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Football Notes

For Pete’s sake, Seahawks quarterback plenty excited

By Albert R. Breer
May 9, 2010

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Matt Hasselbeck turns 35 in September. A new coach has arrived in Seattle. So has a new offensive coordinator. So has, via trade, a brand-new 27-year-old quarterback.

And yet, the former Xaverian and Boston College quarterback is excited about all this?

Actually, yes. Hasselbeck is, in the words of his new coach, “pumped and jacked’’ for a new era of Seahawk football. And that coach, Pete Carroll, is a big reason why.

“It’s been extremely energizing,’’ Hasselbeck said. “Our team, our whole organization was heading in one direction under [Mike] Holmgren, and then we stumbled a little bit, and Holmgren kind of gets pushed out and we get new people in and they get fired.

“It was like, ‘Who’s steering the ship? What’s the philosophy? What are we about?’

“They threw on the brakes this offseason, and our president made a change, and stopped and brought someone in to turn things back around, and that’s what Pete’s done. It’s a total change. It’s a paradigm shift. I think everyone’s energized.’’

To find the reason why, you don’t have to go far back. After five consecutive NFC West titles, the Seahawks won a total of nine games in 2008 and ’09.

But more than that, Hasselbeck noticed an identity crisis. Holmgren got phased out, and the team didn’t turn around under Jim Mora. Somewhere along the way, the philosophy of one of the NFL’s more consistent winners seemed to splinter.

Enter Carroll.

For better or worse, it’s his way now in Seattle, and Hasselbeck is buying all the way in. When the quarterback’s phone rang back in January, he was still feeling for the old staff, which only got a year, and wondering about his future.

“He told me what he thought was important for him to get the team back on track, and without him even knowing the team yet, all the things he said were critical, were things I thought we needed,’’ Hasselbeck said. “He was talking 100 miles an hour. It was very fast and hard to keep up with. I was trying to write some things down, taking notes, and it was almost impossible.

“But that quickly changed my emotion. I went from feeling sorry for the group that moved on to being excited and energized to get back started.’’

Hasselbeck explains that the beauty of Carroll’s style is its simplicity. For every position, “It’s all about the ball.’’ On defense, it’s rallying to the ball or taking it away. On offense, it’s about putting it in the end zone.

Beyond that, there are three basic rules. The first is “protect the team,’’ not just on the field, but in policing each other off the field. Second is “no whining, excuses, or complaining.’’ And third is “be early’’ as a sign of respect for the people you work with.

Then there’s the staple of Carroll’s Southern Cal teams: competition. The coach preached to his Trojans that there was “no such thing as a returning starter,’’ and that’s why Hasselbeck was hardly shocked by the team’s trade for San Diego backup quarterback Charlie Whitehurst.

For now, Hasselbeck is No. 1. But that can change, and that pressure is what Carroll uses to fuel competition.

Everything has a winner and a loser in Seattle now.

The quarterbacks play “Jeopardy!’’ in the meeting room as a learning tool. Things as mundane as bag drills in practice are graded. Just about every last wind sprint is taped.

“It brings out the best in you,’’ Hasselbeck said. “He says that you’re not just competing with the guys on the roster, you’re competing with everyone out there that can do your job. He says, ‘I don’t want them happy, I want them hungry.’ ’’

Hasselbeck relates it back to his entry in the NFL. Back in 1998, after making it through final cuts with the Packers, he was driving to buy furniture and sign a lease in Green Bay when quarterbacks coach Andy Reid called and told him Rick Mirer had been cut by Chicago. Hasselbeck, a bit confused, said he was sorry to hear that. Then Reid told the quarterback they were going to try to sign Mirer, which would cost him his job.

He landed on the practice squad and had to fight his way back to the roster, then show enough in preseason to catch another team’s eye. Even after he got to Seattle, he lost his job to Trent Dilfer and had to wrest it back. So he is not shaken by Whitehurst’s presence.

“I was a little stung by it at first,’’ said Hasselbeck. “But I called them back, and they explained their stance on it, and I’m totally all in. I’m happy about it, and excited to have a good quarterback room again.’’

Hasselbeck reports that he and Whitehurst are getting along famously. And any worry Hasselbeck had about a lengthy rebuilding project was allayed during the draft, when the Seahawks filled two major holes with left tackle Russell Okung and safety Earl Thomas in the first round, then dealt for veterans Leon Washington and LenDale White.

