Mike Holmgren: Man in the Moment

Two days after the Seahawks' amazing 21-20 win over the Dallas Cowboys in the Wild Card round of the NFL playoffs, Mike Holmgren spoke with the media about several subjects. Seattle's coach was first asked about his feelings regarding a game in which fortune and fate seemingly changed dance partners every minute.

“It’s pretty good, we’re still playing,” he said, about the game in which a Terry Glenn fumble at the Dallas two-yard line, a subsequent safety, a Dallas pooch punt leading to Jerramy Stevens’ second touchdown of the day, and Tony Romo’s now-famous blundered hold on a 19-yard Martin Gramatica field goal attempt with a little over a minute remaining led to perhaps the most remarkably unpredictable win in franchise history.

This Seahawks team has seen its roster littered with injuries, and teams with fewer personnel deficits couldn’t find their way back to the postseason (ahem, Steelers…). Although his squad passed through an easy gateway in the NFL’s worst division, that the Seahawks were able to find their way to the playoffs at all marks perhaps Holmgren’s best coaching year in Seattle. Still, as the season continues, the injury bug persists as well.

Holmgren was able to relay a bit of good news – wide receiver Darrell Jackson, in and out of the lineup over the last month with turf toe, will most likely be available to play when the Seahawks face the Chicago Bears this Sunday at 10:00 AM PST. “Darrell Jackson probably will play,” Holmgren said. “I read something on the computer that he would not play. What I said was he aggravated his foot in our game. I said this morning on my radio show that he had to come out. But actually he is feeling better now than he did Monday last week. So he’ll probably get to practice a little bit at the end of the week.

Unfortunately, another receiver who’s made a great impact this season may not be available. “(DJ) Hackett, (it’s) more problematic, last week on Friday he could not play,” the coach said, referring to Hackett’s hip flexor injury in the regular season finale against Tampa Bay. “And then when I got to the stadium and worked him out they said he could play. And he made some nice plays in the game, but then he hurt himself. It’s a basketball ankle, (the) side. It’s not the high ankle, it’s the side.”

Was his hip re-injured? “Not to my knowledge. He got through the game okay that way. The thing that he hurt was his ankle.”

Though Jackson didn’t catch a pass in the Dallas game, Holmgren talked about the difference having his best receiver on the field makes. “I would say he was less than a hundred percent in the game,” the coach remarked. “It is good to have him back. The uncertainty of whether guys can play in your planning, and particularly at wide receiver when you have different combinations of three and four and everything, you want to try and get the guys who are actually going to be running the plays in the game to practice them. And we couldn’t do that too well last year. Seneca (Wallace) caught the first pass of the game. We were prepared to use him a little bit more prior to Saturday. We’ll see how it goes. (Bobby) Engram is okay. (Nate) Burleson is okay. (Deion) Branch is okay. Now we just have to see with the other guys how we fill that in .”

Cornerback Marcus Trufant, whose absence due to an ankle injury led to Seattle having to field a surprisingly effective skeleton crew in the defensive backfield against Dallas’ receivers. For Trufant to play anymore this season, there will have to be another game after the upcoming challenge. “No. Not really,” Holmgren said, when asked of Trufant would be ready for the Bears game. “If we were able to get to the next game he has a chance to play.”

The cornerbacks that did play made differences nobody could have expected. Not only was the high-octane Dallas passing game limited to 240 total yards and two touchdowns, but reserve cornerback Jordan Babineaux made the game-saving tackle on Romo when he tried to advance the ball to the end zone after the botched field goal hold attempt. It took a Babineaux ankle tackle at the Seattle two-yard line, just one yard short of a first down, to save Seattle’s season. And Holmgren, for his part, was in the dark until he hit the film room. “I did not see that play until this morning,” he said. “I didn’t see how close that thing was. It’s funny. I know we won. I’m looking at that play and I’m going ‘get him…’ It’s unbelievable how close that was.

“I talked to the team and said ‘Hey Babs, unbelievable, heads up play.’ (Tony) Romo did a nice job actually after the fumble, picking the ball up and trying to score. I mean that was close. It was kind of that type of game. I acknowledged him with his teammates today. And they love him and he kind of has that reputation now. He’s a young guy that is still learning to play, but he has been involved with big plays for us.”

Babineaux was a known entity - rookie cornerback Kelly Jennings and street free-agent pickup Pete Hunter, who was working in a Dallas mortgage office a week ago, were the “x-factors” who made it all go right. “It is what it is,” Holmgren said, when asked about his depleted secondary. “We got these two young guys. They both came up to me in the locker room (after the game) and said ‘thanks for the opportunity’. And I said, ‘thanks for helping us.’ Now they have to do it again. Our situation in the secondary hasn’t changed. It’s the same situation.”

