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Wednesday, August 13, 2003
Updated: August 18, 2:46 PM ET
Hasselbeck, Rhodes have 'Hawks believing

By John Clayton
ESPN.com

CHENEY, Wash. -- Matt Hasselbeck walks to the huddle with a bit of a swagger. Koren Robinson and Darrell Jackson run their routes with more zip and confidence. Shaun Alexander attacks the line of scrimmage with more vigor.

Swagger and Seahawks haven't been words spoken in the same sentence since the 1980s when the Seahawks were a perennial playoff team under Chuck Knox. Maybe their steps are misguided, but there is a feeling about this team that hasn't been there in years. In Las Vegas, bettors are investing in the Seahawks as one of the sleeper teams to watch out for this fall. The swagger comes from the offense and their quarterback, Matt Hasselbeck, which is different for a franchise that usually staggers instead of swaggers.

"Matt's got his swagger back," Robinson said. "He needed that. He stepped up at the end of last year and that's all he needed. Everybody feels like we are going to do some things this year."

Shaun Alexander
Shaun Alexander could give the Colts' defense significant problems.
Something clicked for Hasselbeck in the final six games of last season. The pressure was off. The Seahawks were 3-7. Coach Mike Holmgren, a guru of quarterbacks, has seen it happen so often. You teach, you teach and you teach and then all of a sudden, the pupil starts seeing the things on the blackboard in his vision down the field.

Over the final six games, Hasselbeck was football's hottest quarterback. The offense averaged 476 yards a game. Hasselbeck had two 300-yard games and two 400-yard games down the stretch. He threw 12 touchdown passes and the offense averaged almost 35 points a game.

In the preseason opener against the Chargers, Hasselbeck kept swaggering. He completed eight of 11 for 75 yards and kept moving the chains in what turned out to be an easy 20-7 victory. Unlike the past, if Hasselbeck couldn't find Robinson, Jackson or Bobby Engram open, he'd either dump the ball off to a running back or run ahead to get a short gain instead of a sack.

"I remember we were playing Dallas last year and they were playing us in a Cover 2," Hasselbeck said. "I threw the ball once to Shaun Alexander in the flat, and he made somebody miss and went for good yards. Nolan Cromwell (Holmgren's valued receivers coach) came to me and said, 'Your best play of the game was when you dropped it off.' That struck me."

Suddenly, the field looked friendlier. Hasselbeck can be stubborn at times. Too often, he'd force dangerous throws that would drive his head coach crazy. Holmgren knows that Hasselbeck is hard on himself and he'll try anything to make a play. But sometimes, it's the simple things that make the job of a quarterback easier. Read one. Read Two. Read Three. If they aren't there, throw to the "Check Down" guy.

"Matt is playing the position very well," Holmgren said. "The things that gave him trouble his first year he's worked on very hard and seems to be correcting. Now, if he breaks the pocket, he finds the guy and he's not throwing a crazy ball."

And there is no question Hasselbeck is loaded with weapons. Robinson caught 38 of his 78 catches over the final six games and emerged as one of the best young receivers in the NFC. Jackson is an Antonio Freeman-like possession receiver who could balance Robinson's flair for the big play with a 1,000-yard season. Alexander has averaged 1,246 yards and 17 touchdowns a season over the past two years and had three of his four 1,000-yard games over the past six games.

"I would not be surprised if Koren and Darrell have either 1,000-yards receiving a piece or one guy gets 800 and the other gets 1,500," Alexander said. "I wouldn't be surprise if those two, tight ends Itula Mili and Jerramy Stevens and myself all catch more than 50 passes."

But the swagger has its dagger -- the defense. Two years ago, Holmgren imported four veteran leaders -- defensive tackles John Randle and Chad Eaton, linebacker Levon Kirkland and safety Marcus Robertson -- to fix a run defense giving up 153 yards a game. The experiment worked for one year, improving the run defense by 46 yards but age caught up to them in 2002. Kirkland grew to 310 pounds and was cut. Robinson lost range and was cut after the season. Last year, the Seahawks gave up 152.6 yards a game, worst in football.

Enter Ray Rhodes, the league's best turnaround defensive coach. In four stints as a coordinator, he has improved a team's defense by at least seven spots in the rankings and hasn't had a first-year defense under his control finish any worse than eighth.

Fixing the Seahawks defense will be a supreme challenge because of age and injuries. The Seahawks brought 15 defensive linemen to camp and as many as seven were sidelined with injuries. Only three preseason games remain, and Rhodes hasn't seen what the defense looks like with starters such as linebackers Chad Brown and Randall Godfrey and defensive tackle Norman Hand.

Matt is playing the position very well. The things that gave him trouble his first year he's worked on very hard and seems to be correcting. Now, if he breaks the pocket, he finds the guy and he's not throwing a crazy ball.
Coach Mike Holmgren, on QB Matt Hasselbeck

On Monday, the defense had a big setback when it came out that Eaton needed a second surgery on his right knee and may not be ready for the opener.

"Right now, we're not be able to get everybody on the field," Rhodes said. "We've had four or five starters out basically the entire camp. I'm looking at another week or two because I can get everybody lined up and get a veteran evaluation. Until then, we'll just keep getting energy from the young guys, but it's our run defense where we are banged up the most."

Holmgren and the Seahawks are banking on Rhodes making a major difference. He brought in a talented group of teachers -- Dwaine Board on the defensive line, John Marshall at linebacker and Teryl Austin in the secondary. But, as it was in 2001, it will be veterans in charge of stopping the run. The focus calls on Randle, 34, Hand, who turns 31 Sept. 4, and Godfrey, 30, who is sidelined with a calf injury.

"Our timing has been off a bit because of the injuries, but we get everybody back. We can get back on schedule," Randle said.

Hand, who came from the Saints in a draft day trade, is battling a groin injury that will keep him out until next week. But he can't wait to open the season against the Saints.

"The Saints figured that they got rid of me because they thought Grady Jackson and I didn't stop the run so well," Hand said. "I'm expect (teams) will try to run the ball 20 to 25 times at me to prove a point. I figure they won't rush for 100 yards against us."

There isn't a lot of room for error this season because the Seahawks need to win. This is Year 5 for Holmgren, and three non-playoff seasons have left new Seahawks Stadium with some unsold seats. The Seahawks have to win, but they have plenty going for them this season.

For one, the Seahawks and Cardinals have the league's easiest schedule (.443 opponents' winning percentage). They have only six games against teams with 8-8 records or better. Offensively, the Seahawks finished seventh last year, but a full season with Hasselbeck in charge with a swagger could keep this offense at the top of the league charts.

"We've got a lot of weapons on his team, and with the improvements from last year, we can really expand on the routes," Jackson said. "Early last year, we didn't have all the routes we can use now. We were limited because we were interchanging quarterbacks. The offensive line wasn't healthy. Trent Dilfer went down with an Achilles tear. Not being all together, it was hard to be on the same page. Once we got on the same page, our swagger picked up."

There's that word swagger again. Swagger? Seahawks? Well, just maybe this will be the year.

John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.