More Super Bowl coverage: Pittsburgh's odd couple
SEATTLE – We never knew this Matt Hasselbeck, the victorious leader bathed in confetti and surrounded by a strobe of flashbulbs.
Standing on a platform in the middle of Qwest Field and holding a gleaming chrome NFC championship trophy over his head Sunday night, the Seattle Seahawks quarterback looked like a new man. Shaun Alexander stood next to him clapping, and Seahawks owner Paul Allen patted him on the back. Five years ago, the scene would have been unbelievable.
Back then, Hasselbeck would have had a hard time hoisting anything other than his ego, which hung over the franchise like every other dark and ominous cloud that brought rain to the city. And about the only pedestal Hasselbeck stood on early in his career was the one he put himself on.
"It wasn't always easy here," he admitted. "It's been a roller coaster ride."
"It's taken him some time to become a leader," guard Steve Hutchinson said, "but there's no doubting it now."
We've come to love these stories about Super Bowl quarterbacks – the guys who rise up from relative anonymity and fascinate us as new characters on the NFL landscape. When Super Bowl week has hit its full stride this millennium, it has signaled the time to revel in the league's golden boys. We become intoxicated with the stories of how Tom Brady has unexpectedly become the next Joe Montana, or how a southern charmer like Jake Delhomme weaved his way through the league ranks. We scratched our head over Kurt Warner's better-late-than-never blitz into the record books and opined that Trent Dilfer's best asset was staying out of Baltimore's way.
But Hasselbeck gives us a twist in the rags-to-riches fairytale. Because as inauspicious as his start may have been – he was a sixth-round pick of the Green Bay Packers in 1998 – his demeanor hasn't always been humble.
Hasselbeck arrived in Seattle as an expectant leader flush with arrogance, despite consistent ego checks that came early and often. Coming out of Boston College, he was shunned by every NFL team but the Packers, and he got cut after his first NFL training camp, spending his first season as a practice-squad player. He wasn't even allowed in Green Bay's 1998 team photo. He then spent his first two seasons on the 53-man roster, logging 29 pass attempts as a backup to Brett Favre.
That's not exactly the kind of resume that thrilled the Seahawks' faithful when Hasselbeck hit Seattle. Not after the team gave up what seemed then like a healthy amount in trade: the 10th overall pick and a third-rounder in the 2001 draft in exchange for Green Bay's 17th pick and Hasselbeck. In hindsight – considering the Packers chose super-bust Jamal Reynolds with the 10th pick, and Seattle netted All-Pro guard Steve Hutchinson at No. 17 – the deal looks like a ransacking. But at the time, it looked like coach Mike Holmgren had taken a giant gamble on a former pet project from his Green Bay days.
"(Philadelphia Eagles coach) Andy Reid, who was on my (Green Bay) staff at the time and coaching quarterbacks, it was his job prior to the draft to go out and look at the quarterbacks," Holmgren said, recalling his initial decision to draft Hasselbeck in 1998. "We had three or four on our list. Of course, Brett Favre was with us, so we weren't prepared to draft a quarterback in the first round or anything like that.
"When talking about Matt, Andy came back and was sold on him and sold me and our staff. We looked at film. And then when I got to meet him and he was around with us, he had the measurables you wanted to have in a quarterback. He threw the ball pretty well. He is quite bright. He was courageous. He moved pretty well for a tall man, a big guy, and then now it's just a matter of seeing how he handles the pressure, the decision making and things like that. He didn't get much play in Green Bay. … (But) I really liked what I saw, so when it came time to bring in another quarterback here in Seattle, we had four or five guys on our list and Matt came out ahead."
What couldn't be anticipated at the time was how Hasselbeck would handle managing an offense under Holmgren's tedious nitpicking with his starting quarterbacks. Was Hasselbeck going to mature into a legitimate leader? Or was he going to be the guy who was once benched by former Boston College coach Dan Henning (now offensive coordinator with the Carolina Panthers) and reacted by confronting Henning and telling him, "You should wear big red shoes and a big red nose because you are a clown."
That first season with the Seahawks, it would be more of the latter. While Hasselbeck never had any blowups, he did struggle with injuries and Holmgren's demands. He was erratic, cocky and strong-headed and was not overly pleased that he had to compete with Trent Dilfer to keep his starting job. It didn't help that the team seemed to rally around Dilfer, either, by going 4-0 when he was under center and 5-7 when Hasselbeck was taking snaps.
