Mike Holmgren - A Good GM?

In the wake of a lost season, many fans seem to believe Holmgren's time as GM was perhaps better than history really indicates. Did he get a fair shake? Guest columnist Cliff Olson offers detailed analysis to help separate perception from reality.

I have enjoyed reading the Seahawks.NET site for the past 4 years, and have thoroughly enjoyed the analysis and discourse about our beloved Seahawks. I have posted very little, because I have thought others had much more to offer by way of opinion and analysis. There are many very knowledgeable football fans that frequent this site.

Since the season began to unravel, I have noticed a trend in the forums. Suddenly we see many suggesting that Holmgren was a good/great/adequate GM during his tenure. This was a very surprising twist for me, since I remembered being very disappointed in the job Holmgren did as GM. I remembered how excited I was when Holmgren was initially hired, finally providing some credibility to a team that had none. Soon there after his hire, it became clear that he was "way in over his head" when it came to personnel. The draft became very painful to watch during the Holmgren GM years. I remembered how relieved I was when he was removed from his GM duties, and allowed to focus on his clear strength, coaching.

Did I miss something here? Was I remembering Holmgren's four year tenure as GM differently than what really took place over those years? Are fans overreacting to the frustration of a losing season, and are remembering an alternate version of history?

I have spent the past couple of weeks trying to answer the question, "Was Mike Holmgren a good GM?"

First, an objective criteria needs to be established to measure the success of a GM. Roster management seems to involve three key parts: the draft, free agent signings, including the re-signing of your own expired player contracts, and trades. Measuring Holmgren based on those three criteria is the key to understanding his success or failure.

Second, it is important to remember that we have had 3 GM's since Holmgren was hired by Paul Allen back in 1999. Mike Holmgren served as GM from 1999 to 2002. Bob Ferguson was brought in after the 2002 season and was the GM for the 2003 and 2004 seasons. Tim Ruskell was hired at the start of the 2005 season as GM. Measuring Holmgren's tenure as GM will cover the 1999-2002 seasons.

Third, it is important to grade the job that Holmgren did as GM based on the work that other GM's did throughout the league during the same time period, as well as how his sucessors (Ferguson and Ruskell) did after he was removed from the position.

Here is an overview of the Job that Holmgren did as GM…

Year 1999

RD 1 - Lamar King DE
RD 3 - Brock Huard
RD 3 - Karsten Bailey
RD 4 - Antonio Cochran
RD 5 - Floyd Wedderburn
RD 5 - Charlie Rogers
RD 6 - Steve Johnson

Free Agents: Michael Sinclair - Resigned

Trades: James McKnight - 3rd Rd Pick

Record: 9-7

Year 2000

RD 1 - Shaun Alexander
RD 1 - Chris McIntosh
RD 2 - Ike Charlton
RD 3 - Darrell Jackson
RD 4 - Marcus Bell
RD 4 - Isiah Kacyvenski
RD 6 - James Williams
RD 6 - Tim Watson
RD 6 - John Hilliard

Free Agents: S Reggie Tongue, C Robbie Tobeck (doesn't play until 2001, IR), MLB George Koonce

Trades: Joey Galloway - two 1st round picks, Ahman Green for Fred Vinson

Other Moves: FA Phillip Daniels signs with Bears, FA Sam Adams signs with Ravens, PK Todd Peterson Released.

Record: 6-10

Year 2001

RD 1 - Koren Robinson
RD 1 - Steve Hutchinson
RD 2 - Ken Lucas
RD 3 - Heath Evans
RD 4 - Orlando Huff
RD 4 - Curtis Fuller
RD 4 - Floyd Womack
RD 5 - Alex Bannister
RD 6 - Josh Booty
RD 7 - Harold Blackmon
RD 7 - Dennis Norman
RD 7 Kris Kocurek

Free Agents: DT John Randle, DT Chad Eaton, LB Levon Kirkland, S Marcus Robertson, QB Trent Dilfer, WR Bobby Engram.

Trades: Matt Hasselbeck - 3rd & swap 1st

Other Moves: S Jay Bellamy Released, FA Jon Kitna signs with Bengals, DT Cortez Kennedy Released, FA Pete Kendall Signs with Falcons.

Record: 9-7

Year 2002

RD 1 - Jeremy Stevens
RD 2 - Maurice Morris
RD 2- Anton Palepoi
RD 3 - Kris Richard
RD 4 - Terreal Bierra
RD 5 - Rocky Bernard
RD 5 - Ryan Hannam
RD 5 - Matt Hill
RD 6 - Craig Jarrett
RD 7 - Jeff Kelly

Free Agents: CB Doug Evans, DL Brandon Mitchell, QB Ryan Leaf, QB Mark Rypien, RT Jerry Wunsch, QB Jeff George, RT Chris Terry (waivers), LB DD Lewis.

