Coulda Been Contenders

But the Seahawks weren't, and next season could be Mike Holmgren's last chance.

"A COVERED FUMBLE here, a pick there, and these guys coulda been a not-horrible, playoffs-bound 11-5 instead of their de rigueur 7-9." I was musing while fighting back overpriced house wine somewhere in Belltown a few days after the No Quit at Qualcomm on Dec. 29—a.k.a.: Seattle 31, San Diego 28. "These guys," of course, are the National Football League Seattle Seahawks, and last week, after one of the team's most memorable meaningless wins, was the official start of "next year" time. I qualify it as "official" because part of being a Seahawks observer is that it seldom is necessary to wait beyond early November before speculating about the team's hopes and (more likely) fears for the following season. Such was the case once again in 2002.

"Coulda," my companion speculated, "is a no-win fools' game. It's like: 'If they hadn't bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941, then we coulda avoided sitting through that Ben Affleck movie.' It doesn't get you much."

This year, the speculative season commenced with a protracted regionwide handwringer pertaining to the fate of coach (and former omnipotence) Mike Holmgren. By the eve of 2003, we knew for sure what most imagined: The overworked sovereign would be relieved of his cherished peripheral duties so he can stick with the x-and-o stuff next season. That seems best for all concerned, especially the team's many skeptics.

REWIND TO NOV. 3: A veteran sportswriter near me in the Seahawks press box was, I'm pretty sure, joking about establishing an over/under betting line regarding how far quarterback Matt Hasselbeck would lead a drive before the inevitable turnover. Such was the prevailing confidence in these murkily clad legions. Then, as December dragged along, the early chump losses to the Giants, 49ers, and Broncos were answered with triumphs over Arizona, Kansas City, Atlanta, and St. Louis. The San Diego win meant the Seahawks "coulda" been the hottest in the league at season's end.

Coulda, what if. Fans were murmuring. "What if Willie Williams were as tall as Shawn Springs, and what if Springs played even half as well as he thinks he does? This club could be spoiling for the—Super Bowl!"

Fans—we love them—can conveniently ignore the flip side of what-iffing, as in: What if Atlanta's field-goal kicker makes his chip shot in overtime Dec. 15? Then we're 6-10.

Doesn't matter, of course, except that the better you finish, the worse you get in the next draft. Had the Seahawks lost the finale in 1992, the team would have had the first instead of the second pick in the 1993 draft. That could have (though nothing is assured with Seahawks management) meant drafting Drew Bledsoe instead of Rick Mirer. And that could have meant immeasurable differences in the fortunes of the franchise.

HERE'S WHAT WE know for sure about season next:

Hasselbeck, duh, is a good NFL quarterback. Holmgren used to be the only soul who knew this. Then he severed the strings to his Pinocchio and allowed Hasselbeck to be a real football player. Result: a steadily climbing QB rating and hope that this is the guy to lead a young offense to the promised land of, say, 10-6 next year.

Koren Robinson, Darrell Jackson, and Jerramy Stevens ought to be the receiving-corps envy of the league. The advantage individually and collectively is that each is capable of doing something positive after catching the ball: yet more reason to throw downfield, especially with all-world Walter Jones and late-year pickup Chris Terry at tackles.

THE DEFENSE NEEDS help, though maybe not as much as many believe. The Seahawks would have been in better contention had holy-terror linebacker Anthony Simmons been around all year. (Defensive key to next year: Is free-agent Simmons back?) Yes, the Seahawks need bulk and speed for the D line (though end Rocky Bernard was a find), but Holmgren knows this and likely won't be blowing April draft picks on field-goal kickers.

The National Football Conference West Division can be had next season (and could have this past year). It doesn't get much easier than to be in a division with the Cardinals (never quite living up to the potential they showed in Jerry Maguire), the Rams (due for another Super Bowl appearance in about 2018), and the 49ers (with a management that actually would consider canning Steve Mariucci after the coach brought another division title to San Fran).

Oh, and that last thing we know (or sense): 2003 is Holmgren's last chance. If the club misses the playoffs (especially while, across town, Rick Neuheisel presumably is marching his millennial team toward a national championship), then the Seahawks brain trust will have no choice but to find a new guy. It's a prospect one greets like a nine-buck glass of Belltown house wine.

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