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Thursday, May 10, 2007
Updated: May 11, 7:04 AM ET
Seahawks determined to turn back challengers

By John Clayton
ESPN.com

KIRKLAND, Wash. -- Nothing is forever in the NFL, whose logo also translates into "Not For Long."

The Eagles went to four NFC title games until the NFC East attacked them with Bill Parcells, Joe Gibbs and Tom Coughlin. The Patriots won three Super Bowl rings, but Peyton Manning and the Colts slipped ahead of them. The Bears enter Year 2 of what might be a four-year reign in the NFC North.

In Seattle, Mike Holmgren is enjoying a three-year run atop the NFC West that included one trip to the Super Bowl. But there is no doubt the Seahawks can hear footsteps as big and as loud as a Sasquatch's.

The NFC West is coming alive. What was considered a joke of a division has been invigorated by smart personnel moves and some luck.

• The 49ers challenged the Patriots for having the league's best offseason. They landed cornerback Nate Clements, linebackers Tully Banta-Cain and Patrick Willis, nose tackle Aubrayo Franklin and receivers Darrell Jackson and Ashley Lelie.

• The Cardinals had a little luck in having Matt Leinart fall to them in the 2006 draft, but they've tried to strengthen their blocking with Al Johnson and Levi Brown. They've also added the parts to eventually slide into a 3-4 defensive scheme.

• Scott Linehan of the Rams tried to fill out his offense with the additions of Randy McMichael, Drew Bennett, Brian Leonard and Dante Hall.

"It's great," Seahawks linebacker Julian Peterson said. "It's great for our division to have this competition. The Rams had control of this division at one point, then the Seahawks took control. Now, everybody is improving their roster. It makes us hungrier."

Mike Holmgren
Mike Holmgren's Seahawks are focused on winning a fourth straight NFC West title.

As the Seahawks conclude a weeklong minicamp, they don't sound like a team in fear of the future. Clearly, their run at the top may be coming to an end. Age is creeping into their offense. Quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, fullback Mack Strong, left tackle Walter Jones, right guard Chris Gray and tight end Marcus Pollard all are in their 30s. Halfback Shaun Alexander turns 30 this fall, a nasty little number for a running back.

Even Seattle's coach sees the light at the end of his Seahawks tunnel. Holmgren has two years left on his contract and most don't expect him to extend it when his deal runs out after the 2008 season.

The 49ers and Cardinals may be closing the gap, but the Seahawks don't mind.

"They needed to," Alexander told reporters earlier this week when asked about the great offseasons of the Cardinals and 49ers. "When you win the division three years in a row, it says enough. I think it's going to be a challenge this year, but challenges are good. We've never been a team that wants to hope that someone else plays bad. We don't care what everybody is doing. We want to go out and just do what we do best, and that takes care of itself."

Last year, the Seahawks' offense slipped. Hasselbeck struggled with a left shoulder that required postseason surgery. Alexander went down as another "Madden Curse" victim after breaking his foot following his MVP season. Five years of continuity on the offensive line dissolved when Steve Hutchinson left for Minnesota after Seattle made the mistake of designating him a transition player. Receivers dropped passes and were inconsistent.

Holmgren believes health and better execution will fix the offense. Consequently, the Seahawks are having their best offseason for attendance at their headquarters. Hasselbeck came back ahead of schedule from his shoulder rehab to run the minicamp. Alexander spent the winter in Seattle training instead of going back to Alabama.

To counter the improvements within the NFC West, general manager Tim Ruskell gave $81 million of contract commitments to defensive end Patrick Kerney and safeties Deon Grant and Brian Russell. If that wasn't enough, the Seahawks brought in former Falcons coach Jim Mora to recharge a porous secondary.

The division may be catching up, but the Seahawks didn't stand still.

"We needed another guy who can come off the edge and wreak some havoc," Peterson said of the signing of Kerney. "Having Jim Mora back as a defensive back coach is also great. He'll have guys in proper alignments and give us in the front seven extra time to get some pressure on the quarterback. Coach Mora adds enthusiasm and gets the best out of his players."

Peterson remembers Mora from their days together in San Francisco, where Mora was the defensive coordinator. Mora was creative and imaginative. He built a young 49ers defense from scratch after a massive salary-cap purge and made it formidable with young players. Peterson was his best athlete. Mora helped to develop Peterson into a Pro Bowl force and one of the better coverage linebackers in football.

Though the Seahawks are known for Holmgren's offense, they suddenly have weapons on defense. The front seven has three potential Pro Bowl players -- Kerney, Peterson and middle linebacker Lofa Tatupu. Grant and Russell were brought in to eliminate all the big plays allowed last year by safeties who didn't communicate well and bit on play fakes.

Perhaps the most controversial move came on the second day of the draft when Ruskell traded disgruntled wide receiver Jackson to the 49ers. Holmgren didn't like moving one of his best receivers to a division rival. Ruskell felt he had no choice. Jackson had been whining about his contract since he signed it more than three years ago. Though Jackson performed well on the field, he declined to be a regular on the practice field.

Instead of cutting Jackson for no value, Ruskell grabbed a fourth-round choice in the trade, even though the deal may end up helping the 49ers. Of course, Jackson's departure clears the way for Deion Branch to be the team's lead receiver. Branch understands what it means to be the hunted. He was part of two Patriots Super Bowl runs.

"We have to stay focused on what we are doing," Branch said. "We won the division for the past three years, but some got us picked last in the division. We realize all of our division games are going to be tough. We lost twice to San Francisco last year and Arizona beat us once. We were able to beat St. Louis twice. It's a tough division. We've got to stay healthy, and if we stay healthy, we'll be OK."

The footsteps may sound like Bigfoot's, but the Seahawks don't mind. They aren't ready to concede the NFC West yet.

John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.