Holmgren, the Tough Wins, and Kickers

It wasn't pretty, as many of his 2006 victories haven't been, but Mike Holmgren will take it. Landing on the upside of a 23-20 war of attrition against the Denver Broncos in Denver on Sunday night, and seeing his team climb to an 8-4 record, speaks to the resilience of a squad that has been depleted by injury and is seemingly always shaking off some level of rust.

If it isn't the handicap of having his starting quarterback and running back out for weeks at a time, it's an offensive line that has brought new weight to the term "patchwork". If his receivers aren't dropping passes at a level conversant with that eminently forgettable 2004 season, his formerly reliable run defense is getting gashed to death on a weekly basis.

But Holmgren's 2006 Seahawks have something that past teams haven't had – a kicker with black ice running through his veins. Josh Brown's 50-yard field goal with five seconds remaining marked his fourth game-winning field goal of the season – tying an NFL record – and three of those decisive 'figgies' have come on the road. Brown has been a Seahawk since 2003, when he was drafted in the seventh round out of Nebraska, but his current performances have put him in a different, rarefied, dare we say…"Vinatieri-esque"…category. Without his last-second acumen, this Seahawks team might be trolling for a .500 record and looking to next year.

For Holmgren, it's all about enjoying the ride as long as he can stay on the carousel. “I get to appreciate it," he said on Monday. "Immediately following the game, I’ve been told this, on game-winning field goals as an example, and Josh has kicked a couple of them, you can watch any number of games during the year, you watch other people and they jump up and they’re doing all sorts of stuff. With me, my reaction is, ‘wow’. I seem subdued, but it’s just an unbelievable thing. I don’t really start thinking about it until I get into the locker room and I can talk to the individual player. I’m just happy we won at the time. I’m very proud of the team. And when guys do a great job and kind of extend themselves and overachieve, I think it’s special. For me that’s the special thing about coaching.”

The Seahawks are 5-0 when Matt Hasselbeck and Shaun Alexander take the field together in 2006. Hasselbeck, back for his second week after missing a month with a knee injury, has struggled through abysmal first halves since that return, only to recover just enough to keep the Seahawks in the running down the stretch. There have been some nailbiters for #8, but he is rounding back into form. Alexander rocked the Green Bay Packers for 201 yards on 40 carries a week ago, and enjoyed a solid second half against Denver. Holmgren knows that the fate of the Seahawks is tied to these two players.

“I think it’s because they’re good players," Holmgren simply said. "They’ve played together for a while. They have good experience, yet they’re kind of in their primes I would say in their football career. And the other thing is, Matt (Hasselbeck) is the quarterback. So, so much of how he plays is what happens. And he’s reached the stage in his career where lots expected of him, but it should work the way he wants it to because he’s a good player and he does a nice job. It’s no accident that we’ve won when they’re playing. They’re both good players.”

Is there a surge of confidence when Hasselbeck and Alexander are back in the lineup? How does that affect everyone else? “Certainly on the offensive team," he said. "I think on any football team, the defensive guys appreciate I’m sure when they’re on the sideline – Shaun making a great run, or Matt making a good throw, of Darrell Jackson making a great catch, or whatever it is. But really they have their hands full dealing with what they’re supposed to do. And I think the defensive guys kind of inspire defensive guys and offensive guys kind of inspire offensive guys. Not that they don’t appreciate each other, but during the football game they’re pretty much focused in on what they have to do.”

The fact that the Seahawks were able to keep a reasonable altitude with those injuries speks to two things – Holmgren's coaching ability, and the team's resolve. “I’ve thought about it a lot," Holmgren said. "We have a lot of character on the football team, and injuries are a part of the game. We’ve said this before that guys step in and have been called upon to accept much more responsibility. And they’ve done it, and they’ve done it pretty well. One of the things I think, the depth of our football team in the last couple years has improved. So we have been able to weather the storm a little bit that way. In years past maybe we weren’t quite as ready to do that. But still, you need great efforts from guys who weren’t expected to start. Mo Morris, Seneca (Wallace), (Tom) Ashworth, Chop (Floyd Womack) to a certain extent, (DJ) Hackett, the guys who were really big contributors during this time. And then the other guys raised their game up. They understand the situation and they desperately would like to make it to the playoffs. They’re driven that way, so they’re giving great effort.”

