Behind Enemy Lines: 49ers/Seahawks, Part 2

In Part Two of an exclusive two-part look at the 49ers and Seahawks with training camp underway, SFIllustrated.com's Craig Massei and NorthwestFootball.net's Doug Farrar conclude their back-and-forth interaction with 10 questions from Craig to Doug. How has the Holmgren-to-Mora transition gone? Who's in charge of the organization? And how will the Seahawks recover from all those injuries?

Craig Massei: The Mike Holmgren era is over in Seattle after a glorious 10-year run that featured six playoff berths. Simply put, how much will he be missed?

Doug Farrar: I think that the Mike Holmgren who took the Seahawks to the Super Bowl at the end of the 2005 season would be more missed than the Holmgren who left after last season. That's not an indictment of the job he did – the Seahawks played some tough games down the stretch in the face of a historic injury rate – but the fact that it was obviously not his team anymore. It really hadn't been his team since he went on vacation after the Super Bowl loss, and execs Tim Ruskell and Mike Reinfeldt made the call to put the transition tag on guard Steve Hutchinson. Holmgren was livid when he found out – he's always valued linemen to a higher degree – and even more so when the Vikings outbid for Hutch. From then on, the team became more a reflection of Ruskell. Especially after Reinfeldt, who worked with Holmgren in Green Bay, moved on to run the Titans.

I would liken it a bit to the issues that Steve Mariucci had with the 49ers' front office at the end of his tenure in San Francisco. He wanted a specific degree of organizational control, and the people who were in charge of releasing that power weren't going to do it. Had Holmgren stayed beyond this year, it would have been an uncomfortable situation. Obviously, when the Seahawks named Jim Mora as Holmgren's successor a year before the job changed hands, that was a manifestation of Ruskell's extreme desire to have things his way with his people.

In the grand scheme of things, Holmgren presided over the most successful timeframe in Seahawks history, and he'll be especially missed if the Mora era gets off to a rocky start. Right now, I think fans are just ready to move on from last year's 4-12 debacle.

CM: How is the transition going to the Mora regime, and in retrospect, was it a good thing or bad thing to have named Mora as the coach-in-waiting successor to Holmgren before last season began instead of waiting to see how things shook out with the team last year?

DF: Well, I think Ruskell put his desire to have his guy as coach ahead of what was good for the team. It was a selfish move, there's no way it helped, and when Holmgren reportedly discussed coming back in 2009, he was simply told that it wasn't possible. You don't tell a guy of Holmgren's professional caliber things like that, and you don't make him a lame duck for an entire year.

Now, what does that have to do with the actual Mora transition? At this point, probably not much .It would have been very different had Holmgren gone out with a deep playoff run, but he most certainly didn't. I think the players are kind of in the same boat as the fans – they just want to grab onto anything that will pull them out of what happened last season. The transition is going smoothly now because Mora coached the secondary before, and everyone obviously knew that he'd be taking over.

CM: What does Mora bring to the franchise, and how will things be different with him as coach than they've been the past decade with Holmgren running the show?

DF: Energy. That's the biggest thing, which you probably remember about him from your time covering him in San Francisco. The first thing I noticed when I saw a Mora minicamp in Seattle was that everything seems to be moving about twice the speed it did under Holmgren. It's not that Mora isn't exacting, or that he doesn't pay attention to detail (though I suspect Holmgren was a bit more maniacal about the little things) – he just runs at a higher metabolism than most people. I think the players will see him on a bit more of an eye-to-eye level than they did under Holmgren, whose demeanor ran more between professor, father, and uber-disciplinarian. Plus, Holmgren was already a legend when he arrived in Seattle. Mora's still trying to make his bones, and I think that hunger will be good for the team and the entire situation.

CM: We've heard there was some division last year in the locker room between Holmgren followers and those who were preparing for the future and getting behind the ways of Mora. True story or not? Is that something that threatens to carry over as a problem as Mora looks to put his stamp on a team built by Holmgren?

DF: It shouldn't be a problem now, as the staff consists of the people who were planning to carry over or new people who are on board with the agenda. I don't think there was a division last year so much as there was confusion as to the overall goal, based on the decision to make Mora the incumbent. These people are too professional to let that get in the way from a football standpoint, though it had to be tough from a personal perspective. Some of the assistants who came in with Holmgren had to know that they would be out the door when the season was over, no matter how their units performed, and that's a tough way to go through a season.

CM: There also have been some changes in Seattle's front office over the past few years. Who's running the show now, and is there good stability there? What is the working relationship and rapport like between management and the team's new coaching regime?

DF: Ruskell runs the football side with Ruston Webster, who worked with him in Tampa Bay and is starting to get a few GM looks from NFL teams. John Idzik takes care of the salary cap, and Tod Leiweke deals with the business side of things. The Seahawks have a rabid fanbase and lucrative corporate partnerships – they're very solid on the financial end.

The working relationship between Ruskell and Mora is strong because it's existed before. Mora was the Atlanta Falcons' head coach in 2004 when Ruskell was Assistant General Manager. When Mora was fired after the 2006 season, Ruskell hired him immediately for the defensive staff, and as the coach-in-waiting. So, factor in the elements of familiarly, gratitude, and professional rehabilitation, and this should be a fairly conflict-free relationship. There are times when conflict produces superior results, and it might be better to have more oversight on the football side as opposed to one dominant voice (especially when it comes to offensive personnel), but this is what it is. With Holmgren gone, Ruskell runs the show.

CM: Holmgren's expertise was offense, so what are the expectations now that former 49ers offensive coordinator Greg Knapp is running the show? What is the feeling about bringing in Knapp, who has a lot of proven experience and some success as an offensive coordinator with three previous NFL teams?

