RENTON, Wash. – The call to Matt Hasselbeck's(notes) mobile phone came in just before 2 a.m., and the Seattle Seahawks' 34-year-old quarterback and father of three blew it off and went back to sleep on a cold January night.
The next morning, Hasselbeck finally connected with Pete Carroll, and the Seahawks' soon-to-be announced head coach had the veteran passer enthused and confused.
"He was giving me his philosophy, throwing out a bunch of concepts that didn't make much sense to me at the time," Hasselbeck recalled Thursday between training-camp practices at the team's resplendent waterfront headquarters in suburban Seattle. "I just felt his confidence come through the phone, and I kind of got fired up. His big point of emphasis was competition – and I was thinking, 'Cool, man, that's what we need.' "
Two months later, Hasselbeck was on a layover at the Honolulu Airport when he got another call from Carroll, this time with a message the veteran passer took much more personally: The Seahawks had traded for Chargers' third-string quarterback Charlie Whitehurst(notes), giving the restricted free agent a two-year, $8 million contract and the chance to compete for a starting job.
"That put a new spin on the whole 'competition,' thing," Hasselbeck said, laughing. "I said, 'Wait, not at my spot.' "
It's easy for Hasselbeck to find humor in his reaction, given the way things have played out so far. Following an impressive offseason, the three-time Pro Bowl selection seems to have a stronghold on the starting job he has retained since 2003, with Whitehurst and former Buffalo Bills starter J.P. Losman(notes) competing for the primary backup role.
Still, Hasselbeck and the 'Hawks are coming off a pair of brutally disappointing seasons, and Carroll – the team's third coach in as many years – isn't projecting an aura of patience.
"Matt's play last year was not indicative of what he's capable of doing," said Carroll, who returned to the NFL for his third head-coaching gig following a highly successful nine-year run at Southern California. "By the end of the year, he was pressing, trying to do too much. He made mistakes that would horrify any quarterback coach or offensive coordinator. He was overtrying in a big way."
As far as the trade for Whitehurst, Carroll said: "After his initial reaction, Matt understood. I thought it was a great opportunity to send a message to the leader of the football team that he needs to compete too."
Hasselbeck, who quarterbacked the Seahawks to five consecutive playoff berths and a Super Bowl appearance from 2003 to 2007, has convinced teammates he can resume his place among the NFL's upper echelon of quarterbacks.
"Matt was already going to be motivated this year, and then we got Charlie Whitehurst," said veteran safety Lawyer Milloy(notes). "He's leading this team in a way he wasn't last year. When he came in this offseason, he had his chest puffed out and had a different swagger about him. Competition does that.
"It'll be hard for Matt to lose his job, based on what I'm seeing right now. The veteran savvy comes out. He knows how to place a ball where a defensive back or a linebacker can't get it and only the receiver can. Those are intangibles that come with age. Competition is a hell of a drug, but if you do it right it can make your team better."
Hasselbeck, too, insists that things are looking up. A cynic would respond that any player who spent as much time on his back as he did last season – Hasselbeck was sacked 32 times in 14 games, losing 11 fumbles – would have ample opportunity to stare at the clouds.
"It was tough," wideout T.J. Houshmandzadeh(notes) recalled Thursday. "The protection wasn't there. You had a lot of guys out of position, a makeshift line. Any quarterback, when you're getting put on your back a lot – looking up at the sky, getting helped up – I don't care how mentally strong you are. You start rushing your passes."
Hasselbeck, who'd missed nine games with a back injury during a miserable 2008 campaign, completed 293 of 488 passes for 3,029 yards in '09, throwing as many interceptions (17) as touchdowns. The Seahawks, who in the heyday of the Mike Holmgren era routinely dominated opposing defenses with a physical rushing attack and well-timed passing game, did neither, sputtering to a 5-11 record in Jimmy Mora's lone season as head coach.
The low point, for Hasselbeck at least, came during a 34-7 road defeat to the Texans in mid-December.
"We gave up a touchdown pass on their first play of the game," recalled Hasselbeck, whose 'Hawks have gone 9-23 the past two seasons. "We were down 17-0 before we'd run seven offensive plays. On our first snap, one of our best players, a veteran, went the wrong way – and I got drilled.
"Usually, when we're behind at halftime, it's like, 'No sweat, guys – if we go out and execute our game plan, we can get right back in this.' But not this time. I was like, 'Eeeehhhhh.' I was kind of lost as to what we could do to get back into the game, and we were all just looking around the locker room at each other, out of answers. And I thought, 'We're like those teams we used to feel bad for when we kicked their butts.' "
Hasselbeck got his butt and assorted other body parts in shape over the offseason, embracing the new staff's emphasis on weightlifting and strength training. He shed 10 pounds (he's now at 232, still higher than his listed playing weight of 225) and acquired some noticeable muscle tone.
Added Milloy: "If it wasn't for the bald head, I wouldn't have recognized him when he showed up for camp."
Since reporting last weekend, Hasselbeck has had to display some humility as well. Attempting to assimilate a new offense for the second time in as many seasons after having mastered Holmgren's West Coast attack, Hasselbeck incorrectly instructed a wideout on a motion assignment in an early practice session – prompting offensive-line coach Alex Gibbs to bark at the receiver, "Don't be afraid to tell [Hasselbeck] he's wrong!"
During a drill a couple of days later, Hasselbeck hoped to connect on a deep route but instead checked down and threw a 5-yard completion to a running back, clapping his hands in disgust after the play. Carroll, recalled the quarterback, "grabbed me and said, 'What was that? I don't need any of that bad body language.' He kind of jumped me. Then my [quarterbacks] coach got on me, then the coordinator, and then the o-line coach. But hey, that's part of changing the mentality around here."
Said Carroll: "Yeah, we're on him hard. He's got to be the most disciplined player in the program. He understands that."
Hasselbeck also understands that there's no point in obsessing about the possibility of losing his job to Whitehurst, with whom he says he has a good relationship.
"I've never even let my mind go there," he insisted. "I'm just trying to be better than I've ever been, 'cause I know if I can play the best football of my life, then we're back."
Or, as Carroll sees it: "He's gonna have to play the best he's ever played for us to win."
In other words, the competition won't end once the games begin.
- Pete Carroll