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Seahawks will battle for top spot in NFC

9/6/2004 - Seattle Seahawks

On paper, the Seahawks are basically the same Seahawks that finished 10-6 last season.

Their total of eight new faces -- two free-agent signings and six draft choices -- is a league low. The league's 19th-ranked defense gained only four significant contributors: defensive linemen Grant Wistrom and Marcus Tubbs, cornerback Bobby Taylor and safety Michael Boulware. Chad Brown's broken leg leaves the linebacking corps with such big name starters as Isaiah Kacyvenski and Orlando Huff. Thanks to a great camp by cornerback Ken Lucas, the secondary has four starters 25 years old or younger.

Is this the makeup of a Super Bowl team? Could be. It can be argued that if the top NFC teams battled the AFC, the best of the NFC would be battling Denver for the last wild-card spot. Whether it's a lack of talent at the top of the NFC or just great timing, the Seahawks and Mike Holmgren are well positioned for a chance at a Super Bowl run.

Holmgren made this climb in Green Bay. It took two years to become a playoff team and four years to climb to the championship game level. In Year 5, the Packers went to the Super Bowl and beat the Patriots, 35-21.

But let's not confuse this Seahawks team with the 1996 Packers yet.

"The two Super Bowl teams in Green Bay had two great defensive players -- Leroy Butler and Reggie White," Holmgren said. "From this group, I hope a great player emerges. A great player like Reggie White changes the game."

The Seahawks have a defense without superstars. Marcus Trufant has a chance to place himself among the elite cornerbacks in the conference, but this is only his second season. Chad Brown has been to three Pro Bowls, but he is out until October.

Maybe these aren't the Packers of the mid-1990s, but they are good. They have the perfect mix to be among the elite NFC teams. Thanks to the development of Matt Hasselbeck at quarterback, Holmgren can run his pure version of the West Coast offense and not have to do it in the frozen tundra of the Midwest. He's on the West Coast, and this offense is thriving.

Hasselbeck may not have Brett Favre's talent, but he has Brett Favre's competitiveness. No one will forget his memorable coin toss call in last season's playoff game in Green Bay when Hasselbeck won the toss and said the Seahawks were going to take the ball and score. Unfortunately, Packers cornerback Al Harris stepped in front of a quick flat pass and raced into the end zone for the touchdown.

In Green Bay, Hasselbeck was just a seed on the practice squad when the Wisconsin natives were naming a street after Holmgren. In his wisest gamble as a general manager, Holmgren manipulated first-round picks and pulled Hasselbeck over to Seattle in a 2001 trade. A year and a half later, Hasselbeck started to get hot.

Suddenly, the game slowed down for him. He understood what Holmgren was trying to do on offense. After trying to force impromptu plays that would anger the coach, Hasselbeck settled into a rhythm and let the offensive skill-position players do the work for him.

His completion percentage jumped into the 60s. His quarterback rating soared into the high 80s.

"If we get the opportunity to make a big play, we will make them pay for it," Hasselbeck said. "It's not real complicated, and people try to make it complicated. I remember my first year. I would go through my progressions and I would go to my checkdowns. All of a sudden, I would be angry. People were probably looking at me and thinking, 'Isn't that what we want you to do?'"

It took a benching to straighten him out. Trent Dilfer came off the bench and got the offense rolling. Hasselbeck watched Dilfer effortlessly follow the progressions and go to the checkdowns. Suddenly, it clicked. "That's what I'm supposed to do," Hasselbeck said. Seeing a veteran such as Dilfer do it changed Hasselbeck's resistance to Holmgren's precise decision-making.

Owner Paul Allen knew when he hired Holmgren that he was spending more than $4 million a year for a proven offensive system. Andy Reid, Jon Gruden, Mike Sherman and others learned under Holmgren and have dominated the NFC. The system was the right one. Getting the right players to fit was the trouble.

Though a four-year wait for the system to click cost him his general manager title, Holmgren finally has the offense where he wants it.

"If the players who have to have big years, we should be pretty good," Holmgren said. "We've got pretty good depth. Our backup running back, Mo Morris, played in a playoff game. Jerramy Stevens, whom we took in the first round a few years ago as a tight end, had a great camp. He's healthy. We've got two Pro Bowlers [Walter Jones and Steve Hutchinson] on the left side of the line. Our fullback depth is good. And the players know the offense."

This is Year 6 for Holmgren in Seattle, and everything has pointed to this year. Hasselbeck, halfback Shaun Alexander and Jones are in the last years of their contracts. The Seahawks could see some of the strengths of their offense slipping away after the season.

Although a team that added only eight players might not seem to be under pressure to win, the most important thing was making sure the eight new Seahawks filled key needs. Allen spent $14 million in signing bonus money to add Wistrom's hustle on the right side of the defensive line. Though he's not considered a pass-rushing threat, his combined hustle with defensive end Chike Okeafor should add a combined double-digit sack total to a position that barely registered a sack during Holmgren's first four years.

Holmgren tried for years to plug the middle of the Seahawks' defensive line, and this offseason the team turned to youth. The Seahawks drafted Tubbs in the first round to give them a play-maker at defensive tackle. Their luck came when they hit on two pluggers in the middle of the defense who showed surprising skills. Cedric Woodard and Rashad Moore aren't big names, but they're 310-plus-pound defensive tackles who solidify the middle and give Tubbs time to develop.

"Chike Okeafor had an outstanding camp, and the same goes for Cedric Woodard," defensive coordinator Ray Rhodes said. "Rashad Moore has stepped it up more. Grant Wistrom didn't play until the last preseason game, but he's a veteran that will be ready and will know what time it is when the season starts. He won't miss a beat. We feel good about the first four."

Taylor, a Rhodes favorite from his days as the Eagles' head coach, didn't win the starting job, but he pushed Lucas into having his best camp at corner. Now, the Seahawks have three excellent coverage weapons.

"I'm an optimist," Holmgren said. "We will improve on defense. We will match up pretty well with teams in our secondary. We'll be okay at linebacker. I feel good about our defensive front."

Maybe the Seahawks don't have the look of a Super Bowl dominator. No one in the NFC does. The Eagles ranked 20th on defense last year, one spot behind Seattle. The Vikings may have made the most dramatic improvement on defense, but they were 23rd a year ago. The Panthers are the top defense in the conference, but their offensive line starts two players who were retired during the 2003 offeseason.

Even though their numbers are light as far as new additions for a Super Bowl run, the Seahawks know they are in the race.

John Clayton is a senior NFL writer at ESPN.com.