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Originally published Monday, September 15, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Danny O'Neil

Playing it safe turned out to be dangerous for Hawks

The Seahawks had three healthy wide receivers for most of the game, only one of whom was on the Seahawks 53-man roster this time last week. With the bare-bones crew, coach Mike Holmgren never stepped on the accelerator.

Seattle Times NFL reporter

The Seahawks had the ball with a timeout, 2:37 remaining in a tie game and 89 yards of wide-open possibility laid out in front of them.

But as Seattle began what turned out to be its final possession of Sunday's 33-30 loss, all coach Mike Holmgren could imagine was what could go wrong, so he never stepped on the accelerator to his offense.

"You make a mistake down there and then the game's over," Holmgren said. "That's a bad way to look at it, I suppose."

Nope. It's realistic. It could always get worse. That's become the working title for this Seahawks' season.

Think it's bad to lose Nate Burleson last week? Well, it can always get worse. No sooner had Seneca Wallace been moved to wide receiver this week than he went down, straining a calf muscle in the pregame warmups before Sunday's game against the 49ers even started.

And even then, it can always get worse. Logan Payne suffered what Holmgren thought was a torn knee ligament in the first quarter on the same play he made his first catch of the game.

That left the Seahawks with three healthy wide receivers for the rest of the game, only one of whom was on the Seahawks 53-man roster this time last week. Michael Bumpus, the practice-squad promotion? Well, he caught a couple passes and returned punts.

"I had no idea they were bringing him up," quarterback Matt Hasselbeck said. "No one told me anything."

How about Billy McMullen? He's the guy the Seahawks signed on Wednesday, and he ended up catching three passes in the game.

"He wasn't going to play," Holmgren said.

Bare-bones doesn't quite capture the truly skeletal nature of the receiving group that has more torn knee ligaments than touchdowns. And in spite of all that, the Seahawks put together an offensive performance that was good enough to win Sunday's game.

Julius Jones rushed for 127 yards, the highest ground total for a Seahawk in more than a year. Rookie tight end John Carlson caught a team-high six passes, two of which converted third-down plays for the Seahawks.

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"We moved the ball better," Holmgren said.

Of course, the bar was set pretty low in the season-opening loss in Buffalo, and Sunday's improvement was soiled by the two turnovers that took the Seahawks out of scoring position.

The first was McMullen's fumble at the San Francisco 9, the ball poked free after a 31-yard pass in the second quarter. The Seahawks were in position to score on their first possession of the third quarter when a pass intended for McMullen was tipped in the air by cornerback Walt Harris. Linebacker Patrick Willis intercepted the ball and returned it 86 yards for a touchdown to tie the score.

When the Seahawks fell behind in the third quarter, Hasselbeck completed four of five passes on a 74-yard drive that culminated in T.J. Duckett's 1-yard touchdown run early in the fourth quarter and tied the score.

And when the 49ers tied the score with 2:42 left in the fourth quarter, the offense was going to get one last chance to win the game. At least that was the plan. That's why Holmgren called two timeouts as the 49ers drove toward the tying field goal. Seattle prepared to receive the kickoff with a little less than 3 minutes left, one timeout and the two-minute warning, with ideas of summoning the kind of late scoring drives that saved last season's victory over Cincinnati or the 2006 comeback against St. Louis.

"The only thing that puts us into a conservative, play-for-overtime mode is bad field position," Hasselbeck said.

And that's just what happened when Josh Wilson returned the kickoff out of his own end zone and was tackled at the 11. So Holmgren called a running play, waited until the 2-minute warning and hunkered down.

"I just didn't want to do something bad," Holmgren said.

But this is 2008, when things can always get worse for the Seahawks. Even after Seattle gained a first down on a Hasselbeck scramble, the Seahawks were forced to punt after an incompletion, a 6-yard loss on a pass to Julius Jones and then a 7-yard sack of Hasselbeck. The 49ers got the ball in Seattle's half of the field with more than a minute remaining.

The only thing that saved the Seahawks in the fourth quarter was Joe Nedney hooking his 41-yard field-goal attempt on the final play of the fourth quarter, which only delayed the final result, and the Seahawks lost without their skeletal passing offense getting its hands upon the ball again.

Copyright © 2008 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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