Still awash in the glow of his Green Bay Packers’ victory in Super Bowl XXXI, coach Mike Holmgren accepted the congratulations of someone who fully understood the feeling: Bill Parcells.
“I remember what he said to me,” Holmgren said recently. “He congratulated me, saying, ‘You did good, you won the Super Bowl … now let’s see how you handle the next challenges’.”
Parcells already had won two Super Bowls with the New York Giants, but not consecutively. And he apparently enjoyed reminding Holmgren of the gauntlet ahead of him as he tried to repeat.
“He was giving me the needle, but it’s true,” Holmgren said. “You’re going to lose staff, you’re going to lose free agents, you’re going to be distracted. History tells us all that stuff happens.”
Yes, history has made itself very clear on the matter, as no team has won back-to-back Super Bowls since the 2003-04 New England Patriots.
Perhaps even more illustrative of the difficulties encountered by defending World Champions — not since the 2005 Patriots has a defending champ even won a playoff game.
Of those last seven teams trying to defend, three have failed to make the playoffs and the others went 0-4 in their postseason action.
The Seahawks are addressing this troublesome historical trend by removing the topic of repeating from their context. Such a distant goal has never been a consideration for coach Pete Carroll’s teams, and it certainly is not now.
“We focus on what’s right at hand right now,” Carroll said, reminding that it’s an approach he adopted effectively in his years at USC, where his teams won back-to-back national championships and had the Trojans ranked in the top four in the country for seven straight seasons.
“We can’t do anything about what’s down the road; we can’t do anything on what’s two days from now. We just have this one day to prepare for tomorrow. I really think that’s the discipline it takes to focus in … that trains us to stay right with what’s at hand.”
Besides, if you’re looking ahead very far, it can get scary seeing all the developments can derail the title defense.
Other NFL teams think the best way to tap into the titlists’ success is to steal a top assistant, someone who has helped shape the schemes and strategies that led to the Super Bowl win.
The Patriots in the 2005 season, for instance, lost coordinators on both sides of the ball — Charlie Weis to Notre Dame and Romeo Crennel to the Cleveland Browns.
The Seahawks dodged that pitfall. Both Darrell Bevell and Dan Quinn, offensive and defensive coordinators for the Seahawks, drew interviews for head coaching positions in the NFL, but both remained with the Hawks.
Perhaps of an equal influence on the Seahawks staff is assistant head coach and offensive line coach Tom Cable, who coordinates the rushing attack. He, too, remains in Seattle.
Keeping those three coaches allows the team to operate another season without the disruption of staff defection. As successful as the Seahawks have been, it’s still a young team, which makes staff continuity particularly important.
PLAYERS GETTING PAID … ELSEWHERE
The Baltimore Ravens, for instance, lost eight starters off their 2012 title team and failed to make the playoffs last season.
The Seahawks bid goodbye to veteran defensive linemen Red Bryant and Chris Clemons, wide receiver Golden Tate and right tackle Breno Giacomini. Bryant and Clemons were both 30 or older, and were expensive. Tate was young and productive, but perhaps made expendable by the return to health of Percy Harvin.
In the meantime, though, the Hawks managed to keep free agents Michael Bennett and Tony McDaniel, and also extended the contracts of young stars Earl Thomas, Richard Sherman and Doug Baldwin.
The core and foundation of the roster remained intact, while the front office positioned itself in anticipation of the big Russell Wilson contract that looms ahead.
Time will determine how this affects the Seahawks, but in the offseason, starters Russell Okung (foot), Kam Chancellor (hip), Malcolm Smith (ankle) and Bruce Irvin (hip) had surgeries that cost them minicamp and training camp time.
But all were on pace to return for the regular season.
This has been a critical factor for a number of teams trying to repeat. In 2005, the Patriots used 45 different starters because of injury. Sometimes, even one key injury can make the difference. In the 2006 offseason Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger nearly died in a motorcycle wreck and was not up to par when the season started.
SPREADING YOURSELF THIN
Everybody wants a piece of the champions.
“Everybody is after them to write a book, film this thing, do that thing — it can disrupt the offseason,” Holmgren said. “The first thing you do is talk to them about it, and how you can avoid it being an issue, because it’s real. They will say, ‘You don’t have to worry about us.’ But history doesn’t show that.”
