Last December, as the Seahawks completed their third consecutive season without a playoff appearance, Mike Holmgren's fate seemed sealed. Despite a strong finish to salvage a 7-9 record, Seattle remained mired in the mediocrity that is the hallmark of the franchise's 26-year-history. Holmgren, the team's executive vice president/general manager/head coach—or, to his players, the Big Show—was paid handsomely to change all that, but at the conclusion of his fourth choppy season, his record stood at 31-33. Conventional wisdom had owner Paul Allen firing Holmgren, or at least asking him to surrender his general manager's role, though the notion that Holmgren would agree to the latter scenario was about as likely as Starbucks restricting its menu to regular coffee.
Yet Holmgren did agree to give up the G.M. title, and he has returned for another season. Whether the Big Show is back in 2004 will be up to Allen, who brought in Bob Ferguson as his new general manager. But Holmgren's fate may well lie with the players on his defensive unit and with his new defensive coordinator, Ray Rhodes.
"The way we look at it, everybody's on a one-year contract," says cornerback Shawn Springs, a former All-Pro who has been beset by injuries and inconsistency during Holmgren's tenure and who, coincidentally, is in the final year of his contract. "We need to produce this season or we're probably gone."
Holmgren's impressive run of success as the Packers' coach from 1992 to '98, which included a Super Bowl win and a title-game appearance in back-to-back seasons, began with Rhodes calling the shots on defense. Rhodes's successor in Green Bay, Fritz Shurmur, made the move to Seattle with Holmgren in '99, and the defense, which was loaded with talented players, seemed poised to become a dominant unit. But Shurmur died in late August '99 after a short bout with cancer, and neither his replacement, Jim Lind, nor Steve Sidwell, who was hired in 2000, had much success.
Meanwhile, Rhodes, who originally left Green Bay to become the head coach in Philadelphia and later returned to the Packers as Holmgren's successor—going 8-8 in his lone season—had since moved on to Denver as the Broncos' defensive coordinator. When he resigned there last January after two seasons, Holmgren quickly lured him to the Pacific Northwest. Rhodes made an immediate impact by persuading Springs to rescind his request to be traded. He then set about instilling a more aggressive approach in a unit that last year allowed the most rushing yards in the NFL. On the personnel side, the trade with the Saints for defensive tackle Norman Hand and the free-agent signing of middle linebacker Randall Godfrey, along with the selection of cornerback Marcus Trufant and safety Ken Hamlin in the first two rounds of the draft, have given the Seahawks even more cause for optimism.
"Last year we'd wait to see how the offense was attacking us before figuring out what we were going to do," says outside linebacker Anthony Simmons, a fast, rangy defender who missed nine games in 2002 with an ankle injury. "Now, we don't care what you're doing—we're coming after you whether we're up by 30 or down by 30."
No one has felt the pain of the defense's failures more than Springs. "He came in with such fanfare and had such success early on, it was like people thought a defensive back was going to save the franchise," says outside linebacker Chad Brown. "Then he started having problems with his hamstring, and that's the worst injury a defensive back can have. It's hard to cover receivers when your turbo button is broken."
If Springs can finally escape injury—last year, he was slowed by a sore right foot- Seattle's secondary could again have a bona fide star. "When I'm healthy, I think I'm by far the Number 1 cornerback in the league, and believe me, I watch everybody," says Springs. "I've got a good coach now, and I think I'm going to dominate."
For Holmgren & Co., that can't happen a moment too soon.
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