Matt Hasselbeck, quarterback of Seattle's hottest team since Bill Gates and Paul Allen, sloshed through Rain City in his white Hummer on the way to dinner with his family last Thursday. At the trendy Beach Cafe he turned the vehicle over to the valet, checked in at the hostess stand and, with wife Sarah, daughters Annabelle, 4, and Mallory, 2, and seven-month-old son Henry in tow, maneuvered through the crowded bar to his table. The Seahawks' most anticipated game in 22 years was two days away, so surely Hasselbeck would be swarmed by restaurant patrons. But no one took notice of the NFC Pro Bowl passer. Apparently, for all anyone in the place could tell, this was just a doting dad out for a bite with the family, with daughters furiously coloring paper place mats at his elbows. ¬∂ "How many other playoff quarterbacks would go unnoticed in their home cities?" a dinner guest asked. "Tom Brady couldn't walk anonymously into a place like this in Boston." ¬∂ "Tom Brady couldn't do it in Omaha," Hasselbeck said. Then, with a mischievous grin, he added, "Sometimes I get people looking at me, saying, 'I know you. I just can't place you.' I'll say, 'Yeah, yeah! Maybe from high school. Did you go to Issaquah?' And it's like, 'Nope,' and they just go away. They don't know me." ¬∂ America is one Seahawks victory from getting to know Hasselbeck a whole lot better. A win over the Carolina Panthers in this Sunday's NFC title game at Qwest Field will put Seattle in its first Super Bowl since joining the league in 1976. In the Seahawks' 20-10 divisional playoff win over the Washington Redskins last Saturday--the franchise's first postseason victory since 1984--Hasselbeck was cool and steady under pressure, which was critical because running back Shaun Alexander, the league MVP, was knocked out of the game in the first quarter with a concussion.
A former understudy to Brett Favre in Green Bay, Hasselbeck made numerous excellent touch passes, including a 29-yard TD throw to Darrell Jackson, low and away from the defender, that put Seattle up 7-3 in the second quarter. And Hasselbeck looked surprisingly nimble when he capped an 81-yard, third-quarter drive with a six-yard scramble for a touchdown--only the sixth TD run of his seven-year career. That gave Seattle a 14-3 lead, and Washington's anemic offense was no threat to catch up.
The Redskins gave Hasselbeck a good preview of this week. Like Washington, Carolina plays multiple defensive fronts with a physical interior line and strong, quick ends. The Seahawks' athletic offensive line, which on the left side has Pro Bowl players Walter Jones at tackle and Steve Hutchinson at guard, did not allow a sack against the Redskins. But if the line is to have similar success against the Panthers, it will have to ward off Carolina left end Julius Peppers, who's been a hellion in the playoffs.
Like Favre, Hasselbeck, 30, still forces some throws into tight coverage, but what he has learned in his fifth season in Seattle--the Seahawks acquired him from Green Bay in a 2001 trade--is to not try to do too much. Operating in coach Mike Holmgren's West Coast offense, which emphasizes safe intermediate throws, Hasselbeck completed 76% of his passes with 10 touchdowns and one interception over the last five games. "I believe in Matt now, and he believes in me," Holmgren said in his Qwest Field office following the victory over Washington. "Today when we lost Shaun, I told Matt at halftime, 'You've got broad shoulders. I'm going to throw more.' I knew he'd handle it. He's really matured in terms of managing the game."
The son of former NFL tight end Don Hasselbeck, Matt and the rest of the family lived the journeyman athlete's life, moving from New England to Los Angeles to Minnesota to New Jersey to New England again. In 1992, while in high school, he was a ball boy for the New England Patriots. After Matt had two moderately successful seasons as the starting quarterback at Boston College, only one NFL coach--Green Bay quarterbacks coach Andy Reid--showed up at his personal workout before the '98 draft. But Reid and Holmgren, then the Packers' coach, liked his smarts and fearlessness, and Green Bay made him a sixth-round pick. At Hasselbeck's first training camp the coaches soon learned that their young quarterback had a spunky side.
"One day I'm eating a bowl of cereal, and Brett asks me to go get him something," Hasselbeck recalls. "When I get back I take a bite of the cereal, and he's put Tabasco sauce in it. O.K., he got me. But I'm going to get him back. I find his [dipping tobacco] and put some fishing worms in there. We're in a quarterback meeting, and he goes to take some out and totally flips out. I figured I needed to say something, so I told him I did it. I'm wondering if I'm going to get cut because I've pissed off the MVP of the league, but he had this look on his face, like, Not bad, kid. Not bad."
After Holmgren left the Packers for the Seahawks, he wanted a good passer who was intelligent and unafraid to fail. That's what he has in Hasselbeck, who threw for more than 3,000 yards in each of the last four seasons and led the NFC in passer rating this year (98.2). But until Saturday the quarterback was best known for his exclamation after winning a coin flip before overtime of an NFC wild-card playoff game at Lambeau Field two years ago. Seattle and Green Bay were tied at 27 when the Seahawks won the coin flip, and Hasselbeck's reaction was picked up by the referee's microphone: "We'll take the ball--and we're going to score!" Instead, Packers corner Al Harris intercepted Hasselbeck and ran the ball back 52 yards for a TD that gave Green Bay a 33-27 win. The play could have been devastating for Hasselbeck, but it didn't change him. "A quarterback can't play scared," he said last week, "and I never will."
Hasselbeck's composure was evident on Saturday as Seattle, leading 17-10 with 5:17 to play, looked to seal the win. Facing third-and-six at their 48, the Seahawks went to the line intending to pass. But Hasselbeck saw that Washington was ready to blitz at least three extra players, including dangerous safety Sean Taylor, who was cheating to Hasselbeck's left. Though he had only fullback Mack Strong (17 carries in the regular season) behind him, Hasselbeck audibled for Strong to take a handoff and run wide right. Strong rumbled for a careerlong 32 yards to set up Josh Brown's game-clinching field goal. "I'm out on the field in this big, big game, and he makes that run, and I'm laughing so hard," Hasselbeck said later. "I couldn't help it. That was fun."
Whether the fun continues depends more on Hasselbeck than on any other Seahawk. This season Carolina ranked fourth in the NFL in run defense, allowing 3.6 yards per rush. Barring a tour de force game by Alexander, the league's leading rusher, Hasselbeck is going to have to be as clever and resourceful against the Panthers as he was against the Redskins for Seattle to reach Super Bowl XL.
Not that he's feeling extra pressure. On Sunday night, after he, Sarah and the kids spent the day with former teammate Trent Dilfer and his family, Hasselbeck seemed unfazed by the prospect of being one win from the Super Bowl. In fact he watched only the last few minutes of Carolina's 29-21 victory over Chicago and said he didn't even notice which side Peppers lined up on. "This was a family day," Hasselbeck said. "[The Panthers game] is TiVo'd if I want to see it. But I have a feeling I'll be seeing enough of them this week. We'll be ready."