Seahawks’ dilemma: Watters vs. Alexander
By Scott M. Johnson
KIRKLAND — Saturday was the kind of day Shaun Alexander has envisioned for his entire professional career. He was the Seattle Seahawks’ starting halfback, broke a 33-yarder on his first carry, and finally got to show what kind of player he is ready to be at the NFL level.
Unfortunately for the Seahawks’ 23-year-old running back, it was only the preseason. And the team’s target for his first official NFL start is still more than a year away.
Ricky Watters is still the starting running back, a fact that Alexander will have to swallow for one more season.
"They all want to start. That’s easier. But they can’t all start," coach Mike Holmgren said Monday. "We’ll be a much better football team — a much better football team — this year with Ricky starting and Shaun coming in and giving him a (break). So that’s what I’m hoping is what happens."
Alexander made the most out of his first start Saturday, running for 62 yards on eight carries in his most extensive action of the 2001 preseason. He also made four receptions, including a 14-yard touchdown off a screen pass in the first quarter.
"It was really exciting to get the start, knowing that I could set the tone for the offense," Alexander said. "When I’m the starter, I think about how it’s my show."
Alexander found out Thursday night that he would get the start so that Watters could take the day off. It was a pleasant surprise for Alexander, the team’s first-round pick in the 2000 NFL draft.
"I was like, I really don’t believe they’re going to do that," Alexander said. "Then I wanted to make them feel really stupid (for not doing it sooner). I’m a challenging type of person, and I like to challenge others. I wanted to make (the coaches) doubt themselves."
Despite Alexander’s performance, he did not leave any doubt in the coaches’ minds whether he should be the starter this season. They already knew he could perform in games. What Alexander is still learning is how to practice.
"Where you want to see push from Shaun is in terms of his work habits," running backs coach Stump Mitchell said. "He’s going to get the opportunity to play, but he needs to practice hard every down, every play. That’s what he needs to do. Eventually, he’s going to get the opportunity to play."
Alexander has always had the reputation of performing when the lights come on. His first official carries in high school and college went for touchdowns. He gained a University of Alabama-record 291 yards in his first extensive action there.
But the Seahawks want him to be more than just a so-called gamer.
"That doesn’t fly with Coach Holmgren, being a gamer," Mitchell said. "This isn’t high school or college anymore. We practice one way. Everybody practices hard. That’s the way it’s got to be."
Coaches have been on Alexander for his practice habits all summer, and he knows it’s an area of concern. But Alexander doesn’t see a lack of hard work as the issue.
"I always look at practice as the time to make mistakes, to try something out that might not work," Alexander said. "Sometimes I get caught."
The most visible mistakes have come on passing plays. Alexander has struggled so much in the passing game that it might affect his playing time come the regular season.
Alexander temporarily quieted those questions by catching all four passes thrown his way in Saturday’s 28-18 win at San Francisco.
"It was an important game for him, and I think he played better than he had the first two games," Holmgren said. "He really played like I expect him to play. He really ran well, which is no surprise. And he caught the ball well. I didn’t think he had been catching the ball well in training camp. With him, it’s a concentration thing.
"He’s one of the nicest guys I’ve met, and he just kind of floats around sometimes. I just have to kind of stay on him. I don’t like to do that, because I like him and he’s a good kid."
Alexander performed well in his role as Watters’ backup last season. He averaged 4.9 yards per carry, 0.4 better than Watters, but carried the ball 214 fewer times. Alexander was used primarily as a short-yardage back in 2000, while the team was hoping to utilize him in other situations this season. His inability to catch the ball consistently may have dampened those plans.
"When Shaun comes in the ball game, it’s vitally important that he makes something happen," Mitchell said. "Be it in short-yardage situations, or whatever his series of plays, it’s important that he makes stuff happen. You can’t sit on the sideline and not be energized by the fact that you’re not a starter. That’s no excuse."
Having his first taste of being an NFL starter, Alexander will have a hard time giving it up.
"I’ll never get used to being a backup — never," Alexander said. "But I have faith in Coach Holmgren and his system. He’ll do whatever it takes to make this team better."