"We're going to make it the best year ever."
-- Mike Holmgren during a press conference announcing his 10th and final season as head coach of the Seattle Seahawks
Mike Holmgren looked relaxed if not a touch tan from a short vacation in Arizona with his wife Kathy. It was January 22nd, 2008 and the Seahawks head coach - also the face of the franchise for nearly a decade - had talked it over with his wife arriving at a mutual decision to return one last season to bring the city of Seattle its first-ever Super Bowl championship.
"Kathy and I came to a decision this weekend to finish my contract, and we're very happy about it," Holmgren said with a grin that comes easily after a relaxing weekend in the sun. "We're going to go after it hard one more year."
This brought smiles and high-fives across Seahawks Nation as the man who turned a perennial underachieving franchise into one of the NFL's most successful over the past five years was setting the stage for one more probable shot at the world's biggest game.
Only two weeks to the day did the franchise offer up a surprise twist. For only the second time in NFL history, the future coach was announced for the following season while the incumbent coach was still in charge for an entire year.
Sports radio talk shows and message boards heated up as fans debated this decision by the front office. Yet the vigor in which they pondered and the question marks filling the airwaves begun to fade away as there became a collective confidence in Holmgren's assurance that the decision would not create a distraction.
That in fact it would be business as usual with nobody losing sight for even a moment just exactly whom was still very much in charge of this football team.
Not so fast.
As many leaps and bounds that have been made by this organization under the ownership of Northwest philanthropist, computer-savy and Hendrix-centric billionaire Paul Allen, as tight as a PR ship it may well be on 12 Seahawks Way in Renton under Dave Pearson's watch, as polished as a rare blue diamond it appears under the guidance of CEO extraordinaire Tod Leiweke
There are fundamental cracks in the foundation.Many league insiders would argue the common sense of announcing Jim Mora's promotion as Holmgren's successor nearly a full calendar year before the incumbent's Swan Song completes its final note.
Ironically, the team will tell you the reason for the move was to prevent any distraction in Mike Holmgren's final year with the club, but anyone paying even casual attention to the way this season has been going for the Seahawks will tell you that quite the opposite is unfolding - to disastrous result.
The plain and simple truth? It's not just a distraction, it's a shipwreck.
But evil things, in robes of sorrow,
Assailed the monarch's high estate.
(Ah, let us mourn!- for never morrow
Shall dawn upon him desolate!)
And round about his home the glory
That blushed and bloomed,
Is but a dim-remembered story
Of the old time entombed.
-- Edgar Allen Poe (The Haunted Palace, 1839)
Of course, nobody could predict the Seahawks would lose an unprecedented 7 receivers by October. In a comedy of horrors perhaps only Edgar Allen Poe could truly appreciate, if the injury bug becomes the windshield, the 2008 Seahawks becomes the bug.
So it is perhaps this unfortunate series of events that exposed the cracks that may have been kept hidden from view had the Seahawks been able to do what they've grown accustomed to in half-a-decade: win.
Verily, the NFL's equivalent to season suicide exposed an undercurrent of player apathy for what can only be hypothesized as a team torn between two coaches. As much as team president Tim Ruskell's hand has enforced a character-first philosophy since arriving in 2005, the players are still quite human, bound by emotion, ego and the uncertainty that once found in this unsettling position, is bound to teeter precariously from week-to-week.
Make no mistake about it, no player on this team will ever admit to any emotional or mental dichotomy, at least not publicly. Save the ink for there won't be any t-shirts to order that say "TEAM HOLMGREN" and "TEAM MORA" to choose from. The lack of any juicy sound bites is not evidence of nirvana in the locker room nor should it be underscored that the team is destructively decisive either.
The character on this team is in fact quite healthy and considered one of the finest character-driven teams in the NFL. A host of pro bowlers, savvy and battle-tested veterans are keeping any visible signs of mutiny from the public eye. Yet, a closer examination of on-the-field performance more than hints at the aforementioned turmoil that's beginning to boil to the surface with each mounting, frustrating defeat.
There is a clear and lucid pattern developing of players underperforming. From pro bowlers to journeymen alike, the all-out effort required to win in this league by an alarming number of players for the most part is missing.