Defensive coordinator John Marshall, often maligned by observers this season for seemingly inflexible defensive formations – especially against the pass – called his best game of the season, resisting the temptation to blitz, directing the injury-hit defensive line to get enough pressure for the linebackers to be able to cover the mid-level zones, and overcoming every personnel debacle he’d been handed. It was a virtuoso performance. “It was excellent,” Holmgren said. "And John, both he and (offensive coordinator) Gil (Haskell), as coordinators on this team, do an excellent job. They really do, and I’m lucky to have them here. We had a meeting at the start of the week. I don’t mess with them during the week. I don’t think that’s smart. But in the beginning of the week, I toss in my two cents, and want to know generally speaking at least what kind of approach you’re going to take.

”Really, what I wanted to do with John this last week was remove any anxiety. Every once in a while, I believe he does this … he might not (call something), because if something’s not working I’m hard on him. At times, I don’t want him to think that he has to call something for me. I think that really inhibits any signal caller in the game. After we talked in the beginning of the week, I said ‘you do what you (do)’. After we talked about a couple things, I said ‘okay, now we’ve talked about it. But when it comes down to it you do what you have to do’. And then if I want to blitz more or something I might toss that on the phone. ‘Let’s get after them’. And he did a great job. They all did a great job.”

Certain players know when they must increase their efforts, and middle linebacker Lofa Tatupu has made every attempt to step up his game down the stretch. Holmgren said that it’s easy to notice the difference when the on-field leader of his defense is playing his best. “That’s why he goes to the Pro Bowl,” the coach said, when asked about the crucial tackle of Jason Witten with 1:53 left in the game that stopped the Dallas tight end one yard short of the first down, and set up the field goal that never happened. “He’ll probably be one of those guys, like Junior Seau, that goes every year because he’s such a good football player.”

There was also the end zone recovery of Terry Glenn’s fumble that was grabbed when Tatupu was just barely out of bounds. ”I don’t know what else to say about him. The play he made, unfortunately it was stepping out of bounds that we got the safety on, in that sort of chaos to have the wherewithal to do what he did - it’s unbelievable. You can’t even appreciate how wonderful a play that was to think about doing that when it’s just wild. But that’s him. I’m glad he’s on my team.”

On the offensive side of the ball, there’s leader Matt Hasselbeck. Nobody in the NFL develops quarterbacks better than Mike Holmgren, and he’s always on the lookout for a missed fundamental here, a student who’s playing outside of himself there. While he knows that the best field generals in the game take their teams on their shoulders at times, he also knows that no quarterback can win without a system in rhythm. That’s been difficult for Hasselbeck to find this year, between the offensive line troubles and the seemingly constant game of musical chairs at the receiver position. Against Dallas, the effects of Hasselbeck’s inability to practice with Jackson and Hackett during the week due to their injuries were obvious – Bobby Engram and Jerramy Stevens looked very much like the only Seattle receivers in sync with their quarterback

It was enough to win the game, but Holmgren is hyper-aware of Hasselbeck’s predilection for taking too much on and disrupting the offensive flow by thinking out of the box. “He has done it all season, really,” Holmgren said. “We’ve been careless with the football all season. He has way more interceptions than he should (fifteen this season in only twelve regular-season games, as opposed to nine in 2005’s full season) being as bright as he is and understanding our system now the way he understands it. I think, by his own admission, he would say he tries to do too much.

“There are things in his head; I think the number of substitutions and injuries that we’ve had, the different combinations, I think that’s had an effect on him. And really, he’s human and I think he has a chance to be great. He’s a good player, and he had a great season last year. But I think he has a chance to be great. And to be great, those things, you have to find a way, and I’m not going to coach it out of him – not at this stage, he’s got to find a way to deal with those things that he has to deal with."

Are the breakdowns mental or physical? “Physically, he does everything I want him to do. He really is very good. Now the two areas - and we had this discussion before the season started; he doesn’t play the game by himself – he doesn’t have to. In his mind, he’s a very bright guy and probably could be a lawyer because he likes to argue, but he (responds) ‘that being said, if I’m not to have to play the game by myself, but I don’t have everyone else, maybe I have to do a little bit’. There’s always a little bit of a give and take between us. But he’s absolutely capable of shooting lights out. And it would be wonderful. Now the other guys have to help him. The quarterback is not out there by himself. He got banged around a little bit early in that game. I was not particularly pleased with our pass protection early (in the Dallas game). That’s going to have a little bit of an effect on the quarterback.”

Holmgren and Hasselbeck butted heads very frequently early in the quarterback’s career. Does that still happen? “Way less. Way less. Two, three, four years ago it was ridiculous. Now, actually, we don’t argue very much at all. We really don’t argue too much. We have a little discussion here and there. We’re at the point in our relationship, and he’s at the point where he is as a player that we don’t have to do that anymore, I don’t have to do that anymore. I don’t have to bang him around anymore. We just talk about stuff.”

The West Coast Offense that will define coach and quarterback throughout their careers is based primarily on three factors: timing, repetition, and rhythm. It isn’t a series of “let it fly” schemes that any fast pass catcher can pick up in a weekend – it’s a tight ballet in which every man must know his exact role and position. The Seahawks picked up two new receivers this year – Nate Burleson and Deion Branch – and part of what has ailed Hasselbeck’s numbers this season is the simple fact that the new kids just aren’t on the same page all the time. Burleson has been relegated to the role of kick returner (something, to his credit, he’s done with great effort at all times) and Branch, for all his superlative talent, has been effective in fits and starts only. For Holmgren, the secret to the right offensive combinations isn’t mystical – it’s plain for all to see.