Trades: Brock Huard - 4th round pick.

Other Moves: DE Sinclair Released, MLB Kirkland Released.

Record: 7-9

The Draft

Mike Holmgren ranks as one of the worst GM's for drafting during the 1999 to 2002 seasons (see rankings below). It is widely accepted that players drafted during the first round should be at least starters on a team. The second and third rounds should provide needed depth and an occasional starter. Rounds 4 through 7 are typically unpredictable, but most assume that it is a "bonus" if any player drafted past round 3 makes the team.

Holmgren drafted 38 players during his GM years, with 6 first round picks. Of those 38 players, only 5 became consistent productive starters - Shaun Alexander, Darrell Jackson, Steve Hutchinson, Ken Lucas, and Rocky Bernard. Obviously, trying to rank the rest of the drafted players has an element of subjectivity. It would appear that the Seahawks produced a total of 8 productive draft picks (players making a significant contribution for their team, for a significant period of time), during the four years in question. This number should be much higher, especially considering the 6 first round picks. Of the 6 first round draft picks, only 2 (Alexander and Hutchinson) became consistent productive starters.

Holmgren's failures were not just on the defensive side of the ball. Many have suggested that Holmgren's drafts were borderline "genius" when it came to offensive talent - he just lacked the same insight on the defensive side. Though he had some clear successes on offense, he had some errors as well. Wasting 3rd round picks on Brock Huard and Karsten Bailey in 1999 clearly lacked "brilliance". Bailey appeared to be a rather big reach when he was taken that early. Chris McIntosh was a rather colossal bust in 2000. Granted, injuries shortened his career, but he refused to do anything more at the combine than lift that year.

His strength catapulted him up the draft board, and some had whispered early that the Seahawks had drafted "damaged goods". Probably not true, but it appears that the Seahawks were willing to take a risk on McIntosh that obviously did not pay off. Koren Robinson disappointed from day one, and became nothing more than a journeyman. Holmgren seemed to ignore the past problems Jerramy Stevens had prior to the draft, most certainly enamored by his physical ability. This was another risky pick that didn't work out.

Maurice Morris was a reach as a second round pick, but more specifically, he was taken specifically as Alexander's backup. Not a good use of a second round pick when the defense is hemorrhaging. Morris has had some productive games during the past two seasons, but that was after spending a good portion of his first four years on the bench.

Holmgren gets very high marks for the players that he drafted that are still productive. One is a sure Hall of Famer (Hutchinson), and the other is Seattle's only league MVP (Alexander). The interesting thing about both of those picks is that they "fell" to Seattle, and really were not clear "need" picks. I read an article this week (sorry, I have done so much reading this past week that I am unable to find the article that I was reading), where Holmgren was talking about his drafts, and he mentioned that they had the greatest success when they selected the "best athlete available" (Hutchinson and Alexander), rather than trying to fill a specific need (Lamar King, Brock Huard, and Ike Charleton to name a few). This quote was prior to the 2002 draft, and it seems that Holmgren clearly made the same mistake again in insisting on drafting a TE (Stevens), and needing a DE (Palepoi).

Here is my ranking of Team Drafts for the years 1999 to 2002:

(Team, Total Draft Picks, Starters, Consistent Producers, % Quality Players, 1999 to 2002 Rank)

Indianapolis Colts 29 7 4 38% 1st
New York Jets 27 6 4 37% 2nd
Denver Broncos 36 8 5 36% 3rd
New Orleans Saints 26 6 3 35% 4th
Green Bay Packers 37 9 4 35% 4th
Philadelphia Eagles 31 6 5 35% 4th
Cincinnati Bengals 29 7 3 34% 7th
Carolina Panthers 29 7 3 34% 7th
Baltimore Ravens 27 6 3 33% 9th
Oakland Raiders 28 2 7 32% 10th
St. Louis Rams 31 4 6 32% 10th
Jacksonville Jaguars 38 8 3 29% 12th
Kansas City Chiefs 28 2 6 28.5% 13th
Tennessee Titans 35 7 2 26% 14th
Chicago Bears 37 5 5 26% 14th
Buffalo Bills 39 5 5 25.5% 16th
Miami Dolphins 28 5 2 25% 17th
Washington Redskins 29 4 3 24% 18th
San Francisco 49ers 37 4 5 24% 18th
Minnesota Vikings 34 5 3 23.5% 20th
New England Patriots 35 6 2 23% 21st
San Diego Chargers 30 4 3 23% 21st
New York Giants 30 4 3 23% 21st
Pittsburg Steelers 35 7 1 23% 21st
Tampa Bay Buccaneers 31 2 5 22.5% 25th
Cleveland Browns 40 3 6 22.5% 25th
Seattle Seahawks 38 5 3 21% 27th
Detroit Lions 28 4 2 21% 27th
Dallas Cowboys 32 4 2 19% 29th
Atlanta Falcons 34 3 3 18% 30th
Houston Texans 12 1 1 17% 31st
Arizona Cardinals 37 4 1 13.5% 32nd