The potential for this problem is there with the Seahawks. Russell Wilson seems to have major endorsements in every medium. Sherman was named one of the 100 most influential people of 2014 by Time magazine. Running back Marshawn Lynch appeared without clothes on in ESPN The Magazine’s “Body Issue.” And then he held out of training camp for a contract upgrade.
Those are certainly developments this team hasn’t faced until now.
“You have to understand how to handle the attention, the TV, the notoriety, the commercials,” said Seahawks linebacker coach Ken Norton Jr., the first player to win back-to-back-to-back Super Bowl titles — two with Dallas and the third with San Francisco.
“You get everybody telling you how great you are, so you have to remember what got you there, and have a solid foundation so you can withstand that storm.”
Norton said Carroll and the staff have been building that foundation since they arrived. “(It’s) based on competition, good practices, hard work and enthusiasm,” Norton said. “And getting really good football players who love to play.”
Norton said it’s hard to imagine players like Thomas and Sherman and the other hyper-competitive Seahawks being significantly altered by the wealth and attention.
“You have to understand that these guys are always trying to prove themselves; they’re winners and they’re always fighting back,” he said. “It doesn’t matter how high or how low you are, it’s about finding out who you are. If you’re a true competitor at your heart, it doesn’t matter what the external forces are.”
Both Norton and Holmgren cited a reality that brings the forces of human nature into the equation. “You spend so much time being the hunter and all of a sudden you’re the hunted,” Norton said. “And that’s different.”
Not only do defending champs get tough schedules, they’re the biggest game of the opponent’s season every time they show up.
“It’s definitely human nature … you absolutely think, OK, I’ve arrived,” Holmgren said.
Holmgren’s Packers of 1997 were well on their way to defending their title, going 13-3, including seven wins over teams that advanced to the playoffs. But that regular season dominance might have set them up for defeat against Denver in Super Bowl XXXII.
“I don’t think we played our best game in the Super Bowl,” Holmgren said. “I’ve said it many times, I could not get the players to believe Denver was really good, and I still feel bad about it. I had no complaints with how our players approached the season. I just wish we’d played better in that game.”
Denver was highly motivated with a solid scheme, and made some effective in-game changes that helped swing the outcome. But Holmgren noticed even during the week leading up to the game that his team was different that time around.
“The first year we went, in New Orleans, whatever I said that week went — curfews, doing whatever I said, not one peep,” Holmgren said. “The next year, we go to San Diego, now all of a sudden, the players are like ‘Mike, you’re working us too hard.’ They didn’t like it, they didn’t need it. Why? Because they thought they had everything under control. It’s human nature.”
NEW YEAR, NEW PATH
“I challenged every player to get better,” Holmgren said. “I said, ‘You’re the World Champions, can you get better? Can you each be better players? I think you have to challenge them as individuals.”
Norton wasn’t sure about how deeply they needed to get into players’ heads.
“We aren’t psychiatrists, we’re football (coaches),” Norton said. “We have to know about the team, protecting the team and the competition, and stay focused on that. It’s about having great football players and having them mature at the same time. It’s about leadership, from Pete Carroll on the way down. We have a standard, and we live by that standard. If you want to compete with us, you have to rise to our standard to even be in the same ballpark.”
As an outside observer, Holmgren sees positive signs in the way the 2014 Seahawks are going about the task.
“Getting Marshawn Lynch feeling good about (his contract status) was huge, in my opinion,” Holmgren said. “They didn’t lose any coaches and it appears the young guys like Richard Sherman and Earl Thomas, who got big contacts … they’re gonna be who they are. I think they believe they can get better and better, and those guys are going to push everybody else. You throw Percy Harvin into that, and then that great homefield advantage, and I’m anxious to see them.”
Carroll chooses not to look that far ahead. And he doesn’t think his players should, either.
“That’s why practice is so important to us, that’s why every day it’s so crucial, and every game is so crucial,” Carroll said. “Then eventually you’re positioned to do something, maybe to be a playoff team or be a division champion and on and on. We just take those one day at a time as those come. That’s really what we’re all about here, and we’ve been talking like that for years.”
Maybe that’s the approach that will work. Because nobody else has been able to pull it off for almost a decade.