Since bench-worn quarterbacks were featured, the Sunday, Nov. 21, Seattle-Miami game at Qwest Field might have been promoted as the Backup Bowl. That story line would have sufficed were it not for the fact that, after 16 punts, the unimaginably ugly struggle was won, 24-17, not by Seahawks reserve QB Trent Dilfer but by rookie supersub Michael Boulware. Seldom has the position title of safety been so appropriate. Boulware's brilliantly timed pickoff, with a minute left, might have saved the season for 6-4 Seattle—maybe even saved coach Mike Holmgren his job.
But saved in what sense? This had been said to be a Super Bowl–bound Seattle team. Defeating the league's worst club (though, at times, the Hawks would qualify for that dubious distinction) by a touchdown late in the game at home showed about as much promise of long-term success as inviting Ron Artest to Thanksgiving dinner. (Hey, Ron, can we toss you over a drink?)
If the Hawks were really any good, even a healthy Dolphins team should have lost by seven touchdowns instead of seven points. Seattle reserve quarterback Dilfer couldn't match A.J. Feeley, the Dolphins' usual second-string play caller, even though it seemed, early in the game, after an impressive first drive (with Jerry Rice's first Hawk touchdown catch), that Dilfer would have a big day. Fans expected from Dilfer much better than two interceptions and other bad passes. Some, in fact, wondered why it took nine games this year for Hawk boss Mike Holmgren to see the efficacy of giving starter Matt Hasselbeck a breather, ostensibly to nurse his bruised thigh, if not his psyche.
Bartell might not stock enough balm to salve Hasselbeck's mental game. Blame for Seattle's mediocrity since week three of the season has eluded the coaches, the special-teams players, and the "receiving" corps (Vaseline-hands Koren Robinson was one of the Hawks who sat out the Miami game for disciplinary reasons). Holmgren himself, during the Miami-game prep week, fingered Capt. Matt as the villain of the piece. Hasselbeck, his mentor opined, has in effect been—get this—trying too hard, forcing plays, shouldering burdens, and going it alone.
Oddly, then, there was post-game praise for Dilfer's mediocre effort as a sub. The Hawks, it was noted, have a one-game lead over the division-rival Rams, beaten by the same Buffalo club that shuffles into town Nov. 28. If Seattle somehow can postpone losing until the next road game, Dec. 12, the Hawks' eight victories actually could be enough to nail a playoff berth. It would be fitting for a team this uninspired to go to the postseason with a mere eight or nine victories.
Here, after all, was a gimpy Dolphins contingent that became even more afflicted as the game wore on. Feeley, who didn't even start as a collegian (he backed up Joey Harrington at Oregon), was forced out with a leg injury early during the second quarter. A few plays later, moving as though assisted by an invisible aluminum walker, Feeley was back in after Jay Fiedler sustained a neck stinger.
Dilfer (14 for 28, 196 yards) wasn't brilliant, perhaps because he hadn't started for 33 games. His interceptions alone were enough to drive his passer rating low enough to permit a Hasselbeck return without starting a sports-talk QB controversy. Half of Dilfer's passes were less than crisp and, of course, there was the typical Seattle tendency to miss-run routes and let well-thrown balls slip through the fingers. Even after Dilfer hit Rice for 56 yards with 3:55 left in the third quarter, the game remained an ugly punting duel, each club kicking it away eight times. Ill-used Shaun Alexander (the Hawks had two first downs during the entire second half) failed to make 100 yards for the first time in a month, possibly because the offensive line didn't look like it could stop a pillow fight in the dorm, much less a defensive rush.
So it's pretty hard to imagine anybody turning cartwheels about this win. To eke out a meager victory against the diminished-capacity Dolphins makes one hesitate to imagine what would happen to the Hawks if they took this crap on the road in the postseason against Philadelphia, to say nothing of Pittsburgh or New England (as though the Hawks would ever get that far).
"Thank goodness for Michael Boulware," Holmgren stated like a post-game prayer. "He made a wonderful play there and got us out of a jam."
"Give credit to Miami; they had a couple of weeks to practice and a new coach," Holmgren added, acknowledging that management axed Dolphin coach Dave Wannstedt midseason and replaced him with Jim Bates.
If there isn't a QB controversy in Seattle, at some point there ought to be a re-evaluation of keeping Holmgren around. To get to the point: He's 42-41 (including a pair of post-season losses) and hasn't accomplished anything of substance during his six years here, leading one to muse: If there are backup quarterbacks and safeties, are there any backup plans for coach?