Starters = Consistent starter for 5 to 8+ years, not just for the team that drafted them, but throughout the league
Consistent Producer = May have been a spot starter throughout career, but basically someone who has consistently contributed as a back up or role player, with the capacity to start when needed. Success measure over a 5 to 8 year period of time

Free Agents

There were not very many key free agent acquisitions during this time period. Holmgren had some good FA signings. He picked up Tobeck and Engram off the scrap heap. Randle had a few productive seasons playing on a horrible defense. Chad Eaton had one good year. The Tongue signing was a disaster.

Where Holmgren seemed to get into trouble was the signing (or not signing) of his own players. One of his first moves after he was hired in 1999 was to sign Michael Sinclair to a 7 year $35 million contract extension. This deal was promised by Bob Whitsitt to Sinclair prior to Holmgren's hiring, but it still had Holmgren's signature on the contract. Sinclair was 31 when he signed the contract, and was diagnosed with diabetes later that same year. An aging DE with diminishing skills signed to a long-term contract is never a good idea.

Over the next few years, Holmgren failed to re-sign Phillip Daniels, Sam Adams, Pete Kendall, and Jon Kitna. Letting Kendall go was understandable considering his attitude, and the fact that the Seahawks had drafted Hutchinson. But the Seahawks spent a lot of time and money trying to replace Daniels and Adams in the years following their departure, and also struggled finding a quality backup QB (it is interesting how many times the Times and PI concluded that Hasselbeck would never make a quality NFL starter during his first few years in the Seahawks system. Interesting how quickly we forget).

One of Holmgren's most brilliant moves was one he never intended to make. In 2000, he placed the franchise tag on Joey Galloway after a lengthy holdout and much fighting. The Dallas Cowboys signed him to an offer sheet, and Seattle received two first round picks. Seattle used those two picks to select Koren Robinson and Steve Hutchinson. Holmgren later said he regretted not being able to resign Galloway, and regretted how things turned out. Really? This is probably the one move that Holmgren should not regret.


Very few trades, so not much to evaluate here. The Ahman Green for Fred Vinson was pure stupidity. Getting Hasselbeck for basically a third round pick was solid (but Holmgren continued to bench him for the veteran Dilfer. Hasselbeck really did not get a shot again until Dilfer got hurt).

Another factor to consider when evaluating Holmgren as GM, and his inability to work when he is not THE boss. Ron Wolf is considered one of the top GM's of this generation. If you recall, the reason Holmgren was available in the first place was because of the tension that grew between the two. If you read through the highlights from the press conferences posted in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel during the 1997 and 1998 seasons, there does seem to be a rather strong hint of resentment on Holmgren's part toward Wolf.

Holmgren wanted a greater say in the day-to-day decision making (not just roster construction). Wolf, who remained rather silent during Holmgren's departure from Green Bay, and the years that followed, made a rather major accusation a year ago. Wolf suggested that Holmgren lost Green Bay's last Super Bowl because of his stubbornness and his unwillingness to adjust during the game. Not only does this stress one of Holmgren's biggest weaknesses as a coach, but also points out his stubbornness as GM in insisting that his way, and only his way, works.

Many have suggested that the 2005 Super Bowl appearance was mostly due to Holmgren's roster construction, and that Tim Ruskell has "destroyed" the offense that carried us to glory. Although there is little question that the offensive side of the ball has seen much turnover in the past three years, this assessment does not appear to be completely accurate.

The defense was not in good shape following the 2002 season, the last with Holmgren as GM. The draft blunders of the previous 4 years on the defensive side of the ball clearly created a talent vacuum. Bob Ferguson addressed a few of the needs during his two years as GM, but the defense was still a major concern heading into the 2005 season. Ruskell brought in 6 defensive starters his first year as GM, and a few other important role players. The defense had finally got the talent infusion it had been missing during Holmgren's tenure.

