- John Clayton, NFL senior writer
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DETROIT -- Shaun Alexander has rushed for 7,817 yards and scored 100 touchdowns in 96 NFL games. He's the league's MVP. He set the NFL touchdown record this season with 28. For a couple of years, he has been the national face of a franchise tucked away in the relatively unknown upper left-hand corner of the country.
For fantasy football players, he's guaranteed money in the red zone, turning 40 percent of his carries in the red zone into touchdowns. But he's still waiting to score a new contract with the Seahawks. Alexander the Great seems to be Alexander the Question Mark.
In the Seahawks' playoff victory against the Redskins, Alexander suffered a concussion in the first quarter and couldn't play. Critics questioned his toughness even though doctors weren't going to allow him to return to the game. He has been knocked for not getting the tough yards despite being one of the NFL's all-time greatest in the red zone -- the toughest part of the field to run.
Then comes the age issue. There is a feeling that 28-year-old backs who turn 29 in August shouldn't get the $8 million per year contracts given to younger backs such as LaDainian Tomlinson.
Seattle's franchise player always seems to be having to prove himself.
"I don't live my life trying to prove anything," Alexander said. "I set high goals for myself. I set high goals for my team, and as a group, we just try to achieve them. Contracts are contracts. They're just part of the business that's after football, but it has nothing to do with what we do on the field."
No one knows whether the Seahawks will be able to keep Alexander after the Super Bowl. For that matter, no one knows whether he will get the contract that will make him the NFL's highest-paid running back. Despite his persistent optimism that a deal with the Seahawks will happen, Alexander could make an open-field run into what will be a strange free-agent market.
The market for running backs is filled with teams that are lukewarm about going overboard with the checkbook. The Arizona Cardinals have a crying need for a big-time running back after J.J. Arrington's struggles as a rookie last season, but Dennis Green might look to one of the first-round backs -- LenDale White or DeAngelo Williams -- instead of paying big money for a free agent. Jacksonville, Pittsburgh or Tennessee could look to upgrade the backfield position, but it won't be with high-priced free agents. Baltimore, Indianapolis, Green Bay, Carolina and Minnesota, like the Seahawks, have backs who are free agents, but will they try to hit paydirt with Alexander?
Alexander accepts all of this with a smile. He's having fun. Deeply religious and a devote family man, he accepts the uncertainties of life as though his prayers are always answered. In some ways, it's that positive demeanor that leads to the criticism that Alexander isn't tough.
"He is a good fellow and he doesn't curse and he is a nice man," Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren said. "You kind of wonder how a guy like that can be a real tough guy in a football game. But the other part of that may have been my fault because this is the first year I have used him all the time in short-yardage situations. Before, we had another back doing that. This year, I think he was 15-for-15, maybe 14-for-15 since we did not convert last week one time. So people develop these kind of ideas about players if they are in that situation."
Even his on-the-field exchanges come with a smile. During the NFC Championship Game, Panthers safety Mike Minter blitzed and crashed into Alexander's face when he blocked him with a blitz pickup. Coming off a concussion the previous week and a few weeks of inactivity when the Seahawks clinched home-field advantage, Alexander was jarred. Minter got in his face and told him to expect this all day.
Politely, Alexander said, "I think you woke me up," and he spent the rest of the day making the Carolina defense pay.
Alexander's game still isn't that physical. Holmgren replaces Alexander on pure passing downs because he doesn't usually do a great job blocking on blitzes, sometimes leaving quarterback Matt Hasselbeck vulnerable to a hit. Like Franco Harris of the Steelers, Alexander has taken the heat for angling his body for the out-of-bounds marker instead of turning some outside runs toward defenders earlier in his career.
Yet, the way Alexander preserves his body has made him more durable. He led the NFL with 370 carries and has been adding to his total carries every year. Each year, his yards per carry average has improved despite the increased workload, going from 4.0 in 2002 to 4.4 in 2003 to 4.8 in 2004 to 5.1 this year.
"He is an elusive runner," Holmgren said. "You don't see people get tremendous shots at him, as opposed to more of a straight-line guy who piles it up in there and there is a big explosion every time. I think people look at that and say, 'We know he gains 1,800 yards and we know he scored 28 touchdowns or whatever, but what is it about the way he runs is a little different?' Then they take it to the next step. I really think that is unfair, and I know it is not true."
Another consideration is that the Seahawks' offensive philosophy isn't to run first. Holmgren runs the West Coast offense, which is geared to use the pass to set up the run. Almost half of Alexander's 1,880 yards came out of three-receiver sets. Often, Hasselbeck will change a pass call to an Alexander run based on what he sees at the line of scrimmage and Alexander will catch a defense off guard.
Alexander laughs at the notion he is a soft back.
"I think that [the doubting] usually happens before the game, but then after the game, it's a little different," Alexander said.
There is no question Alexander is enjoying the spotlight of the Super Bowl. He's the league's MVP in a contract year with a chance to get a Super Bowl ring. A reporter joked Sunday night that Kobe Bryant was in Detroit to play the Pistons and wondered who would be more recognized: Alexander or Kobe.
"I definitely will say Kobe Bryant," Alexander said. "I look like Tiki Barber a little bit."
People confuse Barber and Alexander all the time, which makes Alexander laugh. He and Barber are close friends anyway. The only difference is Barber got his financial security with a long-term deal from the Giants a couple of years ago. Alexander is still looking for his.
"It's not a denial thing -- it's not like it's not happening -- but to me, you have to play football first," he said. "We're not trying to be financial guys, accountants or businessmen. We're football players. So for me, when it's time to play football, that's what we do, just play football."
Tim Ruskell was hired in late February and had several tough situations to deal with. Chemistry problems and selfishness existed on the 2004 team that lost in the first round of the playoffs, and numerous players were weeded out of the locker room. Alexander's rookie contract had expired, and the Seahawks had to franchise Alexander to keep him.
Ruskell came to Alexander with a proposition. The team president didn't know the player other than from watching him on tape, and he said that if Alexander signed the franchise tender, he would give him the chance to be a free agent after the season. Although Ruskell said he wanted to re-sign him, the 2005 season would be a "get-to-know-you" type of season for Alexander, a proposition he considered no problem.
"It's really funny because it was already in my mind to come in anyway," Alexander said. "I prayed about it. It was just time. I knew this team could be special. I just felt like it was my time to come in. Tim made that offer as a gesture of goodwill when he didn't know me. It's all going to work out. I believe in that."
This Sunday, the league's most valuable player might play his last game with Seattle. He wants to be a Seahawk, but he's not worried about the future.
"The contract stuff just happens to be a coincidence to me," Alexander said. "I always play every game as if my back is against the wall. That's always something that has been good to me since high school. A lot of people believe the grass is greener on the other side, but I'm not one of those people. It wouldn't be my choice to leave, but the Seahawks know that."
The MVP feels as though he has proved his point.
John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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