. That’s what really matters, so it is a fine line, but I believe he’ll handle most things pretty well.”
Wallace is five inches shorter than Hasselbeck (5’11”), forty pounds lighter (193), and much, much more mobile. While Hasselbeck’s pocket presence is enviable, Wallace’s explosive speed rivals Michael Vick’s. Of course, that speed is a two-edged sword – you can run into trouble just as easily as you can bail out … and quite a bit more quickly. Will Holmgren adjust the offense to play to Wallace’s strengths? Will there be an unholy combination of the Holmgren West Coast Offense and the college option that Vick’s Falcons are using to lead the league in rushing?
Not if Holmgren has anything to say about it. He’s had quite a bit of experience with one of the greatest scramblers of all time, and the precedent set is to start with the pocket and work your way out by necessity. “If he runs out of the pocket, it will be because a particular play broke down, more than designed runs for Seneca,” Holmgren said. “I had the fun of coaching one of the great running quarterbacks, Steve Young. His famous line, ‘For all the runs we rationally designed for him,’ because he was a great runner.
"I remember him in the meetings, he (would say), ‘Coach, you know what this run is? It’s twenty guys meeting at the coach on the sideline’, because he’d start to run, everyone ran with him, there we are. His best runs came when he was dropping back to pass, and then he made it happen even though he was a good runner. I think we’re probably going to go that way with Seneca.”
Part of the difference in philosophy has to do with Holmgren’s faith in Wallace’s arm. The coach’s view of Wallace doesn’t seem to be that of a hybrid – Wallace is seen as a developed quarterback who will stand or fall on those abilities. “I think he passes the ball very well. I really do. When he has time to do normal stuff, he passes the ball very well. He has a good arm, a strong arm, the movement factor you see all the time. I mentioned this before, he has a learning disability, reading situations, and he was willing to go to a school that helped him with that.
”That, to me, is a special thing,” the coach affirmed. “Probably was a little embarrassing (for him) and made it difficult to learn at times in the classroom, in the football classroom. But he did this, and he worked hard to improve his skills and it’s helped him. I applaud him for that. I like him a lot, so now he gets his chance, and we’re all counting on him to play well, and it’s our job to help him.”
Holmgren spoke of the differences in Wallace’s physical makeup, and how that might affect the playcalling. “The one thing you can do is change where the throwing point is in the pocket. Move him out to the side, spread out, roll out, but most of his really good throws (against Minnesota, after Hasselbeck was injured) came when he was dropping back. Most quarterbacks, Matt’s tall, but defensive lineman are taller, they’re big guys with their arms up, most of the time you learn to throw through openings. His ball delivery is also high. I’ve seen tall quarterbacks who take long strides, which in essence drops their body down and they deliver the ball lower. Actually where the ball is coming out would be almost in the same spot as the shorter man who has a pretty normal release. All that stuff factors in. There are some times where he can’t see, but the same thing happens to Matt.”
This is Holmgren’s 15th year as an NFL head coach, which means that he’s had to adjust to quarterback injuries before. Many remember 1992, his first year in Green Bay, when Holmgren’s Packers started out 0-2 and lost starter Don Majkowski to an ankle injury n early September. Some raw, cannon-armed kid came of the bench and began a legacy.
Of course, that story ends with Majkowski playing Wally Pipp to Brett Favre’s Lou Gehrig, and while nobody expects Wallace to repeat the legend, Holmgren’s past experiences can only help the Seahawks. In fact, Seattle's coach said that Hasselbeck’s injury put him in mind of his days as San Francisco’s offensive coordinator.
“It helped me get my first head coaching job, to be honest - Joe Montana got hurt, and Steve Young got hurt,” Holmgren said of his 1990 season. “We were going through a little bit of a tough time there. They had high expectations. We played with a fellow named Steve Bono, who had kind of a journeyman career prior to that. The last six games of the year, he threw lights out. In fact, we came up here and beat a really good Seahawk team on a long pass at the end (of the game). (Green Bay general manger at the time) Ron Wolf told me, ‘(We) thought you were an okay coach, but you had Montana and Young, when you did those things with Steve, I thought maybe you knew what you were doing.’
”I had another situation with the 49ers my first year there (1986), and Joe had back surgery. We had Jeff Kemp and Mike Moroski, who coaches at Cal-Davis now. Jeff got hurt. We went and played the Green Bay Packers with one quarterback. Our punter had ten plays on his wristband if that guy got hurt, a scary deal.”
The Seahawks, firmly believing in preparedness, have re-signed NFL Europe star Gibran Hamdan to join Wallace and David Greene on the depth chart, and avoid any emergency quarterback options for rookie punter Ryan Plackemeier.
The final solution to this newest roster issue for the Seahawks? For Mike Holmgren, it’s very simple – no excuses, just results.
“It is what it is, and everyone else has to crank it up a notch.”
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.