The Seattle Seahawks' passing game was a no-show, and the Big Show wasn't happy. That summed up the sorry state of affairs on Sunday at Husky Stadium, where Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren—once the director of some of football's most appealing aerial spectacles and now the owner of his profession's most overblown nickname—had just trudged off the field following a 27-3 defeat by the Philadelphia Eagles. Holmgren's temper is notoriously short, and if ever a team's performance deserved his wrath, this one did. Not only had Seattle failed for the second straight game to score its first touchdown of 2001, but also Holmgren's handpicked quarterback, Matt Hasselbeck, had produced a mere 21 net passing yards. Many of the 62,826 fans headed for the parking lots and docks alongside Lake Washington at halftime, and some of those who stuck around vented their anger by chanting the name of backup quarterback Trent Dilfer.
As Holmgren entered the locker room, his players fell silent and awaited the inevitable: The Big Show was ready to blow like nearby Mount St. Helens. According to two players' accounts, Holmgren began by saying, "I don't know if I've ever been part of a passing game that was as bad as ours was today." He took a long pause before calmly resuming. "Listen, you heard how everyone was chanting for Trent. Well, today they were all over Matt, but that could've been any one of you guys—and when we lose, we lose as a team."
Then Holmgren told his players exactly how he felt about those fans: "F—- them." Many of the players, still stung by a rebuke from Holmgren in a heated meeting after a 38-31 loss to the Denver Broncos last fall, breathed a sigh of relief.
On a day that marked the NFL's return in the wake of national tragedy, Holmgren wisely resisted the temptation to portray his team's defeat in catastrophic terms. It was an occasion for waving American flags, not white ones. Two games into his third season as the Seahawks' coach, general manager and executive vice president of football operations, Holmgren is confident that he still has time to mold Seattle (1-1) into a championship team. Although he's widely assumed to be under pressure to win this year, he insists that's not the case. "It really isn't about winning right now," he says. "It's about restoring respectability."
There's little doubt, however, that the Seahawks' billionaire owner, Paul Allen, expected a smoother rebuilding process when he gave Holmgren a reported eight-year, $32 million contract in January 1999. Holmgren had just guided the Green Bay Packers to a second consecutive Super Bowl appearance, and when he won eight of his first 10 games in Seattle en route to the franchise's first AFC West crown since 1988, the Big Show was as critically acclaimed in town as Kurt Cobain. It has been awfully far from nirvana since then. Following that 8-2 start, the Seahawks have dropped 17 of 25 games, including losses in the first round of the '99 playoffs and in 10 of 16 games in 2000—the first losing season of Holmgren's 15-year NFL career.
Holmgren has yet to show that the responsibility of running a front office helps his coaching rather than hinders it. Critics say that his ego and impulsive displays of anger have distanced him from players and that his efforts to right this long-mediocre franchise have lacked clear direction.
"I think there's a learning curve," Holmgren conceded last Thursday during a lengthy interview in his office. "It's like there's this big rope over my shoulder, and I've been pulling and pulling this weight. Now, finally, some guys on the team are grabbing the rope and helping me pull."
Despite Sunday's dismal effort against the Eagles (1-1), a playoff team last season, Holmgren believes the Seahawks will soon improve. His track record as an instant and consistent winner in Green Bay, a previously moribund organization, suggests he can pull it off. Although Holmgren kept his cool after Sunday's defeat, players have fresh memories of his sharp reaction to the team's losses in 2000, when he appeared to lose his motivational touch.
"Last year was uncharted territory for Coach Holmgren, and I'm sure in hindsight he wishes he had done some things differently," Seahawks linebacker Chad Brown says. don't fault him, because if you've never had a losing season and there's a lot of negativity around, it's hard to figure out how to handle it. When that negativity permeates the locker room, it can become a cancer. Once certain guys decided he had crossed the line and had said some things they felt weren't appropriate, they sort of shut him off."
The morning after Seattle played poorly in that loss to Denver in November, Holmgren, who had just given his players a bye weekend off, unloaded on them. "You guys want to f—- me?" he asked. "Well, f—- you!" He punctuated this with a middle-finger salute.