Seahawks.NET Q&A: Les Carpenter

Like sands through the hourglass...

Recently, we asked Seattle Times sportswriter Les Carpenter to answer several questions about the state of the Seahawks. What we received in return was an amazing discourse on everything from front office fiascos to the future of the team. This is required reading!


.NET: Les, thanks for taking the time to sit down with us. Please tell us how your career as a sportswriter began, and how long you have been with the Seattle Times?

Les Carpenter: First of all, I'd like to say hello and wish everybody a happy holiday. This has been quite a season we've seen, I've certainly never been around anything like this year anywhere in any sport.

As for myself, I never set out to be a sportswriter. I studied journalism at the University of Missouri hoping to be a political writer. But since I loved sports, I found several part-time jobs covering Missouri's basketball and football teams for wire services like the AP and UPI, while at the same time working on a U.S. Senate campaign. In my junior year of college, the Kansas City Star was looking for a student to help cover sports at Mizzou. It sounded like a great way to get in the door of a big paper so I called and landed the job. It was only then I realized how much I loved writing about sports.

After college, I found a job covering UConn for the Connecticut Post, which is a mid-sized paper in the New York suburbs. I worked there a few years eventually becoming the paper's columnist. In 1996, the Seattle Times called and offered a job covering the Seahawks. I started the next January, and covered the 1997 and 1998 seasons as a beat writer before becoming the paper's NFL columnist in 1999. In 2003 I became a general columnist, though a majority of my pieces are still about football.

.NET: Over the last few months, there have been several national and local reports of severe internal tension between Mike Holmgren and Bob Whitsitt. Do you think this tension is real?

Les Carpenter: Yes. The Holmgren-Whitsitt tension is nothing new - in fact, there was talk of problems between them as far back as 2000. Both are stubborn men who like control, so it's easy to see they might not get along. I always thought Holmgren believed he was going to come here and report straight to Paul Allen, much in the same way his mentor Bill Walsh always had Eddie DeBartolo's ear in San Francisco. He probably never gave much of a thought to Whitsitt - after all, Whitsitt had the Trail Blazers to keep him occupied. It was undoubtedly a shock for him to realize the Whitsitt intended to run both organizations and that Allen did not have direct contact with the team on a daily basis, instead relying on Bob to be his conduit to the Seahawks.

One of Mike's big mistakes was to expect that since he had brought in his coaching staff and many of the Packers administrators and executives, he could drift in the job. He took vacations, he wasn't around much in those first few months. I don't think Whitsitt - who worked out of Kirkland and not Portland - expected to see Mike miss that much time. When Mike seemed to misjudge his ability to rebuild a team, tearing down a division champion and adding in his own players who did not win right away, Whitsitt began to pay more attention to the football team.

When Whitsitt forced Holmgren to give up power after the 2002 season, it seemed he did so knowing he would probably soon leave the Trail Blazers and would take over the personnel here. This has led to tension for the obvious reasons: Whitsitt is not a football guy and he pushed out Holmgren's most able executive in Mike Reinfeldt. I'm not sure Whitsitt the GM's decisions mesh with Holmgren the coach's vision. For instance, I doubt Holmgren would have signed off on a $14 million bonus for Grant Wistrom. Then again, Whitsitt can point out that the roster hand-picked by Holmgren hasn't exactly overwhelmed.

From what I've heard both men can be difficult to work for, so it makes sense they would probably not get along.

.NET: Have you ever interviewed Ray Rhodes? Why do you think he is so reluctant to speak to the media?

Les Carpenter: Not really. I've only spoken to him alone one time. It was in a hallway in Lambeau Field the year he coached the Packers (1999). He was accommodating and took time to answer my questions but he clearly didn't want to be there and was somewhat abrupt, which was fine. He didn't have to stop at all. All other conversations with him have been part of group interviews and in those sessions, he's always been considerate enough to answer everybody's questions.

While I know he hates dealing with the media - one of his undoings as a head coach - it's important here that he keep some kind of contact with the public. Holmgren has never hidden his priorities as a coach. He's an offensive guy. So the defensive coordinator in Seattle has more of an obligation to deal with the public than someone in the same position elsewhere. If Rhodes doesn't talk then nobody knows what's going on with the defense. Several times in the last couple years, I've seen Holmgren standing at postgame press conferences trying to explain a defense he didn't design and had no part of. It was sad to watch.

One of the criticisms of Rhodes is that he doesn't scheme well, relying on a base defense and emotion to beat opponents. I know players loved his fire and brimstone speeches when he first arrived, I'm not sure that works over the long haul.