Here is the starting lineup for the 2005 Super Bowl, along with key reserves.

(Player, Position, Year Acquired, By Whom)

Bobby Engram
WR 2001 Free agent Holmgren

Walter Jones
LT 1st Round 1997 Mueller

Steve Hutchinson
LG 1st Round 2001 Holmgren

Robbie Tobeck
C Free Agent 2000 Holmgren

Chris Gray
RG Free Agent 1998 Mueller

Sean Locklear
RT 3rd Round 2004 Ferguson

Jerramy Stevens
TE 1st Round 2002 Holmgren

Darrell Jackson
WR 3rd Round 2000 Holmgren

Matt Hasselbeck
QB Trade 2001 Holmgren

Shaun Alexander
RB 1st Round 2000 Holmgren

Mack Strong
FB Free Agent 1993 Flores

Joe Jurevicius
WR Free Agent 2005 Ruskell

Bryce Fisher
LE Free Agent 2005 Ruskell

Chuck Darby
LDT Free Agent 2005 Ruskell

Rocky Bernard
RDT 5th Round 2002 Holmgren

Grant Wistrom
RE Free Agent 2004 Ferguson

Leroy Hill
LOLB 3rd Round 2005 Ruskell

Lofa Tatupu
MLB 2nd Round 2005 Ruskell

D.D. Lewis
ROLB Non-Drafted FA 2002 Holmgren

Andre Dyson
LCB Free Agent 2005 Ruskell

Marcus Trufant
RCB 1st Round 2003 Ferguson

Michael Boulware
SS 2nd Round 2004 Ferguson

Marquand Manuel
FS Free Agent 2004 Ferguson

Kelly Herndon
CB Free Agent 2005 Ruskell

Kevin Bentley
LB Free Agent 2004 Ferguson

Niko Koutouvides
LB 4th Round 2004 Ferguson

Isaiah Kacyvenski
LB 4th Round 2000 Holmgren

Marcus Tubbs
DT 1st Round 2004 Ferguson

Craig Terrill
DT 6th Round 2004 Ferguson

I believe that a strong case could be made that the lack of talent on the defensive side of the ball following the 2002 season led the Seahawks to over-focus on defense, leaving the Seahawks with a lack of depth on offense. Since Holmgren demands a player with a specific skill-set to fit into his offense, the ability to acquire talent becomes a little bit more complicated. I do not buy the notion that Ruskell is selecting offensive players and forcing Holmgren to accept them.

The near signing of Kris Dielman and Daniel Graham back in 2007 is a clear indicator of this. These two guys were CLEARLY Holmgren type players - he had his fingerprints all over those attempted signings. Certain free agents were not even brought in that year because they did not fit into Holmgren's system. John Carlson was a guy Holmgren wanted badly, and Ruskell went and got him. Deion Branch, though we clearly overpaid for him, is a classic WCO type player. On paper, it certainly looks like a Holmgren type player.

Mike Wahle was signed immediately after he became a free agent, another guy that Holmgren really liked during his time in Green Bay. The Nate Burleson move was solid, and another guy brought in specifically to fit into the Holmgren WCO. To suggest that Ruskell "destroyed" the offense, almost intentionally, is simply not true. Not all of the attempted moves have worked out as well as hoped. It would be interesting to know whether or not we would even be having this conversation if Dielman and Graham signed here in 2007.

Plain and simple, the offense from the 2005 Super Bowl appearance got old in a hurry. I would suggest that the team would still have declined on offense whether or not Hutchinson was resigned. The play of Alexander, Tobeck, Stevens, Gray, and Strong all dropped off dramatically in 2006. Two years later, none of those key Super Bowl contributors are still with the team, 3 because of retirement. Were Holmgren's offensive acquisitions important to the Super Bowl run? Absolutely. But so were Ferguson's and Ruskell's (and Mueller too).

Holmgren's tenure as Seahawks GM was very forgettable. Maybe he could point to the flawed relationship between himself and Whitsitt during his years as GM. Whatever the reason, he was removed from his GM position because he did not get the job done during the four years he had his shot. No doubt that another team will give him the reigns of an organization again. I seriously doubt that the outcome will be any different than his time as GM with the Seahawks. Mike Holmgren's over-loyalty to certain coaches and players, his inability to properly evaluate talent, and his stubbornness will lead - in my estimation - to another failed GM tenure.


Cliff Olson is known as Spleenhawk in NET Nation. If you would like to e-mail Cliff, you can reach him here.

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