He also has embraced the challenge of learning new coordinator Jeremy Bates’s offense, built to feature playmakers, as opposed to the reads-based West Coast system of Holmgren. Hasselbeck says he wants to make a run at being an NFL GM someday, but he feels that sitting early his career will extend his time as a player, so the end isn’t near.

Oh, and by the way, he knows what everyone back home is thinking. He remembers, too.

“All my friends back in Boston, they’re all Patriots fans that lived through that time in between [Bill] Parcells and [Bill] Belichick, and they all say, ‘Well, I don’t know . . .’ But on the West Coast, it’s different. In Southern California, Pete Carroll’s bigger than Kobe [Bryant] and Phil Jackson. There’s genuine excitement here.’’

And after a decade in Seattle, including an oh-so-close run at a championship in 2005, if the next big thing really is coming to town, then Hasselbeck wants in.

FLIGHT PLAN
Falcons may have the final pieces in place
The Falcons spent the 2008 offseason stocking their offense, and 2009 making their defense faster and younger.

They haven’t been perfect. But third-year general manager Thomas Dimitroff and coach Mike Smith have done a good enough job to where they’re now honing the details.

Think augment rather than overhaul.

“The expectations continue to increase within the team, and within the owner, and rightly so,’’ Dimitroff said. “With our time spent, our financial commitments, those should be there. I’m in no way anointing this team as having arrived, we still have inconsistencies, but I believe we’re heading in the right direction.’’

Atlanta looks stocked on offense, absent some minor issues on the line.

Dimitroff and Smith identified allowing “explosive plays’’ on defense as the primary weakness, and saw three areas where they could fix it: with a corner, a cover linebacker, or a pass rusher.

It started with a memory. Six years ago, as New England’s college scouting director, Dimitroff personally worked out prospective first-rounder Dunta Robinson before the draft. He remembered a fast, physical, instinctive cornerback, and saw the same Robinson — plus some experience and swagger — last year with Houston.

So on the first day of free agency, Atlanta signed Robinson to a six-year, $57 million deal.

That gave the Falcons added flexibility. On draft day, when a run on edge-rusher types started in the teens (and Florida center Maurkice Pouncey came off the board), the decision to take linebacker Sean Weatherspoon became academic.

While some see Weatherspoon as a prima donna, the Falcons’ research showed his bravado was often drawn out by coaches, and they determined he could develop into a leader.

As for the need at end, Dimitroff expects John Abraham to bounce back, and hopes under-the-radar youngsters Kroy Biermann and Lawrence Sidbury develop. And with defensive tackle Peria Jerry — the 2009 first-round pick who spent last year on injured reserve — back, the Falcons should be better inside.

“We feel like we’re adding three first-rounders on defense,’’ Dimitroff said. “Robinson’s one, Jerry’s two, and Weatherspoon’s three. We should have a very legitimate group.’’

IN HIS CORNER
Opponents impressed by McCourty
Rutgers’s Devin McCourty was the third cornerback off the board on draft day, and at least one team had a low second-round grade on him. The common thought is that Kyle Wilson and Patrick Robinson, taken two and five picks lower, have more potential.

So was McCourty more than the safe play for the Patriots? Those in the Big East think so.

“He’s a player who didn’t get as much recognition as others, but from a production standpoint on defense and special teams, he made as many plays as anyone,’’ said Pitt coach (and former Bears and Dolphins coach) Dave Wannstedt in an e-mail. “He has a strong combination of tangibles and intangibles that can make him an outstanding NFL player.

“Not only does he have speed and the ability to make plays, but he also has the leadership qualities and awareness that you like to see in draft prospects.’’

There’s no question that Bill Belichick’s information on McCourty — coached by his buddy Greg Schiano at Rutgers — is solid. But it might have given the New England coach an advantage that has been overlooked. And that’s the ability to see McCourty clearly as a player.

“What makes it harder with him is the thing you watch with Rutgers, as a coach, is their scheme,’’ West Virginia offensive coordinator Jeff Mullen said. “The head coach runs the defense and he does a wonderful job with it. So the first thing you think of with them is system, and then the parts.

“You get past that, and then, yeah, Devin jumps out immediately. But systematically, you’re worried first about how to put your offense in the best position against that scheme, because it’s an uphill battle.’’

That said, Mullen sees McCourty as a player who popped off the screen. Part of it, as Wannstedt said, was the plays the corner made. But another area was how the Scarlet Knights moved McCourty around the defense, so the offense couldn’t simply avoid him.

