Mike Holmgren has never been 2-8 in 17 years as an NFL head coach, yet a loss against Arizona will put him in that dismal category. Still, he preaches perseverance to his struggling team
RENTON — The coach sits on stage, alone and looking out into an auditorium.
He is barely more than 24 hours removed from the closest loss in a season that already includes so many disappointing defeats. For just a moment, the coach gives a glimpse of the toll this season is taking on the proud man who has worked 10 years to make Seattle’s NFL franchise relevant again.
“I’m doing my darndest now to keep my head above water,” Mike Holmgren said. “Because it’s important that I do that. It doesn’t make it any easier, though.”
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The sadness sits there, apparent as the cookie-duster of a mustache affixed to Holmgren’s upper lip.
His team is 2-7, one loss away from what would be the worst record Holmgren has had in 17 years as an NFL head coach. He was 2-5 his first season at Green Bay back in 1992, and 2-6 with the Seahawks in 2002. But never 2-8. It hasn’t been this bad since he coached high-school football at Sacred Heart in California, his first full-time job back in 1972, and the team lost 22 consecutive games.
Holmgren has rationalized why this season skidded into a ditch — the injuries at wide receiver, the back ailment that knocked quarterback Matt Hasselbeck out of the pocket for five games, the reined-in offense that struggles to score. While it’s not hard to understand why these Seahawks have lost seven games, that doesn’t make it any easier to stomach for a coach like Holmgren.
“Outwardly, I hope I’ve handled the team well,” Holmgren said. “Inwardly, you’ll never know how much it hurts.”
What was supposed to be a ride into the sunset is becoming more like an autopsy with every Seahawks loss, the coach cast in the role of the medical examiner who must explain the fatal flaws that have afflicted his team, from the dropped passes to the five illegal-procedure penalties to the fact he’s played 11 different receivers.
An NFL coach is his franchise’s spokesman. He has to explain the plays that didn’t work, the injuries that only a doctor could really understand and the reasons the team that has won four consecutive division titles hasn’t won back-to-back games this year. He also is the man in charge of motivating a locker room full of 53 adults, the one who must persuade them to keep sacrificing for the team’s benefit, even as the playoff possibilities are about to flicker out in the autumn wind.
That’s why Holmgren stood in front of his team on a Monday earlier this month, one day after a 20-point home loss to Philadelphia, and talked to them about perseverance.
“I told them a little story about my first job in construction,” Holmgren said. “I’ll tell you, it was just awful. I mean, the hardest thing I’ve ever done.”
Holmgren was 15 and hired to a construction crew building an apartment complex. He was a high-school kid with new work boots who didn’t want to let his dad down, so he spent his summer doing a grown man’s work around grown men.
“They gave me the worst, as you can imagine,” Holmgren said. “And it nearly broke me.”
His hands bled and he said he considered quitting at least 25 times. He never followed through on that.
“It taught me a valuable lesson,” Holmgren said. “One, I didn’t want to disappoint my dad. Two, if you just kind of stick with it, you can do most things. You can kind of get through most things.”
It was a crossroads for Holmgren, and he shared the experience with his players to emphasize that while the final two months of this season might not be enough time to save a season, there might be even more at stake.
“Everybody in the room has to make choices when it gets hard,” Holmgren said. “You have to make decisions.
“What decision you make says a lot about you and really says a lot about your future.”
And so the coach takes all those emotions and frustrations from this season, swallows hard and goes back to work with the same steel-toed determination that has forged a Hall of Fame coaching career.
Danny O’Neil: 206-464-2364 or firstname.lastname@example.org