- John Clayton, NFL senior writer
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CHENEY, Wash. -- Sometimes, NFL teams can win division titles despite themselves.
That seems to be the story of the 2004 Seattle Seahawks. A young offensive unit that took Mike Holmgren six years to build experienced major growing pains. The defense didn't come together and fell to No. 26 in the NFL. The division title was spoiled by the fact the Seahawks lost three games to the division rival Rams, including a wild-card playoff game at home at Qwest Field.
Behind the scenes, more things were going on. Team president Bob Whitsitt was fired and the team hit a crazy free-agency period with new general manager Tim Ruskell.
The Seahawks were a franchise at a crossroads. They had 16 free agents, including nine starters. Mike Reinfeldt, who quit a year ago as the contract negotiator because of front office differences, came to the rescue and worked out deals to keep quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, left tackle Walter Jones, halfback Shaun Alexander, right tackle Floyd "Pork Chop" Womack, center Robbie Tobeck, guard Chris Gray and tight end Itula Mili.
Holmgren and Ruskell also went through a weeding-out process. They cut linebackers Chad Brown and Anthony Simmons and right tackle Chris Terry. And after supporting him despite continued bouts with alcohol-related incidents, the Seahawks cut wide receiver Koren Robinson.
"I thought our chemistry was good last year, but I think we got injured at wide receiver and I think the distraction of Koren's problems had an effect on the offensive team," Holmgren said. "Not many teams have to go through that type of soap opera stuff that we did last year."
As training camp wraps up, there is a different feel to this team. For one, there are a bunch of different players. As many as seven new starters could fill out the defense. Competition for Robinson's job at split end among Bobby Engram, Jerome Pathon and Joe Jurevicius should result in better offensive efficiency. Remember, the Seahawks have been among the league leaders in dropped passes the past three years.
"It's a team sport and you need to know you can count on your teammates," Hasselbeck said. "There were times last year when I was not sure we all felt we could count on the guy next to us, for whatever reason."
From the turmoil and change may come a more focused Seahawks team. Face it, this team relies on its offense to win. Over the past three years -- two in which the team made the playoffs -- the Seahawks have ranked between No. 6 and No. 8 in the NFL in offense. Hasselbeck is the clear leader, and should be on the verge of Pro Bowl consideration every year. From the quarterback's eyes, this is the most focused training camp he can remember.
Sometimes, change is good.
"We had some young guys who had some problems and it affected a lot of things," Holmgren said. "We lost some guys in free agency. There were a couple of guys who have been here for a long time, and it was time to make that change. They needed a new environment. We did that. We have a lot of new faces."
Despite the mass of changes, the core group of the Seahawks' offense is intact. The biggest surprise is seeing Jones and Alexander in camp. Jones missed three consecutive camps holding out as a franchise player. A rare talent, Jones showed up the first week of the regular season each year and earned three trips to the Pro Bowl. But Jones was signed long-term, with Alexander getting the franchise tag this year and setting up his possible camp holdout. But Alexander and the Seahawks worked out a one-year deal and he came to camp on time.
"I think last year was a little chaotic," Alexander said. "But I think it's been like that for a couple years. It just kinda been brewing. Last year, it just kinda hit the top where you had guys arguing and fighting on the sidelines of the game, where guys were getting mad about plays, offensively and defensively, where guys weren't trusting each other. Now, it looks like everybody is buckling down and handling one goal, which is getting to the Super Bowl and winning."
The timing of Ruskell's arrival is good. Coming from the Bucs and Falcons, Ruskell is big on finding players with character and guys who will help team chemistry. It wasn't easy, because he wasn't hired until the scouting combine was underway in late February. But Ruskell has tried to work meticulously on adding the right pieces.
Instead of finding one cornerback to replace departed starter Ken Lucas, he found two in Andre Dyson and Kelly Herndon. Dyson, Herndon and potential Pro Bowler Marcus Trufant give the Seahawks a three-cornerback set that is very accomplished. Ruskell's signing of DT Chartric Darby is also drawing rave reviews. Darby lacks ideal height, but he has always been a penetrating pass rusher in his limited playing time in Tampa Bay. Stopping the run was his problem because he was always pushed back by big guards and tackles.
Darby has struck up a good relationship with Marcus Tubbs, who is starting to look like what the Seahawks expected when they invested a first-round pick on him in the 2004 draft. Tubbs is big and strong enough to take some of the run pressure off Darby. It's a promising tandem.
"Our defense has not lived up to expectations in the last couple of years," Holmgren said. "Last year, I thought we had it going. We got some guys injured, then we lost our confidence. We got some new blood and some new people. We have to play with spirit and confidence and keep that spirit going. That's what good defenses do. I think we can surprise some people."
Coming off a season in which the Seahawks finished 26th on defense, any improvement would be a pleasant surprise. Being younger and maybe hungrier, defenders are flying to the football in practices and games.
Still, the Seahawks are going to win with their offense, and a more important issue is getting the chemistry right on that side of the ball. Robinson's alcohol problems were unfortunate. He had the talent to be a No. 1 wide receiver and teased the franchise in 2002 with a 78-catch, 1,240-yard season. In 2003, he got the drops and caught 65 passes for 896 yards. In 2004, he still had the drops, but his off-field problems caused him to miss meetings and led to league and team suspensions, even though he was well liked by his coaches and teammates.
"We're going to try to be better and that's one great thing about our camp this year, we haven't had any distractions," Hasselbeck said. "We've been very focused. We're out here in the middle of nowhere, no one's out here, no one is talking about us, no one cares about us. It's nice. We're just playing football, focused on football, running plays, resting when we're not playing football and it's been a really, really productive camp."
Darrell Jackson, coming off an 87-catch, 1,199-yard season, isn't dropping the ball as much as he has the past three years. Pathon and Jurevicius are sure-handed. Competition has been good at tight end between Mili and Jerramy Stevens. The Seahawks have five starters along the line that have been together for years and some promising, young future starters in center Chris Spencer and guard Sean Locklear to add depth.
"I think we've had a lot of shuffling going on," Engram said. "We just need some continuity. I think we are working toward that this year. I like where we are. I like where we've been. We are very competitive across the board. We have a lot of talented guys. It's going to be interesting to see how that all shakes out. We have, in my opinion, one of the most talented offensive lines in the league. Shaun will put up his big numbers."
Because of their troubles beating the Rams -- the Rams have won the past four meetings -- the Seahawks have to enter the NFC West race as the underdogs. They also know the Cardinals are rising to challenge them.
The NFC West division flag flies at Qwest Field, but it's flittering in the breeze. Even though the Seahawks made more changes than most division winners, they feel they've come out stronger.
John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
Despite winning the NFC West last season, the Seahawks spent a busy offseason making numerous changes.