No Forward Progress With his Seahawks unable to score and unsure how to handle his rebukes, Mike Holmgren may see his dream job become a nightmare

September 30, 2001

The Seattle Seahawks' passing game was a no-show, and the Big
Show wasn't happy. That summed up the sorry state of affairs on
Sunday at Husky Stadium, where Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren--once
the director of some of football's most appealing aerial
spectacles and now the owner of his profession's most overblown
nickname--had just trudged off the field following a 27-3 defeat
by the Philadelphia Eagles. Holmgren's temper is notoriously
short, and if ever a team's performance deserved his wrath, this
one did. Not only had Seattle failed for the second straight game
to score its first touchdown of 2001, but also Holmgren's
handpicked quarterback, Matt Hasselbeck, had produced a mere 21
net passing yards. Many of the 62,826 fans headed for the parking
lots and docks alongside Lake Washington at halftime, and some of
those who stuck around vented their anger by chanting the name of
backup quarterback Trent Dilfer.

As Holmgren entered the locker room, his players fell silent and
awaited the inevitable: The Big Show was ready to blow like
nearby Mount St. Helens. According to two players' accounts,
Holmgren began by saying, "I don't know if I've ever been part of
a passing game that was as bad as ours was today." He took a long
pause before calmly resuming. "Listen, you heard how everyone was
chanting for Trent. Well, today they were all over Matt, but that
could've been any one of you guys--and when we lose, we lose as a
team."

Then Holmgren told his players exactly how he felt about those
fans: "F--- them." Many of the players, still stung by a rebuke
from Holmgren in a heated meeting after a 38-31 loss to the
Denver Broncos last fall, breathed a sigh of relief.

On a day that marked the NFL's return in the wake of national
tragedy, Holmgren wisely resisted the temptation to portray his
team's defeat in catastrophic terms. It was an occasion for
waving American flags, not white ones. Two games into his third
season as the Seahawks' coach, general manager and executive
vice president of football operations, Holmgren is confident
that he still has time to mold Seattle (1-1) into a championship
team. Although he's widely assumed to be under pressure to win
this year, he insists that's not the case. "It really isn't
about winning right now," he says. "It's about restoring
respectability."

There's little doubt, however, that the Seahawks' billionaire
owner, Paul Allen, expected a smoother rebuilding process when he
gave Holmgren a reported eight-year, $32 million contract in
January 1999. Holmgren had just guided the Green Bay Packers to a
second consecutive Super Bowl appearance, and when he won eight
of his first 10 games in Seattle en route to the franchise's
first AFC West crown since 1988, the Big Show was as critically
acclaimed in town as Kurt Cobain. It has been awfully far from
nirvana since then. Following that 8-2 start, the Seahawks have
dropped 17 of 25 games, including losses in the first round of
the '99 playoffs and in 10 of 16 games in 2000--the first losing
season of Holmgren's 15-year NFL career.

Holmgren has yet to show that the responsibility of running a
front office helps his coaching rather than hinders it. Critics
say that his ego and impulsive displays of anger have distanced
him from players and that his efforts to right this long-mediocre
franchise have lacked clear direction.

"I think there's a learning curve," Holmgren conceded last
Thursday during a lengthy interview in his office. "It's like
there's this big rope over my shoulder, and I've been pulling and
pulling this weight. Now, finally, some guys on the team are
grabbing the rope and helping me pull."

Despite Sunday's dismal effort against the Eagles (1-1), a
playoff team last season, Holmgren believes the Seahawks will
soon improve. His track record as an instant and consistent
winner in Green Bay, a previously moribund organization,
suggests he can pull it off. Although Holmgren kept his cool
after Sunday's defeat, players have fresh memories of his sharp
reaction to the team's losses in 2000, when he appeared to lose
his motivational touch.