"He was young – we all were young," Hutchinson said. "We all had to grow up fast, and that's not easy."
It would be another full season before it got any easier. With the urging of some of the veterans, Holmgren eventually decided to start Dilfer at the beginning of the 2002 season. But an Achilles injury eventually put Dilfer on the sidelines and the team back into Hasselbeck's hands. Hasselbeck ended up finishing the season with solid numbers, often teasing the potential that led Holmgren to gamble on him in the first place.
That season would serve as the equator dividing Hasselbeck's career. On the southern half, you had a brash player struggling to manage pressure and expectation. And on the northern half – the hemisphere of the last three seasons – you had a player starting to both grasp and thrive under the responsibility he always thought he deserved.
"When I first got here, Mike Holmgren would say, 'I want tempo, I want tempo,' and I didn't really know what that meant," said Hasselbeck, recalling Holmgren's constant carping about keeping a fast game pace. "People had to explain it to me. Now that I see how it works, it's great. It's a fast-break offense. It's fun. It's fun now that we all get it.
"Obviously, being with Mike and coaches that are disciples of his for so long has helped. I better understand what he's looking for. And when you're out on the field, you have to make split-second decisions, and your job as quarterback is to make decisions (Holmgren) would make if he could be playing the game. That's what I try to do. And if you do that, he's going to be pleased and he's going to continue to work with you. If you're not doing that, he's not going to be pleased and he's going to be hard on you."
And over the last three years, Hasselbeck's growth has paid dividends. Not always huge ones, mind you.
There was his infamous first playoff game against Green Bay, when the game went to overtime and Seattle won the coin toss, and microphones picked up a cocksure Hasselbeck exclaiming, "We want the ball and we're going to score!" That statement haunted him when he threw an interception in overtime, and Packers cornerback Al Harris ran the mistake back for a 52-yard touchdown and a crow-serving victory.
Then there was the nausea of last season, when Hasselbeck's wide receivers treated his passes like greased cannon balls and Seattle botched a first-round playoff game at home. Lest we forget, the Seahawks plummeted from a perch as preseason Super Bowl darlings in 2004, and Holmgren's stature dipped to new lows. Those lean days are what you have to think about when Holmgren talks about hanging on by your fingernails with a progressing quarterback.
"You have got to commit to that guy and sometimes you go down with the ship," Holmgren said. "But the only way it has a chance to work is if you commit. It's a little bit of a crap shoot at times."
But if this week proves anything for both Holmgren and Hasselbeck, sometimes the gamble is worth it. Sometimes it pays off when the odds don't seem to get any better. Like this season, when Hasselbeck prospered despite serious injuries to Darrell Jackson and Bobby Engram, putting up his best season ever – 3,459 yards passing, a 65.5 completion percentage and 24 touchdowns against nine interceptions. And just when critics pooh-pooed the numbers as a byproduct of a dominant Shaun Alexander, Hasselbeck went out and led Seattle to a second-round win over Washington when Alexander was lost to a concussion.
"It's easy for him now," tackle Walter Jones said. "He knows what the coaches want and he knows what the defense is going to do. He's been through tough times and I've been through tough times with him. He's always hollering about tempo. Getting the play in and getting to the line quick. It's kind of like coach Holmgren."
So the guy who seemed almost uncoachable at times has suddenly become something of a coach himself. In a way, it brings full circle a story Hasselbeck likes to tell about his days at Boston College with Henning. Right around the time Hasselbeck was benched as a junior – when he made the "clown" comment to Henning that he now desperately regrets – Henning told Hasselbeck something that has stuck with him.
"Dan and I have had many conversations about why I wasn't chosen as the starting quarterback at that point," Hasselbeck said. "One of the things he said to me when he told me the other kid was going to play was, 'Hey, you are the kind of guy I would want to be the President of the United States. This other kid is the kind of guy that I would want to be the general.' "
Years after that comment, with Hasselbeck having commandeered the Seahawks to their first Super Bowl, he stood on a platform Sunday night and hoisted the NFC championship trophy. It was a win worthy of a general and a celebration that seemed downright presidential.
Finally, Matt Hasselbeck appears deserving of both.