By Scott M. Johnson
CHENEY – There are all kinds of ways to earn a nickname.
Grow to seven feet, they’ll call you Tree. Put on a few pounds, they’ll call you Big Dog.
Relieve the three-time NFL most valuable player during the preseason schedule, go on to complete 68.6 percent of your passes while leading the Green Bay Packers to four consecutive wins, then take over as the starter the following preseason and continue to carve up the opposition … well, that will get you a nickname like Mr. August.
In Green Bay, where Matt Hasselbeck earned that moniker after posting an NFC-best 124.5 quarterback rating over the past two seasons, the nickname Mr. August is kind of an inside joke. As any Packers fan will attest, the irony of being a dominating preseason quarterback is that the durability of starter Brett Favre doesn’t leave any playing time during the season.
“I guess in Green Bay people understand it better,” Hasselbeck said this week. “It’s over. I’m trying to get rid of that one and move on. Hopefully I can be Mr. January someday.”
For those chronologically-challenged fans, January is the time when the NFL playoffs begin. It’s still a long way off for Hasselbeck and the Seattle Seahawks, but the journey begins today.
Hasselbeck will see his first game action this afternoon when the Seahawks take on the Indianapolis Colts in both teams’ preseason opener at 5 p.m. While there are still questions about how he’ll fare as a starting quarterback in the NFL, Hasselbeck has proven he can win in August.
Maybe that’s why he’s been so ho-hum about his unofficial Seahawks debut.
“I don’t think it’s going to be that big of a deal,” Hasselbeck said. “It probably won’t be any different. It’s just a new team, I guess.”
His record in preseason games speaks for itself. Hasselbeck has a 114.4 preseason rating, including his subpar rookie campaign in 1998. He led the NFC with a 127.7 rating in 1999, then finished second in the conference at 114.0 the following year. Along the way, he led two comeback wins and did a pretty fair impersonation of Favre.
Hasselbeck has been one of the most consistent quarterbacks in the league during preseason games, making today a perfect opportunity to generate some excitement among leery Seahawks fans.
“He’s an excitable type anyway, and he’ll be very excited to play in his first game with the Seahawks,” coach Mike Holmgren said. “That in itself will probably crank him up a little bit. So it’s a big deal.”
Still, Hasselbeck is trying to downplay the game. He knows that his true value won’t be known until he performs in regular season games. The Sept. 9 opener is still almost a month away, and nobody seems to know how the latest Seahawks starting quarterback will react.
“He hasn’t done it yet, so let’s just wait and see,” quarterbacks coach Jim Zorn said. “But I think Matt has the makeup of being tough mentally.”
Hasselbeck has some experience in regular season games, most notably a loss to Tampa Bay last season when he relieved an injured Favre and nearly led an improbable comeback. He also saw extended playing time in the Seahawks’ 27-7 Monday night win in 1999 (for the record, he completed 2 of 6 passes in about a quarter of work).
But most of his heroics have come during the preseason. He first earned the nickname after playing in four consecutive wins during the 1999 preseason schedule. Last year, he started three games while Favre rested an injured elbow, and had similar success.
His first impressions as a Seahawk haven’t been quite as consistent. There were moments during the first two weeks of training camp when the 25-year-old Hasselbeck overthrew receivers and got baited into interceptions by Seahawks cornerbacks. But Zorn said accounts of Hasselbeck’s practice performances have been overblown because of the different drills that were being coached.
Any doubts about Hasselbeck’s potential were answered during an otherwise meaningless intrasquad scrimmage last weekend, when he showed the ability to make plays while leading the first-team offense to touchdowns on four of five drives.
“The guy really has a good time with the offense,” tight end Christian Fauria said. “He knows it well. He knows when to be serious. He knows when to kind of tell a joke or bring a lighter side to the game, especially when you’re in the dog days like today. I think he’ll do really well.
“It’s very re-assuring getting in the huddle and seeing him there. I know he knows what to do. And I know that if we don’t know what to do, he can tell us.”
Many quarterbacks have traveled through Seattle with high expectations. Dan McGwire came with an impressive build. Kelly Stouffer and Rick Mirer brought sparkling collegiate highlights. But the franchise still boasts only one quarterback – Dave Krieg – who has gone to the Pro Bowl.
Whether or not Hasselbeck can follow in Krieg’s lonely footsteps will be a process that will continue well into the regular season. Beginning today, his main focus is to continue a tradition of playing well in preseason games.
“He’s not a rookie,” Zorn said. “He’s not a guy just coming out hoping to make the team. He knows what’s at stake, and he wants to win championships.”
Those come in January. That’s a lifetime away for Mr. August.