Learning the hard way

  • Scott M. Johnson / Herald Writer
  • Wednesday, November 7, 2001 9:00pm
  • Sports

By Scott M. Johnson

Herald Writer

KIRKLAND – At the halfway point of his first season as an NFL starter, Matt Hasselbeck was expecting to get some accolades. The confident Seattle Seahawks quarterback figured he’d have most of it down by now, even if there were lessons to be learned.

Instead of praise, Hasselbeck still hears a lot of questions.

“I get calls from a lot of my friends who also play on Sundays who say, ‘Hey, what’s going on? I heard you suck,’ ” Hasselbeck said Wednesday as Seattle prepared for Sunday’s game against the Oakland Raiders.

Although Hasselbeck has provided more questions than answers during his first five games as an NFL starter, he’s maintained his sense of humor.

Not that his short career with the Seahawks has been reason for joy. He’s missed parts of three games due to a recurring groin injury. He’s taken a beating from fans and media. And Hasselbeck’s Seattle career hit a nadir last week when he got benched at halftime of a 27-14 loss to the Washington Redskins.

Still, he’s been able to stay positive amid the first true adversity of his NFL career.

Even coach Mike Holmgren, the man who pulled Hasselbeck in favor of Trent Dilfer on Sunday, hasn’t lost faith.

“The tough part about committing to a young quarterback – for him, for the fans, for everybody – is that he’s young,” Holmgren said. “And it takes some time. There’s no fast way to do this. You take a step forward, all the sudden you think you’re taking a step backward. Each game, even though it’s a loss, he’s playing and gaining experience.”

It’s no secret that the relationship between a coach and player changes dramatically when that player becomes a starter – especially in the case of a quarterback. Hasselbeck watched Holmgren interact with Brett Favre for a year in Green Bay, but rarely, if ever, felt the coach’s wrath himself.

This season has been a different story. There haven’t been any sideline confrontations or public wars of words, but Hasselbeck and Holmgren are clearly still trying to find a common ground.

“He’s stubborn as all get out,” Holmgren said. “But I love him. I can be stubborn as well. We’re working those things out. We’re working through that stuff.

“He’s a young quarterback. It’s so fun and refreshing to work with a young guy like that. We’ll all enjoy the light at the end of the tunnel.”

No one is more eager to get there than Hasselbeck. Despite Holmgren’s early belief that he could come in and succeed right away, and the fact that the Seahawks gave him a five-year deal worth up to $24 million before he even took an official snap, Hasselbeck has been mediocre so far.

“This is a learning process,” he said Wednesday with a confident grin.

Hasselbeck has been a part of quarterback controversies before, including a stretch during his senior year at Boston College when fans and media tried to pit him against his own brother, Tim. While in Green Bay, some of the Packer fans would chant his name whenever Favre would throw an interception.

So it’s no wonder Hasselbeck has taken the criticism in stride.

“That’s good to see,” center Robbie Tobeck said. “If you’ve got a guy that’s going to be your quarterback and your franchise guy, then you don’t want to see his confidence shaken.”

Hasselbeck has gone as far as to say that he understands the outside criticism.

“I’m the same way when I’m a fan with any other sport,” he said. “You want results right away. You want it to just happen. But these things do take time; they take a lot of hard work. It’s just not easy all the time.

“There are guys who have great careers, and it’s taken them a while. I hope not to be one of those guys.”

Proof of the good-things-come-to-those-who-wait theory will be at Husky Stadium this week, when the Raiders’ Rich Gannon comes to town. Gannon paid his dues for 12 years, including two in which he was out of the league altogether, before landing in Oakland and finding success. Now he’s considered one of the best quarterbacks in the entire NFL.

Those who have watched Hasselbeck’s every move don’t think it will take him nearly that long to become a quality starter.

“Isn’t he making big plays? Isn’t he stepping up in the pocket and making some huge plays?” Seattle quarterbacks coach Jim Zorn asked rhetorically. “I watched a news clip of Matt (after Sunday’s game). They showed three plays from the entire night. They showed his fumble, they showed the interception, they showed one other play. And that was it. I’m thinking, Now wait a minute, this guy made some huge plays.”

Hasselbeck still hasn’t made any game-altering plays. He’s won just once in five starts, and his only two touchdown passes came in a loss to Miami.

But he hasn’t lost any confidence.

“It’s tough,” he said, “and I’m learning the hard way.”

Now hear this: Hoping the Seahawks wouldn’t go through another Sunday without intensity, Seattle middle linebacker Levon Kirkland gave his teammates an earful this week.

Kirkland addressed the team during a short players-only meeting, during which he told his teammates not to give up on the 2001 season.

“He hates to lose. I played with him for four years in Pittsburgh, so I know how he is,” cornerback Willie Williams said. “We’ve just got to realize that even though we’ve lost some games, we’ve still got a chance to make the playoffs. He’s one of our leaders, and he did a good job by pulling us together. We’ve got more leaders, but I’m glad he stepped in.”

Coach Mike Holmgren said Kirkland gave the impromptu speech Monday, then pulled the coach aside to make sure he hadn’t stepped over the line. Holmgren, who has been searching for leadership from within ever since he arrived in 1999, had no problem with Kirkland’s address.

The players didn’t take offense, either.

“They seemed to be all right with it,” Kirkland said. “I’ve been in this situation before, where people are trying to talk bad about you. And you just can’t believe that. You can’t fall into the tank because of what people are saying.”

Rice comes to Seattle: Raiders wide receiver Jerry Rice will make his season debut in Seattle this week, a few months later than Holmgren would have liked.

The Seahawks tried to sign Rice during the offseason, but the longtime San Francisco star opted to stay close to his Bay Area home.

“It went pretty well for awhile, then we stopped,” Rice said of his discussions with the Seahawks. “The talks really broke off. I had a good time when I came to Seattle and when I met with the coaches. I felt welcome and I felt like it might have been something that could work. … It pretty much made my decision because (Oakland) was closer to home.”

Quick slants: About 3,400 tickets remain for Sunday’s game, meaning there is still a chance television coverage could be blacked out locally. The deadline is 5:30 tonight, but the league could extend that if the game is close to a sellout. … Defensive tackle John Randle didn’t practice Wednesday because of a sprained left knee, and he is listed as questionable for Sunday’s game. It’s a good bet Randle, who has never missed a game in his 12-year career, will find a way to get on the field Sunday. … Right tackle Chris McIntosh is back working with the No. 1 offense this week.

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