“You look at the great combinations,” he said. “The best one in the league now is (Marvin) Harrison and (Peyton) Manning, and they’ve thrown a million balls to each other. That’s real. That’s important and it’s real. Any good quarterback-receiver combinations do that. They kind of know what to expect. That’s one thing. And that will get nothing but better. They’ll be together for a while now and that will get nothing but better. Then what Deion has to do, which will also get better – now, please understand what I’m saying. He is really good and he helps us a lot. There are three or four plays every game though, where he does something that, because he hasn’t been with us very long, that I wish he had done something else. And it happened Sunday.

“It’s not that he’s not trying hard. It might be a little subtle thing; his angle, how he’s doing something. And that will get better too. Nate Burleson falls into that category as well. But it’s all good. We’re kind of going through it now, and making an error here and there in that respect with those guys. But next year, I would think that it will be better, get better, because they’re talented men. And they want to win. They want to do it right.”

One receiver who finally came through when it counted was tight end Jerramy Stevens. Following a horrid Super Bowl performance and bouts with such inconsistency this season that he heard boos from the home crowd at times, Stevens proved the difference in this game, catching both of Seattle’s touchdowns, and once again displaying the kind of matchup nightmares presented by a 6’7”, 265-pound man who runs and cuts like a wideout. When he’s on, Stevens is virtually unstoppable.

“Jerramy impacts things when he has a game like he had Saturday,” Holmgren said. “And Jerramy’s thing has been consistency this season. I think he would say that. I pulled him aside before the game, when we were in warm-ups, and I said ‘listen, I’m going to you. Don’t let anything distract you. Don’t get in any little contests, verbal things. Be strong at the ball.’ By that I meant, ‘don’t worry about running after the catch, but catch it and be strong with your hands at the ball’. And I said, ‘we got to do this’. And he had a good game. Not just because of what I said, but he had a good game because clearly he was focusing in on doing it. I think he had a pretty good game.

”When he plays that way we’re better, because in our system that’s an important role…I’ve had a number of frustrations this year. And Jerramy, I tease him about it, and he teases me about it. But the good thing is, he wants to be good. He wants to do it. And if he can just focus and doesn’t let anybody drag him into anything - he’s a very feisty, competitive guy, and some of these habits are tough to break, but you just have to.”

Stevens wasn’t in the lineup on October 1st, when the 3-0 Seahawks traveled to Chicago’s Soldier Field and were demolished, 37-6, by the NFC’s new best team. Shaun Alexander wasn’t available either, and without the 2005 NFL MVP in the backfield, Hasselbeck was intercepted twice and sacked five times. He finished the game with a 39.7 quarterback rating, the defense was torched by Rex Grossman and receiver Bernard Berrian, and it could be argued that the Seahawks never really recovered from that beatdown – the kind of loss they never took in their dream 2005 season.

Now, with another trip to the Windy City in front of him, Holmgren sees the potential for revenge against a team that has seen its own share of defensive injuries and offensive inconsistency. “We have a lot to make up for because we didn’t play very well. And we’re going into the same place with the same fans, and playing the same team,” Holmgren said. “And we had better be better, because that was not very much fun. I think we’re capable of playing better. We have some guys who are going to be able to play in the game that didn’t play in the first time. But the Bears are awfully good. There is a reason their record is what it is. And you can never discount the home field advantage; that’s important.”

How much did Alexander’s absence affect the Seahawks in that game? “We don’t change the plays that much. But we couldn’t run very well against them (77 total rushing yards to Chicago's 143). That I do remember. And since that time, now our offensive line has changed also, right when we get somebody back we lose somebody else. The plays themselves won’t change too much, but the player makes a difference.”

”The situation allows it more than the players, because they’re going to play what they play on first down, second down, second and short, whatever they decide how they’re going to do it,” the coach said, when asked how the imbalanced offensive personnel allowed the Bears to tee off on his quarterback. “You get in passing situations, or all of a sudden you feel like we get behind and we’re going to throw more. Now that played into their hands with their home crowd and they’re defensive line the way it was. They’re excellent pass rushers.”

This week will be about preparation, and some unsavory game film from that first meeting in Chicago. The glow, so obvious after the first playoff win, begins to fade as the prospect of new conquests begins to take over. “I want to show the guys how bad we played,” Holmgren said. “No one wants to be embarrassed ever; good players or coaches. And if I think we played a stinker, it’s okay to talk about that. I remember when I was teaching in high school or learning during my teacher training programs, ‘be careful of negative reinforcement’. Every once in a while you have to hit them between the eyes and show it to them.

”To heck with that theory business; we’re in the real world here.”

Indeed, the dream time has disappeared. With his tenth win of 2006 now in a closed book. Mike Holmgren once again moves forward.

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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