Holmgren: From Saving Face to Saving Grace

The reaction of almost universal jubilation to the news that Mike Holmgren will fulfill his current contract and coach the Seahawks for one more season just has to strike the Big Show himself as slightly ironic.

"When I came to Seattle, in my first press conference, and I was reminded of it today, I talked about a Super Bowl. And while we got to a Super Bowl, we didn't win one, and that's the ultimate goal for each team and each city. I had one year left on a contract, and I'm a firm believer in honoring your contract if you're healthy and feeling good and you can do it. Once I could assure (wife) Kathy that I was feeling good and could do it and have the same fire that I've always had, we went ahead and made the decision. I like our football team. I thought we came close this year, and hopefully we'll have another chance to do it next year." -- Mike Holmgren

Five years and three weeks ago, you could never, under any circumstances, get everyone in the entire city of Seattle to admit that the best possible chance for their NFL team to win the Super Bowl was for Mike Holmgren to stay the course for another year.

When Holmgren stepped down as general manager and agreed to stay on as head coach on December 31, 2002, a 31-33 record and iffy personnel ledger as a double-duty executive spoke more to the difficulty of doing both jobs than any specific deficit in Holmgren's football knowledge. Nobody ever doubted that when he left Green Bay to run the Seahawks before the 1999 season, the Emerald City was adopting one of the best football minds on the planet.

Genius, however, must be forged in an environment that allows for equal parts discipline and freedom. As his own GM, Holmgren had the run of a show that never got off the ground. Under Bob Whitsitt's thumb, he could only roll the rock uphill as Trader Bob pushed the other way.

The February, 2005 hire of team president Tim Ruskell would give Holmgren what he had enjoyed in San Francisco as an assistant and in Green Bay as a head coach -- and didn't know he needed until he didn't have it. A yin to his yang, someone who could match his own tactical acumen with a feel for personnel born from a million scouting trips.

And with Ruskell's ability to match defensive balance to the offensive pieces Holmgren had put together, the Seahawks went to their first Super Bowl in 2005, made the divisional round despite 59 starter games lost to injury in 2006, and made it back to the divisional round in 2007 despite a running game so anemic that Holmgren practically had to adopt the run-and-shoot just to get back to the playoffs.

Holmgren's decision to revamp his offense on the fly, despite injuries to two of his three starting receivers, points to one of his many contradictions. He is seen by many as the greatest living architect of the professional quarterback, but he has always preached balance between the run and the pass in his gameplans. His greatest years with the Seahawks have matched the best seasons enjoyed by Shaun Alexander and a non-depleted offensive line. Though he was able to make a one-dimensional offense work for a while, it was easy to tell that the coach knew he was flying a jet with one blown engine, just hoping to survive the landing.

After Seattle's humiliating 42-20 divisional round loss to the Packers on January 12th, Holmgren retreated with his wife to discuss his future and reflect on the possibility that he had the fire to do this one more time. "We had a little soul-searching, and thought about a lot of things," he said on Tuesday, after announcing his return. "One of the big things on the plus side of the ledger was the football team and how much I enjoy them, and the effort they put forth."

While Seattle's 28 total rushing yards in the Green Bay loss was the lowest single-game total in Holmgren's history with the Seahawks, the coach himself knows that his team is just a few adjustments away from another title shot. A league-average offensive line and tandem rushing attack, as unexciting as that may sound to those who are used to Shaun Alexander's liquid grace and the days of Jones/Hutchinson domination, might be enough to put the Seahawks back in the Super Bowl.

The defense is young, totally refurbished, and aggressive in a way we haven't seen since the "glory days" of the early 1990s. Ruskell has proven to be one of the more astute draftniks in the NFL, though his grades in free agency and offensive skill position replacement could use a push forward. Matt Hasselbeck has become the latest in a line of star quarterbacks who have mined the total ore of their potential by agreeing to become physical extensions of the super-passer Holmgren can only see in his dreams. The respect, so long in coming, is now there in spades. The tens of thousands of souls who scream bloody murder at Qwest Field at least eight Sundays per season testify to what has been built here. And the team's 32-16 regular-season record since Ruskell's hire speaks volumes about that delicate balance and the benefit it brings.

As much as Holmgren's tenure in Seattle has been defined by stubbornness -- refusing to acknowledge his own limitations as a personnel man, the insistence that the embryonic Hasselbeck would be his quarterback even when it looked like he was sacrificing the team for his reputation as a QB-grower, the coddling of team-killers like Koren Robinson and Jerramy Stevens, and those damned infuriating draw plays on third-and-long -- his career was revived and saved by a surprising flexibility.

There aren't too many coaches with his resume who would be man enough to walk up to a microphone and admit that he was in over his head. Even fewer who would then put up with Whitsitt's nonsense because he has a commitment to see through. Bad coaches, and the world is replete with them, would have continued to pound the rock in 2007 even when Alexander's decline and the line's preposterous ineffectiveness made such tactics akin to Einstein's definition of insanity (doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results). Not Holmgren. He saw what he had, adjusted, made the right choice, and got busy.

"I think it's the idea of 'unfinished business'". -- Mike Holmgren

On Tuesday, he did the same thing with his estimable career. Again. And the Seahawks are, and will be, better for it.

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