Still, no matter who's running it, this offense doesn't really resemble the juggernaut that upended defense after defense on the way to Super Bowl XL in 2005. Mammoth, dominant drives have been replaced by the occasional big play and long moments of malaise and inconsistency. Holmgren knows this, but he also feels that things are starting to crystallize. “It bothers me. Anytime you don’t move the ball it bothers me," he said. "But I trust and hope that our best offensive football is ahead of us. If you get hot now going down the stretch, then that’s a good thing. We have a ways to go…One of the big problems last night was our third down conversion rate. It was very poor. And we’d slip one time, or we would misfire. There was any number of things that happened, but that prevented us from sustaining drives. And it was very poor last night. So that’s something we have to work on.

DENVER - DECEMBER 03: Head coach Mike Holmgren of the Seattle Seahawks looks up at the scoreboard against the Denver Broncos in the fourth quarter on December 3, 2006 at Invesco Field at Mile High in Denver, Colorado. The Seahawks defeated the Broncos, 23-20. (Photo by Brian Bahr/Getty Images)

"This is a work in progress," the coach continued. "It’s been a season like that. And there’s no reason to think it’s not going to be one of those years, where we just try and figure it out, try and do better, and know we have to do better and be more consistent. And if we can ever get there then we’ll have something big going. But I have hope. I’m more encouraged then discouraged.”

How can a team so reliant on its offense, and struggling with consistency on defense, keep winning? “Part of it was (that) we got the turnovers," Holmgren said of Seattle's 5-1 advantage in that department against Denver. "That helped immensely. For a while there it was bang-bang and good things were happening. And also you get your confidence level up. I thought Shaun’s rushing yards were well earned last night. I thought they did a nice job against us in the run. And I’m critical of how I call the game always. And I could’ve helped them more looking at it. I know there’s some things I wished I had have done now. But we won a big game in a tough place to win.”

And despite the occasional missed tackle or five – Exhibit A in relation to that particular phenomenon will always be Brandon Marshall's 71-yard scoring sashay through what seemed like an infinite number of turnstiles dressed in Seahawks road gear – the Seattle defense did just enough to win when they had to. Taking advantage of rookie Jay Cutler's mistakes was the real difference. “I think first of all defensively, I thought we played a fine defensive game," Holmgren said. "I think we made it difficult on the young quarterback, which is one of our goals. They got us on a couple runs. And when they got us on the runs it was against their blocking scheme, against how they run the ball, if you’re not really discipline upfront in your fits, which is what I mentioned after the game, I thought that may happen and it happened. They got us a couple times, and it widens the gap, and they hit it.

"The turnover thing was tremendous. That obviously won the game for us. Offensively, I was disappointed in the first half in how we moved the football, or didn’t move the football I should say. But I think when it came right down to the nitty-gritty and we had to have some plays and had to have a couple drives, then the team was very good. I give Denver a lot of credit. They had a good defensive scheme, and they’re fast on defense. They have, I think, probably the best corner (Champ Bailey). They’re pretty good, and they’re smart and they did a nice job. When we needed it though in the second half we got it.”

There has been some criticism of Holmgren's Sunday night playcalling, especially in the second half. Holmgren, in retrospect, leads that charge, insinuating that he might have overthought his way out of some effective solutions. “I probably didn’t call enough throws down the field," he said. "Then we had a couple (blitzes against them) going and Matt had to get out of it because of protection things and changed the plays. So you get into games like that, that’s kind of an unlucky thing. You’re just kind of unlucky when you are having to get out of plays you want because of how they’re playing defense, or the defense they’re in at the particular time. Our guys did a nice job pass protecting. So I probably should have (gone) down the field more. But I did have respect for who’s playing over there on the Denver defense. The one time (we throw deep), Champ Bailey makes the interception. I didn’t think they were going to score too much on us, that’s the way the game was unfolding. So we got into one of those games. And I didn’t want to do anything necessarily to get careless or wild to wreck that.”