"Last year was uncharted territory for Coach Holmgren, and I'm
sure in hindsight he wishes he had done some things
differently," Seahawks linebacker Chad Brown says. "I don't
fault him, because if you've never had a losing season and
there's a lot of negativity around, it's hard to figure out how
to handle it. When that negativity permeates the locker room, it
can become a cancer. Once certain guys decided he had crossed
the line and had said some things they felt weren't appropriate,
they sort of shut him off."

The morning after Seattle played poorly in that loss to Denver in
November, Holmgren, who had just given his players a bye weekend
off, unloaded on them. "You guys want to f--- me?" he asked.
"Well, f--- you!" He punctuated this with a middle-finger salute.

"I've had some yellers," says Brown, who played for Bill Cowher
while with the Pittsburgh Steelers, "but I've never had a coach
talk to me like that before."

Not surprisingly, resistance to Holmgren's rule has been
passive-aggressive. Seattle players have been calling him the
Big Show since his first training camp, where a
larger-than-life-sized likeness of the coach on a billboard
watched over their practices. The Seahawks' football operations
coordinator, Bill Nayes, who at the time was Holmgren's
ever-present administrative assistant, also got a nickname:
Mini-Me. Still, few players have the guts to challenge
Holmgren's authority to his face.

Though blessed with ample charm, Holmgren enjoys his aura of
authority and his stature as a patriarch. During last Thursday's
interview he proudly pulled out a photo taken at the NFL owners'
meetings in Southern California in March. In the middle stood a
well-tanned Holmgren and his wife, Kathy, with three smiling
couples on each side of them. The six men pictured with the
Holmgrens were NFL head coaches who had worked as Mike's
assistants: Jon Gruden (Oakland Raiders), Dick Jauron (Chicago
Bears), Steve Mariucci (San Francisco 49ers), Marty Mornhinweg
(Detroit Lions), Andy Reid (Eagles) and Mike Sherman (Packers).
Like Holmgren, Reid and Sherman enjoy full control over
personnel decisions.

Whereas Reid and Sherman run teams that appear to be on the rise,
the Seahawks are still finding their way. At first Holmgren left
the roster largely intact and won that AFC West championship.
Then, saddled with salary-cap problems after the 1999 season, he
seemed to scrap the win-now philosophy for a long-range plan.
That summer, Holmgren says, he separately asked three veterans to
exert more influence on their teammates. "I told them they didn't
necessarily have to be rah-rah guys but should lead by example,"
the coach says. "Each of them basically told me, 'I can't do
that. It's just not me.'"

Before a late-season game, Holmgren says, he approached another
veteran--several players say it was safety Jay Bellamy--and asked
him to address the team at the close of its Saturday-night
meeting. "I walked out of the room," Holmgren recalls, "and about
eight seconds later everyone came bursting out of there laughing.
That one probably backfired."

Holmgren grew impatient following last year's backslide, and he
jettisoned a group of veteran starters that included quarterback
Jon Kitna, wideouts Sean Dawkins and Derrick Mayes, guard Pete
Kendall, Bellamy and eight-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Cortez
Kennedy. Paradoxically, he replaced them with a combination of
raw players on offense--including Hasselbeck, whose first career
start came in the Seahawks' 9-6 victory over the Cleveland Browns
in this season's opener--and well-worn free agents on defense. The
latter group, which includes former Tennessee Titans safety
Marcus Robertson, former Steelers linebacker Levon Kirkland and
former Minnesota Vikings defensive tackle John Randle, has at
least filled the leadership void.

Mayes, who played for Holmgren in Green Bay from 1996 to '98 and
was traded to the Seahawks shortly before the '99 season, says
that when he arrived in Seattle, he was shocked by his boss's
changed demeanor. "It was like night and day," Mayes says. "We
won in Green Bay because all he had to do was coach, and he's a
genius when it comes to X's and O's. Plus, it was clear we were
in it together. He came to Seattle because he wanted to run the
whole show. Well, be careful what you wish for, because you
could be neck deep in responsibility and rely on ego to figure
it out.

