Both seasons were some consolation for a Super Bowl loss steeped in controversy.
In 2006, both players woke up in a nightmare. Hasselbeck missed four games, and Alexander six, due to injury. The depleted offensive line, once the team’s strong point, became a model of inconsistency. Hasselbeck threw for 1,000 fewer yards, six fewer touchdowns (18) and six more interceptions (15) than in 2006, and he was sacked ten more times in only twelve games.
Alexander’s season started going downhill when a blatant and uncalled horse-collar tackle in a Week Two win over the Cardinals caused weakness in his left foot that either caused, or contributed to, a cracked fourth metatarsal bone. For the first time since his rookie year in 2000, Alexander failed to rush for at least 1,000 yards. His 896 yards was less than half of the 1,880 he put up in 2005. His 3.4 yards-per-carry average in 2006 was the lowest of his career by a full yard, and 1.5 yards less than the 5.1 YPC he amassed in 2005.
He played in only ten games, and nine different offensive lines blocked for the Seahawks this season. The offensive downturn can be traced to the latter number. Hasselbeck and Alexander weren't the sexy stories anymore - Drew Brees became the NFC's best signal caller, and San Diego's LaDanian Tomlinson shattered Alexander's TD mark.
However, there’s been recent reason for encouragement. Alexander ran like a man possessed in the Week Sixteen close loss to the Chargers, picked up over 200 yards against Green Bay in a November win at Qwest Field, and has rushed for at least 70 yards in each of the final six games – games in which he has carried the ball 40, 26, 22, 23, 31 and 28 times.
When asked on Wednesday about his condition, Alexander was very positive. “I feel a lot better,” he said. “I feel like when I am playing in the game, I’ve got my legs up under me and even when you come in the beginning of the season, you don’t really have season legs until a couple of games in, and those didn’t really go the way I wanted them to. Coming back and just now starting to feel like my wind and my stamina is up is a good thing.”
How does he feel that the team has bounced back from injuries? “From the beginning we have always wanted to be a team that prides itself on trying to get better and giving it everything that we have,” he said. “I have been proud that we are in the playoffs and won our division for as much adversity as we have been through this year. I think it is everybody caring for each other and trying to get there.”
In Matt Hasselbeck’s case, it isn’t so much about injury recovery as it about keeping the ball. The Seahawks had a -8 turnover ratio in 2006, a huge swing from their +10 ration last year. Hasselbeck knows that he has to make ball security a focus. “It’s tough,” he said. “For someone who handles the ball, there is a fine line between going out and playing free, trying to make plays and also know how to be stingy with the ball, protecting the football. For me, the key thing is throwing ball and making decisions in terms of interceptions. For other guys, it’s fumbles.”
Does playing with confidence make a difference? “It’s partly that,” he agreed. “Sometimes you get to play in better weather. There are all kinds of factors. It’s just something we’ve been dealing with this year. Last year we know it was a great thing for us. We didn’t turn the ball over a lot. Our defense created a bunch of turnovers. This year it is kind of backwards. We’re turning the ball over. We’ve had opportunities on the other side of the ball. We’ve got to keep practicing like we’re doing and keep emphasizing those things and good stuff should happen.”
The Dallas defense that they’ll face has been on a bit of a downturn of late, but Hasselbeck isn’t underestimating them at all. “They haven’t been playing their best football the last couple of weeks, but that doesn’t mean they won’t come out and play great this weekend. As we know, our offense the last three weeks, or month, we haven’t necessarily played our best football. We know that we’re capable.
”These guys are very good,” Hasselbeck continued. “They have some very good players on their defense. DeMarcus Ware and Roy Williams are the guys you know. But then there are other guys that are having good years that you don’t necessarily hear about quite a lot. We just have to this week, like other weeks, really worry more about ourselves and fix our mistakes and hopefully good stuff will happen.”
Is the pass rush or pass coverage a bigger concern? “It depends on how they decide to attack. Sometimes they decide to bring the house. They bring everybody. They put pressure on their guys in the secondary. Sometimes they really don’t bring anybody. They bring three guys and they drop everybody out in coverage. I think the biggest thing is that they are well coached and they keep you guessing.”
Balance will be the key – not allowing an opponent to read what is coming. To that end, Hasselbeck spoke of Alexander’s importance to the offense. “I think every single team would tell you if you can’t run the ball or stop the run, you’re not going to do well,” he said. “I think for us we get into a rhythm sometimes and we stay on the field. We get to run a bunch of plays. Obviously the running game has a huge effect on that.”
Keeping the ball also helps the defense, a fact that was finally brought to light against Tampa Bay last week, when the Seahawks showed an all-too-rare ability to sustain drives. “I think that’s the thing that’s been most exciting or most fun going back to the Tampa game last week. It was like a 9-on-7 running drill where Mike was just saying into my headset, ‘We have no intention of throwing the ball, we’re just trying to milk the clock’, and we’re still getting first downs. That’s just a pat on the back for the offensive line, for our fullback, and for our running backs running hard. Even for our wide receivers coming down and blocking, doing a good job on safeties.”
Alexander also had some thoughts about the offensive inconsistency, and how it can turn around. “I just think we haven’t really played together, it has been a big shuffle. I think that it is finally time, even for us, we feel like those bumpy days are over with, and we’re hoping that. We are really hoping that there are no more injuries, that we can play smooth games and not turn the ball over and then whatever happens, happens.”
Hasselbeck agreed. “Just a feeling I think; just a feeling how we’re starting to move in that direction,” He said, when asked about the offense getting back in rhythm. “It’s tough sometimes. We’ve had so many different people in that starting unit. Just when you start to feel like you’re getting that groove back you have to re-learn everything with somebody new. Other than the fact that we have to, it’s just time to get it right. It’s time to hit your stride and play your best football. Hopefully we can do that.”
Hopefully, they can. For now, the regular season numbers don’t matter. The Seahawks go into Saturday's game with a bunch of zeros on the board and in the stat lines, and a chance to make it right.
Once again, the results will be primarily dependent on the two men who make the offense go.
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.