Speculation has also run high that the conservatism had something to do with Hasselebck's health, a notion that Holmgren put down right away. “(The players are) not in (the facility) today. He’s fine. He’s sore, but he’s okay.”

So, why did he stick with the run on that final drive when the pass could have been a more efficient option? “You’re really playing for the field goal," he said. "And that’s the thing we practice in our two-minute offense. Actually it’s not, in practice we have to score a touchdown, but in that situation you need the field goal to win. So the field is shorter. The problem was we got another penalty on the kickoff. So we started on the fourteen or whatever it was. In that drive Matt was very good. I mean very good. He hits (Jerramy) Stevens. He hits (Nate) Burleson. He hits (DJ) Hackett. He hits Deion (Branch). He mixed it up, and did what we had to do to get down there and get it done. In Josh’s case, the 30-yard line, you get to the 30-yard line, it’s a 47-yard field goal. And that’s our goal all the time. (Offensive assistant) Gary Reynolds told me at one point, because I’m just thinking about stuff and he’s in my ear (from the booth upstairs), saying, ‘okay, we’re three yards from maximum field goal. We need three yards to even try a kick’. So that changes with the stuff you call, and that’s the communication that goes on during the game.”

Holmgren also had to navigate the ten-second run-off rule, and called a very wise time out, as his team was driving for the winning score. With 24 seconds left in the game, center Chris Spencer was called for a false start at the Denver 35, which would have been a ten-second run-off – a rule that keeps teams from using short penalties to manufacture timeouts with little time remaining. Oh man, that could have been bad, because if I hadn’t called a timeout it was a ten second run-off. There was the other rule earlier in the game that I wasn’t sure of. When we missed the field goal and still had the penalty tacked onto it.

"So that ten second run-off, every once in a while that catches me, and I have to think through that just a little bit. And we had no timeouts left, so I knew we had to clock it. So we needed Shaun’s run. I thought I needed positive yards on Shaun’s run to give Josh a better chance. He wound up kicking a 50-yard field goal. I think Shaun’s run was six or seven yards (it was eight yards, bringing the Seahawks back to the Denver 32-yard line). So he’s either going to kick a 50-yard field goal, a 52-yard field goal, a 53. That was what he was going to do.”

What did Spencer do on the play? A second-year mistake, according to the coach. “Everyone moved but (him). He turns around (and says), ‘what happened?’, I said, ‘you didn’t snap the ball’. He was on two and everyone else was on one. The center can’t do that.”

Holmgren wasn't worried about his kicker, though – he had seen enough to know what was very likely going to happen when Brown lined up for that 50-yarder. “He certainly is kicking with confidence. Now I didn’t watch it, but normally it’s a beautiful thing to watch…A lot of times you don’t have a choice. This is where we are, you go out and kick it now. I’d like to be closer, but that’s where we are. So yeah, you think about that. It’s in your mind. He told me right after the game. He came in the locker room. And we talked about ‘do you think about these things, how great some of the efforts are’, and I grabbed him and said ‘that was tremendous.’ And he said, ‘But had I made the first couple, maybe I wouldn’t of had to do that.’ That’s a healthy athlete kind of telling you. I like to hear that, what he said.”

Why didn't he watch the field goal? "I looked down, and then he kicked it and I looked up," Holmgren said. "He seemed pretty happy. Actually I was looking at him. I was looking at his reaction. I looked at him then I looked at the ball. Everyone went running out there. I thought we were going to get a penalty. Then I went running out there trying to get everybody back. It was just wild. He sure has been tough in that situation this year. Really good.”

