“I told the players and I told my staff, in separate meetings, that what happened this year – as far as wins and losses – it shouldn’t happen again. It really shouldn’t happen again, because no one will get injured liked we got injured this year. If it hadn’t happened to me in 25 years (of coaching), it’s not going to happen again.”
Mike Holmgren made that prediction on Dec. 30, 2008, during his final news conference as coach of the Seahawks. Holmgren was stepping away after 10 seasons that included the most successful five-year run in franchise history. Jim Mora, the handpicked successor as coach, was stepping in.
But 374 days later, Mora also was gone – after one season as head coach and a 5-11 record.
“We’ve made a tough decision today,” then-CEO Tod Leiweke said at the time. “It became apparent after conducting an extensive internal audit, that a new direction was needed to provide an opportunity for the organization to be successful. Today’s decision, while difficult, is part of the process in building a franchise with a new vision in 2010.”
In hindsight, it was Mora who was supposed to provide if not an entirely new vision for ’09, at least a reflection of how the Seahawks looked while winning four NFC West titles in a row (2004-07) and advancing to the playoffs for five consecutive seasons (2003-07).
That was the plan when then-general manager Tim Ruskell hired Mora to be the team’s defensive backs coach in 2007. When Holmgren was done, Mora would be the one.
Instead, Mora was one-and-done.
The decision to fire Mora caught him totally by surprise. In fact, when summoned to Leiweke’s office on that fateful January day, Mora thought it was for a meeting to discuss replacements for Ruskell – who had resigned in December after being told his contract would not be renewed when it expired after the season. But the word from Leiweke was that Mora also was gone.
This isn’t how the story was supposed to play out. Mora viewed his post with the Seahawks as a destination job. He grew up in the Seattle area and attended Interlake High School in Bellevue while his father, Jim E., was coaching for the University of Washington (1975-77) and then the Seahawks (1978-81). The younger Mora – Jim L. – played for the Huskies and then coached at Washington for a year (1984), before beginning the nomadic life of an NFL assistant coach that took him to San Diego, New Orleans and San Francisco before he was hired as head coach of the Atlanta Falcons in 2004.
Mora was fired after three years with the Falcons, and ready to finally come home. The Seahawks provided that opportunity for him and his family.
The Mora Era got off the rousing start in ’09, as the Seahawks shutout the St. Louis Rams 28-0 in their season opener at Qwest Field. But that was followed by three losses before a 41-0 romp over the Jacksonville Jaguars ended the skid. Then came pairs of losses sandwiched around a victory over a Detroit Lions team that would win two games all season.
After winning back-to-back games for the only time in Mora’s only season – 27-17 at St. Louis and 20-17 against the San Francisco 49ers at Qwest Field – the Seahawks lost their final four games, paving the way to Mora losing his job.
The Seahawks’ road to ruin played out in their road performances: a 17-point loss at Indianapolis, a 21-point loss at Dallas, an 11-point loss at Arizona, a 26-point loss at Minnesota, a 27-pont loss at Houston and a 38-point loss at Green Bay.
It was a 24-7 loss to a 1-12 Tampa Bay Buccaneers team at home in Week 15, however, that prompted owner Paul Allen to intervene. His message to Leiweke was succinct: Something had to be done.
But how did things come undone for Mora, and so quickly?
There were the injuries Holmgren mentioned in his never-happen-again assessment after the ’08 season. While his final team saw 26 players miss a combined 163 games, the ’09 team had 15 starters miss 66 games, or the equivalent of four full NFL seasons. The can’t-play list included all 16 games by Pro Bowl left tackle Walter Jones and 11 by Pro Bowl middle linebacker Lofa Tatupu. In a Week 3 loss to the Chicago Bears, the Seahawks’ inactive list was comprised of seven injured starters who had 16 Pro Bowls between them.
Even the supposedly good things that happened in ’09 were “yeah, but …” performances.
T.J. Houshmandzadeh, the team’s big free-agent addition during the offseason, led the club with 79 receptions. But he averaged only 11.5 yards on those catches and scored three touchdowns. Matt Hasselbeck passed for 3,000 yards, for the sixth time in eight seasons. But he had only 17 touchdown passes and, worst yet, threw a career-high 17 interceptions. Julius Jones led the team in rushing for the second consecutive season. But he had only 663 yards and averaged 3.7 yards a carry. Second-year tight end John Carlson led the team with seven touchdown catches. But he had fewer receptions (51) and receiving yards (574) than he did as a rookie (55 for 627). “I never would have thought it would be this way, I promise you,” Houshmandzadeh after his first – and what proved to be only – season with the Seahawks. “From being in OTAs and minicamps and training camp, I didn’t think we would struggle like this offensively. At all. And we all played a part in that, myself included.”
On defense, second-year linebacker David Hawthorne had a breakout season, leading the team in tackles (116), sharing the lead in interceptions (three) and finishing third in sacks (four). But it took Tatupu missing 11 starts to get Hawthorne on the field.
Versatile, and valuable, defensive back Jordan Babineaux started 16 games for the first time in his career and posted the first 100-tackle season of his career from the free safety position. But the pass defense ranked 30th in the league. Pro Bowl defensive end Patrick Kerney led the team in sacks. But he posted his lowest total (five) in a full season since 2000, when he was playing for the Falcons. Cornerback Josh Wilson had a 65-yard interception return for a touchdown. But the team’s 13 interceptions tied for the third fewest in franchise history.
“The season didn’t go as anyone expected,” Hawthorne said.
The special teams provided stability, as Olindo Mare missed only two of 26 field-goal attempts while scoring 100 points and punter Jon Ryan set a club record for average (46.2 yards) and tied the mark for net average (38.7). But Ryan had to punt too many times (88, third most in the NFC and the fifth-highest total in club history) while Mare got only 28 opportunities to kick PATs, which tied for fifth fewest in the conference and seventh fewest in club history.
It was that kind of season for the Seahawks and their one-and-done coach.
“It’s unfortunate that we didn’t put our best stuff out there,” Hasselbeck said. “That’s disappointing. But there’s nothing we can do about it, except for get better and, given the opportunity, make it happen. I think that’s what everybody plans to do. I know that’s what I plan to do.”
Mora, however, would not have that opportunity because he no longer was in the team’s plans.