Hasselbeck asked to trust unstable corps

Jason Cole
Yahoo! Sports

KIRKLAND, Wash. – There's no time left for the subtleties of football. You just have to trust.

That's the implicit message that Seattle Seahawks quarterback Matt Hasselbeck keeps getting from the coaching staff. Don't worry so much about who you're throwing to, just throw it.

Just trust.

"Regardless of who those guys are out there at wide receiver … work the system," Seahawks offensive coordinator Gil Haskell said. "The system works. We believe in the system. Work the system. Don't even worry about the reps you get with certain guys."

The Seahawks are an intriguing team armed with a solid defense and one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL. In the NFC, that's enough to be a serious contender. Where the question of trust comes into play is the receiving corps. Like last season, when the Seahawks changed their starting receiver tandem seven times because of injuries, Hasselbeck isn't sure who it's going to be at the other end of his throws from pass to pass.

Deion Branch, the preference as No. 1 receiver, is recovering from ACL surgery in February, and the team is hoping to have him back for practice in the opening week of the season.

While Nate Burleson and the ever-dependable Bobby Engram are back, there are four guys competing to replace No. 4 receiver D.J. Hackett, and the top two tight ends are new. Just to complete the changes, veteran newcomers Julius Jones and T.J. Duckett are competing to replace Shaun Alexander at running back.

While Hasselbeck managed to post a 91.4 rating last season (the second highest of his career), this is not the way anyone involved would like to draw it up.

Still, the message is, "Just throw it."

"I just have to forget some of that stuff and just throw it to whoever is out there," said Hasselbeck, who is coming off a Pro Bowl season. "I can't say, 'Oh, when Joe (Jurevicius) ran this route or when Darrell (Jackson) ran this route or when Deion ran this route,' I gotta just find them and hit them. Less rhythm and knowing the guy … I can't worry about it."

AccuScore on the Seahawks

The Seahawks are averaging only nine wins per simulation but still are favored to win the NFC West. It will be important for the Seahawks to be healthy and playing their best in the first part of the season because they have home games against all their NFC West rivals in the first 11 weeks of the season. If Seattle does not start with at least a 7-3 record, it runs the risk of missing out on the playoffs as three of its final six games are on the road and two of its remaining three home contests are against the Redskins and Patriots.

The Seahawks were definitely smart in releasing Shaun Alexander. The combination of new RBs Julius Jones and T.J. Duckett are helping the Seahawks average 15 more rushing yards per game and three more rushing touchdowns in 2008 simulations than the team ran for in 2007. If Seattle had stuck with Alexander and Maurice Morris, its chances of making the playoffs would have declined by 16 percentage points to 55 percent.

Projected Record: 9-7
Playoff Probability: 70.6%

Head coach Mike Holmgren recognizes that it's easy for the coaching staff to emphasize this philosophy but harder for Hasselbeck to practice.

"Realistically, as a quarterback, you throw to guys and you get to know the little nuances, the things they do, where they're going to be," Holmgren said. "So there's a comfort level there. But given what happens in any given year, you're mixing and matching with whatever happens, and I think in years past that has frustrated Matt. He's a very precise guy. It's one of the reasons he's good. But not everybody is that precise, and the fact is he has to throw it to the guy, whoever it is."

Again, that's easier said than done. There are countless stories in the NFL about quarterbacks having to deal with juggled receiving corps. In the late 1990s, then-Dolphins coach Jimmy Johnson thought nothing of switching receivers from week to week with quarterback Dan Marino. The result was not only a terrible relationship between those two, but a lot of catches for wide receiver O.J. McDuffie, the only guy Marino could trust. It also didn't make for a very good offense.

In this case, there's no acrimony between Hasselbeck and Holmgren over what's going on. It's just reality. Still, with all the juggling that went on last year, it was Engram who became Hasselbeck's version of McDuffie. Engram caught 94 passes, a pretty amazing total for a 35-year-old guy who was supposed to be a No. 3 receiver. Burleson and Branch, the team's next two leading receivers, combined for 99 grabs.

"I'm like fine wine, just getting better with age," said Engram, who skipped some of the offseason work when the team didn't give him a new contract. "Tell them I said that. It's the truth."

Hasselbeck knows that, too. On Wednesday in practice, Hasselbeck hit Engram on back-to-back throws during a red-zone drill, including a beautiful touchdown pass where Hasselbeck hit Engram in stride at the back of the end zone, nestling the ball between three closing defenders.

"With Bobby with certain routes, we have done it so many times that I know before the ball is even snapped how he's going to run his route, what he's going to do," said Hasselbeck, who guided the Seahawks to the NFC divisional round last season. "We've talked about it, done it. For whatever the reason we know what each other is thinking. It would be impossible to have that feeling with somebody I haven't worked with."

But the ever-positive and extremely open Hasselbeck is fighting the mental block that comes with working with new guys.

"I think my natural tendency would be to feel exactly the way Marino felt, but as I talk to Coach Holmgren, (former Seattle quarterbacks coach) Jim Zorn before and (new quarterbacks coach) Bill Lazor now, they reinforce that you can't get frustrated with anything," Hasselbeck acknowledged. "In fact, you need to use this as a positive. I haven't figured out how to do it yet, but it's part of being a quarterback. You have to learn to deal with young guys."

Then again, there's still the old guy on the sideline to remind Hasselbeck of the plan. While this is Holmgren's last year in Seattle, he remains the curmudgeonly professor, mixing the art of teaching with a sprinkling of dock-worker invective when necessary.

Such as the moment Wednesday when the offense couldn't get lined up right during an end-game situational drill.

"It would be a (expletive) shame to lose a game because we couldn't get lined up right," Holmgren said before salting the guilt. "A real (expletive) shame."

"Nothing has changed," Hasselbeck said, chuckling at Holmgren's choice of words from time to time. "I'm immune to that by now … I don't think there's any nostalgic sense. I just think Mike Holmgren sets the bar so high for our positions – wide receiver and quarterback – that you better reach that level or it's going to be really, really uncomfortable. He's going to get very uneasy, very angry, very cranky if you don't live up to the standards.

"That's more the motivation, now that it's his last year. He's not going to let things slip, especially this year. It's not any different. It's always been like that. Even when I was in Green Bay as a practice squad kid watching Brett Favre after three consecutive MVPs and after they had gone to two consecutive Super Bowls … he still flips out if it's not done right. No change whatsoever. If any change, the bar is set higher."

And that bar for Hasselbeck is trusting the system and his receivers more than ever before.

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