What about injuries suffered in the Denver game and before? Holmgren ran down the list.

Mack Strong (ankle): “Last evening I think I said it was a possible high ankle (sprain). Well, it wasn’t. He’s a little sore, but I think he’s going to be fine. I think he’s going to be able to practice this week, and he’ll play. He’s had so many high ankle sprains in his life, I’m not sure he can get another one. By that I mean it’s calcium built up in there. So it’s not what we would consider a high ankle sprain now, but it’s more of a side lateral type thing.”

Center Robbie Tobeck (hip abscess): “I just saw Tobeck. He came in and visited me, which is nice of him. I haven’t seen him in a month. He’s happy that he’s walking and feeling better. He went and saw the doctor today. And they feel pretty sure that the antibiotics and all that stuff is working. And now it’s a matter of getting the strength back. He can get on and do a little treadmill stuff, a little lifting. Ease into it, but he can get back on a program now, and hopefully be able to play before the season’s over.”

RB/KR Josh Scobey (shoulder): “We got bad news today. He cracked something in there. It’s a little more serious then we thought last night. He’s such a tough guy that I thought he was kind of indestructible. But he took a shot last night. He broke a bone in his arm or shoulder.”

Holmgren also talked about next Sunday's game against the Arizona Cardinals – a victory will give Holmgren and the Seahawks another NFC West title. “We know it’s an important game, but we must continue to take them one game at a time," he said. "Until the actual event happens where mathematically you’re set. I choose to play the game. Let’s play the game, play the best we can, try and win the football game, and then at the end of the day tally up everything. There are still a lot of teams in the NFC that are battling for a lot of spots. And then we know this about Arizona is that they’re a tough team. We’ve played them in some great games. And they won a big one against the Rams yesterday. You know I have the utmost respect for Denny Green and the job he does. So we have to go down there and try and get another one. And we’ll see what happens at the end of the day.”

Still, on this Monday, Holmgren's mind was primarily on his great kicker, and that brought to mind a great story from his Green Bay past…about a kicker who didn't make a field goal in 1997. "Ray Rhodes was the head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles. I was with Green Bay at the time, and I had a rookie kicker named Ryan Longwell. And now Ryan since has played 13, 14 years, whatever it is. And we played the Eagles at the Vet. That was a hornet’s nest. That was a tough place to play. And we are losing the game, a real close game, a defensive struggle. It was low-scoring. We finally got the ball back like we did the other night at about the 10-yard line.

'It’s looking kind of grim, and we have a fourth-and-fifteen call. And I call the play that wasn’t in the game plan. I just drew it up. I literally drew it up and showed it to the guys. They knew the terminology. And Brett Favre completes the ball for the first down. We work it down, all the way down five seconds to go. So he’s kicking a PAT. We’re kicking the field goal from the four and he missed it to the right. His first game with us and he misses it. Needless to say I’m feeling bad. And I remember, we went in, and he might remember this story too, and instead of exploding in front of the team, I said ‘Ryan, you’re going to be here a long time, and you’re going to win a lot of games for us, just keep your head up and blah blah blah.’

"Now I don’t always say that. But that particular day I did say that. I see him now. He was one of my favorite guys ever too. That was the kick. His actual first kick I ever met him in practice. With the Packers, we had drafted a kicker in the third round, and he had gotten hurt. We had no kicker. This was in training camp. I’m out at practice and here comes this kicker. I didn’t even know his name. I have no idea who he is. So we line up to kick field goals like we do at our practices. And if you have ever seen Ryan Longwell, he’s very young-looking. I’m watching him. I’m standing there and we’re going to kick field goals. And all of a sudden we go to kick it and he hits our left tackle right in the back of the head. Boom. And we had a cranky group up front, our line. First day, first kick ever. I’m saying ‘oh boy, who signed this guy’. And then he went on to great things. It’s a weird business that way. That’s my kicker story.”

Thanks to Josh Brown, and to his great delight, Mike Holmgren now has at least four more kicker stories to tell.

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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