Serving the King

On Wednesday, the Seahawks announced the hire of their second head coach on staff, as Jim Mora pocketed the job that Mike Holmgren will leave behind after 2008. Doug Farrar says that the fact that neither head coach was at the press conference indicates a new philosophy, and a distinct modification to the franchise's chain of command.

"This struggle from the Dark Ages had been going on forever … the Church and the King might take on different forms and philosophies, but they would always fight each other. Pragmatists and Idealists. Most times, you are better off standing on the sidelines and letting them duke it out.

"But every once in a while, one side or the other decides it might be better to just blow up the whole world just to get its own way. And when that happens, you can't stand on the sidelines anymore. You have to pick a team.

"And so for tonight, anyway, we are serving the King." -- Kyra Sedgwick, The Closer, "Serving the King", Part 2, 2006 (written by James Duff)

The Kingdome stood as a Seattle icon for 25 years -- from March of 1976 through March of 2000. Thought to be state-of-the-art upon its "arrival", it was intended to be multi-purpose when it really wasn't. It was denigrated even as it served its purpose, and it brought forth some of Seattle's greatest sports memories despite its limitations. For a quarter of a century, it was our pipeline to America's biggest sports. Replacing it took a few political end runs and a great deal of money. And while shiny new substitutes now form a billion-dollar tribute to the city, the implosion of the old was seen with a bit of sadness, though everyone knew it was time to move on.

There have been times since the end of the 2007 Seahawks season, Mike Holmgren's announcement that he would coach the Seahawks for one more season, and the Wednesday confirmation that Jim Mora would take Holmgren's place in 2009, that thoughts turn to this question: do we really understand the void we're in for when Holmgren steps down? Like the Kingdome of old, Holmgren came to Seattle as a multi-purpose promise -- coach and general manager -- and we saw that coaching would be his specialty, just as we saw that watching baseball indoors was infinitely worse than watching football indoors could ever be.

Just as we sat in that dismal dome, hoping that we'd witness some Steve Largent magic or a bit of Randy Johnson domination, we kept the faith with Holmgren through the early years: the distressing drafts, the indulgent-father lack of discipline, and the filmy focus that constantly held the Seahawks, talented though they may have been, from realizing their true potential.

Holmgren's potential -- what we had seen in Green Bay that brought him here for a great deal of money in 1999 -- was reached when Tim Ruskell came on board in 2005. Ruskell brought a different sort of personnel acumen, focusing on the defensive side of the ball. There was a time in which the two mixed well. Splitting the difference between the Holmgren and Ruskell philosophies brought the Seahawks to the Super Bowl that season.

However, Super Bowl berths do one very interesting thing -- they assign supreme credit, and organizational cache, to one particular member of the team. Without question, it was Ruskell that came out of 2005 in control. In the afterglow of the team's greatest season, Holmgren signed a two-year contract extension, which will take him through 2008.

Ruskell, for his part, went to work with his draft expertise, while displaying iffy aim in free agency (at least on the offensive side). The injury-filled seasons of 2006 and 2007 still came with playoff wins. However, the losses, not to mention the sheer mortality of the coaching profession and the men who endure it, were starting to weigh on Holmgren and his family. As Holmgren saw his time winding down, Mora's ascent was just as sure. First introduced to Ruskell professionally when both men worked for th Atlanta Falcons in 2004, Mora returned to the city in which he grew up and played college football when he accepted the position of Assistant Head Coach/Secondary in early 2007.

Mora's results were definitive, The formerly sieve-like Seattle pass defense allowed the fewest passing touchdowns in the NFL. Holmgren got to know Mora, and Ruskell's faith in the 46-year-old assistant was confirmed -- certainly in Ruskell's mind.

When Ruskell and team CEO Tod Leiweke announced Mora's five-year contract extension on Wednesday (2008 is the first year with Mora retaining his current position; he's contracted as head coach for four total seasons), neither Holmgren nor Mora attended the press conference. The thought may have been that a great deal of folderol for a coach who won't take his position for a year would be awkward for the new guy and disrespectful to the incumbent. The appearance, however -- and what many feel is the new reality -- is that the Seahawks are being transformed from a team whose face is that of their head coach to one in which the executive branch is the dominant facet. As Ruskell made clear at the press conference, Holmgren is a coach -- a football mastermind welded to his playsheet. Mora, on the other hand, will be an on-field extension of organizational philosophy.

