RB showing improvement but future still in doubt

KIRKLAND, Wash. -- The play is "93 Blast," and the Seahawks run it with deadly precision.

Pro Bowl OLT Walter Jones erases the outside linebacker. OLG Steve Hutchinson, another Pro Bowl choice, takes out the defensive end. FB Mack Strong, a 13-year veteran, goes after the inside 'backer. The right side of the line seals off the back side.

Shaun Alexander? He finds the end zone, or your money back.

"More than anybody I've ever been around, he touches the ball in the red zone and just finds a way," Strong said.

Hidden away in the Pacific Northwest, Alexander is piling up touchdowns faster than anyone in the league. He entered 2005 as the only player in NFL history with at least 15 of them in four consecutive seasons. No one has rushed for more yards since 2003.
Only San Diego's LaDainian Tomlinson, the consensus No. 1 back in football, has rushed for more yards since 2001.

The best word to describe Alexander?

"Productive," Redskins head coach Joe Gibbs said. "There is no guesswork. Year in and year out, this guy has huge stats."

For years Alexander's own coach, Mike Holmgren, seemed reluctant to give Alexander his due. The compliments always came with a caveat.

Holmgren would lament how Alexander sometimes lost yards by trading the sure gain for a shot at the big play.

There were likewise whispers about Alexander's flightiness as a pass blocker and a reluctance to fight for the tough yards. Alexander did not help his image late last season when he accused Holmgren of conspiring to keep him from winning the rushing title, an emotional outburst for which Alexander later apologized.

Against that backdrop, the Seahawks refused to offer Alexander a long-term contract during the offseason. To get him into camp on time, they signed him to a one-year deal in July and promised not to name him their franchise player after this season. The deal showed how much Seattle wanted Alexander in camp, but also how willing the team might be to let him walk away eventually.

Tim Ruskell, the Seahawks' new president, has said he'll continue to assess the situation throughout the season. In other words, don't expect a long-term agreement any time soon.

The wait-and-see approach seems to be working. Alexander has never run more decisively. Five games into the season, he had racked up 574 rushing yards and was showing more interest in pass protection. He converted all five of his third-and-1 chances despite facing tough defenses like Jacksonville, Atlanta and Washington.

"His judgment, his vision as a back is very, very good," Holmgren said. "This could be his best season ever if he keeps going the way he's going. I think he's running with authority.

"I mentioned it after our game with Washington: I was very proud of how he pass-protected on a couple of plays because that doesn't come natural to him. I mean, he's a runner. And he's battling. I like the way he's playing."

For a while, the Seahawks were taking Alexander off the field on passing downs to shore up their protection. The effect was to kill the team's screen game while forcing more punishment upon Strong's 34-year-old body. Alexander has made his way into more of the third-down packages this season because his blocking has improved.

"Shaun understands that is part of his game that needs to improve," Strong said. "He has worked really hard in training camp, and he obviously thought about it. He is a great athlete and so he already has all the tools to be a great pass blocker.

"I think it's just another piece of the puzzle that is going to help him to be probably the most complete back in the NFL."

Questions remain about how fervently Seattle should pursue a long-term contract. Alexander has never missed a game in five-plus seasons, but he'll be 29 before next season. That's about the age when running backs tend to start wearing down, sometimes precipitously. Is this the time to pay huge bonus money on a long-term deal?
Before Alexander had a contract to play for, Holmgren sometimes became frustrated with his star pupil's approach.

"I think he did a very average job in pass protection and in his routes, his check-downs and the non-running parts of the game," Holmgren said following a January 2002 game against San Diego. "He's gained all his wonderful yards rushing, and he's had a good year, but he still has things to learn to be the total package.

"And he wants to be," Holmgren added, "so I assume he'll do this."

Some have suggested Alexander started taking those things seriously only this season. Alexander disagrees, saying increased scrutiny is the only difference. Perhaps the market will decide.

The Seahawks figure to have a range of options. The list of potential free-agent runners includes Indianapolis' Edgerrin James, Baltimore's Jamal Lewis and Green Bay's Ahman Green. Others eligible for free agency include Carolina's DeShaun Foster, Philadelphia's Brian Westbrook and Minnesota's Michael Bennett.

