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SEATTLE – In a way, it was odd listening to Mike Holmgren on Black Monday, far removed from the blindfold-and-cigarette routine that grips the head coaching fraternity at the end of the regular season.
He was happy, invigorated and hopeful, mentioning only half-heartedly and playfully that he didn't want anyone saying the S-word. Of course, that didn't stop Holmgren from referencing the Super Bowl once or twice himself. Just hearing him conjure the words, you could practically feel the city of Seattle pinching itself because it sure looked like the Holmgren championship dream was dying a slow and final death 12 months ago.
Remember that? Koren Robinson was dropping passes as if Matt Hasselbeck were throwing lead anvils, and a battered defense looked like it needed reinforcements from the National Guard. Of course, the on-field problems had nothing on the front office, where conversations between Holmgren and Bob Whitsitt were like two men standing on powder kegs throwing lit matches at each other.
Maybe that's what makes the Seattle Seahawks so remarkable right now. It's not just any No. 1-seeded, 13-3 team. In fact, no current Super Bowl contender was more dysfunctional a year ago. And as celebrated as Holmgren is these days, he's the same guy whose confidence could have been smote by a Q-Tip.
"To be honest with you, when you go through a tough stretch, yeah, doubt creeps in," Holmgren said. "Even the strongest individuals, you anticipate something, you expect something and it doesn't happen – you can make all the explanations in the world as for why it doesn't happen, but the simple fact is, it's not happening. You let [doubt] creep in. And then you battle that, kick all the bad thoughts out, roll up your sleeves and keep going. That's essentially what we did."
Battle. Kick the bad thoughts out. Roll up your sleeves. Those are rudimentary explanations of what got this franchise back on track. Of course, it's really never that simple. Not with the kind of frustration that seemed to take a toll last season.
Despite finally winning a division title, Holmgren was rocked in last-minute collapses to St. Louis and Dallas, and he couldn't seem to get the offense focused or the defense healthy. By the time the Seahawks lost to the Rams in the first round of the playoffs, Holmgren looked like a shell of himself. He walked off his home field after that 27-20 defeat in utter resignation, beneath fans who would have been happy if he hadn't stopped walking until he was in Siberia.
"No one likes getting yelled at or having stuff thrown at you," Holmgren said of the fans' ire. "But we came in here to hopefully get the team to the Super Bowl. We believed in what we were doing. Along the way, you hit little bumps and sometimes injuries – whatever it is. You just can't do it as fast as you would like, and certainly not as fast as your fans would like.
Eventually, Holmgren added, "When people were mad at me, they probably had a pretty good reason to be mad at me."
Some were sure Holmgren's 2004 postseason perish was his last in Seattle. Instead, the franchise underwent a massive facelift in the front office, starting with the ousting of president of football operations Bob Whitsitt.
Whitsitt had cut off his own legs once with owner Paul Allen when he ruined the makeup of the Portland Trail Blazers, and he did it again with the Seahawks, clashing with almost everyone in the front office – especially those closest to Holmgren. What Whitsitt wasn't able to affect was an alliance between Holmgren and CEO Tod Leiweke. It was Leiweke who had Allen's ear and first-hand knowledge of the friction Whitsitt was creating.
Holmgren has never said it publicly, but he has dropped a bounty of hints that everything in the organization changed when Whitsitt was dismissed. And from an organizational standpoint, the breadcrumbs of this season's success haven't been hard to follow. Consider that once Whitsitt was out, it cleared the way for pivotal move No. 1: the return of vice president of football administration Mike Reinfeldt.
Reinfeldt squared away the new contracts for Hasselbeck and tackle Walter Jones, allowing the Seahawks to apply the franchise tag on Shaun Alexander. Those three crucial moves set the table for pivotal decision No. 2: the hiring of general manager Tim Ruskell.
Ruskell got the lion's share of the credit for revamping a key part of the roster depth with modest free agents like defensive end Bryce Fisher, defensive tackle Chartric Darby, wide receiver Joe Jurevicius and cornerback Kelly Herndon. And he worked hand in hand with Holmgren to cull quality help in the draft from players like starting linebackers Lofa Tatupu and LeRoy Hill.
All of these little parts played a role in bringing Holmgren back to life in the organization – not only mentally, but on the field as well.
"(Ruskell) is a very hard-working personnel man who has been in this league a long time," Holmgren said. "When Tim came in and Mike Reinfeldt came back and, of course, Tod Leiweke came in a couple years ago to get the business side kind of going, the management team here now is really first class. They care about the football team. They are football people. They're positive guys. You're kind of rowing the boat in the same direction."
That's not just speechifying, either. You get a sense Holmgren actually believes it. And at the same time, he seems to come off far different than in years past. When he arrived in 1999, he was a peacock in full bloom – a proclaimed Super Bowl genius who acted the title and a man with a healthy measure of ego and the bluster to match. Those traits were only mildly humbled when his general manager title was stripped before his fifth season.
But parts of that 2004 failure seem to have stayed with him, and he has seemed mellower since leaving the team for a brief period in June after experiencing chest pains. It's hard to know whether that has played into his coaching acumen, but his players have been the first to point out his sharpness.
"Mike's humbled himself in so many ways," said Alexander, whose 28 touchdowns set a new NFL single-season record. "When they talk about great coaching, sometimes people say it in passing, but we really do have a great, special coach in Mike.
"When I first got here, he was always kind of distant from everybody and wanted to keep everybody in the same kind of boat. [But] he just realized we have a bunch of guys with different personalities. Some guys he's let in. Some guys he's been the discipline guy to. Some guys he's been the guy to pump them up.
"He's picked the right times to be calm with us. I think that's been the best thing. … It's kind of like he's been on – 100 percent – with every player this year."
It seems like the Seahawks have been at full capacity right along with their coach for most of the season. The defense has reacted well to changes in the front seven, where new additions Darby, Fisher, Tatupu and Hill have helped create a better balance with stopping the run and rushing the passer. On offense, the line is better than it has ever been, and the production from Hasselbeck, Alexander, Jurevicius and tight end Jerramy Stevens has been outstanding.
"Going into that last game, we were No. 1 in offense in the NFL," Hasselbeck said. "That is in large part to how our receivers played this year – all of our guys. Our tight ends stepped up big [and] our receivers caught the ball and made big plays and tough catches. It's a group effort. I know that Shaun gets a lot of attention and the left side of our offensive line gets a lot of attention, but our receivers did a great job. They kind of get lost in the shuffle, as does the right side of our offensive line."
Of course, like many teams, the Seahawks have had some luck. They've suffered injuries this season, but have also seen their cornerstone players remain healthy. And even the schedule has been somewhat kind, with only four of the 16 games having come against playoff teams.
Yet that can't diminish what Seattle has accomplished. The Seahawks remade their front office and retooled their roster better than any team in franchise history. Finally, it all seems to fit.
"When any coach comes into a new situation, they are optimistic," Holmgren said. "They set goals for a football team and a football program and organization. We have a chance to do those things now. But we haven't done it yet."