By JOHN LEVESQUE
SEATTLE POST-INTELLIGENCER COLUMNIST

You've got to hand it to Shaun Alexander.

Whether it's carrying the football or extracting a foot from his mouth, the guy is smooth.

When the Seahawks announced yesterday morning that Alexander would meet with the media at 4 p.m. on a day when there was to be no player availability for us scribblers and babblers, you knew the damage-control machine was in hyperdrive.

Would Alexander apologize?

Would he take back what he said?

Would he say the devil made him do it?

And if you're still wondering what he uttered to make the local sports-gab radio hosts pull their lingual muscles in unison, welcome back to our solar system. Is Jupiter nice this time of year?

Alexander, who missed tying for the National Football League rushing title by a measly three feet, told my P-I colleague Clare Farnsworth on Sunday that he felt his coach had betrayed him on the fourth-quarter touchdown play that gave the Seahawks their ultimate margin of victory in a 28-26 thriller against the Atlanta Falcons at Qwest Field.

The victory also gave the Seahawks the championship of the NFC West and home-field advantage in their playoff game Saturday against the St. Louis Rams.



I wasn't the only observer surprised when quarterback Matt Hasselbeck kept the ball on second and goal from the one and dove over a pile of Hawks and Falcons into the end zone.

Never mind the danger of all that bird doo. Hasselbeck has a banged-up elbow in the right arm -- his money arm -- and the way he went into the end zone, on a backward dive with both arms fully extended, would make anyone wince at the prospect of several hundred pounds of Grade A NFL beef coming down on that puny little joint.

No doubt the element of surprise figured in coach Mike Holmgren's assent to running a quarterback sneak. Normally, Alexander gets the ball in that circumstance nine times out of 10. He scored on an identical second-and-goal situation in the first quarter, and everyone in Qwest Field, including the Falcons, thought he'd get the call again.

Alexander, who has an ego commensurate with his standing as one of the game's premier running backs, was obviously miffed, for even if he didn't know exactly how close he was to the New York Jets' Curtis Martin in the rushing- yardage race, he certainly knew every yard was precious. After the game, the sullen Seahawk said what was on his mind.

"We were on the freakin' goal line," he said, "and I got stabbed in the back."

Now, all of us have said something unfortunate in the heat of the moment and then rued it later on. It doesn't make us bad people, just honest people who need lessons in diplomacy.

And don't believe any of that claptrap about athletes in team sports not caring about their stats. Alexander loves the spotlight created by his achievements as a ball carrier. He said he was quite aware he was within a few yards of Martin's yardage total on what turned out to be the Seahawks' final possession of the game.

Again, it doesn't mean he's the Snidely Whiplash of teammates. Heck, if anyone was the bad guy it was the Seahawks defense, which looked like the ultimate patsy in a game of keep-away, allowing the Falcons offense to stay on the field for most of the fourth quarter. One more Seahawks possession and the whole dust-up wouldn't have happened.

Yesterday, Alexander said all the right things about regretting his impetuousness and not wanting to take attention away from the Seahawks' division title and their preparations for St. Louis.

"I'm human," he said. "Anybody could pop off. I've done it several times."

To his credit, Alexander also said he recognizes he's in a position where "I need to make sure I own up to it."

But forgive me if I'm not entirely convinced by Alexander's All-Pro act of contrition.

If you look at a TV replay of Hasselbeck's touchdown, the play on which Alexander felt the bare bodkin of betrayal between his shoulder blades, you'll notice No. 37 is evidently in full pout as the play unfolds. Rather than acting as a decoy by plunging off tackle or, at the very least, helping to move the pile forward in Hasselbeck's behalf, Alexander is standing in the backfield watching 10 Seahawks take on 11 Falcons.

A shorthanded goal in hockey is something to celebrate. In football it usually means somebody's not pitching in.

Yesterday, Alexander said his role in the quarterback sneak was to "catch the eye" of a linebacker or two, to make them hesitate so Hasselbeck might gain a split-second advantage.

"I kind of blocked two people without moving," he said, his ever-present smile widening.

It's a plausible explanation, but on the replay Alexander looks more like the poster boy for the Bruised Feelings Society than an actively engaged football player.

Only Alexander knows for sure. It may be noteworthy that he suggested the person to whom he really owes an apology is running backs coach Stump Mitchell.

As a running back and kick returner for the St. Louis/Arizona Cardinals in the 1980s, Mitchell was the archetypal hard worker, the guy who never, ever phoned it in. If Alexander feels he betrayed Mitchell by being selfish, then he is at least on the path to understanding a great runner is remembered not for what he says in front of the microphones but for what he does -- or doesn't do -- on the field.

P-I columnist John Levesque can be reached at 206-448-8330 or johnlevesque@seattlepi.com