Commentary

As bad as it was last year, Seattle nearly made the Super Bowl

As bad as things were for Seattle last year, the Seahawks were still nearly made the Super Bowl. But to take that next step this year, they need to trust each other a little more, writes Mike Sando.

Originally Published: August 4, 2007
By Mike Sando | ESPN.com

KIRKLAND, Wash. -- Mike Holmgren couldn't believe what he was seeing.

Here was his Pro Bowl quarterback, Matt Hasselbeck, scrambling unnecessarily, overlooking an open receiver and throwing incomplete to the wrong guy with the season on the line.

The third-and-2 mishap doomed Seattle in overtime of the NFC playoffs, helping Chicago continue its Super Bowl march.

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There were plenty of pivotal moments for the Seahawks to agonize over, but this one would linger. It was Seattle's final offensive play in a season checkered with regrettable ones.

The sequence so exasperated Holmgren that he brought his wife into the office to check out the tape. Can you believe this, honey?

Time has brought healing for a physically-battered Hasselbeck, and perspective for the ever-demanding Holmgren. They needed better from each other last season, no question. But as a new season approaches, it's clear Hasselbeck needs more from everyone around him, starting with the guys up front. It's not just him.

"He got beat up pretty good last year," Holmgren said. "As I looked at the film, I said, 'Our quarterback is a tough guy. He doesn't get jittery. He just got beat up and he's human.'

"Even with all that, he was pretty good most of the time. How I can help him is by making the other guys better."

The Seahawks have big-play potential on defense with Patrick Kerney, Julian Peterson and Lofa Tatupu. But with one of the lightest front sevens in the league, their offense must build leads and keep the defense rested.

That can't happen without better protection for Hasselbeck, whose 2006 injuries included mangled fingers, a sprained knee and a torn labrum. It can't happen if the Seahawks again use eight starting combinations on their offensive line. It can't happen without improved chemistry between Hasselbeck and a reconfigured group of receivers. It can't happen with Shaun Alexander missing a half-dozen games, as he did in 2006.

"As I watched all of last season, my best throws were to guys I know, on plays that we've run a million times," Hasselbeck said. "Then there are mistakes where I'm holding onto the ball because I'm not really sure where to let it go.

"It's not that our guys aren't good or they don't know what they are doing, but Joe Montana and Michael Irvin are not going to be Troy Aikman and Michael Irvin. Not that any of us are any of those guys, but [there is value] just being familiar and really feeling a guy and recognizing his routes."

The offense that carried Seattle to Super Bowl XL no longer exists. Leading receiver Darrell Jackson is catching passes in San Francisco. Tight end Jerramy Stevens is with Tampa Bay. The team has found promising young replacements for Steve Hutchinson and Robbie Tobeck on the offensive line, but the continuity is gone.

Hasselbeck is still getting comfortable with receivers Deion Branch, D.J. Hackett, Nate Burleson and Ben Obomanu. Holmgren has predicted 45 or 50 catches for 35-year-old tight end Marcus Pollard, but that sounds optimistic. Bobby Engram, the only receiver Hasselbeck trusts implicitly, is 34 and has had some health issues. There could be another important change if Leonard Weaver replaces fullback Mack Strong, who turns 36 next month.

"We have to somehow make up for the loss of Stevens and Jackson as far as productivity," Holmgren said. "I think we'll be able to do that, but who is it going to be? Where is it going to come from? Matt is fine."

Hasselbeck's passer rating fell from 98.2 in 2005 to 76.0 last season. He tossed six more interceptions in four fewer games. The defense, forced into too many quick-change situations, buckled when asked to carry more of the load.

People talk about confidence, but getting comfortable is the key for Hasselbeck. He runs the offense masterfully when those around him earn his trust. Offensive tempo improves and Alexander becomes more effective as the pass sets up the run.

"We have to handle protection," Hasselbeck said. "In '05 we handled protection really well. We communicated great up front with the offensive line and the quarterback, and then the quarterback and the running backs.

"A lot of times we ran at the blitz, which doesn't always get you the first down but it minimizes sacks, minimizes hits, minimizes interceptions, helps your field position because it was third-and-8 and we got six. We didn't lose seven. It's 13 yards.

Hasselbeck added: "And sometimes you gash them. These defensive coordinators are not as ready for these runs right at them in these blitzes. They are blitzing your protections. They get a little nervous, they blitz you a little less."

It all makes sense in theory. The execution becomes trickier with so many new faces.

Center Chris Spencer and left guard Rob Sims will be playing their first full seasons as starters. They are athletic and physical, but they haven't played together very long and Spencer is coming off two shoulder surgeries. Will he hold up?

Defenses have caught on to some of the tactics that set apart Holmgren's offense at its best. They've unleashed their own audibles to counter the ones Seattle once employed so expertly, putting Hasselbeck on the defensive. Do the Seahawks have the right answers?

Seattle's cushion in the NFC West continues to shrink. Its out-of-division schedule is tougher. And yet Holmgren is reminding players that they finished 9-7 last season and nearly reached the NFC title game despite playing horribly and getting no breaks with injuries.

The Seahawks hear what he's saying. They seem to like their chances. Trust them all you wish, but first they must learn to trust one another.

Mike Sando is a senior writer at ESPN.com.