Commentary

Seahawks viewing Carlson as solution to long-standing problem

The Seahawks need a complete tight end for their offense to reach its full potential. Mike Holmgren believes he's found that player in rookie John Carlson, writes Mike Sando.

Originally Published: May 8, 2008
By Mike Sando | ESPN.com

KIRKLAND, Wash. -- A familiar voice awaited Mike Holmgren when the Seattle Seahawks coach picked up his phone Wednesday.

Brent Jones was on the line.

Ah, yes, this is what a Pro Bowl tight end sounds like.

For all the successes Holmgren has enjoyed in leading Seattle to five division titles in nine seasons, he generally must reach deep into his past to connect with the accomplished tight ends he knows.

Rookie John Carlson, a second-round choice from Notre Dame, provides a final chance to alter that legacy. Holmgren, who is leaving the Seahawks after this season, told team president Tim Ruskell before the draft that Carlson had the look of a 10-year starter in the league. Ruskell traded up to get him.

"First of all, he should bring us some consistency to the position so we don't have to do special things just because he is in the game," Holmgren said.

Holmgren was a rising assistant with San Francisco in the late 1980s when Jones was emerging as a reliable pass-catching tight end and a tenacious blocker limited only by his 230-pound frame. Although Holmgren welcomed Jones' call this week as a chance to catch up with a former player he remembers fondly, the occasion also pointed to what might have been -- and what still might be -- in Seattle.

[+] EnlargeJohn Carlson
AP Photo/Kevin P. CaseySeattle is hoping John Carlson can quickly establish himself as a reliable two-way tight end.

The Seahawks lost Super Bowl XL against Pittsburgh after tight end Jerramy Stevens repeatedly dropped key passes. A similar scenario played out during the January playoff defeat at Green Bay. Marcus Pollard, the team's most recent stopgap at the position, lost a fumble to set up the Packers' go-ahead touchdown in the second quarter. Pollard, who recently signed with New England, later dropped a pass in the end zone as Green Bay ran away with a 42-20 victory.

Holmgren's offense depends on a traditional tight end to stretch defenses down the middle and open up the strongside running game. Colleges are producing fewer suitable candidates because their increasingly spread-oriented offenses feature tight ends flexed out as receivers. Receiving tight ends who double as powerful inline blockers are getting harder to find.

"If we can't run strong side, it really fouls up our game," Seahawks offensive coordinator Gil Haskell said.

The Seahawks under Holmgren have employed tight ends who were capable downfield receivers (Itula Mili, Stevens). They have employed tight ends who were better suited as blockers (Christian Fauria, Ryan Hannam, Will Heller). The inability of a single tight end to provide both services consistently has prevented Seattle's offense from reaching its full potential under Holmgren.

Mili and Hannam might have pulled it off had injuries not intervened, Holmgren said. Stevens certainly enjoyed a few promising moments, including a two-touchdown effort during a playoff victory over Dallas two seasons ago. But significant limitations at tight end have weighed on Holmgren's mind more than he has let on, affecting the role he has always relished -- calling the plays on game day.

"It's on my mind all the time," Holmgren said. "It's hard."

Holmgren described what amounted to regular situations when he called plays designed to use the skills of a specific tight end, only to receive word through his headset that an unexpected substitution at the position had rendered the play less appropriate. Frustrations over the issue have surely contributed to those familiar sideline shots of the coach turning various shades of crimson. Holmgren has wearied of the constant concern about which tight end is in the game.

"My hope is that we don't have to do that quite so much," he said.

Carlson, 6-foot-5 and 250 pounds, has prototypical size for the position as Holmgren wants it played. His 40-yard times at the combine lagged in the 4.9-second range, but the Seahawks were quick to point out that Carlson was sick that week. They watched him clock times in the 4.7-second range at his Notre Dame pro day, which is fast enough for their purposes. Most importantly, Holmgren loved what he saw when he watched video of Carlson playing in games.

"If you didn't watch him play and you saw that time at the combine, you would think he was a small tackle," Holmgren said. "He is not that. … He can catch and he can block."

The organization's inability to find such a player has led the Seahawks to alter the vision Holmgren held for his offense upon arriving in Seattle from Green Bay before the 1999 season.

Holmgren's base offense features two running backs, two receivers and a tight end. His preferred third-down personnel adds a receiver at the expense of a running back. But without a complete tight end, the Seahawks have leaned far more heavily on their "E" personnel package featuring two running backs and three wide receivers. The grouping initially worked well for running back Shaun Alexander because defenses treated the three-wide look as a passing set, leaving only six defenders in the box -- a dream scenario for former fullback Mack Strong.

As Alexander piled up yardage during the 2003, 2004 and 2005 seasons, defenses compensated with a seventh defender in the box, usually the free safety. The strategy helped Bobby Engram become more prolific as a slot receiver, peaking with 94 receptions last season. The gains looked good on the stat sheet, but Seattle's running game lost its soul along the way.

"Teams took it away, and it hurt us," Haskell said.

Carlson's arrival dovetails with sweeping plans to restore the running game. Seattle hired a new line coach in Mike Solari, formerly of the Kansas City Chiefs. Former University of Michigan assistant and Central Michigan head coach Mike DeBord, another newcomer, also is working closely with the line.

Alexander, who turns 31 in August, is out after two injury-plagued seasons. Newcomer Julius Jones and longtime backup Maurice Morris figure to get most of the carries. The team also signed T.J. Duckett as insurance.

Stevens, a first-round choice in 2002, is out of the league for now. Pollard lasted only one season in Seattle.

Carlson, Heller, Jeb Putzier, Joe Newton and Zac Alcorn give the Seahawks five tight ends heading into camp, but Carlson is the key.

The Seahawks hope the rookie can help Holmgren rediscover the offense as he intended to run it -- without the aid of a phone call from Brent Jones.

Mike Sando covers the NFL for ESPN.com.