None can match Seattle's No. 37 on the stat sheet, however, and Alexander has shown no signs of slowing. His production is actually on the upswing, from 1,175 yards in 2002 to 1,435 two seasons ago and a franchise-record 1,696 last season. More than a month into this season, Alexander is on pace for more than 1,800 yards.

His recent 45-yard reversal of fortune against Arizona recalled visions of Marcus Allen. The Cardinals had shut down a sweep to the right, leaving enough time for Alexander to react, not think. Alexander reversed field and accelerated away from defenders, turning a 5-yard loss into the kind of play that breaks the back of a defense.

"In this game, you rarely have the opportunity to hit the big plays, the big, long runs," Strong said. "But when you do, you've got to take advantage of them. He doesn't miss them very often. When you go back and look at film, there are very few times you go, 'Man, if I had stayed in that hole, it would have been a touchdown.' "

Holmgren loved the effort, but he singled out the finer points of Alexander's 140-yard, four-touchdown shredding of the Cardinals.

"There were times in there when we called plays basically up the gut on short-yardage situations or second-and-2, and he was running it like he wanted to get the two yards," Holmgren said. "That's a good thing. I told him that. I thought he had a fine game."

The upcoming offseason might not be the best time for a running back to hit free agency, but Alexander is sure to attract suitors.

"Whenever you have a shot at getting good players, most teams take advantage of that," Alexander said. "But I don't even worry about that. I think I'll be here."

Alexander will never be a bruiser. Over the years, his reluctance to take on defenders head-on has helped him avoid serious injury. It has also contributed to his reputation, right or wrong, as a finesse runner who doesn't always sacrifice his body for the extra yard.

The approach is consistent with the happy-go-lucky personality that Alexander reveals through a quick smile and shrug of the shoulders.

An avowed Christian, Alexander runs a foundation whose mission is to "empower young men through education, athletics, character programs and leadership training … inspiring them to reach their full potential as the mentors and role models for the next generation."

Alexander and his wife, Valerie, have two young daughters. Family definitely comes first, as Alexander proved when he missed part of a 2003 game so he could help deliver the couple's first child, Heaven.

Alexander rushed from the hospital to the stadium in time to help Seattle defeat the Rams 24-23. His second daughter, Trinity, was born during the start of camp this season.

"I have gone from being a young man with no kids and no wife to married with children over the five years I have been here," Alexander reflected. "There has been growth. But, overall the core person of who I am is still the same.

"I love people. I have great faith in God. I have a great love for my family, I love playing football and I love scoring touchdowns. It has always been like that. That is always going to be my core."

Alexander has always been most effective when given at least 25 carries a game. The Seahawks have been more of a passing team under Holmgren, fueling the perception that Alexander isn't the best fit in Seattle. The numbers suggest Alexander can fit in anywhere.

His first 25 100-yard games have averaged 141.6 yards, sixth-best among players with at least 20 triple-digit performances. The five guys ahead of him form an elite group: O.J. Simpson (148.8), Tomlinson (146.4), Jim Brown (145.8), Lewis (143.4) and Earl Campbell (142.6).

Alexander similarly has a knack for the timely breakaway run.

With his team trailing and stuck deep in its own territory at Jacksonville in the season opener, Alexander escaped for a 36-yard gain up the right sideline. There was also a 34-yarder up the left side at Washington during an 85-yard touchdown drive in the second half.

This year more than any other, Alexander has shown a willingness to become the aggressor. He bulled over Falcons S Bryan Scott during a key third-down run, all part of a 144-yard effort against a run defense that tied for eighth in 2004.

Holmgren was asked recently whether he'd rather have his back gain 3 or 4 yards every time, rather than living with the occasional two-yard loss.

"I'd rather have a guy that scores 20 touchdowns a year, which he does," Holmgren said. "Our guy does that. He gets down to the red zone, and he wants the ball.

"At the end of the year, if you have a guy who scores 20 touchdowns, gains 1,500 yards, goes to the Pro Bowl, does all those things, you're probably happy you have him."

Mike Sando covers the Seahawks for the Tacoma News Tribune.

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