"We're going to be about stability and unity, that's part of our culture," Ruskell said. "It has been since Tod got here, and it's something that I've carried over with the things that' I've done in the front office. So it's a good thing, it's really a unique thing in the world of sports, that we're able to do this today. I think everybody knows who Jim Mora is. He is what you see. He's a high energy guy, he has passion for the game of football. He grew up in this game, he is about the NFL. Growing up watching his dad coach here and in various places, a top assistant coach, a top defensive coordinator, and when I was in Atlanta, a real good head football coach. So I saw that part of it, I think we've all seen that he's been pretty high-profile with his dad. Then to come here and do the job that he did with our secondary, that was a tough job to be released from Atlanta and just bite the bullet, and just do the job. I think that's really what impressed Mike Holmgren. It certainly impressed all of us."

After the faux pas on KJR-AM which led to his dismissal in Atlanta, Mora knew that he would indeed have to "bite the bullet" to some degree, get his feet back on the ground, and once again become more about the sum total of his expertise than a willing and somewhat indiscriminate quote machine. Ruskell spoke about second chances in coaching, and how going "splat" with your first try can pay great dividends when it's time to run another team.

"That's a legitimate concern," Ruskell said, when asked about Mora's ability to learn from his mistakes. "I think Jim's one of those guys if you ask him what went wrong he'll tell you, ‘There are certain things I will do differently.' Same thing with Bill Belichick in Cleveland.  If you asked him now how were you different when you coached at Cleveland as the head coach as opposed to now with the New England Patriots.  He'd probably give you a pretty long list of things he would do differently.  Jim's a smart guy.  We've talked about those things that he feels like if he gets another shot he would do.  That's one of them. 

"Maybe there were some times we did get too close to players and that can have a chance to alienate other players.  I think he's maturing as a head coach and as a coach as well and that would be part of that process.  I think the relationship between Mike Holmgren and Jim Mora has been key to this happening.  You can get the individual talking about the other guy and you can tell it's sincere and it's honest praise and respect for each other."

When asked what his specific attraction to Mora as a coach was and is, Ruskell talked about Mora's more personal approach. "Great passion and energy, which are the obvious things. Very intelligent, very hands-on. He really likes to demonstrate and coach technique, and how to do things, and what he wants from his players. You see it this year. He's going to demonstrate what the receivers are going to do (when talking to the secondary), or throw the ball where he thinks it's going to go. He's very much hands-on, and I think the players appreciated that and respected that because they knew he was just trying to make them better. He's trying to show them specifically, not just tell them, but show them specifically what he wants done. That was very impressive. My first time working with him, I got a great sense of that being important to him."

So, that's technique. Having been in the NFL as a defensive coach for more than two decades, Mora would have that part down. What about the big picture? "Well Mike's been a great coach for a long time, and he's probably developed over the years, I would imagine, from the early part of his career," Ruskell said. "Working with the quarterback, more hands on, that's where Jim is in his career. He's hands on with the players, where as Mike's more of the general, the overseer. That's their difference in styles. But obviously there are many ways to skin a cat, in terms of being a head coach in this league. The bottom line is that they're respected by their players. They get them to do things, and make them better than maybe they think they are. That's the common denominator of the two guys. Great intelligence, great passion for the game, those would also be similarities for the guys."

For the sake of the team, the transition, and Holmgren's final season, all attendant forces will be aligned, or that's the party line. Mora and Holmgren will play the parts they played last season, with Mora having a slightly bigger role in free agency and draft discussion, not to mention coaching hires.

In 2009, when the chain of command feeds ever upward, and all pieces are in place for the next generation of Seahawks football, we shall know that the football idealist, in a slightly more malleable form, will serve the corporate pragmatist, the parallel relationship having been cast aside.

Can the New World Order breed a championship?

Only Tim Ruskell knows for sure…

Doug Farrar is the Editor-in-Chief of Seahawks.NET, a staff writer for Football Outsiders, a contributing author to Pro Football Prospectus 2007, and he writes NFL previews for the New York Sun. Top Stories