The Seahawks were coming off an unprecedented run of success: Four consecutive NFC West titles five playoff appearances in as many seasons the first conference championship in franchise history, and the Super Bowl berth that went with it.
So how was it that Mike Holmgren’s swansong in 2008 turned into one ugly duckling of a season?
In his 10th season as coach of the Seahawks – and likely the final in a Hall of Fame-caliber 17-year career as a head coach in the NFL – the team stumbled to 4-12 record. In seven seasons as coach in Green Bay, the Packers never had a losing season. In his first nine seasons in Seattle, the Seahawks went 6-10 (2000) and 7-9 (2002) before ripping off an average of 10 wins from 2003-08 – including a franchise-best 13-3 record in 2005 that featured a club-record 11-game winning streak during the run to the Super Bowl. So 4-12 was not how Holmgren was supposed to be sent into a one-year hiatus before he would become president of the Cleveland Browns.
“Obviously, this was not the way any of us wanted this season to go,” quarterback Matt Hasselbeck said as the players were cleaning out their cubicles in the locker room following the 12th loss – a 34-21 drubbing against the Arizona Cardinals, who replaced the Seahawks as division champions.
But why did it go that way?
The best place to start is injuries. Usually considered an excuse, they were a reason for the Seahawks’ face plant in ’08.
By the time the season ended, 26 players had missed a combined 163 games – and the 14-player injured reserve list included Pro Bowl left tackle Walter Jones, Pro Bowl defensive end Patrick Kerney, wide receivers Nate Burleson and Ben Obomanu and starting offensive linemen Chris Gray, Chris Spencer, Rob Sims, Mike Wahle and Sean Locklear. Hasselbeck missed nine games, wide receiver Deion Branch eight and linebacker Leroy Hill four.
So a better question might be: How did the Seahawks manage to win four games?
Holmgren included the injury issue in his parting speech to the players, but later stressed to reporters, “I didn’t tell the players this: ‘If you think that was the only reason that our record was what it was, then we’re making a huge mistake.’
“The injury thing was absolutely a factor. Absolutely. But it wasn’t the only factor.”
The entire season wasn’t one prolonged pain for Holmgren, however.
The players did vote him the Steve Largent Award, making Holmgren the first non-player to win the honor that is named after the Hall of Fame wide receiver and has been presented annually since 1989 to the player (and now coach) who best exemplifies the spirit, dedication and integrity of the Seahawks.
“It was very special,” Holmgren said at the time. “Steve Largent, I’ve admired forever and ever and ever, and it really is a players’ award. But these guys never cease to amaze me. Just when I think I’ve got them figured out, they do something real nice for me.
“I told them I accept it with heartfelt thanks.”
Holmgren had to thank the players again following his final practice, as the team presented him with a fully dressed 2009 Harley Davidson Screamin’ Eagle – a bike one local dealer said had an “out-the-door” price of $42,128.
“I’m touched by it,” Holmgren said. “I don’t know what to say. It’s really something.”
But Holmgren’s best “parting gift” came in his final home game, as the Seahawks won their fourth game in a snowstorm at Qwest Field – 13-3 over a New York Jets team that was quarterbacked by Brett Favre, Holmgren’s QB while in Green Bay. Before the game, his wife, Kathy, raised the 12th Man flag.
After taking a victory lap around the stadium following the game, Holmgren saluted his players by offering, “I really did appreciate the effort they put forth today.”
Just as the players appreciated Holmgren’s efforts in leading them through the most successful five-season stretch in franchise history.
“It was extremely important, plus it just felt good,” wide receiver Bobby Engram said after the game. “After everything we have been through this year, with all the ups and downs, and for us to stick together as a team and persevere and send Mike out of here on a note like that was special.
“He is a special coach.”
There just weren’t enough special moments in Holmgren’s final season.
Jones was voted to the Pro Bowl for a club-record ninth time, despite missing the final four games because he needed microfracture surgery on his left knee – a situation that would force him to also spend the 2009 season on injured reserve and then retire in 2010.
Mix in the injuries to the other four starters and the Seahawks used eight different starting combinations on the line, including this one for the season finale: Kyle Williams (for Jones), Floyd “Pork Chop” Womack (for Wahle), Steve Vallos (for Spencer), Mansfield Wrotto (for Sims) and Ray Willis (for Locklear).
The problems actually began before the season. First, all-time leading rusher Shaun Alexander was released and replaced by free-agent additions Julius Jones and T.J. Duckett, who combined for 870 yards – or 154 more than Alexander had in 11 games in 2007. Duckett did score eight touchdowns and converted 12 of 15 third-and-1 situations in his role as the short-yardage and goal-line back. But an inconsistent running game averaged 110.5 yards – up from 2006, but way down from 2005 (153.6).
The week of the regular-season opener, defensive tackle Rocky Bernard and versatile defensive back Jordan Babineaux were suspended by the league for violating the NFL’s personal conduct and substance abuse policies, respectively.
In a season-opening loss to the Bills in Buffalo, Sims (torn pectoral) and Burleson (torn knee ligament) were lost for the season. In a 44-6 loss the Giants at the Meadowlands in Week 5, Hasselbeck’s right knee was hyperextended and he missed the next five games. In a 34-9 loss to the Cowboys in Dallas on Thanksgiving Day, Hasselbeck was sacked seven times – aggravating a back situation that would force him to miss the final four games.
Cowboys’ rush-linebacker DeMarcus Ware beat the sore-kneed Jones for two of those sacks in what would be Jones’ final game. Jones later admitted that he never should have played in the game because of his knee, while after the game (in which the Seahawks ran 68 plays) Ware said, “I might have beaten him twice, but he beat me 66 times.”
Not surprisingly, the injury-plagued season included three- and six-game losing streaks before the Seahawks won back-to-back games for the only time – 23-20 in Week 15 at St. Louis against a Rams team they also beat in Week 3 and the 10-point win over the Jets. Among the bright spots in this season where a gloomy cloud seemed to hover over the team: Linebacker Julian Peterson was voted to his third consecutive Pro Bowl after finishing second on the team in tackles (86) and sacks (five) middle linebacker Lofa Tatupu led the team in tackles (94) for a club-record fourth season in a row 35-year-old kicker Olindo Mare, in his first season with the team and coming off hip surgery, hit 24 of 27 field goals in scoring 102 of the team’s 294 points Josh Wilson set club records while leading the league in kickoff returns (69) and return yardage (1,753) and also led the team in interceptions (four) Jon Ryan, who was signed the week after the opener, averaged a club-record 45.6 yards on 78 punts tight end John Carlson became the first rookie to lead the team in receptions (55) and receiving yards (627) since Largent in 1976 and backup Seneca Wallace passed for 11 TDs – including a club-record 90-yarder to Koren Robinson – and had only three interceptions while subbing for Hasselbeck.
The team also moved into its state-of-the-art headquarters on the shores of Lake Washington in Renton before the season began.
But neither the combined efforts of those players nor the new digs were enough to send Holmgren out a winner in his final season.
“I love this organization,” Holmgren said during his final season-ender news conference. “But this chapter is kind of closed, and now there’s a new chapter going on.”
For the Seahawks, and their former coach.