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Originally published Friday, December 14, 2007 at 12:00 AM

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Danny O'Neil

Hawks opened their wallet, and it's paid off in 2007

The Seahawks used all sorts of bait last March. They served Deon Grant an omelet and waffles on the flight from Atlanta aboard Paul Allen's...

Seattle Times NFL reporter

Sunday

Seahawks @ Carolina, 10 a.m., Ch. 13

The Seahawks used all sorts of bait last March.

They served Deon Grant an omelet and waffles on the flight from Atlanta aboard Paul Allen's plane. They took Patrick Kerney to an Italian meal at Maggiano's in Bellevue and visited an aviation museum. Brian Russell was treated at a local steakhouse where he talked shop with defensive coordinator John Marshall.

Welcome to NFL free agency, where teams use private planes, upscale meals and anything short of paying a signing bonus with a garbage bag of unmarked, nonsequential bills to convince a player to sign.

The Seahawks spent big last March. It wasn't until this month, however, that it was possible to anoint the signings a success. Kerney leads the NFL with 13.5 sacks while Grant and Russell have been the safety net for a defense that's allowed 10 touchdown passes, tied for fewest in the NFL.

"Free agency, the guys you bring in to help out immediately, that is hugely important," coach Mike Holmgren said. "And it has been important to this team this year."

It doesn't always work like this in free agency. Pay your money, you take your chances in the NFL. Sometimes teams get unlucky. Cleveland's high-profile addition of offensive lineman LeCharles Bentley didn't last past the first day of training camp because he blew out his knee. Other teams make multi-million-dollar mistakes. Washington signed Adam Archuleta to the biggest contract ever given a free-agent safety in 2006, relegated him to special teams during the season and traded him to Chicago after one year.

The 49ers were the big movers and shakers this past spring. They made Nate Clements the $80 million man at cornerback. They added safety Michael Lewis, defensive lineman Aubrayo Franklin and wide receiver Ashley Lelie. The 49ers have won three games.

Yet the offseason shopping turned out to be profitable here in Seattle.

"All of us recognized how successful this organization had been," Kerney said. "And that there wasn't anyone brought in here to make a radical change in the play, in the leadership.

"We were coming in to bring a little tweak in."

Seattle already built its foundation for success. These were the finishing touches.

Choosing an approach to free agency is kind of like picking a blackjack table. Do you want to pay hundreds of dollars a hand and stand shoulder to shoulder with the high rollers or do you sit back and wait for the price — and the profile — of the free agents to recede a little?

For the past few years Seattle kept the checkbook closed during the initial spending spree. Cornerback Ken Lucas left for Carolina in 2005, Chike Okeafor opted for Arizona and Seattle didn't sign a player from another team until the third week of free agency. After Seattle went to the Super Bowl, the Seahawks were one week into free agency before they acquired their first free agent.

This year was different.

"The one thing the organization was committed to do was jump early," Holmgren said.

Allen's plane was in San Diego when free agency began — to pick up Chargers guard Kris Dielman. He left Seattle before he ever met with Holmgren, though, flying commercial to re-sign with San Diego.

Seattle signed Kerney, target No. 2, promising to pay him at least $19.5 million over the next few years. The Seahawks then lost out on tight end Daniel Graham to Denver before adding Grant and Russell. Once the cash register stopped ringing, Holmgren tried to determine how it would affect the bottom line.

"How am I going to score some points?" Holmgren said. "That's what I thought of. You get Brian, you get Deon, you get Kerney and I go, 'Gee whiz. We're going to play some defense.' "

Sure enough, the Seahawks offense staggered around the first half of the season. The running game couldn't gain 18 inches against Cleveland, the backup tight end has as many touchdowns as Shaun Alexander and yet Seattle is headed back to the playoffs because of a defense astutely improved in free agency.

That more than anything is the reason this city is remembering what it's like to let the imagination run wild over postseason possibilities.

Danny O'Neil: 206-464-2364 or doneil@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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About Danny O'Neil
Danny O'Neil will comment on issues, events and personalities in the NFL. His column will appear on Sundays during the regular season. He also posts most days on the Seahawks Blog.
doneil@seattletimes.com | 206-464-2364

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