Back when he was still new here and the Super Bowl ring twinkled fresh, Mike Holmgren had a plan.

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Back when he was still new here and the Super Bowl ring twinkled fresh, Mike Holmgren had a plan. He would rebuild these Seahawks. He would rebuild them the way he helped make the Green Bay Packers, with his kind of players.

When he had his Brett Favre and his Antonio Freeman and his Mark Chmura, he would grow them together, watching them win more and more until they reached the NFC Championship game around 2002 and the Super Bowl the two years after.

Then, he must have known, the run would be over. With all the restrictions of today’s salary cap, there was no way he would keep so many good players on one team. Everybody else would want them, too. The expiration date on the Holmgren plan was 2004.

Which is why he has been smiling through the gloomy Mondays that have come after the dark Sundays this fall. It is why he keeps saying he believes in a group that flops along, winning some, then losing some. It’s why he stood in a hallway beneath the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis last month, gritted his teeth and promised that someday this team would find itself in a big game and find a way to pull on through.

Because after this year, the sledgehammer comes down on the team he built.

Every day brings a new rumor about the coach — a new team with interest, a new city that makes perfect sense for a new version of the plan. But even if he stays, the faces that look back at him in the locker room will be different. And the rebuilding will have to begin once again.

Nine of the Seahawks starters are unrestricted free agents. That includes quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, running back Shaun Alexander, three-fifths of the offensive line, the team’s best pass rusher, Chike Okeafor, and its top special-teams player, Alex Bannister. While the team should have room under the salary cap to sign at least half of them, the cap has yet to be established and the core group will still be broken.

Perhaps that doesn’t seem so awful given the way the Seahawks have limped and crawled to the finish this season. But think about next season, when the team will have to begin again with new draft picks, given that the last few drafts have not brought the kinds of players who you build a franchise around.

Either win now or wait another three years is what it has come to.

The Super Bowl season is down to its last three games and Holmgren is tugging with all his might, trying to pull this team into the playoffs. If he seemed disinterested in the past, he is alive now, growling at the referees, snapping at coaches, glowering at his players. The other day in Minnesota, as Antonio Cochran pulled down Vikings quarterback Daunte Culpepper on the final play, Holmgren bolted off the sideline and did an uncharacteristic thing. He ran up to Cochran and gave him a hug.

Next week he gets Koren Robinson, his prodigal wide receiver, back from suspension. In another time, he might never have let Robinson back in the locker room after missing the last four games in a league-mandated house arrest. But there is potential in Robinson, an ability to take a pass and run 70 yards without being touched. And that exceeds any longing in Holmgren to keep Robinson away.

“He will be in the lineup,” Holmgren said.

They will all be in the lineup these last three games, anyone Holmgren can find. Nothing else matters but finding a way to win two of the next three games.

On Wednesday, Holmgren was asked if he cared how he got to the playoffs, was it important to win the NFC West and have a home game? The coach looked at the question as if he had never pondered it before. He mumbled something about how it would probably be better to play the first weekend of the postseason in his own stadium, that statistics show a home team has a better chance of winning a playoff game. Then he stopped.

“We just want to get into the tournament,” he said.

After that, who knows?

Time has not looked kindly upon Holmgren’s plan. There have been moments when the offense has moved as well as any in the NFL, but there have been too many times when the receivers dropped the ball or the holes never opened for Alexander. Holmgren built the offense at the expense of the defense, and it is easy now to see the mistake made.

But he can’t give up on this group. Not yet. A flawed team with talent still has a chance — no matter how small — to be dangerous. In a frail NFC, anything can happen.

So Holmgren pushes with all his might these last few weeks.

Because soon there might not be anything left to push.

Les Carpenter: 206-464-2280 or