Hasselbeck thriving in West Coast offense

1/30/2006 - Seattle Seahawks

SEATTLE -- Mike Holmgren professes that it takes three years to make a quarterback in the West Coast offense, and it takes five years for a West Coast quarterback to become a very good one.

Matt Hasselbeck barely survived his first two years in Seattle. In 2001, Holmgren brought Hasselbeck to Seattle to be his QB via a trade with the Packers. He decided to make Hasselbeck his main pupil, swapping first-round picks with Green Bay (and throwing in a third-round choice to sweeten the deal). But by the end of his first season, Hasselbeck was on the bench, and he didn't become the full-time starter again until the middle of year two.

Seahawks fans had become numb to the promise of quarterbacks. After having instant excitement as a 1970s expansion team, with Jim Zorn running around making plays, followed by an undrafted quarterback from tiny Milton College, Dave Krieg, the Seahawks suffered a quarterback drought.

Hasselbeck appeared to be just the latest victim.

The Seahawks traded for Kelly Stouffer after a rookie-year holdout with the St. Louis Cardinals. That failed. With Drew Bledsoe having gone first to the Patriots, Seattle made Rick Mirer of Notre Dame the second pick. That failed. Dan McGwire was a first-round bust. So the combination of coach Mike Holmgren and Hasselbeck teased the psyche of Seahawks fans.

But Hasselbeck crashed and burned under Holmgren in year one and the beginning of year two.

"Basically, I got benched and Trent Dilfer became the guy here, and that was a tough thing to swallow," Hasselbeck said. "But I had a choice to make: I could either go in the tank [or] be ready the next time I got an opportunity. Most teams in this league, the backup gets to play at some point. I just had to prepare myself and improve hopefully to a level where I could be a good quarterback in this league by the time I got my next shot."

Holmgren can be rough on quarterbacks, and Hasselbeck knew that coming into his new job. Brett Favre and Hasselbeck became close friends in Green Bay. Holmgren broke down Favre after his trade from the Falcons. While Favre still had a wild streak on the field, Holmgren turned the undisciplined Favre into a strict executor of the West Coast offense. Favre became a student of the game, winning three consecutive MVPs and taking the Packers to two Super Bowls.

The transition didn't happen overnight. It took five years.

"I've always said it takes three years, but three to where they know where to go," Holmgren said. "Then, in years four and five, you polish your trade to really become good, not just to know what to do, but do it well. It takes until then so they know where to go, [and] to make the throw. It takes until then where you know you're getting this type of pressure here, so sidestep and make the throw. That's what you get the more you play the position."

Being around Favre was a blessing and a curse at first for Hasselbeck. He learned the good and the bad from Favre. While Favre could execute the West Coast offense with supreme efficiency, he would still make the improvisational play that would drive Holmgren crazy. Being around Favre gave Hasselbeck the chance to mimic those plays -- the throws off the back foot, the flip pass to the end zone.

But Hasselbeck wasn't Favre. It led to his benching.

"The toughest part was not being successful," Hasselbeck said. "I think everyone really wanted to be successful. I know I did, and I know he did. We just weren't that good. My play wasn't that good, and there were all kinds of reasons for that. The bottom line is that the product on the field wasn't good, and that is the frustrating thing."

Fortunately, Holmgren gave Hasselbeck a good support group. Even though Dilfer temporarily held Hasselbeck's starting job, they were close friends, and Dilfer tried to help Hasselbeck through the tough times. Offensive coordinator Gil Haskell was supportive, and quarterback coach Jim Zorn had a hands-on approach.

Zorn worked on Hasselbeck's mechanics to make him a more accurate passer.

"Another thing would just be my decision-making and running the offense," Hasselbeck said. "There is a lot of stuff that goes on that you don't really notice starting in the huddle and ending up right when the ball is snapped."

In some ways, Hasselbeck's early Seahawks benching opened his eyes. He'd watch Dilfer go behind center and flawlessly execute the plays he struggled to complete.

