Seahawks’ best hope for bounce-back year

SEATTLE – For Shaun Alexander, the proof is in the footing.

For Mack Strong, it’s in seeing Derrick Brooks get planted on the turf this afternoon. For Walter Jones, it’s in keeping Matt Hasselbeck upright.

And for Hasselbeck himself, well, the proof might be in that first touchdown pass to Deion Branch.

When the Seattle Seahawks return to the field for their regular-season opener today, several of them will have something to prove. The 2006 Seahawks weren’t as successful as the previous year’s squad, and so the 2007 Seahawks are out to do something about it.

“We’ve still got a bitter taste in our mouths after losing that game so close to Chicago last year,” said right tackle Sean Locklear, referring to the 27-24 overtime loss to the Bears in the divisional round of last season’s playoffs. “We’ve been waiting for this moment since last year.

“This is what you work for. You always want to let people know you’re back and that you’re ready to play.”

One of head coach Mike Holmgren’s favorite idioms is that the Seahawks’ best players have to play their best for the team to reach its full potential. For a variety of reasons, the most notable of which were injuries, that didn’t happen last year.

And so players like Alexander, Hasselbeck, Strong and Jones are among those who have something to prove in ‘07.

“We’ve got to go out there and have the best season in Seahawks history and play the best (games) of our lives,” Alexander said. “That says it all.”

Due in large part to a foot injury that cost him six full games, Alexander had his worst statistical season in 2006 since taking over as starter five years earlier. He was held to just 896 rushing yards while averaging 3.6 yards per carry well below his previous career average of 4.6. He got into the end zone just seven times, or 21 fewer occasions than he had in his record-breaking season in 2005.

But Alexander shrugged off any perception that his career might be on the decline.

“(Critics) were saying that after my second year,” said Alexander, who turned 30 years old last week. “That’s just a part of it. I still remember when I was voted the most overrated the same year that I was the most underrated. That’s just kind of how it is.”

Running backs coach Stump Mitchell was among those who believe that Alexander is not motivated by his 2006 struggles.

“He’s not going into the season with the attitude of having to prove anything,” Mitchell said. “He’s just going into the season hoping to stay healthy and have the best year of his career.

“I thought he had a great preseason. He’s looked good in practice. So we’re excited about (today’s game).”

Hasselbeck also struggled with injuries in 2006, missing four games because of a sprained knee that he suffered in a Week 7 loss to Minnesota. Most of his statistics declined dramatically from his record-breaking 2005 performance, including quarterback rating (from 98.2 to 76.0) and completion percentage (from 65.5 to 56.6). The only notable stats that went up were Hasselbeck’s interceptions (from nine to 15) and times sacked (from 24 to 34).

“Really, the big thing for me is that I’ve had to work really hard to get to this point,” he said, “and last year was a very frustrating year for me. I’m looking forward to having a good season this year, mostly because of what I’ve done already to get to this point. I don’t want it to be for nothing.”

Mack Strong’s drop in production was less visible in his statistics. While he matched a career high with 29 receptions and nearly doubled his total in rushing yards from the previous season (from 78 to 149), the soon-to-be-36-year-old wasn’t quite the dominating blocker he’s been in the past.

The same could be said for Jones, who had a solid season but fell short of his typical level of near perfection. He allowed seven sacks in 2007, which just about matches the total from his previous three years combined.

Several other Seahawks are also hoping to improve on their statistics this year. Defensive tackle Rocky Bernard had just 3.5 sacks last season after recording 8.5 the previous year. Cornerback Marcus Trufant is hoping to improve on the one interception he had last season. And Branch, who caught 78 passes as a New England Patriots receiver, is hoping to catch more than the 53 he did in his first season as a Seahawk.

Even some of the new players have something to prove. Tight end Marcus Pollard, a 35-year-old free agent who signed for the league minimum, had just 12 receptions with the Detroit Lions last year after averaging 41 receptions per year in his previous five seasons.

The Seahawks have the parts to go a long way again, but this time around they’re hoping that the parts don’t break down.

“We did get to the playoffs and made it to the second round before losing to Chicago,” Locklear said of the 2006 season. “But our goal every year is to make it to the Super Bowl. That’s where we want to get.”

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