Mike Holmgren used to kid news photographers that the only pictures they chose were of his occasional emotional detonations, often screaming at an official, veins popping with rage.
After all, he pointed out, most of the time on the sideline he was calm and in control.
But as he looks back at the Seahawks’ 21-10 loss in Super Bowl XL, his main regret is that he wasn’t better able to temper the emotions of his team – as well as his own – when the penalty flags started flying.
Holmgren had masterfully coached his 2005 Seahawks to a franchise-best record (13-3) and their first Super Bowl appearance, so he didn’t have to face much second-guessing during that historic string of success.
But now that’s he’s part of the media, doing regular shows on 950-AM in Seattle, he was asked to retroactively critique himself as head coach in a game noted for controversial officiating.
“If I could change anything, it would be to change the emotion of the players on the sideline as that game was going,” he said. “Every call, after the beginning, everyone on the sidelines would just erupt, and I think I couldn’t calm them down, partly, because I got too excited. I didn’t do that very well.”
He sensed the effect it was having on his team, and he tried to calm everyone. But then he would get enraged himself once again. In the retelling, he shook his head, remembering the players’ response to his attempts to get them focused. “They’re going: He’s telling me to settle down?”
The Seahawks were flagged seven times for 70 yards (Pittsburgh 3 for 20), but the significance of the penalties went beyond raw yardage to become more a factor of momentum disruption.
A debated offensive pass-interference call against Darrell Jackson cost them a first-quarter touchdown.
And there were two calls in the fourth quarter that referee Bill Leavy later conceded were blown. They “left me with a lot of sleepless nights ... I’ll go to my grave wishing that I’d done better,” Leavy told reporters several years later.
As significant as the officials calls seemed, they were not involved in Willie Parker’s record-setting 75-yard touchdown run nor the reverse pass touchdown by Antwaan Randle El to Hines Ward. At another point, the Hawks allowed the Steelers to convert a third-and-28 situation.
“I thought we had the better team and we didn’t play up to our abilities,” said Holmgren, who also had sleepless nights in the aftermath, saying that he “went into a little bit of a depression.”
Holmgren’s Hawks, behind what many considered to be the best offensive line in the league, had built an efficient and productive offense. It was a veteran group that had made it to the playoffs the two preceding seasons but lost in the first round both times – to Green Bay in overtime after the 2003 season and to St. Louis after the ’04 season.
“We had lost some tough playoff games previous to that,” Holmgren said, so they were not a trendy pick as a Super Bowl candidate at the start of the season. They were considerably less so after they lost on the road to Jacksonville and Washington in their first four games.
But after the 2-2 start, they won 11 straight to claim NFC home-field advantage.
“We got it going and we were playing pretty good at the end,” Holmgren said. They rested starters in the final game and lost at Green Bay.
They weren’t threatened in the postseason, outscoring Washington and Carolina by a combined 54-24.
The 34-14 win over Carolina in the NFC title game “was one of the best games I’ve ever been involved with,” Holmgren said. “That’s what you want to do, get hot (late), and then the Super Bowl is a whole season in itself.”
Holmgren said having a veteran team was beneficial, given the distractions of Super Bowl week. Yet it didn’t take long for tight end Jerramy Stevens to get into a verbal give-and-take with Pittsburgh linebacker Joey Porter that turned into a distraction.
“You can talk until you’re blue in the face (to players) that things are important, and somehow something slips through the cracks,” Holmgren said. “They’re young men, not robots, and then you have to deal with that the best way you can. ... You get involved in other stuff, you lose your focus, and you don’t want that to happen.”
Holmgren coached three Super Bowls as a head coach and two as an assistant, and if asked to offer advice to a team without such experience, he’d warn them about the media distractions.
“You have to talk (to the media), that’s part of the deal,” Holmgren said. “I talked about the message, how you answer questions – be honest but keep it short. Make your appointments on time, don’t make anybody wait. I had a list of things I went through; I think it’s important to explain to these guys why I’m asking you to do this in this way.”
Almost nothing athletes can do in a career matches the opportunities for exposure a Super Bowl appearance provides. So use it to your advantage, Holmgren stressed.
“It’s all part of selling your brand, selling who you are,” Holmgren said. “I thought that was an opportunity for us. But be careful, and in the end, it cannot affect your play. It cannot be a distraction.”
Holmgren’s interview for this story was before the NFC championship win over San Francisco, and predated the controversy caused by Richard Sherman’s televised comments.
Holmgren was familiar with Sherman’s demonstrative displays on the field, and he conceded he initially didn’t care for the approach. Not until he had lunch with him one day.
“I’m one of his biggest fans,” Holmgren said. “He’s a great kid. I told him, ‘Stay poised,’ and he was laughing. I told him ‘No, I mean it.’ I really like him. He’s smart enough, and he knows this isn’t about endorsements or how my personality will allow me to do this or that. This is about winning the game.”
Another piece of advice Holmgren would offer this year’s Super Bowl Seahawks is that they try to enjoy the moment. But that can have its perils, too.
He said he was too focused to absorb the atmosphere when he coached Green Bay to a win over New England in Super Bowl XXXI. The next season, in Super Bowl XXXII against Denver in San Diego, he decided he would try to loosen up and take in his surroundings.
He went out to the field early – to look around the stadium, listen to the national anthem rehearsal, and watch as they practiced unfurling the huge American flag that covered nearly the whole field.
It was a memorable experience for a few moments, he said, until one of the workmen approached with absolutely no regard for his position as one of the head coaches.
“The guy starts yelling at me, ‘Hey, get your ass off the field, we gotta move the flag. I was, ‘Gee whiz, so much for soaking up the atmosphere.’”
As it turned out, dealing with flags at Super Bowls became a recurring problem for Holmgren.