DF: The first thing about Knapp is that you have to throw his 2008 performance with Oakland, where he was demoted in-season by Al Davis, out of the equation. I don't know how anyone can be expected to do an effective job in that circus. Knapp is the son of an offensive line coach, so he's a big fan of the running game. Still, he recognizes that balance is the only way to win consistently. I think Knapp was profoundly affected by his exposure to Alex Gibbs' zone blocking concepts when they worked together in Atlanta, and he'll bring the inside/outside zone game to the Seahawks, who ran primarily a man-blocking system before.

I think people are positive about Knapp because he ran an offense in Atlanta that turned the zone option into an unstoppable force. This is a team with a desperate need for offensive toughness and a consistent running game. The great unknown with Knapp is that he hasn't worked with a real quarterback since Jeff Garcia in San Francisco, so it will be very interesting to see how he and Matt Hasselbeck work together.  

CM: Why did the Seahawks decide to part ways with stud linebacker Julian Peterson during the offseason, and how much will his loss be felt both on the field and in the locker room? What are the plans to replace Peterson, and how does the defense look without him?

DF: In a word, freelancing. The Seahawks don't like it. As you know, Peterson is a ridiculously talented linebacker, but he would tend to follow one great play with a series of disappearances that left others covering more ground than their talents allowed. Still, Peterson'a loss would have left a void in a questionable defense but for one thing – the selection of Wake Forest linebacker Aaron Curry with the fourth overall pick. Curry has the potential to be everything Peterson was and then some – he may not have Peterson's specific pass-rush skills (though he's developing edge rush moves), but he's a monster as a run-stopper, he can cover very well in the flats, and he can man up on tight ends if necessary. I always through that for all his directional speed, Peterson should have been better in coverage than he was.

In the larger view, however, I don't really blame Peterson for an iffy tenure in Seattle. The Seahawks' former defensive staff never seemed to know what they wanted to do with him. Curry rounds out what has got to be the best 4-3 linebacker corps in the NFL, and I don't think there will be much of a hiccup. I wish Peterson well and appreciate what he did for the team, but I think more was probably expected on both sides than either side actually got.

CM: Injuries obviously doomed Matt Hasselbeck's 2008 season and contributed to his worst year as Seattle's starting quarterback. How is Hasselbeck looking now, and can he make it back to top form, or is he now headed toward the down side of his career? How much will the Seahawks be depending on him to rebound this year?

DF: Hasselbeck looks strong, and he also looks lean. This is a change from past training camps, where he'd occasionally show up … well, I won't say "rotund", but one suspects that in a few past offseasons, he may have been spending a little too much time in the vicinity of the fridge. He worked very hard this offseason, and I think he's still got enough left in the tank for a few more quality years.

The questions are all around him. Will he actually have receivers this year? Will there be enough of a running game to keep defenses honest? Will the pass-blocking allow him to stay alive? If most of those answers are affirmative, there's a very good chance that we'll see the Hasselbeck of old – or at least a very reasonable facsimile.

One thing to mention is that if Hasselbeck does get hurt again, the Seahawks are very fortunate in that they have Seneca Wallace as a backup. Last year, Wallace was actually more efficient than Hasselbeck, and his Vick-like scrambling abilities (he's a much better quarterback than Vick ever was, but he has similar on-field speed) could be very interesting in that Greg Knapp offense.

CM: Completely decimated by injuries at receiver last year, how are things looking for the Seahawks at that position this time around? The addition of free agent T.J. Houshmandzadeh figures to help, but does Seattle have enough to complement him to be effective at the position? What's the status of some of those injured receivers from last year?

DF: First of all, Houshmandzadeh was a great acquisition. He's a perfect fit for the West Coast Offense – good speed, knowledge of routes, smart, tough, will go up and over the middle for the ball. Fierce competitor. You may hear rumblings that Deion Branch is expected to be the #1 receiver, but in the locker room and in the positional group, I think Housh will be the main man. Younger players, like rookie wideout Deon Butler and second-year tight end John Carlson, have said that they already look to Housh as the example when it comes to hard work.

Branch is an exercise in frustration. He's got the vertical burst and good hands to have a Steve Smith-style impact on an offense, but his Seattle career has been decimated by injuries and he hasn't come close to validating what the Seahawks gave up for him. We're hoping for a breakout season, but we're not exactly expecting one. Nate Burleson, who was out most of last year, is a good #2 or lower. There are other ancillary guys, like Courtney Taylor and Ben Obomanu, but I think Butler is the guy to watch. He broke many of ex-Seahawk Bobby Engram's records at Penn State, and he could have a similar impact at the next level. Engram was a tough slot guy who could also break things outside, and Butler looks to have those same skills.

The Seahawks had ungodly injury luck with injuries last year. I wouldn't expect anything even remotely similar to that again.

CM: After four consecutive division titles, the Seahawks' 4-12 fall from grace was something of a surprise last season. Does Seattle still have the substance to bounce back as a NFC West contender this season, or is this a team in transition that is looking to rebuild under a new coach? Where do you expect this Seattle team to be by the end of the 2009 season, closer to the top or bottom of the division?

DF: Well, we've talked about the injuries. According to Football Outsiders data, the 2008 Seahawks were the most injury-decimated offense of any in the NFL going back to 1996. Cut the injuries back to league average, and you probably pick up a game or two right there. There are enough impact players to make a difference in a weak division, which the NFC West still seems to be. While I do not see the Seahawks as a Super Bowl contender this season – there are debits at too many positions for that to be realistic – there are reasons for encouragement, and I'm excited to see how the new staff puts everything together.  


SeahawkFootball.com Top Stories