Seahawks are happening in Seattle
By Lori Shontz

Of the Post-Dispatch
Coach Mike Holmgren (right) has had a steady rebuilding plan, which has ended up paying dividends for QB Matt Hasselbeck (8).
(Otto Greule Jr./Getty Images)

It wasn't that long ago that on the entertaining Underground Seattle tours, which take tourists under the city to see the old city, now buried by a series of natural disasters, that guides used the city's professional football team as a punchline.

Oh, Seattle's had it's share of disasters Earthquakes, fires . . . Seahawks.

Quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, who arrived in town for the 2001 season, had no idea such jokes were being told. "That would hurt my feelings," he said. He meant it. The one-liner didn't make him laugh.

The fact is, Seahawks jokes wouldn't get much of a laugh anymore.

The Seahawks, who went to the playoffs as a wild card team last season, are returning five Pro Bowl players: Hasselbeck, running back Shaun Alexander, offensive tackle Walter Jones, offensive guard Steve Hutchinson and special teams star Alex Bannister. Their defense, anchored by former Rams lineman Grant Wistrom, is ranked No. 1 in the NFL.

Although the Rams are the defending NFC West champions, the Seahawks are considered the team to beat, and they are also wearing the label "legitimate Super Bowl contender."

All this from a team whose road record over the years has been another surefire laugh line, a team that had never quite captured the heart or mind of its city. Rams defensive end Bryce Fisher, who grew up in Seattle, is typical. He and his friends grew up rooting for the Raiders because the Seahawks were so bad.

But for Sunday's game against the Rams at Quest Field, coach Mike Holmgren is expecting that the sold-out stadium full of screaming fans will be one of his team's advantages.

"It's kind of like when it first happened in St. Louis," Wistrom said. "How fired up everybody was, how new it was to everybody. And the energy that you can feel. It's very exciting to be a part of something like that again, where everyone's appreciated and fans are fired up about it. All everybody wants to talk about is the 'Hawks right now."

In this, his sixth season in Seattle after 13 successful seasons at Green Bay, Holmgren has finally put the Seahawks where he always believed they could be.

"If the organization is willing to stay with you - if they believe in you, first of all . . . and they give you enough time, you should be able to improve," Holmgren said. "And they have done that with us. Now we have pretty good depth, our money situation's in pretty good shape capwise. Hopefully we can keep this thing going and get into the playoffs again."

Holmgren knew from his opening days in Seattle that nudging the Seahawks toward respectability would be a process, and he also knew that in today's win-now society, some coaches and general managers (he served in both capacities until 2002) don't get enough time to prove themselves. He joked that the reason Seattle owner Paul Allen stuck with him so long "might have been the fact that I have an eight-year contract."

One can make the argument that someone with a track record like Holmgren's - an assistant coach for two San Francisco Super Bowl champion teams, a head coach who led Green Bay to two Super Bowls, winning one - is more apt to convince an owner that he needs more time.

The reality, Holmgren said, is more complicated.

"I think we're in a different era than we were 15 years ago," he said. "The stadiums are different. Marketing's different. The size of your staff and building. The marketing people - it's different. The money's different. There's pressure, there's more pressure from more people to create a product on the field to allow you to do some of those other things. I think that enters into this thing.

"You have new owners coming into the league that are used to winning in business or in how they got to be very wealthy or all those things, it's an interesting study. I've learned a lot."

In Holmgren's first season, 1999, the Seahawks went 9-7 and earned a wild-card playoff spot. The next season, however, the team went 6-10, and doubts settled in.

Holmgren and the front office had a longer view in mind. "We were going to go off the cliff on the salary cap, so we decided, 'Let's just bite the bullet and do it now.' Your record reflects that.'"

The next season, Hasselbeck arrived, and Holmgren believed "finding our quarterback," even though he struggled at first, was a key step in the right direction. It fit in perfectly with his long-range plan.

But when Hasselbeck arrived after three seasons in Green Bay, he did notice that the team hadn't exactly captured the imagination of the locals. "I felt blinded by the cynicism and negativity," he said.

Part of the problem, he knew, was the team's cycle of futility. Since a flirtation with the Super Bowl in 1983 and 1984, when Steve Largent was still catching passes, the Seahawks had settled into mediocrity.

Additionally, after the Kingdome was imploded to make way for a new stadium, the Seahawks had no home of their own. They played at the University of Washington's Husky Stadium, which further prevented them from building a fan base.

"Saturday, the Huskies would play in front of 70,000 people," Hasselbeck said. "Sunday, we'd play in front of 25,000, and 15,000 of them would be rooting for the Raiders."

With such sparse crowds, Seahawks games were often blacked out in Seattle, making it even more difficult for anyone who would have wanted to follow the team closely.

Gradually, that perception has changed - to the point that Fisher's father, always a Seahawks fan, has something to really cheer about, and Fisher's friends suddenly abandoned the Raiders and converted to Seahawks fans.

Like any coach, however, Holmgren is remaining cautious in his predictions.

"Our toughest games are yet to come," he said. "It's going to get much more difficult for us to keep that fire and energy in the city as times go on."