It is my understanding Rhodes will speak publicly today (Thursday) for the first time all season. I wasn't out there (at Kirkland HQ) today, but I am curious to see what he had to say. (Editor’s Note: Ray Rhodes did indeed speak to the media today – check Seahawks.com for the transcript, and Seahawks.NET for further coverage in the very near future.)

.NET: Also, many fans wonder why Ray Rhodes doesn't get down on the field and lead the defense? Is he afraid of being on the field and in the spotlight or does he just think he honestly can see things better from the booth?

Les Carpenter: A lot of coordinators work from upstairs, it gives them a better perspective than if they were standing on the field. I assume Rhodes is the same but I have not heard one way or another.

.NET: Why do you think it is that none of our free agents have been resigned?

Les Carpenter: The window for winning big with this current group is getting small. I think Holmgren the GM figured he would build this roughly the way Green Bay was built. By 2002, the Seahawks would be ready to contend for a conference championship and 2003 and 2004 would be the Super Bowl years. This is why so many contracts come up now.

This past winter seemed to be one of uncertainty around the Seahawks front office. Whitsitt was rumored to be looking at some basketball opportunities, and seemed to look at this as a one-shot opportunity to fill the roster and make a Super Bowl run. In a sense, he appeared to want to be sure any failings on this team's part wouldn't be his fault. This is how the Seahawks came to overpay for Grant Wistrom and probably overpay for Darrell Jackson too. When word got around the league about how much the team spent, a lot of executives laughed at the Wistrom deal. After that, the spending stopped and I'm not sure why.

Was it because they wanted to deal with all extensions after the season knowing there was no way to keep all the players and some would have their markets settle out? Or did they just not care because this was the big Super Bowl season and their focus was only on the current roster? Maybe Whitsitt thought there was a good chance either he or Holmgren would not be around next season and therefore chose to wait until season's end.

I do think it hard to sign Hasselbeck, Alexander and Jones to long term deals all at once, whether it's during the season or after the season.

.NET: If the Seahawks don't make the playoffs, or lose in the first round again, do you think Mike Holmgren will either quit or be fired, or do you think Paul Allen and Bob Whitsitt believe there's no candidates out there at the top of the list better than Holmgren?

Les Carpenter: This is a tough question, because everything is intertwined. To assume Holmgren would be fired is to assume Whitsitt is going to stay. Since Whitsitt is a basketball guy and since he is essentially responsible for two NBA Finals clubs (the 1996 Sonics and the 2000 Blazers -- who were robbed in game 7), I figure he is going to have another shot at the NBA. Some think he is trying to put together a group to buy a team. If Whitsitt goes, I find it hard to believe Holmgren goes too.

I do believe, however, that both will not remain here. If Whitsitt stays, I think Holmgren angles to get out. Why else would he have his people plant stories in Miami and San Francisco that he is having trouble with Whitsitt?

The problem with firing Holmgren is that he's surrounded by his own people. In addition to firing all the coaches, you'd have to fire the personnel guys, the scouts, the quality control assistants, the trainers, etc. Then Whitsitt would have to decide if he wants to continue as the GM - or does he want to keep Bob Ferguson - or would he hire a GM to run everything? I think it would be hard to hire a good coach who would want to come in and work for a GM with a basketball background, especially one with whom Holmgren has tussled.

I wonder where Holmgren would go if he left on his own. San Francisco is a distinct possibility but that team has been so decimated by the salary cap and ownership is so cheap I'm not sure it's a great option.

.NET: If there is a vacancy at the head coach position, who might you like to see come on board if you were responsible for making the choice?

Les Carpenter: At this point I would probably choose Holmgren, with some changes on the defensive and special teams staff. But if he's gone, I think this team should resist the lure to pick another big name. Grabbing a Super Bowl coach who has already won the big one is always risky as evidenced by Holmgren. The fire is almost never the same. I would also hire a defensive-minded head coach since it seems the teams with great defenses get good quickly.

Among current head coaches, Jeff Fisher would be an interesting choice. Otherwise, I might look at a good defensive coordinator someplace. Look at how quickly Jack Del Rio turned the Jaguars around.

.NET: Is there a story you've written that you're most proud of?

