Zen And the Art of Shaun Maintenance

It's a dilemma as old as Bronko Nagurski's football shoes, and it comes upon a team as suddenly as Al Davis' afternoon nap - what do you do when your franchise running back with the huge contract, and all those carries, turns to stone?

The Seahawks are hoping against hope that such a scenario isn't staring them in the face with one Shaun Alexander, but the evidence is mounting that the Alexander who ran for more yards (7,504) and scored more rushing touchdowns (98) than anyone else from 2001 through 2005 may be little more than a fond memory.

Alexander's flirtation with the "Curse of 370" - the Football Outsiders-codified line of overuse he crossed in 2005, with that exact number of carries in the regular season alone - has coincided with an offensive line that fell off the face of the earth in 2006 and has several question marks attached to it in 2007. The surest way for backs to extend their careers over a certain level of use is to mix up carries and catches, but Alexander's receptions have decreased every year since 2002. His six missed games, 896 rushing yards, six fumbles and 3.6 yards per carry average last season certainly point to decline.

That being said, it’s good to know that Alexander seems to be fighting back. He's dropped a little weight - down to 226, he says, though he was always in good shape and nobody will ever mistake him for Lendale White - and an increase in receptions this season has been talked about through training camp. There seemed to be more drills involving Alexander in the passing game, but he's not an elite pass-catcher, and drops have been an issue.

“Our game plan is different," he told the assembled media, when asked about the receptions issue after Wednesday practice. In Seattle's Super Bowl season of 2005, the offensive line was dominant enough for the Seahawks to modify their West Coast Offense gameplan over time to something that resembled the Denver Broncos teams of John Elway and Terrell Davis. "My receptions went down and my carries went up. That was part of what we decided. I think that we’ve done some things in camp where we could flip it and go back to how we ran the offense three or four years ago. Then we also did some stuff where we can go back to how we’ve done it the last two or three years. Either way, I like it. They’re both exciting.

"I think that there was something about our team, a couple years ago, where when we were running the ball downhill - we controlled the clock and we knew our defense. We could get a lead early so that’s kind of how are games were. We were getting a lead, running the ball, and our defensive ends were chasing after the quarterback. That’s kind of how our team has been the last three years. Before that, we had to grow up until we could score points. It was Matt (Hasselbeck) maturing, our receivers all maturing, and then also our line coming together. We can pretty much do either one of them now. Whatever’s hot, that’s what we’re going to do.”

There are more reasons for Hasselbeck to have more frequent pass-catching options out of the backfield than Alexander's heath. Drive efficiency in the face of an atrophied line is one, as is Hasselbeck's own ability to dump off to the flat when his receivers are covered, or he doesn't have time to progress through his reads. Though the drops seem to have been a problem in practice according to some observers, Alexander doesn't seem concerned - in fact, he refuted the idea outright.

"I’m always telling Mike (Holmgren) … I say, ‘Mike, you’re making me into the guy I hate where the practices look good and the games are horrible.’ I haven’t dropped any balls in practice. It just happens at game time. I have to find that comfort level when I’m running out for pass plays in the games where you’re hyped but you have to calm yourself down. You don’t want to calm yourself down too much because then you become too lackadaisical. That’s all a part of just playing. When the games start I’m sure we’ll be ready.”

For Holmgren, a change in the way he uses his backs seems a secondary issue after the worrisome blocking of backups Marquis Weeks and Leonard Weaver in the 48-13 loss to Green Bay. “Why do you think that was?" he asked rhetorically when the media inquired about an increased focus on blitz pickup in practice.

"Yes we did. It’s an area that I’ve not been very pleased with, to be honest. It’s something we can do better so we have to practice those things. The things that have bothered me, not just off the one game but so far in camp that we have to do well, we had better practice those more. Today was a good example of that and you’ll see a little bit more of that sort of thing until we play the first (regular season) game.”

Does the coach see more catches in Alexander's future? “I don’t think that’s far-fetched," he said. "I think he can do that. Now, he dropped a couple balls in the last couple games and those are catches he’s made in practice. He’s had a very good camp, catching the ball, and that’s usually a concentration thing with anybody who drops the ball. Once you’ve seen him catch it, why can’t you do it every time? He moves his head or something that happens in the game. It’s different.

"He is absolutely capable of doing that and I think we’ll be better if he can do that so we’re going to try. We’re going to try and make him do it.”

The next step will come this Saturday against the Vikings, when the starters are expected to see serious time in the first half. Holmgren and Alexander will continue their quest to make Seattle's marquee running back an exception to the rule.


Doug Farrar is the Editor-in-Chief of Seahawks.NET, a staff writer for Football Outsiders, and a contributing author to Pro Football Prospectus 2007. Feel free to e-mail him here.


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