“It was a factor, what a great job Coach Schiano did with him,’’ Mullen said. “They’d hide him a lot — play him in the boundary, at field corner, as a slot. They’d have him in man coverage, they’d blitz him.

“You’d try to find him, and isolate another corner, but it was tough to do with all that Coach Schiano did with him.’’

ETC.
They run hard but still can’t quite catch up
If there is a strong argument against a rookie salary scale, it exists at the tailback position. Minnesota’s Adrian Peterson is through three years of his career and already has logged 915 carries and 83 catches. But because tailbacks have limited shelf lives, and Peterson has plenty of mileage logged and three years left on his rookie deal, the chance exists that he won’t be rewarded for his performance. So it’s a good thing he was the seventh pick in the draft, and got $17 million guaranteed on a six-year deal worth $40.5 million signed in 2007. That also helps you understand why Chris Johnson is gearing up for a holdout in Tennessee. As the 20th pick in the draft, Johnson got a five-year, $12 million contract and clearly has outplayed that. With three years left on the deal, there’s no guarantee that big money will be waiting for him when his rookie contract expires, so he needs to get it now, the same way Clinton Portis did when he engineered his exit from Denver in 2004 after just two years. This plays into the union’s argument that the average career doesn’t last as long as a rookie contract signed by almost any draft pick, so those players need to be paid earlier in their careers.

Defense a Giant project
Perhaps the most shocking story of the 2009 season was the decline of the once-fearsome Giants defense. Just two years after shutting down the most prolific offense in league history in Super Bowl XLII, New York was shredded for 427 points, the third-highest total in the NFL. So out went defensive coordinator Bill Sheridan, just 12 months after replacing Steve Spagnuolo, and in comes Perry Fewell, the former Bills defensive coordinator and interim coach. Fewell was noticeable at the club’s minicamp last weekend, lighting in to players at high volume. “I’m excited about football,’’ he said. “When they make a good play, I get excited about that. When they make a bad play, I encourage them to make a better play. That’s just the way I coach football.’’ The addition of veteran safety Antrell Rolle and rookie pass rusher Jason Pierre-Paul could help, and the improved health of key cogs Chris Canty, Aaron Ross, and Kenny Phillips is imperative. Fewell also needs to get more out of defensive end Osi Umenyiora and find a middle linebacker to replace the departed Antonio Pierce.

Moving pieces
Last week, a stadium bill was shot down, 10-9, by a Minnesota House committee, leaving the Vikings’ plans to replace the Metrodome on life support. The club has announced it will not renew its lease at the old place, which expires after the 2011 season. Two previous co-tenants at the Metrodome, the Twins and the University of Minnesota football team, have cut the ribbon on new open-air digs, ditching the dome. And so the Vikings get in the line for Los Angeles. Once the CBA issue is resolved, the league is expected to turn its attention to returning to Los Angeles, and with two Southern California stadium groups jockeying for position, things could happen quickly. Meanwhile, the 49ers have publicly expressed their opposition to sharing a proposed Santa Clara stadium with the Raiders, putting both those clubs in play, and the Jaguars, Chargers, and Bills have issues of their own. All those teams could use the threat of an LA move as leverage, but the three non-California teams might stand the best chance of moving. If the state government is to cut breaks for LA stadium groups, it likely will require that the team moving there not come from within its borders.

Three and out
Patrick Willis’s new deal is another example of a player going for financial security early, while yielding the potential to make more. The five-year extension for the 49ers linebacker, worth $50 million in new money, runs through the 2016 season and Willis’s 32d birthday, when his earning power would be reduced drastically. But Willis got the deal with two years left on his rookie contract, which shows the conviction the 49ers have in him . . . The almost-done deal of first-round washouts that will send Rams tackle Alex Barron to Dallas for Cowboys linebacker Bobby Carpenter feels a lot like the 2006 trade between the Patriots and Saints that sent wide receiver Bethel Johnson to New Orleans for draft-bust defensive tackle Johnathan Sullivan . . . Vince Young has had a tumultuous career thus far, but it’s hard to question the guy’s kind-hearted nature. Young has been active in the lives of the sons of his mentor, the late Steve McNair. And last week, he spearheaded a fund-raising effort to help those afflicted by the Tennessee floods. With all the Lawrence Taylor and Ben Roethlisberger stories out there, it’s nice to see a player who has fought through some adversity doing good.

Albert R. Breer can be reached at abreer@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @albertbreer. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.

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