When Walsh was hired by the Cincinnati Bengals as an assistant to Paul Brown in 1968, he was faced with the problem of one Virgil Carter. The Bengals were an AFL expansion team, and Carter was the quarterback Walsh was stuck with. Carter couldn’t get the ball more than 20 yards downfield without helium – so, instead of bucking against the circumstances, Walsh built a better mousetrap.
He expanded Sid Gillman’s San Diego system, which theorized that the number of receivers sent out on a play minimized the quarterback’s risks of both failure (by increasing his options) and injury (by confusing the defense in such a way that it couldn’t pin its ears back and set out after Mr. Quarterback with no thought to the consequences).
From Carter and Ken Anderson in Cincinnati, to Dan Fouts in San Diego (who Walsh also helped develop), through his San Francisco legacy, to the host of current NFL coaches who run variations of Walsh’s theme as their own almost 40 years after it was created, it’s all been about the efficiency of the system. “The performance of a quarterback must be manipulated,” he once said. “To a degree, coaching can make a quarterback, and it is certainly the most important factor for his success. The design of his team’s offense is the key to a quarterback’s performance. One has to be tuned to the other.”
NOV 1987: SAN FRANCISCO QUARTERBACK JOE MONTANA TALKS WITH HEAD COACH BILL WALSH, AS BACKUP QUARTERBACK STEVE YOUNG LISTENS, DURING THE 49ERS GAME AT CANDLESTICK PARK IN SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA. Otto Greule/ALLSPORT
Defense, on the other hand, was primarily a matter of acquiring stronger, faster players and pointing them in the right direction in that system. Comparatively speaking, it was third grade stuff compared to the offense’s post-graduate work: better players through more accomplished drafts and free agency hauls, the occasionally different on-field look, and “Let’s go geddim!” But it accomplished what Walsh wanted accomplished, just as the LeBeau/Belichick schools of thought will bring home championships with defenses more complex than their offenses.
Either way, success is predicated on two things: performance and consistency.
Mike Holmgren, who learned his brand of football under Walsh (and it’s easy to discern that the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree) took his Seahawks to the Super Bowl last season with a beautifully intricate offense and a defense that was good enough not to lose – and, as it did in the NFC Championship game, occasionally win. In 2006, neither of those aspects have existed for more than a few fleeting quarters, before the malaise rushes back in like a wave. That’s why this year’s Seahawks are 8-6 after fourteen weeks, as opposed to the 12-2 mark they sported at this time last season. For Holmgren, the turnaround must begin now if there is anything to be salvaged from this disappointing campaign.
“Everyone’s disappointed in the last few weeks, and probably searching for answers and all that kind of stuff,” Holmgren told the media on Friday. “Now, you come back. We have a good football team. We have stumbled around (and) have not been as consistent as we should’ve been. Let’s kind of clean up the things that have hurt us. We tried to identify those. And then just cut it loose. What the heck … go out there and have some fun and play, and don’t worry about what’s happened in the past. Now it comes down to us to a two-game season, really.”
The Seahawks can clinch their third straight NFC West title if they win one of their two remaining games, or if the 49ers lose one of their last two. But Holmgren knows that it’s far more complex than “go out there and have some fun” for the Seahawks, especially against this Sunday’s opponent, the San Diego Chargers. The Chargers come to Qwest Field with that same 12-2 record Seattle had last year after fourteen games, a 3-4 defense that is demolishing opposing offenses, and a brutally effective running game which camouflages the fact that quarterback Philip Rivers, a first-year starter, has put up almost 3,000 passing yards this season (10th-best in the NFL at 2,976) and has a 91.5 quarterback rating, 7th-best in the league.
It’s a very complete team, and Seattle will have to have all its forces aligned to pull off the upset. That sort of alignment isn’t something we’ve seen very much in 2006. Injuries have certainly been a factor – (“It’s a frustration for everybody, we’ve never really had our team on the field. It’s been an unusual year that way. Now everyone gets nicked up, but (this has) been something,” the coach said) – and that’s affected performance and team confidence.
Holmgren also intimated on Friday that team focus may have been a factor through this season. “I think there was probably a stretch there where (the players) thought (they) had all the time in the world and now (they) don’t. And I think that’s human nature. But we preach all the time, and you’ve heard us do it - that we take one game at a time, and try not to think about the big picture. Certainly if they handled it a different way before, they’re handling it a certain way now.”
That’s a disquieting thought for anyone who watched last year’s Seahawks, and saw a focus that hardly ever wavered. Does Holmgren make adjustments when things just aren’t coming together? How does he handle Matt Hasselbeck, the best current distillation of the Quarterback Laboratory first built by Walsh? Does he simplify?
“No, we can’t,” Holmgren said. “At times, all the bright quarterbacks in the league, they try to do too much. He’s probably more than some of the others. So while not taking anything away scheme-wise or play-wise, he can’t play the game by himself. He had a good week of practice. He starts pushing and trying to make up for the injury situation. And that usually doesn’t work very well when a player does that. He’s one man. And he’s a good quarterback, but he’s one man. And he has to let the other guys play.”
On Wednesday, Holmgren brought up an interesting point about the difference between veteran center Robbie Tobeck and second-year replacement Chris Spencer, who is filling ably for Tobeck as he recovers from a hip injury. It was a fascinating explanation of the interrelation of each offensive position.
“Mainly the calls and the speed at which everyone gets set,” Holmgren replied, when asked what was lost in the switch from Tobeck to Spencer. “Chris is doing a heck of a job. I want to say that up front. He's doing fine, and I'll stick with my comment that he'll be our center for many years, many years here. But right now, this is his first chance to play center a lot and while he might get to something or do something, it probably takes just a tad longer because he's grinding through some stuff. And the little tricks of the trade. Tobeck is real tricky. He had to be of course because he's limited athletically, but those are the things that Robbie had and Chris will have and will learn.”
Holmgren provided an example of the way a veteran center can influence a play before the snap happens. “Influence blocking,” he explained. “If you're playing against somebody and you want him to go a certain way and you know the play is coming over here, and you know the player you're going against pretty well and you've used a move a lot, you might be able to get him to move actually counter to where he's supposed to or you're supposed to block him just by how you do something. Right now, Chris is just going by the book, and he's trying. And you know what, I will say this. He's doing fine. In the passing game, I have no complaints about pass protection and things like that. (It) plays a little bit more of a factor now in the running game.”
As Walsh undoubtedly told Holmgren a million times when Holmgren served as the 49ers’ quarterbacks coach from 1986-1988, these dynamics are all related, and must work in near-perfect unison for team success to be attained. Few know this better than the Seahawks’ coach.
In the 2006 regular season, Mike Holmgren has two more games in which to try and turn all the lights on, at the same time, for an entire game. His ability to do so will decide whether a season that has more than its share of strange trips can be salvaged.
That perfect ending, so elusive, can still be seen … if only barely.
Doug Farrar is the Editor-in-Chief of Seahawks.NET and a staff writer for Football Outsiders. He also writes the weekly "Manic Monday" feature for FoxSports.com. Feel free to e-mail Doug here.