"I've had some yellers," says Brown, who played for Bill Cowher while with the Pittsburgh Steelers, "but I've never had a coach talk to me like that before."
Not surprisingly, resistance to Holmgren's rule has been passive-aggressive. Seattle players have been calling him the Big Show since his first training camp, where a larger-than-life-sized likeness of the coach on a billboard watched over their practices. The Seahawks' football operations coordinator, Bill Nayes, who at the time was Holmgren's ever-present administrative assistant, also got a nickname: Mini-Me. Still, few players have the guts to challenge Holmgren's authority to his face.
Though blessed with ample charm, Holmgren enjoys his aura of authority and his stature as a patriarch. During last Thursday's interview he proudly pulled out a photo taken at the NFL owners' meetings in Southern California in March. In the middle stood a well-tanned Holmgren and his wife, Kathy, with three smiling couples on each side of them. The six men pictured with the Holmgrens were NFL head coaches who had worked as Mike's assistants: Jon Gruden ( Oakland Raiders), Dick Jauron ( Chicago Bears), Steve Mariucci ( San Francisco 49ers), Marty Mornhinweg ( Detroit Lions), Andy Reid ( Eagles) and Mike Sherman ( Packers). Like Holmgren, Reid and Sherman enjoy full control over personnel decisions.
Whereas Reid and Sherman run teams that appear to be on the rise, the Seahawks are still finding their way. At first Holmgren left the roster largely intact and won that AFC West championship. Then, saddled with salary-cap problems after the 1999 season, he seemed to scrap the winnow philosophy for a long-range plan. That summer, Holmgren says, he separately asked three veterans to exert more influence on their teammates. "I told them they didn't necessarily have to be rah-rah guys but should lead by example," the coach says. "Each of them basically told me, 'I can't do that. It's just not me.' "
Before a late-season game, Holmgren says, he approached another veteran-several players say it was safety Jay Bellamy—and asked him to address the team at the close of its Saturday-night meeting. "I walked out of the room," Holmgren recalls, "and about eight seconds later everyone came bursting out of there laughing. That one probably backfired."
Holmgren grew impatient following last year's backslide, and he jettisoned a group of veteran starters that included quarterback Jon Kitna, wideouts Sean Dawkins and Derrick Mayes, guard Pete Kendall, Bellamy and eight-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Cortez Kennedy. Paradoxically, he replaced them with a combination of raw players on offense—including Hasselbeck, whose first career start came in the Seahawks' 9-6 victory over the Cleveland Browns in this season's opener—and well-worn free agents on defense. The latter group, which includes former Tennessee Titans safety Marcus Robertson, former Steelers linebacker Levon Kirkland and former Minnesota Vikings defensive tackle John Randle, has at least filled the leadership void.
Mayes, who played for Holmgren in Green Bay from 1996 to '98 and was traded to the Seahawks shortly before the '99 season, says that when he arrived in Seattle, he was shocked by his boss's changed demeanor. "It was like night and day," Mayes says. "We won in Green Bay because all he had to do was coach, and he's a genius when it comes to X's and O's. Plus, it was clear we were in it together. He came to Seattle because he wanted to run the whole show. Well, be careful what you wish for, because you could be neck deep in responsibility and rely on ego to figure it out.
"I can understand that a lot of Mike's [negativity] had to do with losing, but damn, the way he was acting was a direct reason why we were losing," continues Mayes, who was cut by the Kansas City Chiefs in August. "We're grown men. That's no way to motivate a team. When people know you're the guy in charge of making tough, career-altering decisions, you can't unload on a team because you had a s——- day at practice."
Toughness, though, was a key to Holmgren's success in shaping the once erratic Brett Favre into a three-time league MVP with the Packers. Now Holmgren's job will likely hinge on his ability to repeat that feat with Hasselbeck, who was a practice-squad player during Holmgren's final season in Green Bay and would become Favre's backup there. In early March, Holmgren outbid other suitors to trade for Hasselbeck, swapping first-round draft choices with Green Bay and surrendering a third-round selection. Although Holmgren later signed Dilfer, who won last year's Super Bowl with the Baltimore Ravens, he says there is no fallback plan should Hasselbeck fail. "I'm kind of committed here," Holmgren says. "This has to work."
As he showed with his miserable performance on Sunday, Hasselbeck—who completed 9 of 24 passes for 62 yards and was sacked seven times—is a work in progress. "He'll never play another game this bad," Holmgren said. Hasselbeck says that's nothing compared with the feedback Holmgren gives him in practice. Hasselbeck, who turned 26 on Tuesday, shrugs off the scolding he usually receives, partly because he saw Favre endure similar treatment in Green Bay.