"I can understand that a lot of Mike's [negativity] had to do
with losing, but damn, the way he was acting was a direct reason
why we were losing," continues Mayes, who was cut by the Kansas
City Chiefs in August. "We're grown men. That's no way to
motivate a team. When people know you're the guy in charge of
making tough, career-altering decisions, you can't unload on a
team because you had a s----- day at practice."

Toughness, though, was a key to Holmgren's success in shaping
the once erratic Brett Favre into a three-time league MVP with
the Packers. Now Holmgren's job will likely hinge on his ability
to repeat that feat with Hasselbeck, who was a practice-squad
player during Holmgren's final season in Green Bay and would
become Favre's backup there. In early March, Holmgren outbid
other suitors to trade for Hasselbeck, swapping first-round
draft choices with Green Bay and surrendering a third-round
selection. Although Holmgren later signed Dilfer, who won last
year's Super Bowl with the Baltimore Ravens, he says there is no
fallback plan should Hasselbeck fail. "I'm kind of committed
here," Holmgren says. "This has to work."

As he showed with his miserable performance on Sunday,
Hasselbeck--who completed 9 of 24 passes for 62 yards and was
sacked seven times--is a work in progress. "He'll never play
another game this bad," Holmgren said. Hasselbeck says that's
nothing compared with the feedback Holmgren gives him in
practice. Hasselbeck, who turned 26 on Tuesday, shrugs off the
scolding he usually receives, partly because he saw Favre endure
similar treatment in Green Bay.

"Mike was all over Brett and Andy Reid [then the quarterbacks
coach], and those were two of his favorite people," Hasselbeck
recalls. "Brett would take a chance on a pass in practice, and
Mike--as a way of getting to Brett, who feared nothing--would
yell, 'Andy, if he does that again, you're fired.' I figure if
he can yell at a three-time MVP, he can certainly yell at me."

Dilfer is firmly in Hasselbeck's corner. "Nothing fazes Matt, and
I like everything about him," Dilfer says. "You watch, he'll be a
Pro Bowl player." Dilfer's optimism is based partly on his regard
for Holmgren, whom he compares favorably to another offensive
guru, Ravens coach Brian Billick. "A lot of people perceive Mike
to be a high-ego, credit-seeking type of guy," Dilfer says. "I
see a guy who delegates a lot of authority and relies a great
deal on his captains. I honestly feel he'd be happier if he
didn't get the credit, but maybe that's because I just played for
the ultimate egomaniac."

Among Holmgren's captains are Hasselbeck and the once
incorrigible running back Ricky Watters, who, in his 11th
season, shows no sign of slowing up and appears destined for the
Hall of Fame. "He's pretty much telling us that it's our team,"
Watters says of Holmgren, "and that we'll be the ones to
determine our fate."

They'll go a long way toward determining Holmgren's fate, too.
Allen and Seahawks president Bob Whitsitt, as owner and
president, respectively, of the NBA's Portland Trail Blazers,
have been impatient with losing--though Whitsitt says Holmgren's
job is not in jeopardy. As Seahawks attendance lags and work
continues on a new downtown stadium, set to open next season,
Holmgren is acutely aware of his timetable.

"We should be pretty good by then," he says. "Things are a lot
healthier around here. That said, we've got to start playing
better."

If the Seahawks don't, it's fair to wonder whether the Big Show
will go on.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY OTTO GREULE/ALLSPORT HASSLED Jeremiah Trotter's third-quarter sack was one of seven that Hasselbeck suffered on Sunday. COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT BECK BATTING PRACTICE Hasselbeck's wretched day (9 of 24 passes completed) included this pass knocked down by tackle Hollis Thomas. COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT BECK BACK TO BASICS If the play sheet is to help in Seattle's next game, Holmgren will have to rediscover his knack for motivating players.

Holmgren has no fallback plan should Hasselbeck fail. "I'm kind
of committed here," the coach says. "This has to work."

"He came to Seattle to run the whole show," Mayes says of
Holmgren. "Well, be careful what you wish for."

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)