Something was wrong with the Seattle Seahawks. Yes, they made the playoffs for the second year in a row last season. Yes, they had great players like running back Shaun Alexander.
But something wasn't right, and quarterback Matt Hasselbeck could see it, just like he sees how good things are now.
"For the first time, we're playing with guys that you can really count on," Hasselbeck said. "There aren't guys showing up late for meetings, doing stupid stuff that there's no place for. We're professionals. This isn't college. This is your job. Approach it that way. It was very, very tough: Guys having alcohol on their breath at practice. Guys that are hurt, and you're like, 'Is he really hurt, or is he not really wanting to practice?'
"There was a lot of talk about 'I'm not going to be here anyway next year. This guy's not going to be my coach. I don't care what he says.' It was disappointing when we lost in the playoffs last year, but in a way it was OK because our team wasn't good enough. We weren't enough of a team to go all the way."
A year later, they surely are.
The Seahawks posted a 13-3 record this season to earn a first-round bye and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. They not only are favored to defeat the Washington Redskins in their divisional playoff game on Saturday -- it would be the Seahawks' first victory in the postseason in 21 years -- but also to advance to the Super Bowl for the first time in the 30-season history of the franchise.
Hasselbeck led the NFC in passing. Alexander scored an NFL-record 28 touchdowns. The left side of the offensive line, tackle Walter Jones and guard Steve Hutchinson, is Pro Bowl-bound, as is fullback Mack Strong.
But Hasselbeck credits new front office boss Tim Ruskell and veteran coach Mike Holmgren for having the guts to do more than just tinker with a roster that produced a 19-13 record in the 2003 and 2004 seasons.
"Have we given up talent in some areas for guys that are more professional and better teammates?" Hasselbeck said. "Absolutely. Has that in turn helped our team chemistry, camaraderie in the locker room and being assignment-correct on the field? Absolutely."
Being assignment-correct is a trait Hasselbeck has in spades after six years in Holmgren's offense, including his rookie year in Green Bay, where he held a clipboard for the Packers and watched Brett Favre.
"Matt has worked very, very hard to understand the system," Holmgren said. "He's comfortable with it. His technical skills of playing the position have improved. He's a quality quarterback, but he's still a pup when it comes to actually playing in the league."
Hasselbeck has improved greatly since the 2001 season, when Holmgren benched the first-year starter for the second half of a loss to the Redskins in Washington.
"We were on the 5-yard line right before the half," Hasselbeck said. "Coach calls a play on which there are four different options to throw the ball to. In my helmet, he said, 'Be smart here. We've got the half.' ... He meant, 'Look for the first guy, and if it's not there throw the ball in row 2.' To me, it meant, don't throw it across your body.
"Bruce Smith sacks me, causes a fumble and we don't score. Coach takes me out of the game. It was an honest mistake. We just weren't on the same page. Five years later, 99.9 percent of the time, we're on the same page."
So much so that Redskins cornerback Shawn Springs, who played in Seattle from 1999 to 2003, called Hasselbeck a master at running Holmgren's system.
Hasselbeck said he's "probably" had his best year. His numbers -- 24 touchdowns, just nine interceptions, 3,459 yards, a career-high 98.2 rating and an 8-0 record at Qwest Field -- certainly say he's master of his domain.
"Two years ago when we made the playoffs and went to Green Bay, it was like we were just happy to be there," Hasselbeck said. "That's completely different now. We expect to win each time we step on the field. We have the loudest stadium in the NFL because for the first time in a long time, people truly believe in this team.
"It's a great feeling. It helps your adrenaline. It gives you that momentum. You feel good about going to work. It's a great time to be a Seahawk. I feel very fortunate that I get to be the quarterback of this team."
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