SEATTLE – Mike Holmgren was talking about the angst that comes with losing when he summarized the challenge for his coaching staff.
"This is when you have to be at your best," the Seattle Seahawks coach said.
And that was before Seattle's latest loss, a 27-17 defeat to the visiting Green Bay Packers at Qwest Field on Sunday that was not nearly as competitive as the score indicates.
Holmgren's final season as Seahawks coach was supposed to end on a relatively high note. Maybe not a championship parade, but at least a nice civic moment for the only coach to take this franchise to a Super Bowl and make it consistently competitive for 10 years.
Instead, this season has become a challenge, the kind of test usually reserved for a young coach trying to figure out how to deal with adversity.
For instance, how do you get by without your starting quarterback, pretty much your entire receiving corps and do it while the coaches are sometimes screaming at each other?
Moreover, how do you fix a problem when everybody knows that the head coach isn't going to be around after this season? How does a coach incite improvement without having the juice to make big changes on the roster?
"Oh, I can still make their lives miserable," Holmgren said with a sly grin.
Maybe so, but getting any more miserable than this would lead to clinical depression.
Over the past eight days, which included the Packers loss and a 44-6 drubbing by the Giants in Week 5, Holmgren has had to deal with a multitude of issues. During the lopsided loss to the Giants, he listened on the headset as the defensive coaching staff – including assistant head coach and head coach-in-waiting Jim Mora – griped at each other in frustration, three sources said. Holmgren spent last Monday meeting with the defensive coaches, making sure everybody was working together, according to those same sources.
On Tuesday, he spent extended time with the offensive staff, trying to cobble a game plan to fix a moribund attack. The problem is there aren't a lot of answers when you're starting Charlie Frye at quarterback and lining up with a receiving corps that sounds like a making of a bad trivia question.
For a coach like Holmgren, who learned the passing attack under the tutelage of the great Bill Walsh, taking away quarterback Matt Hasselbeck (knee injury) and having wide receivers Deion Branch (one game), Nate Burleson (one) and Bobby Engram (two) never play together this season is like asking someone to play piano without fingers.
"The identity of Mike Holmgren and the Seahawks is wrapped up in the passing game," Seahawks general manager Tim Ruskell said. "Right now, it's hard for us to maintain our identity."
More like wishful thinking, Holmgren says.
"You spend a lot of time saying, 'I wish' during games," Holmgren said in the middle of the week. "I wish I had this guy, I wish I had that guy, I wish, I wish, I wish. But you have to find a way."
At one point in the fourth quarter against Green Bay, Holmgren was pacing the sideline alone. It almost appeared as if no one wanted to get near him for fear of setting off his famous temper.
It was obvious to anyone who knows Holmgren that he was simply tired of watching his offense operate as if it was boxed into a telephone booth. Frye was forced to throw one dink pass after another for three quarters as Holmgren played ultra-safe. During the lone scoring drive in that stretch, Frye engineered a seven-play, 32-yard drive that was set up by a turnover.
When Holmgren was finally forced to take the handcuffs off Frye, the result was two interceptions that helped seal the game for the Packers, who got efficient play from quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
The Seahawks' offensive players maintained that it's not too late in the season to turn things around.
"We can get the running game going and give the offense some stability," said running back Julius Jones, who had a 51-yard run called back because of a holding penalty.
"The way [Frye] finished the game, we can work with that," guard Mike Wahle said, referring to a garbage-time drive that Frye led in the fourth quarter.
To make matters worse, the Seahawks defense has gone from top-notch to pretty mediocre. That can happen in certain circumstances where one part of the team is particularly bad. As former Dallas and Miami coach Jimmy Johnson once said, "If you have one element of your team that is really bad, eventually it impacts the other two, even if those two are great."
Because the Seahawks are a smaller defense that relies on the speed of outsize pass rushers Julian Peterson and Patrick Kerney to create havoc, the defense needs to have a lead to play effectively on a consistent basis.
"We're not playing fast right now," Peterson said. "We're not able to just take off on people like we usually do to create plays."
In the frustration to play well, the Seahawks have run into another defensive issue: the plight of players who are trying to do too much.
"You get guys playing out of position because they think they have to make a play over here or over there when they just need to play their responsibility," linebacker Lofa Tatupu said. "Everybody just has to calm down and do their job."
Ruskell said before the loss to Green Bay that he expected the team to hang together during this time and that if Seattle could just find a way back to .500 by midseason, it could make a run when Hasselbeck and the receivers get healthy.
"Our guys we'll hang together, that's the kind of people we have," Ruskell said. "Our guys are all professionals and they care about being good. They're not going to let any issues get in the way of trying to fix the season."
- Mike Holmgren