"When you are with the quarterback, you learn his decision-making ability under pressure, with guys in his face," Holmgren said. "You learn how he does and how he performs when he's hurt a little bit. I think that's a huge thing, because they all get hurt a little bit. Then, how does he handle that, because a quarterback is not a running back. He's not used to getting smacked every single time. So how does he play when he's hurting?"

It becomes doubly tough because Holmgren demands perfection.

"While you all think I'm real pleasant all the time, I've got to see how he's going to react to me," Holmgren said. "Then, sometimes I do things purposely to get a reaction, just to see. To me, it's kind of like a series of tests. Then, after you pass these tests, you kind of know. You kind of know. Then all of a sudden, as I've said before, you give them the keys to the car and let them drive it."

By the middle of year three, Hasselbeck was driving Holmgren's "car" quite well. He took the Seahawks to the playoffs, but an overtime interception was returned for a touchdown by Packers cornerback Mike McKenzie and the Seahawks lost. The next year, Hasselbeck was good again, but the Seahawks lost a home playoff game to the Rams.

Despite having receivers who led the league in dropped passes from 2002 to 2004, Hasselbeck's numbers almost met the standards of good West Coast offense quarterbacks. He completed 61 percent of his passes in 2003, with 26 touchdowns and 15 interceptions, giving him a respectable 88.8 quarterback rating. The dropped passes pulled down his numbers in 2004 to 58.9 percent on completions, but he still had 22 touchdown passes with 15 interceptions and an 83.4 quarterback rating.

Hasselbeck's biggest growth came during the 2005 offseason. Holmgren made a promise to Dilfer: If Dilfer could get a starting job with another team, Holmgren would let him go regardless of his contractual status. The Browns wanted Dilfer as a starter, and Holmgren lived up to his word and traded him to Cleveland for a fourth-round choice.

Suddenly, Hasselbeck lost his closest sideline supporter and teacher. At Browns camp, Dilfer predicted his departure would be the best or worst thing that could happen to Hasselbeck. His leadership would either grow or fail; Dilfer wouldn't be there as a mediator when Holmgren and Hasselbeck disagreed on what plays were right for the offense.

"It was not going to be easy with Trent being gone," Hasselbeck said. "Anytime you have an older guy in the quarterback room, there is some extra instruction and extra expertise in there. I remember the first game in Jacksonville when he wasn't around. It was a little bit of a shock. You don't realize all the stuff that he was doing until he was gone. It has been a growing experience, and I probably am more mature and better for it now that he's made me do it on my own."

Hasselbeck grew more comfortable adjusting calls at the line of scrimmage that didn't look right because of the alignment of the defense. Holmgren and Hasselbeck were more to the point with each other because neither could use Dilfer as a mediator.

During the 2005 season, Hasselbeck emerged as the NFC's best quarterback, completing 65.5 percent of his passes along with 24 touchdown passes and only nine interceptions. His quarterback rating was 98.2.

"Matt Hasselbeck is awesome," wide receiver Darrell Jackson said. "He's been really doing his thing. He's been carrying this team the whole year, and his rating has been up and his passing has been up. It looks like he's been focused and it looks like he's after something. I think I know what it is -- the Super Bowl ring."

Years six and seven should also be promising.

"I think he's bright and he's courageous, and I will say this: I think Matt's best years are still ahead of him," Holmgren said. "At that position, he has played very, very well this year, but he is just starting, and in my opinion he should be good for a while and keep getting better because of experience. Now, he got through this season, and he has played very, very well. Next season, I would expect more from him. I'm always going to push the envelope a little bit, and I think he would expect more from himself."

Hasselbeck dismisses the idea that getting to the Super Bowl validates a quarterback's place in NFL history.

"That sounds like a question that a bunch of sports reporters sitting around a desk should discuss," Hasselbeck said. "I really don't have the answer to that question. I don't know. What I do know is that the more I focus on playing football, the better I play. The better I play, the better I'll do in those kinds of discussions."

Clearly, Hasselbeck has arrived, and Super Bowl XL is his platform to prove it to everyone.

John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.