Les Carpenter: It's a tough question to answer, because like a lot of writers I am very critical of my own work. I've never written the perfect story. I can think of a couple pieces I did this year that I enjoyed writing, like when I went to LA to do a piece on David Lander – who played “Squiggy” on the TV show “Laverne and Shirley”, who is now a Mariners scout. That ran on May 16. For some reason I also liked the story of Carl Eller, the former Viking star (and Seahawk) who campaigned for his election to the Hall of Fame this past year. It was his last chance and desperate to prove he belonged, he sent out letters asking for votes. I was struck by the fact that he took the action himself and refused to go down without a fight. Most people would not do this. I think that column ran on Super Bowl Sunday.

.NET: What would you like to see the Seahawks do to improve their pass rush? Draft? Free agency? A new coordinator?

Les Carpenter: I think the Rhodes era has run its course here, so yes - there probably needs to be a new coordinator with new schemes. But the Seahawks definitely need to address the talent on this defense. Wistrom is obviously here for a few years but even though Okeafor has had a good year they might want to upgrade at that spot. It may be time to look at different linebackers who can rush.

.NET: Anthony Simmons is out for the year with a wrist injury. Is the organization concerned that Anthony's rather injury-prone?

Les Carpenter: Yeah, I think so. But I don't know why they didn't think of that before. Simmons is an aggressive player who is approaching 30 years old. Those guys get hurt more than others. I think they were concerned a couple years ago when he had the ankle injury but decided to spend big money on him anyway. There is a risk in doing that. When healthy, I think he's the best player on this defense, but he has missed so much time lately he isn't helping this defense.

.NET: Have you ever covered an athlete who made objectivity on your part nearly impossible?

Les Carpenter: No, though I think it's an interesting question. Frank Deford wrote a great piece in Sports Illustrated a few years back about his friendship with Bill Russell. They were in a car in LA many years ago after having spent a wonderful couple of days talking and Russell remarked that it was too bad they could never be friends. Deford asked why and Russell replied, "Because of what you do."

To write as honestly as possible you have to dance a thin line. You want to maintain good relations with the players but they have to be able to realize that we have to criticize them when they make mistakes. Of course there are athletes you come to like and athletes you trust to tell you the truth, but at the end of the day you still have a job to do.

Likewise, there are players who have not gotten along with me. And I have to make sure not to let those feelings affect my work either. Some writers refuse, for instance, to talk to certain players or coaches but I don't believe in doing that. The readers don't care who we don't like.

.NET: How do you think the loss of salary cap guru Mike Reinfeldt has affected the organization?

Les Carpenter: I think it hurt the team a lot this winter for the reasons mentioned earlier. Reinfeldt was known for being a good manager of the salary cap and did a good job of cutting deals that were fair to the team. The Wistrom signing will go down as an embarrassment. He could have been signed for half the amount of guaranteed money that he was.
.NET: Is there any chance that Special Teams Coach Mark Michaels will be gone after this season? If so, who do you think will be the likely replacement?

Les Carpenter: I think a lot of that depends on Holmgren - he does not like to fire his own people. That said, the recent involvement of Gil Haskell and Nolan Cromwell on special teams probably does not bode well for Michaels’ future.

.NET: Do you see Chad Brown still around next year or will his perpetual injuries finally force him to retire?

Les Carpenter: Yeah, I think Chad's injuries have really taken a toll. It's too bad, too because he has been a lot of fun to watch over the years and I see him as a good influence on younger players. If nothing else, he's one of the smartest football players I've ever dealt with. Ultimately, they might have to rely on a whole new combination of outside linebackers here.

.NET: Koren Robinson returns from his four-game suspension and will start against the Cardinals on Sunday. Is Robinson the kind of person that you think will live up to his great athletic potential?

Les Carpenter: He's down to his last chance here. Koren is a nice guy, easy to like and I can see why Holmgren has a soft spot for him. I like him. But he needs to grow up a lot. In the past I think Holmgren would have treated Koren differently. I think he would have cut him loose and turned his back. He hasn't, and I'm not sure why. Maybe he sees so much potential unmet. Maybe he sees his own legacy tied into that first round pick from a few years back. Maybe he sees a wayward player who needs help.

That said, if Koren doesn't turn himself around the next couple weeks, they need to cut their ties with him. I hear a lot about how young he is. This is his fourth year in the NFL, and if he hasn't grown up by now, he probably won't.

Les Carpenter writes about football, and much more, for the Seattle Times. You can reach Les via e-mail at lcarpenter@seattletimes.com. Everyone on staff at Seahawks.NET would like to express our heartfelt gratitude to Les for taking the time to answer so many questions during the busy holiday season!

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