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Monday, February 6, 2006
Updated: February 7, 2:14 PM ET
Offseason questions start with Alexander

By John Clayton
ESPN.com

One Vegas oddsmaker already has installed the Seahawks as 5-1 favorites to be in Super Bowl XLI. They are up there with the Colts, Patriots and Steelers.

But the Seahawks face the reality of the Super Bowl hangover. Since the start of the millennium, the team that lost the Super Bowl has come back with a losing season. A loss as hard as the Seahawks' 21-10 loss to the Steelers could add to the difficulty of coming back.

Ron Jaworski, Michael Irvin and Tom Jackson look at their top 5 teams for 2006. Where do the Seahawks and Steelers rate?

Head coach Mike Holmgren made sure his players handled the loss with class, but what will linger is the blown opportunities. The dropped passes, the penalties, the controversial calls, the big plays allowed and the missed chances to score will be replayed by players and coaches for months.

The problem with a Super Bowl loss is the short amount of time there is to recover from it. The business of the NFL doesn't stop for lamenting. Free agency begins in 25 days and big decisions have to be made. The quick reality of life in the NFL struck home Monday morning.

Owner Paul Allen has to meet with Holmgren about his future. Starting Monday, Holmgren is a lame-duck coach entering the final year of an eight-year, $40 million contract. Re-signing him to an extension of a couple of years should be a no-brainer, but Holmgren's brain must be a little cloudy.

He remembers his last Super Bowl loss in Green Bay. Two weeks ago, he was joking about watching a "Today Show" segment on depression following that Super Bowl loss to Denver. Holmgren was on a treadmill. One by one, the doctor doing the interview was listing off the five signs -- not sleeping well, diminished sex drive, etc.

It took more than a month for Holmgren to recover from that loss. Holmgren kept beating himself up for not getting the Packers' veterans to realize the Broncos were as good as they appeared to be on film. The Packers were two-touchdown favorites. It didn't help that the Packers drove for an opening touchdown.

Shaun Alexander
The Seahawks want to keep Alexander, but the MVP is expected to test the market.
"I had every doctor writing me letters," Holmgren said about the response when that story got out a month after that Super Bowl loss. "Honestly, it took me a long time to get over that one. It's a funny thing. That was a little bit of a weird deal because I did experience some of that stuff. And I think looking back on it, because coaches lose tough games, I thought I kinda failed the team because I couldn't get them to realize what we were up against. I usually bounce back a little bit better."

Extending Holmgren's contract shouldn't be a problem. A year ago, Holmgren met with Allen and mentioned he might retire because of the drain of a front-office struggle and lack of playoff success. Allen sided with Holmgren and fired president Bob Whitsitt, eventually hiring Tim Ruskell to be the general manager. Then the Seahawks ended 30 years of frustration by going to the Super Bowl.

Losing a tough game could linger with this team, and not just with the coach. Winning the NFC is great. But it also inflates the cost of keeping the team together.

The good news is that the Seahawks have Allen's billions and Ruskell's decision-making to keep the team together. The bad news is that the decisions are hard. The first problem involves their main negotiator, Mike Reinfeldt, who is being wooed by the 49ers for a front-office position.

Most people in the Seahawks' organization believe Reinfeldt will turn down San Francisco's advances. The 49ers have been waiting for Reinfeldt, but if they don't offer him a little bit of power he might stay with the Seahawks.

It wouldn't be surprising if Jim Zorn, the team's talented quarterbacks coach, is contacted for an offensive coordinator position. The Super Bowl trip showed how valuable Zorn has been in the development of quarterback Matt Hasselbeck. He's bright, and he's been around long enough to have offensive coordinator credentials.

Holmgren, in fact, would love for offensive coordinator Gil Haskell, his close friend, to have a chance at the Raiders' head coach opening. Holmgren has been promoting Haskell for years. Unfortunately for Haskell, being in the Super Bowl probably killed his chances for a head coaching job because most teams have their coaching hires in place by now.

A decision on the future of defensive coordinator Ray Rhodes is looming. Rhodes suffered two strokes during the season, and Holmgren had to manage Rhodes' time and make sure he wasn't putting his health in further jeopardy. Linebackers coach John Marshall did a great job filling in and covering for Rhodes.

And then there is free agency. It's not as bad as last year, when the Seahawks didn't know how they would keep the team together. The Seahawks have 15 key free agents. Heading the list are MVP halfback Shaun Alexander, Pro Bowl guard Steve Hutchinson, defensive tackle Rocky Bernard, wide receiver Joe Jurevicius, fullback Mack Strong, safety Marquand Manuel and halfback Maurice Morris.

Cap room isn't a problem. The Seahawks have $15.3 million of cap room, but most of the money will go toward re-signing players.

Even though Alexander is the MVP, the No. 1 priority is getting a deal done with Hutchinson, considered the best left guard in the game. Hutchinson isn't going anywhere. If a deal doesn't get done, the Seahawks probably will franchise him at $6.9 million. His price will be high. It will cost in excess of $5.5 million per year plus a big signing bonus to get him to accept a long-term deal.

The Alexander situation will be dicey. Ruskell promised Alexander if he played the season, he would not franchise him a second consecutive year. Unless a deal is reached before March 3, Alexander will hit the market and see what's available. The Arizona Cardinals could be the main candidate to sign him, but it's more likely they will opt to draft a running back, possibly USC's LenDale White.

The Vikings will be big players in free agency, but new coach Brad Childress comes from an Eagles offense that doesn't emphasize the run as much. So paying Alexander $8 million a year might not be on their agenda.

If Alexander can't become the highest-paid running back in the NFL in the first week of free agency, he could be ready to re-sign. Alexander has handled everything well. He was always optimistic about re-signing. He'll be 29 this summer, and the Seahawks' fear is giving too much money to an aging running back.

It appears unlikely the Seahawks will be able to keep Bernard. Defensive tackles with 8½ sacks usually get $4 million to $5 million per year. If the Seahawks keep their offense together by keeping Hutchinson and Alexander, there is no way they can pay that much to keep Bernard. Plus, Marcus Tubbs, Chuck Darby and Craig Terrill will return as three members of a four-tackle rotation.

Ruskell will have to be persuasive to keep Jurevicius. Although he's in his 30s, Jurevicius is a proven winner who has been to three Super Bowls and is great in the locker room. The Seahawks need sure-handed receivers, and keeping him has become a priority.

Overall, the Seahawks are in good shape. They have their passing offense intact, for the most part. Their offensive line should return with all of its starters plus great depth. The defense has a base of good leadership, young linebackers and solid performers in the secondary.

But you know what happens to Super Bowl losers. The Seahawks are fighting the odds.

John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.