The obvious reasons such as scheme and injury certainly play its roll. Yet with each passing week, the cracks in Kirkland have been replaced with a rupture in Renton. Running back Julius Jones perhaps provided the most obvious sign of collective frustration when he was found on the sidelines late in the game against Tampa Bay, audibly barking his displeasure of a lack of reps towards the untouchable, unclimable Mt. Holmgren who claims to have not heard anything.
"We're not used to this. We're used to moving the football. We're used to scoring points."
- Mike Holmgren
Holmgren is nothing if not predictable, and certainly conservative, especially when struggles are rampant on offense. How many Seahawks fans have broken household objects in the name of the opaque draw on 3rd and long? The running
joke seems to be that if the fans know what play is about to be dialed up, chances
are so do the players and coaches who get paid millions of dollars to live and
breathe analyzing team tendencies.
So if the fans know this, and the opponents know this, it certainly isn't a stretch of fiction to assume that the Seahawk players know this.
Frustration begins to mount not only because of the losses but because some players undoubtedly feel coaching is in large part responsible for them. Sure, players have to do their jobs and perform on the field every game day. A lot is expected - deservedly so based on salary alone - out of the players. Yet it is the coaches' responsibility to place the players in the best possible position to achieve success.
It's a symbiotic dance that requires a fine balance. Right now, the song is skipping. Fans are faced with the potential for the worst season in franchise history since 1992 when coincidentally enough; a severe lack of offense in the system placed the team in the ICU at 2-14.
The tone in this town is gloomy with a liberal dose of doomy. The vicious upper cut of this season has been magnified by the throat punch that is Washington football no matter your Pacific Northwest allegiance. Seahawks fans are ready for something - anything - to kick start this corpse.
Although Jim Mora is currently assigned primarily to coach the defensive backs, the leading argument is that current defensive coordinator John Marshall is underutilizing the talent that is readily available with poorly planned and predictable schemes. The theory is gaining speed especially when considering the defense has been giving up almost 30 points-per-game dating back to Week 16 of the 2007 season.
This defense is too good to be this bad.
Especially when one considers defenses around the league that are running circles around this squad in the stats with a much less impressive talent pool. That alone speaks to coaching. There comes a point when it's time to face the truth. A time when it's no longer theory but reality.
A point in time when you have to just come out and say it:
The coaching staff has lost the players.
"Coaches who can outline plays on a black board are a dime a dozen. The ones who win get inside their player and motivate."
- Vince Lombardi
So much of what we see on any given Sunday is predicated on not just talent but emotion. A steady fire burns in the eyes of players who are giving it their all out on the field. Big plays, game-breakers and moments of glory are all comprised of players not just using their God-given talents but the passion and intensity they bring to the game based on a coaching staff and system they fully believe in.
The cruel joke that has become well-known as the "10am East-Coast" demon that inexplicably cannot be exorcised is a symptom of this paradigm. How many times do fans have to be subjected to players saying they just have to play better and with the intensity they play with at home only to go on the road and come out looking like they are more prepared for a wake than a football game?
How many times have these players been manhandled, pushed around, beat up and flat out dominated in large part due to what can only be described as an apparent lack of preparedness?
The point in all of this is not to place all of the blame on the coaching staff. Clearly other unfortunate variables are at play. Still, if you're really paying attention, you too have noticed the dark undercurrent at play. PR may be able to silence the players through limited media access but their actions on the field are speaking volumes. A rift is growing in that locker room and the losses are a symptom, not the cause.
Surely, Holmgren hasn't lost his entire team, but that's of little consolation at this stage. The fact that he has lost some players is damaging enough in a game that requires complete and total chemistry in all three phases. No matter how much the front office cares to spin it, this season, these circumstances has officially become a distraction.
Regardless of how this season plays itself out, plenty of questions will remain central to the heart of Seahawks Nation.
Will Jim Mora right the ship in 2009 and beyond? Will an entire new offensive and defensive system allow the current and future players to maximize their strengths or continue to inhibit the existing talent?
Of course, there is no clear answer for those and the many other questions that will arise over the next several months. Only time will tell.
And time that fleeting friend, is, what many Seahawks fear most late at night when the sound of their own thoughts betrays sleep
Todd Breda is the owner of Seahawks.NET. If you would like to email Todd, you may reach him here.